The Abandoned Canals of the Schuylkill Navigation

Sandy Sorlien

A rare photographic river trip revealing the once-famous but now-hidden industrial landscapes of Pennsylvania that helped shape the nation.
Date Published :
August 2022
Publisher :
George F Thompson Publishing
Contributor(s) :
John R. Stilgoe, Mike Szilagyi, Karen Young
Illustration :
103 color photographs; 20 historic drawings, maps, plans, and postcards; 2 maps
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding : Hardback
ISBN : 9781938086915
Pages : 192
Dimensions : 9 X 11 inches
Stock Status : In stock


A rare photographic river trip revealing the once-celebrated but now-hidden industrial landscapes of Pennsylvania that helped shape the nation.

The Schuylkill River flows more than 130 miles from the mountains of the Pennsylvania Coal Region to its confluence with the Delaware River. It passes through five counties—Schuylkill, Berks, Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia—and its valley is home to more than three million people. Yet few are aware of the hidden ruins and traces left by a pioneering 200-year-old inland waterway that opened in 1825: the Schuylkill Navigation. Some of it is literally buried in their own backyards.

Often called the Schuylkill Canal, this complex Navigation system actually boasted twenty-seven canals. The first of the anthracite-carrying routes in America, the 108-mile Navigation shadowed the Schuylkill River for nearly all its length. It once had more than thirty dams and slackwater pools, more than 100 stone locks, numerous aqueducts, and the first transportation tunnel in the nation. They were all built by hand starting in 1816.

During the 1940s, as part of a massive environmental cleanup of the river, this important and influential infrastructure was largely dismantled—but not entirely. Two short sections of the watered canal get plenty of attention: the Oakes Reach at Schuylkill Canal Park near Phoenixville and the Manayunk Canal in Philadelphia. Both are popular recreational destinations. What happened to the rest of it?

Photographer Sandy Sorlien resolved to find out. Over the course of seven years, she repeatedly traveled upriver from her home near the Manayunk Canal, bushwhacking along the riverbanks and rowing and paddling in the river itself. Armed with camera and binoculars, loppers and trekking poles, nineteenth-century maps and modern satellite imagery, and later abetted by local historians and an archaeologist, she found all sixty-one lock sites and explored most of the canal beds. Her photographs reveal a mysterious remnant landscape, evidence of an extraordinary engineering feat that spelled its own demise. The water pollution created by the coal industry, unregulated factory and residential waste, and obstructive dams all but destroyed the river that fed the Navigation. Clogged channels, railway competition, and repeated flood damage meant the end of a way of life for the towns that boomed along the canals, and only a few historians keep its memory alive.

Along with Sorlien’s color plates and explanatory essays, Inland features a selection of historic images, rare historic Schuylkill Navigation Company maps, and early Philadelphia Watering Committee plans. The book also includes a foreword by renowned landscape scholar John R. Stilgoe, an essay on regional transportation history by Mike Szilagyi, Trails Project Manager for the Schuylkill River Greenways Natural Heritage Area, and an afterword by Karen Young, Director of the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center. A sweeping new Schuylkill River map by Morgan Pfaelzer connects it all.

is the first book to present contemporary photographs from a survey of the entire Schuylkill Navigation, becoming an essential resource for future historians and a resonant visual history all its own.

About The Author

Sandy Sorlien is the author of Fifty Houses: Images from the American Road (John Hopkins, 2002). For decades she has traveled America’s back roads and city streets, and the length of her native Schuylkill River Valley, photographing the built and natural environment. She has received three Fellowships in Photography from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a Commonwealth Speaker Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Humanities, and 2020 and 2021 Fellowships from the Charles E. Peterson Fund of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. She taught photography at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia for twelve years and at several other area schools. In 2013, she joined the Fairmount Water Works, the education center for the Philadelphia Water Department, as a watershed educator and environmental photographer. For many years she rowed an open-water single shell on the slackwater pools of the Schuylkill Navigation. After living twenty-seven years near the Manayunk Canal, Sorlien moved with her husband to Rhode Island, where she rows on Narragansett Bay.

John R. Stilgoe is the Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape Development at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Society of American Historians. He has also received the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Williams Medal and the American Institute of Architects’ Medal for collaborative research, among other awards. His ten books on landscape include What Is Landscape? (MIT, 2015), Old Fields: Photography, Glamour, and Fantasy Landscape (Virginia, 2014), Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape (Virginia, 2007), Landscape and Images (Virginia, 2005), Lifeboat (Virginia, 2003), Alongshore (Yale, 1994) and Common Landscape of America: 1580–1845 (Yale, 1982), winner of the Francis Parkman Prize for best book of American history.

Mike Szilagyi, AICP, serves as Trail Project Manager at Schuylkill River Greenways National Heritage Area and serves as Chair of the borough Historic Commission. He has spent decades devoted to planning southeastern Pennsylvania’s bicycle trail network, yielding a deep knowledge of the long-forgotten web of former railroad and canal rights-of-way built before the automobile came to dominate the landscape. A lifelong cyclist, Szilagyi is the author of Bucks County Trolleys (Arcadia, 2020) and co-author of Montgomery County Trolleys (Arcadia, 2018).

Karen Young is Director of the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, the watershed education arm of the Philadelphia Water Department. Ms. Young has more than twenty-five years of experience developing and implementing urban environmental programs.


Inland is, most of all, a work of the historical imagination, recovering for the viewer the significance of the long-lost canal system... Sandy Sorlien achieves a perfect synthesis of documentary and aesthetic modes. I can't think of another who combine the talents of Sorlien.”

- Miles Orvell, author of Photography in America and Empire of Ruins

“Sandy Sorlien's Inland represents a haunting journey through a critical waterway of Pennsylvania and the now-ruined stone architecture that gave shape to its flow. Her work documents, in water and stone, both an economic and environmental legacy of our region. There could be nothing more important today than to embrace and rebuild the relationship between human activity and the precious, life-giving resource of water.”

- William R. Valerio, Ph.D., Director and CEO of the Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia

“I hope many Schuylkill walkers like me discover her book. Then it's up to us to answer the [...] question: How do we preserve this remarkable history?”

- Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, Philadelphia

Inland does more than reconstruct a canal system and identify a profoundly troubling environmental past—it offers perspective that informs our present as we consider our current activities and their generational impacts.”

- Byron Wolfe, Professor, Program Head, and Graduate Advisor in Photography, Tyler School of Art and Architecture, and author of Drowned River: The Death and Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado (2017) with Rebecca Solnit and Mark Klett

More from this publisher