In the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, between the Schuylkill River and the canal, there is a small patch of land, under two miles long, referred to as Venice Island. With the exception of a new apartment building, it has been somewhat of an eyesore for the neighborhood in recent decades, with leftover buildings and equipment from when the canal was still in use as late as the 1940s. However, the Philadelphia Water Department, along with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and the Manayunk Development Corporation, have spent the last few years planning and fighting the elements in order to make the lower part of Venice Island something more than a parking lot used when grabbing brunch on Main Street.
In preparation for the upcoming Lower Venice Island Park and Performance Center’s grand opening, coming later this year, here is a look back at the area and its evolution from being part of a working canal in an industrial neighborhood.
In the early 19th century, coal usage was rising in the United States. With regions towards the middle of Pennsylvania having large coal reserves, easy transport was needed in order to get the coal to the major cities. As a result, the Schuylkill Navigation system came about: a 108-mile system of locks and dams that carried thousands of ships from the coal-mining cities of Pennsylvania, starting with Port Carbon, down to Philadelphia and further. The Schuylkill Navigation Company allowed areas along the route to purchase the energy thanks to water through turbines or similar equipment. This includes Manayunk, which saw a rise in its textile industry and neighborhood population during the 19th century as mills began to build along the canal.
Finished in 1819, the Manayunk section of the Schuylkill Navigation system contained three locks: 68, 69, and 70. Lock Number 68 was found on the upper section of Venice Island and pictured here.
With the rising use of railroads to transport coal, use of the canal dwindled and it eventually closed to commercial and recreational boats in the 1940s, leaving equipment abandoned on Venice Island. These photographs taken on the lower side of Venice Island provide a look into the Manayunk daily life in the 1950s, around a decade after the canal was no longer in use. It was purchased by the City of Philadelphia and incorporated into the Fairmount Parks Systems.
Recreational areas have been a popular aspect of Venice Island and the surrounding area. There were playgrounds there as early as the 1950s (seen below) and the tow path on the Manayunk side of the canal is currently part of the Schuylkill River Trail that extends ten miles. Luckily, the new plans for the space also include such public areas like basketball courts and a children’s area! For more information on the Lower Venice Island Park and Performance Center, head to the project’s official page on the Philadelphia Water Department website.
Peters, M. & Smith, K. (1993). The Manayunk Canal. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/206523451/Manayunk-Canal-Book
Levine, A. L. The Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill Navigation System: A Brief History. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/178788916/Brief-History-of-Manayunk-Canal-By-Adam-E-Levine-Historical-Consultant-Philadelphia-Water-Department
Philadelphia Water Department. (2014).Venice Island. Retrieved from http://www.phillywatersheds.org/what_were_doing/traditional_infrastructure/projects/venice_island
Elk, Sara Jane. (1990). Workshop of the World. Oliver Evans Press. Retrieved from http://www.workshopoftheworld.com/manayunk/canal.html