The Hudson River was integral to the development of the Delaware and Hudson Canal. The Canal was conceived by Philadelphia dry goods merchants Maurice and Charles Wurts in the second decade of the 19th century, in order to transport anthracite coal from Pennsylvania mines to New York City. The coal traversed the 108-mile-long Canal, winding through the Lackawaxen, Delaware, Neversink, Bashakill, Sandburgh and Rondout valleys before arriving at the Hudson River near Kingston, NY. From there, the cargo would travel south on the Hudson for over eighty miles to supply the primary market in New York City. Coal was also shipped north to Albany—about forty-five miles—and from there it could be transported on the Erie Canal to support the westward expansion of the population.
Island Dock in the Rondout Creek showing coal loader machines made by the Dodge Coal Storage Co. of Philadelphia. The canal boats behind the steamboat have had their rear compartments 'hipped', the addition of higher sidewalls to accommodate a greater load, and appear to possibly rafted together to be towed by the steamboat. D&H Canal Historical Society Collection, #73.22.
Benjamin Wright (the chief engineer of the middle section of the Erie Canal) oversaw the original plans for the D&H Canal, which date from 1823. He believed that “the Canal boats may navigate the Hudson. A steam boat of 50 horse power will tow ten of them, and if double manned will perform the trip to New York and back in 2 days, the distance 100 miles.” However, the earliest canal boats, which were 75 feet long and 9 feet wide, with a capacity 30 tons, proved unsuitable for travel on the river. As a result, coal had to be offloaded from canal boats to other vessels at Rondout for transport on the Hudson River—a time-consuming and costly process. In Steamboats for Rondout Donald Ringwald writes, “...the canalboats obviously had to be small size and because of this and a need to keep them on their regular work, they generally did not go beyond the Company works on Rondout Creek.” By 1831, the Company had begun purchasing barges for use on the Hudson. The first two were the Lackawanna (146 feet in length) and the James Kent (135 feet in length), and to tow them, the D&H Canal Company “chartered and then purchased an elderly sidewinder named Delaware.”
As the Canal Company prospered, the Canal was enlarged. In the 1840s, the depth was incrementally increased from four to five feet, with no change in the original width of thirty-two feet. In 1847, anticipating increased traffic from a deal with the Wyoming Coal Association (which later became the Pennsylvania Coal Company) to transport their coal on the D&H Canal, the company enlarged the waterway, which reached its final depth of six feet and width of forty to fifty feet by 1850. The new dimensions of the Canal accommodated boats that were ninety-one feet long, fourteen and a half feet wide, and could carry up to 130 tons of coal.
Safe navigation of the Hudson was considered so important that, in a letter dated January 21, 1852 from head engineer Russel Farnum Lord to President John Wurts, a discussion of the new boats for the enlarged canal noted: “The Birdsall Lattice Boats derive their advantage of carrying the largest cargoes, mainly, if not entirely, from the difference in their weight when light – Their plan of construction however is such that there is a reason to doubt their durability and substantial ability for use on the river.” Later, referring to boats from a different builder, he wrote: “From the experience had, it is evident that the Round Bow Section Scows are, and will be, the best and most desirable for the Coal Canal business – With them an important and permanent reduction in the rate of freight may be established – The only draw back is, whether they will be competent for the river transportation.” The cost of handling the coal at Rondout was uppermost in their minds and the larger boats that the company ordered proved Hudson River – worthy.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, rafts of up to 100 canal scows were frequently encountered on the Hudson. On August 18, 1889 The New York Times wrote:
Very few persons who journey up or down the Hudson River either upon the palatial steamers or upon the railway trains that run along both banks of this great waterway know how great an amount of wealth is daily floated to this city on the canalboats and barges that compose the immense tows that daily leave West Troy, Lansingburg, Albany, Kingston, and other points along the river bound for this city…. From Kingston, which is the tide-water outlet of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, another class of merchandise is shipped in the same manner. From the mouth of the Rondout Creek, which forms the harbor of the thriving and busy city of Kingston, can be seen emerging every evening huge rafts of canalboats, tall-masted down-Easters, and barges of various sorts, laden with coal, ice, hay, lumber, lime, cement, bluestone, brick, and country produce. Many of these craft have received their cargoes at the wharves of Kingston, while others have come from the coal regions about Honesdale and Scranton, in Pennsylvania, all bound for this port and consigned to, perhaps, as many different persons as there are boats in the tow.”
