Traveling along the 1825/1828 Delaware & Hudson Canal Towpath
Louis V. Mills
In America, the year 1828 would be as good a date as any to signal the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The first successful operation of a steam locomotive engine in America (the Stourbridge Lion1) was still a year away, Andrew Jackson was replacing John Quincy Adams in the White House, and the Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal—108 miles long with 108 locks—was officially opened from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, to the Rondout Creek Basin beside the Hudson River below Kingston.
2 PICTURES Map 1 and Manville B. Wakefield’s map of the D&H Canal in High Falls. It is part of the Wakefield Collection and was originally published in his book Coal Boats to Tidewater
The D&H Canal was built in less than three years without modern equipment and principally by newly arrived immigrants from Germany and Ireland. The cost was an astronomically high one million dollars. The canal provided the essential link in a bulk transportation system that started at the anthracite coal mines near Carbondale, Pennsylvania, and ran to the Hudson River, where the coal and other products could be barged down to the burgeoning city of New York and other East Coast locations. The canal initially paralleled the Lackawaxen River, then crossed the Delaware River on an aqueduct constructed by John Roebling (who built the Brooklyn Bridge many years later). It ran south along the Delaware to Port Jervis, then northeast on the western side of the Shawangunk Ridge, finally terminating at the Rondout Basin.
The coal was brought from the mines to Honesdale over the 1,000-foot Moosic Mountain range on a twelve-mile gravity railroad. At five different locations along the route, the coal cars were hoisted by an endless chain driven by horses (and later by a stationary steam engine) to a higher elevation and then allowed to coast downhill to the next lift. At Honesdale, the coal was transferred to canal boats.
Anyone interested in spending a few hours absorbing the ambiance of that era and the ingeniousness of the canal system should bicycle or walk westward from the Wurtsboro exit of Route 17 along a stretch of the canal towpath as it travels beside the Bashakill Wetlands on the Orange-Sullivan County border. You eventually arrive in Westbrookville, beside an eighteenth-century frontier stone fort, and then proceed on to the D&H Canal Museum on the Neversink River in Cuddebackville. Here, the museum, which is housed in an original canal building, looks out on the extant stone abutments that carried the canal boats over the Neversink River on an aqueduct, another of the four along the waterway designed by Roebling. Just east of the abutments, an accurate replica of a canal boat still plies its way along a restored one-mile stretch of the canal.
As in the case of the famed Panama Canal, built over half a century later, changes in the elevation of the land through which the D&H Canal passed were adjusted through a lock system. Solid wooden gates at each end of the lock were opened or closed so water could be added or drained out, bringing about the changing level of the water in the lock. The water came from feeder canals that flowed down from rivers and streams above the canal. Wanaksink Lake, Yankee Lake, and Wolf Pond, all high on the hills in Sullivan County, are illustrative of water sources that were dammed for this purpose in the 1820s and 1830s.
Throughout its length, the canal had to adjust for 1,073 feet of elevation change. Since the canal generally ran near or parallel to rivers, which supplied the water for its operation, the locks were often clustered around waterfalls. In the Ulster County hamlet of High Falls, five locks constructed of precision-cut Shawangunk conglomerate, an indigenous stone, raised and lowered the canal boats sixty-three feet around the falls on the Rondout Creek. The stone was cut so perfectly that no mortar was used in the locks’ construction.
A canal boat traveling toward Pennsylvania would enter a lock, then water would fill it, raising the vessel to a higher level. Conversely, boats making their way toward the Rondout Basin would be lowered by emptying the lock. Since this process took considerable time, there were basins near the locks where the canal boats could wait their turn. In the meanwhile, the canalers could purchase necessary supplies from nearby shops. At lock 51 in Cuddebackville, an enterprising lady sold rice pies for fifteen cents apiece. As a result, this became known as the “pie lock.”
This was the era of the family business and individual entrepreneurship, and each coal boat, usually pulled by a pair of mules (or a lead horse and a mule), was often owned by a single canaler and staffed by his wife and children. These families were frequently short of adequate funds, or even extra food supplies to fall back on in the event of delays. And delays did occur. Floods caused washouts along the canal walls, and winter freezes locked in late-traveling canal boats until the spring thaws. Even more dangerous, there were occasions when brigands from the nearby hills swooped down for an easy theft of coal or lumber from the stranded boats. In one instance, it was said that the raiders even took the canaler’s last dollar until he cried so hard that they took pity on him and gave it back.
