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The Day of the Packet Boat

Few of the present population of the valley have any personal recollection of the day of the Packet Boat. The West Branch Canal is now a thing of the past, and the vestiges of it that remain are assuming an appearance of antiquity. Most parts even now have almost the appearance of having been "deserted beyond the memory of man," as Conrad Weiser, in 1737, said of the "ancient fortification" on Wolf Run. In 1828 the Muncy Dam was built, and in 1830 the canal was completed to the dam from Northumberland. In 1833 it was finished as far as Williamsport. This was the great improvement of that age, and gave new life to the business of the West Branch.

It was the era of the Packet Boat. It was not a long day, but it was one of which its generation ever cherished most pleasing recollections. The Packet was a delightful conveyance in which to travel, compared with the lumbering, rocking, jolting, and often overcrowded and dusty stage coach. It was a beautiful structure, comfortably arranged, neatly furnished, carpeted, and moved along on the water highway so quietly and smoothly that it was a real pleasure to travel in one. It was towed by three or four horses, managed by a mounted driver, and had relays so frequent that the animals could be kept on a constant trot. Besides passengers, it carried mail and express. Many a time I was sent to Port Penn to meet the boat and bring home a package, and I was always very willing to go. But when only about two decades later the Sunbury and Erie Railroad (now part of the Pennsylvania R. R.) was completed to Williamsport, the more speedy and tireless iron horses took the place of horses of bone and flesh, and the Packet Boat became obsolete.

There are a few old folks who still remember the day of the Packet Boat, the great interest they excited, and how crowds sometimes assembled at Walton's Landing, or at the Port Penn wharf, to see the crafts arrive. The captain of a Packet was always looked up to as a man of authority and great responsibility, and perhaps no commander of an Atlantic liner today enjoys greater distinction. The courtesy of a Packet captain was often the subject of remark, as the slightest attention or condescension on his part was sure to be gratefully remembered.

The canal at once became a great business thoroughfare. Many boats were built at Port Penn, where several boat yards flourished, and a number of the business men of Muncy owned boats. Merchandise was no longer brought up the river in the tiresome Keelboats. The chief articles of export were hogs, wheat, flour, lumber, dried and salted meats, leather and whiskey. There were in that day thirteen distilleries in this end of the county, the combined daily output of which was from 1,200 to 1,500 gallons. As whiskey was by many still regarded as one of the necessaries of life, it is likely that instead of going down the West Branch Canal a great deal of it remained here and went down — certain other canals.

The Outlet Locks below Port Penn, and the stone piers and abutments of the Aqueduct that spanned the mouth of Muncy Creek of which pictures accompany these notes-are now deeply interesting relics of the canal, melancholy reminders of the hopes and enterprise and struggles of a generation now resting with their fathers, the hardy elders who drove away the savages and cut down the forest to install the age of the plow. How many are still alive who went through these double locks, and floated in the Aqueduct over Muncy Creek, in a Packet Boat?

  • Gernerd, J. M. M., The Muncy Valley: Snap-Shots of Scenery, Geology and History, 1909, Press of the Gazette and Bulletin, Williamsport PA
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