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Low Bridge, Everybody Down
by Bob Brooke


The water in what remains of the Delaware and Hudson(D&H) Canal lies quiet and still now. Green trees line the former towpath, making for a pleasant half-mile walk. At one end a dam holds back the still waters in which tall reeds now grow. The air is cool and fragrant from flowers growing on its banks. The former canal house is now a restaurant.

Nearby, the great Shawangunk conglomerate walls of former locks create small canyons that filled with water to raise huge barges filled with coal to the next level along the canal towards the town of Kingston along the Hudson River in New York. Giant spikes, once used to guide the tow ropes, protrude from the tops of the walls of five locks near the picturesque village of High Falls, New York. Large iron cleats, bolted to the top end of the walls once held the doors of the locks. Each lock measured 90 feet long, 15 feet wide, and 15 feet deep, and provided an average change in elevation of 12.6 feet.

Originally built in 1847, these five locks were part of a new route designed to accommodate increased traffic and larger boats on the D&H Canal. The remains of a loading quay stand just past Lock 16.

Canals like the D&H provided an easier method of transporting goods around natural obstacles like rapids and waterfalls. They also made it simpler to transport goods over higher ground. Originally, setters used wagons to transport freight. In 1812, for example, it took a six-horse team 18-35 days to transport 3,000 pounds of cargo by wagon from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Though boat transportation was faster, the route of the water limited travel by river. Canals were the answer. More cargo could be shipped, and the time of the journey reduced. The period between 1815 and 1835 witnessed more than 3,000 miles of canals built in America.

The D&H Canal established the first direct transportation link between the Pennsylvania anthracite fields and New York City. The War of 1812 had shut off the supply of bituminous coal from the Britain, setting off America’s first energy crisis. Two enterprising Philadelphia merchants, William and Maurice Wurts, purchased land in the Lackawanna Valley cheaply from the U.S. Government in exchange for debts incurred by it during the War of 1812.

In his spare time, William Wurts explored the new lands and discovered blackish rock outcroppings of anthracite coal and began mapping and researching them. He convinced his brother Maurice to come along with him to see for himself.

Together they opened a small mining operation and at first wanted to transport anthracite coal from it to Philadelphia, but coal from the Schuylkill and Lehigh Valleys could be transported there more cheaply, so they turned their attention to the New York market.

The success of the new Erie Canal inspired them. If they could build a canal of their own from Pennsylvania to New York, through the narrow valley between the Shawangunk Ridge and the Catskill Mountains, to the Hudson River near Kingston, it could be profitable.

n 1823, they lobbied the legislatures of both New York and Pennsylvania to grant them a charter for the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. The company hired Benjamin Wright, engineer of the Erie Canal, and his assistant John B. Jervis, to survey and plan a route. At that time, Wright put the estimated cost at $1.2 million, but later revised it to $1.6 million. The actual cost was closer to $2.2 million. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania kicked in some of the money, but to raise the rest, the Wurts brothers needed to prove that anthracite coal would burn better than bituminous coal. On January 7, 1825, they convinced several business and financial leaders to meet at the Tontine Coffee House on New York’s Wall Street to watch anthracite burn. And burn it did. Within hours, their freshly minted stock had sold out.

The Wurtses broke ground on July 13,1825. The company constructed its canal along an unsettled route in less than three years using only picks, shovels, draft animals, and blasting powder. It took 2,500 men and 200 teams of horses just to complete the section of the D&H between Cuddebackville and Kingston, New York. Towns and villages sprang up along its route.

The canal opened to traffic in October 1828. It began at Rondout Creek at an area later known as Creeklocks, between Kingston, where the creek fed into the Hudson River, and Rosendale. From there it proceeded southwest alongside Rondout Creek to Ellenville, continuing through the valley of the Sandburg Creek, Homowack Kill, Basha Kill and Neversink River to Port Jervis on the Delaware River. It continued northwest on the New York side of the Delaware River, crossing into Pennsylvania at Lackawaxen and running on the north bank of the Lackawaxen River to Honesdale.

The finished canal ran 108 miles, from Honesdale to Kingston. Its 108 locks, each accommodating boats of up to 30 tons, raising or lowering them between 8 and 12 feet, took it over elevation changes totaling 1,075 feet, more than the 675 feet of the Erie Canal. The channel was four feet deep, though the Wurtses eventually increased it to six feet by 32 feet wide. Crossed by 137 bridges and had 26 dams, basins and reservoirs, it also crossed four rivers—the Lackawaxen, Delaware, Neversink, and Rondout Creek—via slackwater dams. And when the Wurtses enlarged the canal between 1847 and 1851, they added four new aqueducts, engineered by John A. Roebling, the architect of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Mules pulled barges along a towpath that ran parallel to the canal since the bow wave from a steamboat would have damaged the channel. At first, the company hired children, called “hoggees,” to lead the mules, but later on, they employed grown men to do the job. They had to work 16-hour days, walking 15-20 miles, pumping out barges, and tending the mules. For this, the company paid the children $1.25 a month while the adults received $3.

The Wurtses divided their canal into three sections—the Lackawaxen, from Honesdale to the Delaware River, along the river from there to Port Jervis, then the Neversink, from Port Jervis to Kingston. A trip along its length initially took a week. There were no operations on Sundays or on days in winter when the canal froze up or was likely to.

Primarily, the canal transported coal and lumber from Pennsylvania to the Hudson River. On the return trip to Pennsylvania, the barges traveled empty. The company tried offering passenger service for the first 25 years but gave it up when it proved unprofitable.

To get the anthracite from the Wurts' mine in the Moosic Mountains near Carbondale to the canal at Honesdale, the canal company built the D&H Gravity Railroad. On August 8,1829, the D&H's first locomotive, the Stourbridge Lion, made history as the first locomotive to run on rails in the United States.

Business took off as the Wurtses had anticipated, and in 1832 the canal carried 90,000 tons of coal and three million board-feet of lumber.

Traffic increased on the canal In 1850, when the Pennsylvania Coal Company(PCC) constructed its own gravity railroad from the coal fields to the port at Hawley, carrying over 300,000 tons of PCC coal in the first season. However, the relationship between the two companies soured after the canal company attempted to raise tolls under the argument that canal improvements had reduced costs for the PCC. The dispute led to a court decision in 1863, but by that time the Erie Railroad constructed its extension to Hawley, Pennsylvania, and the PCC switched its shipments to the railroad.

The D&H also developed railroads to extend its reach into other northeastern markets. It extended its gravity railroad from Carbondale deeper into the coal fields and expanded its capacity. By the time Maurice Wurts died in 1854, more than 1,400 boats were operating on the canal.

By 1898, trains could carry coal more directly to New York City across New Jersey rather than via Kingston via the new Delaware and Hudson rail line. The following year the company dropped "Canal" from its name.

After the end of the 1898 season, the company opened all the waste weirs and drained the canal. Catskill rail magnate Samuel Coykendall purchased the canal the next summer, reportedly to use as a water supply for the Ramapo Water Company. But that never developed. Instead, Coykendall used the northernmost section, from Rondout to Kingston, to transport Rosendale cement and other general merchandise to the Hudson River until abandoning that business in 1904. The canal never saw traffic again.

Besides its historical firsts, the canal stimulated the growth of New York City. On the Pennsylvania end, the anthracite regions grew from the rough wilderness they had been when William Wurts first traveled them and mapped the coal deposits to a region of prosperous coal mines and industries.


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