Other more general problems affected the operation of the canal. Seagoing boats docking at the Rondout Basin brought infectious germs that swept through the canal workers and nearby residents. In the 1830s and 1840s, cholera epidemics raged throughout the canal region. Further west, above the Port Jervis section at the Delaware crossing, gunfights took place between the canalers, who originally floated their boats across the river behind a crudely built dam of rocks, and the Delaware River raftsmen, who floated their logs downstream to the Philadelphia market ^3.
These altercations were obviated in the early 1840s by the construction of the aforementioned Roebling Aqueduct, now a national historic monument. It is the oldest existing cable suspension bridge in the United States, and today carries cars, not canal boats, to the opposite shore. (It is well worth a visit.) The aqueducts were part of major improvements in both the dimensions and capacity of the canal.
At Eddyville, below Kingston, the canal boats exited Lock No. 1 at tidewater and unloaded their cargo along the banks of the Rondout Creek for transfer to the Hudson River barges. Their work completed, the canalers celebrated in nearby bars before hitching their mules to the “empties” for the return trip to Honesdale.
For more than 50 years, hundreds of thousands of tons of coal and other bulk products were shipped annually on the D&H Canal. Inevitably, however, it became a victim of the railroad boom of the late nineteenth century. The canal carried its last boat to tidewater in 1898, and then closed its books forever.
—Louis V. Mills
To experience life on the 1828 D&H Canal towpath…
Keep in mind, as you bicycle or walk along the towpath in the muffled silence of a hundred-year-old forest, that you are traveling at the same rate the canalers did. It took them at least a week—and often as long as ten days—to make the trip from Honesdale to Kingston.
Take Exit 113 (Wurtsboro/Ellenville) off Route 17. Drive west two miles on Route 209 and turn south on Haven Road. Park at the designated NYS Bashakill Wetlands parking area. Walk or bicycle back to the intersection with Route 209 and follow the dirt road beside it, which runs atop the towpath for three miles to the Westbrookville crossroads and eighteenth-century fort. There are tremendous views all along this stretch, as well as many remnants from the canal, including lock abutments, stone embankments and retaining walls, feeder streams, and bridge structures. Continue on Route 209 for five additional miles to Cuddebackville and the D&H Canal/Neversink River Museum, or cross the wetlands at Westbrookville and return on South Road for three miles to Haven Road.
The town of Mamakating in Sullivan County announced in May 2004 that it had received a $640,000 grant from New York State to complete the restoration of a six-mile stretch of the D&H Canal towpath as a walking and bicycling trail between Wurtsboro and Phillipsport. A volunteer committee in Cuddebackville hopes to achieve similar results on the Cuddebackville/Port Jervis section of the canal.
Additional Information on the Canal
Much of the background material for this essay came from a lifetime interest in the canal and its environs, and from people who have had a similar interest in its history. It would be impossible to list them all.
The authoritative text on the D&H Canal is the superb Coal Boats to Tidewater by Manville B. Wakefield (Grahamsville: Wakefield Press, 1965). Thebooklet Stroll, Run, or Bike Along History by the D&H Canal TransportationCouncil is excellent and should be available at any of the canal museums.
The historic markers along the canal and nearby roads offer many interesting facts, and the canal museums offer exhibits, publications, and additional hikes.
The Minisink Valley Historical Society
The Minisink Valley Historical Society operates in two locations, the Library Archives of the Port Jervis Library, 138 Pike Street, and Fort Decker, a stone house located on West Main Street in Port Jervis. It also maintains exhibits on the D&H Canal online.
Neversink Valley Area Museum
D&H Canal Park, 26 Hoag Road, Cuddebackville, NY 12729
D&H Canal Park and Museum is located along the banks of the beautiful Neversink River in Cuddebackville. The mission of the Museum is to preserve, document, and interpret the history of the Neversink River Valley of Orange County, from its beginnings to the present, through exhibitions, educational programs, and publications for children and adults; and the acquisition, preservation, and restoration of artifacts and historic sites.
