Established in the 1830s, Port Penn grew as fast as traffic through this section of the West Branch of the Pennsylvania Canal allowed. There were hotels and taverns as well as blacksmiths to shoe mules, lumberyards and sawmills to supply wood, boatyards and docks where canal boats were built and repaired, and dry goods merchants who handled products by the ton. The chief articles of export were hogs, wheat, flour, lumber, dried and salted meats, leather and whiskey. In canal days, there were 13 distilleries in the Muncy area with a total output of 1,200 to 1,500 gallons a day.
From 1830 to 1890, canals fueled new businesses and industry. The canal helped end the isolation of great sections of the country. Not only opening a market for the farmers, back-country mills and factories but also providing employment — owners, captains, boaters, and lockkeepers. River communities mushroomed into thriving ports overnight, and thousands of immigrants streamed into these areas. Canals made the development of river towns, like Muncy, possible by providing abundant water power and reliable, inexpensive transportation. Industries along the canal flourished — the Stolz Flour Mill, Muncy Woolen Mills — a major textile manufacturer, Sprout-Waldron's metal fabricating business, and other water-powered industries like the Clapp
and Rissel lumber and shingle mill, located right here in Port Penn.
On a Canal Boat
Imagine that it is 1838 and you are on the deck of a canal boat, either a cargo or passenger boat. A team of mules has towed your boat from dawn to dusk for several days, traveling up river from Harrisburg with a load of cloth and barrels of goods bound for the merchants of Muncy. As you glide into Lock No. 21, a small, busy port west of Muncy comes into view. Just past Lock No. 21 is the basin where you will tie up awaiting first light and the chance to unload your boat. [Photo] At left, PA Canal Boat No. 502 unloads coal at the Sprout-Waldron Company plant in 1891.
A packet boat is another name for a passenger boat. While these long and narrow packets hauled people in comfort compared to stage coaches, packets rapidly disappeared from the canals as the railroad industry expanded through Pennsylvania. Passengers who wanted to board or disembark in the Muncy area could only do so at Port Penn; cargo boats could unload and load all along the Port Penn-Muncy section of the West Branch of the Pennsylvania Canal. At left is an illustration of a typical canal boat with passengers both inside and seated on the roof.
Lock No. 21, a combination outlet and lift lock, and lift lock No. 22, which is located 1/8 mile from here, was operated from sunrise to
sunset by the lockkeeper who lived here with his family. Since the lockkeeper had to open locks to canal traffic, the two-story lockhouses were almost always sited near the lock. They used the drinking well and placed their trash in a pit along side the canal.
The lockkeeper at Muncy Lock No. 21 probably would have lived in a house similar to this one [illustration] that once stood along the West Branch Canal.
In addition to the lockkeeper's house, there were storage sheds and a barn where fresh mules could be exchanged or purchased.
An employee of the canal company, the lockkeeper was responsible for the care and operation of a lock. He also was there to prevent the waste of water, to prevent damage to the canal and lock, and to ensure that boats received prompt passage, six to seven days a week.
[Map] At left, is a detail of Lock No. 21 of the PA Railroad Co Survey from the mid 1800s.