Earlier this spring representatives from the industry and the community dedicated a refurbished historic village, a partnership that can serve as a national model to preserve history.
During the early years of our industrial development, canals moved raw materials and finished goods to commercial areas. By 1840, more than 3,000 miles of canals linked bustling areas of business to distant markets. One of these canals ran for more than 100 miles from the coal mining regions toward the port of Philadelphia. John Frick, a farmer in northeastern Chester County allowed the construction of two locks, 54 and 55, on his property, completing a critical portion of this transportation artery.
The Schuylkill Canal began operation in 1825, allowing hundreds of barges to pass through. Due to the bustling business activity, Frick’s Lock village developed around the canal. The oldest house in the village dates back to 1757, as Great Britain was waging the Seven Years’ War against the French and local Indian tribes in North America. The genealogy of the settler’s families and history of the area is discussed in The History of Frick’s Locks by Paul Sumner Frick.
The canal’s peak operating years were between 1830-1860. By 1841, the Schuylkill Navigation transported more than 737,517 tons of cargo annually. In that same year, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (P&R) was completed, creating rivalry between these two forms of transportation. In 1870, the Schuylkill Navigation Company leased its waterway to the railroad for a period of 110 years. Under P&R’s control, the barge traffic declined. The Delaware and Raritan Canal was owned by the competing Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) and Schuylkill Canal boats were denied access to this important nearby waterway. The PRR invaded the Schuylkill’s territory with the construction of its Schuylkill Branch in the mid-1880s. Railroads became dominant in the transportation of raw materials and other goods by the late 1800s—the last barge floated down the canal around 1930. In 2003, Frick’s Lock was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) planned to build a nuclear power plant along the Schuylkill in the early 1970s, they knew they would need an “exclusion area” for safety around the plant. PECO contacted landowners in Frick’s Lock for purchase of their properties. By 1980, the last residents had left the area to allow the construction of the power plant, but managers at PECO (later Exelon, the new parent company) realized that the town had historic significance and wanted to preserve the structures in the area. A committee was formed which included personnel from the Township Historical Commission, Exelon, Chester County Parks and Recreation, the Schuylkill River Heritage Authority, and local government. Exelon earmarked $2.3 million for the restoration and preservation of several historic homes in the village. On May 10, 2013, representatives from Exelon and East Coventry Township along with U.S. Representative Jim Gerlach and State Senator Andy Dinniman met for an historic re-dedication of the newly restored village. The ceremony was especially touching, with Larry Frick (son of Paul Sumner Frick) describing how his father loved the rich heritage of the area.
Due to rapid economic development, many of America’s historic landmarks are falling by the wayside. The Frick’s Lock project is one good example of how business can thrive and help preserve our heritage. Exelon has been commended for its generous contribution to restoring this important part of our local history. The Schuylkill River Trail is also expected to be completed in the near future. It hopes to bring casual hikers and perhaps even a few history buffs right by the locks.
Gene Pisasale is an author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. He’s written five books, including “Abandoned Address – The Secret of Frick’s Lock,” which focuses on the history of the village and some of the greatest inventors of the Industrial Revolution. His website is www.GenePisasale.com. Gene can be reached at Gene@GenePisasale.com.