By the late ‘60s, the debate had been raging for years over what to do with the Manayunk Canal, which lowered its last coal barge downriver nearly half a century earlier and had stagnated ever since, a sorry, smelly, scum-encrusted two-mile stretch of yuck.
There was a camp, desperate for relief from the already traffic-clogged artery of I-76, that cast an opportunistic eye toward the channel. It could be covered and paved, they argued, making way for a roaring Manayunk Expressway that would whisk cars into the heart of Center City along the Schuylkill’s eastern banks.
Then — because not much has changed in Philadelphia in half a century — there were those who wanted to talk parking. Fill in the debris-laden canal, they said: Create acres of abundant parking.
Today, the Manayunk Canal marks its bicentennial as an integral part of Philadelphia’s industrial history — part of a 32-dam system that made the shallow, rocky Schuylkill navigable — and later the backdrop for a boutique- and bar-lined retail district and recreation area. The Fairmount Water Works is commemorating the day the first toll (6¼ cents) was collected, March 15, 1819, with an exhibition of archival photographs and hand-painted maps from 1827, tours of the locks, and other events.
It’s also a pivotal moment for another reason: The Philadelphia Water Department is poised to move forward on a project to restore water flow to the canal for the first time in half a century (improving water quality at the Queens Lane intake just downstream). The city Parks and Recreation Department announced it has grant funding to restore the canal’s lower locks, chambers used to adjust water levels so that boats can travel up and downriver. And Manayunk boosters have a $600,000 grant to improve connections to the businesses that line the canal — including more access points to the towpath and facade improvements that will make it feel less like a back alley and more like a destination.
The story of how the canal went from trash heap to tourist destination pivots on one of Philadelphia’s great human bullhorns of the 20th century, Harry Olson.
Olson, now 94, recalled attending a community meeting in 1969 — and being shocked to learn of the canal’s tenuous state.
“The general consensus was fill it in and make it a bypass for Main Street. I said, ‘Well, jeez.' ” He believes that was the turning point. “If they hadn’t had the meeting, the canal wouldn’t be there.”
Over the years, Olson, a longtime Manayunk resident and a flight-test mechanic by trade, was a relentless advocate of numerous causes, some fated to materialize, others to evaporate (among the former, the Philadelphia-to-Valley Forge bike trail, which he began lobbying for with the Sierra Club in 1973; among the latter, a whitewater canoe training course on the Schuylkill, and a historical site at Levering’s Ford, where George Washington and his troops crossed on their way from a camp in East Falls).
Olson’s Depression-era childhood, on a dairy farm in Gladwyne, instilled in him a love of nature, a self-reliant streak, deep-seeded frugality, and determination.
He brought all of that to bear on the canal. Where others saw a ditch filled with tires and trash, Olson saw something more: the centerpiece of a bicycle trail linking Center City and Valley Forge and a tourist draw like the canal that had anchored the development of New Hope in Bucks County into a lively tourist town. It seemed like a fantasy at the time, given the state of the neighborhood, a gloomy mix of janitorial stores, warehouses, and beer distributors.