From its opening in 1828 through the closing of most of the canal in 1898—and even through 1917, when the section from Rosendale to Rondout finally stopped carrying cement—the Delaware and Hudson Canal was responsible for vast amounts of traffic on the Hudson River. Indeed there would not have been a Delaware and Hudson Canal without the Hudson River!
 H. Hollister M.D., History of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. Unpublished MS c1880. p. 22.
 Donald C. Ringwald, Steamboats For Rondout, Passenger Service Between New York and Rondout Creek, 1829 Through 1863. Steamship Historical Society of America, Inc. 1981. p. 17.
 Larry Lowenthal, From the Coalfields to the Hudson. Purple Mountain Press. 1997. pp. 142-48.
 The letters of Russell F. Lord, chief engineer of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company, June 1848 to October 1852. D&H Canal Historical Society collection #2016.01.01. Transcribed by Audrey M. Klinkenberg.
 New York Times, August 18, 1889.
Bill Merchant is the historian and curator of the D&H Canal Historical Society in High Falls, NY. He lives in a canal side, canal era house in High Falls with his wife Kelly where he also works as a double bass luthier and antique dealer.
Harris Nelson woke up on a normal day in January, 1906 not knowing he, his son, and fifteen others would be swallowed by the earth just after lunch.
Harris was a merchant in the small but prosperous town of Haverstraw, located approximately 60 miles south of the Hudson River Maritime Museum in New York’s Rockland County. The day Harris Nelson died the town boasted around 6,000 residents, with a population nearly double that today. Inventively called “Bricktown” more often than not, Haverstraw in 1906 was still benefiting from the Hudson River brick industry boom following the great New York City fires of 1835 and 1845, which left hundreds of wooden structures destroyed and a huge demand for brick as a less flammable building material. The Hudson River Valley, with its abundance of clay deposits left behind in the wake of post-glacial lakes nearly 12,000 years ago, stood up to answer the demand. Including the one in Haverstraw, over 40 brick factories cropped up along the Hudson, and where there were factories, there were often mines.
During most of the 19th century, clay was extracted from beneath Haverstraw until its residents lived and worked on hollow ground. The eventual and somewhat inevitable partial collapse of the mine began without fanfare, a slow cracking of the ground that some Haverstraw residents paid no mind. When it was evident homes and lives were in danger, it was too late for Harris and Benjamin Nelson, both of whom were either crushed in the collapse or killed by the ensuing fire, sparked by the toppled stoves of destroyed homes. The initial disaster took twelve lives, the additional five lost by men and women rushing to the aid of their neighbors.
Adding fuel to the literal fire was the frigid weather, which discouraged residents from leaving their homes, as well as a water main break that prevented fire-fighters from dousing the flames. It seemed that residents were attacked on several fronts by forces that merged to make the clay pit disaster an incredibly deadly one. And yet, Haverstraw’s residents carried on in its wake, and managed to rebound from the landslide of 1906 to continue as a place worthy of the name “Bricktown.” Remembering this dark spot in Hudson River history is not merely a cautionary tale in resource depletion; Haverstraw’s ability to carry on and grow into the diverse and history-rich village it is today also serves as a needed reminder that there’s a tomorrow after even the worst of times.
Audrey Trossen is a Hudson Valley native and worked as an intern with the Hudson River Maritime Museum during the summer of 2017. She is a current undergraduate student at Smith College in Northampton, MA where she majors in Geology and concentrates in Museum Studies.
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