By Cindy Ross
The weary plodding of mules’ hooves carved out the dirt trail that slips away beneath my feet…thousands of trips back and forth, pulling the canal boats that floated the Union Canal. It once ran nearly 80 miles from Reading on the Schuylkill River to Middletown on the Susquehanna River. It connected the Schuylkill Navigation Canal to the Susquehanna Canal and was known as “The Golden Link.”
Supplies like potatoes and lumber were transported along the water route for the territory – lying between its towns and villages. In the early 1800s this region, to a large extent, was a wilderness. Later, Schuylkill County’s Anthracite coal that fueled the Industrial Revolution, crowded the canals with the “black diamonds.” In total, Pennsylvania had twelve hundred miles of hand-dug canals, with the Union Canal ranking in the top three of importance, for it contributed greatly to the development our country.
All that remains of that waterway, to my right is a dry ditch, while to my left rolls the singing Tulpehocken Creek. Down this stream, the heavily laden canal boats floated, then up the canal, they were dragged, powered by trusty steeds. Much of the natural and historical heritage of that bygone era has been preserved in the 370-acre Tulpehocken Creek Valley Park with its many historic sites and buildings along the way.
I’ve enjoyed walking and cycling the Union Canal’s 4-½ mile towpath that stretches from Stonecliffe Recreation Area to Reber’s Bridge for decades with my friends and family. The curving National Recreation Trail is the perfect place for young children to safely cycle, listen to honking geese, marvel at the giant sycamore trees that line the bank, and sneak up on the many turtles that bask along the banks in the sun. “Tulpehocken” meant “Land of the Turtles” to the Lenni-Lenape Indians, the first inhabitants of this beautiful valley, long before the farmers, canal men, and park visitors arrived.
I’ve also used the Union Canal trail to power walk with my friends, for its width is wide enough for conversation but narrow enough for intimacy as it twists and winds through the meadows and forests. I learned to fly fish on this stellar trout stream, for the dam’s cold-water bottom release creates the perfect temperature for growing fine native trout. And on Father’s Day, our family put our canoes and kayaks in at the base of Blue Marsh Lake’s dam breast and made a memorable day paddling the creek to Stonecliffe Park in honor of dad.
But it wasn’t until I secured a copy of the Towpath Tour interpretive brochure, put out by the Berks County Parks & Recreation Department, that the area began to come alive with meaning and importance.
Excavating limestone from Gring’s Quarry in the late 19th and 20th centuries made the sheer rock walls that characterize Stonecliffe Park. A weigh station was built nearby where the Tully emptied into the Schuylkill River, charging the barge boats half a cent to two cents per ton per mile, depending on the type of cargo.
Gring’s Mill and Homestead is our favorite place to take a break, for the arched stone bridge and waterfalls is exciting to peer over the top. There are the 2 ½ story brick farmhouse, the grist mill and the barn built by David Gring to check out, which now serves as the County Parks and Recreation office. From here to the restored lock No. 49 E., folks should be on guard for the ghost of Mrs. Phillip Bissinger. Reacting to her husband’s advances towards other women, Mrs. Bissinger took her life and those of her four children by jumping into lock and drowning. Following the tragedy, the bodies were taken to the Gring’s home to await the coroner’s inquest.
Lock No. 49 E. is one of the 93 stone lift locks on the Union Canal. The small size of the locks, 8.5 feet by 75 feet originally (1827- 1855) required the use of smaller and lighter boats than were common on Pennsylvania’s other canals. The economic success of the Union Canal suffered because of this, for the larger boats on the Susquehanna and Schuylkill Canals could not pass through the Union’s small locks. Also, the Union Canal was built on top of limestone, which is very porous, making the canal leak profusely. A great deal of money and engineering went into clay puddling and planking on its floor. The Union Canal’s narrow width eventually led to its downfall.
And why would you want to dig the canal any bigger than you thought necessary when all you had was a pick and shovel and wheelbarrow to create it? Thousands of Irish immigrants worked for eighty cents a day plus meals in crowded and unsanitary living conditions to dig the canal. This eventually led to an unusual number of deaths caused by “canal fever” or “Tulpehocken Fever,” a form of dysentery combined with influenza. In an attempt to offset the canal fever, the company employed young boys known as jiggermen, whose job was to dispense a shot of whiskey to each worker every hour.
Twenty to thirty Irish Catholics who died on the canal are buried in the Deppen Cemetary, (marked by metal “unknown” markers) which you can explore from the towpath. Deepen family graves are marked by thin stone grave markers, covered in beautiful German script that dot the cemetery. This “God’s Acre” was very important to the Catholics, for if you didn’t profess to any particular faith, your remains couldn’t go to a cemetery and your sickly dead body was just tossed into the canal.
Just beyond the Deppen Cemetery is Wertz’s Red Bridge, the longest single spanned covered bridge in Pennsylvania. Stretching 204 feet across the Tulpehocken Creek it was constructed in 1867 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We walk across into the cool darkness, gazing through the open trusses to the stream below. A maternity colony (only females and pups) of little brown bats live in the bridge. They inhabit the bridge during the summer months when they do park visitors a great service by eating eight times their weight in mosquitoes.
This is a good place to take a long break for there is much to see in this area. At the Berks County Heritage Center, which makes their headquarters in Reeser Farm House (1774), “Mildred” the houseboat is there to check out. We also tour the fascinating C. Howard Hiester Canal Center that houses the largest private collection of 19th century canal memorabilia in the United States. Mr. Heister collected over 1,400 items from his boatyard and the Schyukill Navigation Company to tell the story of canal life, including an original toll locktender’s shanty, and a tugboat pilot house that kids can walk through.
The nearby 1882 Gruber Wagon Works is another fascinating stop for here Frank H. Gruber has left us with one of the most complete examples of an integrated rural manufactory of its kind in the nation. When you walk into the shop, it looks like the craftsman just broke for lunch. On each woodworking bench is a wheel (or parts of) in its various forms of construction. Sawdust lingers, a pot of hide glue sits on the wood stove, tools lie on the bench. In the adjoining blacksmith shop, you can wander about seeing how they “tried” wheels and how wagons were “ironed.” Upstairs in the paint shop, the walls are still covered with colorful splotches when the painters threw their brush against the wall to test the consistency of the paint. Because of its historic significance commemorating American craftsmen, the US Government has made it a National Historic Landmark.
Within the center is also the Salad and Herb Garden, displaying the typical types of plants and gardening skills brought to America by the early European settlers, and the Melcher’s Grist Mill, an extremely rare and complete example of a water-powered, multipurpose farm mill. There is also the Distlefink, a representative of Pennsylvania German Folk Art, the Bicentennial Eagle Memorial and the Police and Veteran’s Memorial to check out. You can tour the Gruber Wagon Works and the Heister Canal Center from early May until late October.
Berks County Heritage Center