A Brief History Of Manayunk

Early 20th century photographs of upper portion of Manayunk Canal showing the Sluice House and Lock 68.

The history of Manayunk, a section of Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River, is inextricably connected to the history of both the canal that runs through the riverfront of this hilly neighborhood, and the 108-mile navigation system of which the canal was once a part. In the present day, the canal is a key element of the Manayunk Main Street Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, the canal itself is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

The Schuylkill Navigation, built between 1815 and 1828, was one manifestation of a national movement for “internal improvements” to connect coastal cities like Philadelphia and New York with productive agricultural lands and mineral resources in the country’s interior. When first completed, this navigation system—sometimes misleadingly called the “Schuylkill Canal”—included 62 miles of canals and their associated locks, along with 46 miles of so-called “slackwater” on sections of the river pooled behind a series of dams. It also included seventeen aqueducts, and a 450-foot tunnel near Auburn that was the first transportation tunnel built in the United States. The sum of these parts was a navigable waterway from tidewater at Fairmount in Philadelphia to Mount Carbon in the heart of the coal fields of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.

According to historian Edward J. Gibbons, the Schuylkill Navigation system was one of Pennsylvania’s “most successful internal improvement projects,” opening “the upper reaches of the Schuylkill River and contribut[ing] to the general economic development of the entire Schuylkill River valley. By making available the vast resources of the anthracite coal region, it fostered the growth of eastern cities and the development of the iron and steel industry.” The two mile canal section through Manayunk, which provided water power for factories as well as a route for transportation, quickly transformed this small settlement into an industrial behemoth which was dubbed ( in reference to England’s major textile-producing city) “the Manchester of America.” Employing thousands of workers and producing millions of dollars of goods a year, Manayunk played a key role in the industrialization of Philadelphia in the 19th century, which itself earned a nickname: “The Workshop of the World.”

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