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I Witness Canal Jousting

Lock 60 on Schuylkill Canal

Every year the Schuylkill Canal Association hosts Canal Day–a day-long festival that includes an intriguing activity called canal jousting. This year, I decided to see for myself what exactly this was all about.

1. The Schuylkill Canal: I, as a writer for the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, have learned a lot about local history. What I have found to be arguably the most fascinating aspect of local history is the Schuylkill Canal. So, I’ve been to the restored Lock 60 in Mont Clare many times. Apparently I never took my kids, though. I attended Canal Day with my son, 13 and my daughter, 19. They were both pretty interested in the canal.

2. Why I like the canal: Because it was hand-dug in the early 1800s, which seems pretty amazing. And because it was a key transportation route for about 100 years, but there’s very little left of it now, so the locks, the locktender’s houses and the visible canal channels are all relics of a long-gone era.

3. Here’s a little history: The Schuylkill Canal is actually a navigation system that, for reasons to complicated for me to want to explain here, consists of a series of dams and canals along 108 miles of the river. The canal made the otherwise mostly too-shallow river navigable, so that coal could be carried from Schuylkill County to Philadelphia. It also allowed for boats to make a return trip back to coal country. I like the fact that canal boats only traveled four miles per hour. I can’t even imagine traveling so slowly!

4. About Canal Day: It’s a small festival, so there were crafters, food, music, but it really didn’t have a carnival atmosphere. The lock tenders house was open and my kids and I liked walking through it. By today’s standards, it was a small house so I found it interesting that some of the upstairs bedrooms were for guests, not for the family that lived there. The lock was restored in 2005 and is in working condition, so really a highlight of the festival was the opening of the lock.

A crowd gathers to watch a demonstration of the lock

5. How the lock works: Locks were built to allow boats to travel through changes in water levels without having that Disney Splash Mountain experience. Here’s a more detailed explanation, with illustrations and even an animated video. It was fun and interesting to see it in person, though.

Juliet and Ian watching a canal joust.

6. Canal jousting: This was small town competition at its best. It seemed anyone could sign up to do it. The result was a series of matches against two people who had either never canal jousted before or had minimal experience (because, really, how would you get experience? It’s obviously an under appreciated sport). Two docks were set up, connected by a long plank about a foot wide. The contestants stepped out onto the plank, armed with padded jousting sticks, and met in the middle. They proceeded to try to knock their opponents into the water. In most cases, both people ended up in the water. Here’s a YouTube video of a 2010 canal joust.

7. Why this was entertaining: Okay, I’m not sure. But we probably spent a good 45 minutes watching this event (it went on longer than that but we wanted to get home). Inevitably the crowd chose one person to root for, and each match was over very quickly–the winner of a match won two out of three jousts. Besides, the opponents weren’t always evenly matched, size-wise, but balance was also a major factor, so it was interesting to see which contender came out ahead.

A tanker cools off the crowd

8. Overall this was a fun day. This was a good mix of having fun and learning something. It was also a pleasant way to spend a warm summer afternoon.  There was live music, some vendors (I personally met and spoke with the Bee Queen of Pennsylvania, who was very knowledgable about Beekeeping–something my daughter has always wanted to try). Another bonus? When it got hot, a fire truck was on hand to cool off the crowd.

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