In addition to its permanent exhibit, “Black Diamonds and the D&H Canal,” with videos, maps, and a working canal lock model, the museum has a 275-square-foot, full-size canal boat replica with hands-on activities for children. Other exhibits on the Neversink Valley area include a program on the Lenape Native Americans; “The Artistry of the Blacksmith,” with a working blacksmith shop; silent films made in the region; and an interactive exhibit on farming history. The Neversink Valley Area Museum is open April through October, Thursday–Sunday 12-4.
D&H Canal Historical Society
Mohonk Road/Route 6A, High Falls, NY 12440
In the hamlet of High Falls in Ulster County, where a flight of five locks compensated for a drop of seventy feet in elevation, a museum and remnants of the old locks tell the story of the waterway, built largely by pick and shovel wielded by immigrants. With maps, colorful dioramas, enlarged photographs, artifacts, and working models, the Museum of the D&H Canal Historical Society, housed in the former St. John’s Episcopal Church, depicts life along the canal and its related industries.
The purpose of the D & H Canal Historical Society is to preserve, protect and perpetuate the unique history of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, particularly in Ulster County. The society fulfills its mission by: operating its museum in High Falls and maintaining the Five Locks Walk, a National Historic Landmark; preserving the canal locks and environs, and canal-related documents, printed material, pictures, and artifacts; educating its members and the general public through lectures, tours, publications, and programs; conducting and facilitating ongoing research; and acquiring real and personal property to further these goals.
The D&H Canal Museum is housed in an outstanding example of a late nineteenth-century gothic chapel, which was the first (and only) Episcopal church built in the historic hamlet of High Falls. Parishioners of St. John’s included many employees of the D&H Canal, including local lock tenders. The museum is open May through October on Mondays, and Thursday–Saturday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and on Sunday from 1-5 p.m.
The D&H Heritage Corridor Alliance
P.O. Box 176, Rosendale, NY 12472
The D&H Heritage Corridor Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Delaware & Hudson Canal towpaths and the Ontario & Western Railway. Thirty-five miles of historic adventure, this route traces the Delaware & Hudson Canal, the New York Ontario & Western Railroad, and the scenic Rondout Creek. Experience the D&H Canal towpaths and locks, historic hamlets, monumental cement caves and kilns, the forested and pastoral route of the abandoned O&W Railroad, scenic woodlands and stream valleys, wetlands, and other natural resources along the way.
Louis V. Mills was assisted in the preparation of this essay by Dr. Louis V. Mills Jr., a professor of landscape architecture at Texas Tech University, and Kelly Dobbins, a planner with the Orange County Planning Department.
1. The Stourbridge Lion, weighing seven tons, was built in England and tested at ten miles per hour at Honesdale before a large audience. There was an explosion when the engine started, and the engineer lost an arm. The trial convinced the managers of the Gravity Railroad that the curved rail bed could not sustain the weight without extensive reinforcements. As a result,the Stourbridge Lion stood on a siding near the canal for fourteen years and then the boiler was hauled away to the D&H Canal shops in Carbondale to be used to supply steam for a stationary engine.
2. This was the greatest amount of money raised for a single project in the nation until then. The money was subscribed for in one day in 1825, following an exhibition of the burning of some anthracite coal at the Tontine Coffee Shop on Wall Street in New York City.
3. The Delaware River wire suspension aqueduct and three others were constructed in the 1840s to meet the emerging competition from the nearby NY & Erie Railroad that ran in a similar direction. Earlier, the canal boats, using ropes, were ferried across the Delaware River behind a “slackwater dam.” The installation of the aqueducts saved a full day from the week- to ten-daylong trip to the Rondout Basin.
John Paulding and the Ten Seconds That Saved the Revolution 89 This essay is the opening shot for the Hudson River Valley Institute’s (HRVI) Patriots’ Weekend, 2005, which will commemorate the 225th anniversary of the foiling of the Benedict Arnold-John André Conspiracy. The events, to be held at Tappan and Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown on October 1-2, will again be funded by the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, in partnership with the Committee on the George Washington Masonic Historic Site at Tappan; the Tappantown Historical Society; the Historical Society, Inc. (serving Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown); and the Brigade of the American Revolution. The Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College will host a conference at the college on September 29 and will sponsor two lectures with the help of the Charlotte Cunneen-Hackett Charitable Trust and the M&T Bank Charitable Trust. The HRVI is indebted to John E. Walsh, who will be a speaker both at the Marist conference and at Tappan, for this essay.