First Working Canal in Pennsylvania was in York Haven

Mural of Canal Operations in York Haven, York County, PA (Painted in 1980 by Cliff Satterthwaite)

Mural of Canal Operations in York Haven, York County, PA (Painted in 1980 by Cliff Satterthwaite)

Cliff Satterthwaite painted two large murals for the York Haven State Bank in 1980. This mural depicts canal operations in York Haven during the 1840-1850s era; and looks across the Susquehanna River towards Falmouth, Lancaster County.

The York Haven State Bank was located on the northeast corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and North Landvale Street in York Haven. It eventually became a branch of the York Bank and as the parent bank went though acquisitions by Allfirst and then M&T, the York Haven branch was eventually closed. The building does not appear to be occupied. Does anybody know what happened to these, about five-foot long murals; which hung in the bank?


During my research for this post, I mistook the passage “the York Haven State Bank was taken over by a York bank” as becoming a branch of the York Bank; which is in error. Thanks to my readers for making the correction that the York Haven State Bank was taken over by Drovers Bank in 1978. The branch was moved to Newberrytown and is now an office of Fulton Bank. They also pointed out that when the bank moved, the Satterthwaite murals were donated to York Haven and now hang in the Borough Hall.

On November 22, 1797, the Conewago Canal Company opened a canal to navigate the Conewago Falls. George Prowell’s 1907 History of York County, PA, notes in Volume I, Pages 602-603:

One of the most notable events in the history of internal improvements in the State of Pennsylvania was the opening of a navigable canal around the Conewago Falls, on the west side of the Susquehanna River. It was the first canal built in this state, and so far as definite records go, the first in the United States.

Further investigation does verify this canal as being the first working canal in Pennsylvania; however it was not quite the first working canal in the United States. Building the canal was a formidable task; construction costs ballooned to over five times initial estimates. The canal was about one mile long, hugging the York County bank of the Susquehanna River from the top of the Conewago Falls, downriver to two locks at the lower end, near present day York Haven; all required so that river traffic could negotiate the 19-foot drop of the Conewago Falls. To understand the topography of the area, here is an annotated present-day aerial view:

2015 Aerial View of Conewago Falls area of Susquehanna River (Enhanced and Annotated by S. H. Smith, 2015)

2015 Aerial View of Conewago Falls area of Susquehanna River (Enhanced and Annotated by S. H. Smith, 2015)

This 2015 aerial view of the Conewago Falls area of Susquehanna River will be explained, in greater detail, within Tuesday’s post on the York Haven Paper Company. The York Haven Paper Company and the York Haven Power Company may never have been built at this site, without the infrastructure ventures initiated by the 1797 canal.

The key word is working canal, in being the first working canal in Pennsylvania. The Legislature authorized the Conewago Canal Company to construct the canal on April 10, 1793; which was not the first canal authorized in the state. However the canal at York Haven was the first canal in the state that was completed and put into operation. Governor Thomas Mifflin traveled from the state capitol in Philadelphia to witness the official opening on November 22, 1797.

John Hall wrote the Commonwealth’s official report several days later, complimented the Conewago Canal Company on their success, especially praising the operation of the locks, since their, “construction, &c., being new in this Country.” John Hall commended the company for, “digging the Canal a mile nearly in length, 40 feet wide and four feet deep, thro’ the most difficult ground within the State.”

Joshua Scott’s 1858 map of Lancaster County includes details on several bordering towns in York County. The York County information on this map duplicates the York Haven details on Joshua Scott’s other Lancaster County maps of 1824 and 1842. Because during 1851, the railroad from York, through York Haven, to Lemoyne was completed; however does not appear on the 1858 map. Nevertheless, the 1797 canal does appear:

Section of 1858 Joshua Scott map of Lancaster County, PA (Annotated by S. H. Smith, 2015)

Section of 1858 Joshua Scott map of Lancaster County, PA (Annotated by S. H. Smith, 2015)

The mile long canal not only aided in navigation, but also provided a ready pool of elevated water to supply hydropower for several mills. The York Haven Company, under whose direction four large flour mills were erected, laid out the town of York Haven in 1814.

In 1814, James Hopkins constructed a competing one-mile long canal around the Lancaster County side of the Conewago Falls. Hopkins Canal was later incorporated into the Pennsylvania Canal, extending upriver from Columbia.

The competition from the much longer Pennsylvania Canal, spelled the demise of the short stretch of canal at York Haven. However it was the railroads that eventually closed down canal operations, not only at York Haven, but all across the country.

Related posts include:

Reading the HEADLINES; A Quick Index to ALL YorksPast Posts

About Stephen H. Smith

Stephen H. Smith is a design engineer who worked at York International Corp. for 33 years before retiring several years ago to research and write books full time; his second career. The initial emphasis was on family history when he won a national award during 2002 for his first book “Barshingers in America." Positive feedback and that award were influential in his decision to retire early from engineering and start a retirement career.
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