Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.


The contrasting relief of Shade and Blue mountains with the Juniata River Valley creates a magnificent landscape near the border of Juniata and Mifflin counties. That splendor belies the obstacles that the topography has presented for engineers throughout the centuries.

Archaeological excavations of the Lewistown Narrows within Juniata County have revealed artifacts dating back nearly 9,000 years. These sites, believed to have been utilized as camps by early travelers, serve as a reminder that the narrows has long furnished a natural east-west passage for those traversing Pennsylvania’s Ridge and Valley Province.

Spurred by the successful realization of the Erie Canal in 1825, Pennsylvania devised the Public Works, a state-owned canal network connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Lower Juniata Division (Duncan’s Island to Lewistown) of the Pennsylvania Canal Main Line was authorized by an April 9, 1827, act of the state legislature, and ground was broken in July 1828.

Engineers estimated that construction through the narrows, making use of three lift locks, massive stone retaining walls (as seen here in the real photo postcard) and the river channel itself, would comprise more than 40 percent of the Juniata Division’s total construction costs. The Lower Juniata Division was finished in the summer of 1830, and by November 1832 the entire Juniata Division (Duncan’s Island to Hollidaysburg) was completed, spanning nearly 130 miles. Although the Juniata Valley initially saw increased business, the system was plagued with debt from immense construction expenses, high operating costs, constant maintenance and repair, and susceptibility to nature’s variability. The canal was never profitable.

The Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), incorporated in 1846, began service in 1849 between Harrisburg and Lewistown opposite the canal. By 1854 PRR had completed construction of its continuous Philadelphia-Pittsburgh route. The railroad’s reliability and efficiency stood in sharp contrast to the canal’s faults. In 1857 the state sold the remains of the deteriorating Public Works to PRR at a loss of several million dollars. The resulting Pennsylvania Canal Company operated the canals until 1899, when they ceased all maintenance and repair.

In contrast to the canal’s relatively short commission, the roadway through the Lewistown Narrows remains a major transportation corridor today. Much of what is now recognized as U.S. 22/322 and the William Penn Highway began as Native American pathways frequented by settlers and were periodically improved until 1807, when the legislature authorized the construction of the Harrisburg-Lewistown Turnpike, completed in 1818. This roadway saw several enhancements throughout its evolution, but none as dramatic as the changes initiated in 2002 by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to what had become one of the country’s most dangerous sections of highway. Completed in three segments, a full year ahead of schedule and costing $134 million, the 10.3 mile stretch is a testament to the excellence of modern engineering. Extensive core drilling and seismic and ground-penetrating radar investigations on the steep talus slopes and underlying clay preceded the final and most challenging portion of construction, consisting of almost seven miles. Nearly 9,000 piles were drilled into competent rock layers to support the westbound lanes, which at points rise 30 feet above grade and include North America’s longest mechanically stabilized earth wall – the second longest in the world at a length of 2.3 miles.

During the project great care was taken to not disturb the remains of the canal, resulting in a park plan that repaired parts of the canal wall, preserved a canal lock house that now serves as an interpretive center, restored Lock 13, and created walking trails along the river. The plan also included a river access point with boat launch and parking to further mitigate impacts on the area. PennDOT received several national awards for the project’s innovative engineering and execution, which continues an impressive history of improved navigation through the narrows.


Josh Stahlman has been an archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives since 2008.