Wheeling on a Towpath
Editor's Note: This account, "Wheeling on a Towpath," was originally published in the New-York Tribune on August 20, 1899. Many thanks to HRMM volunteer researcher George A. Thompson for finding and transcribing this article.
Wheeling on a Towpath: A Picturesque Tour Along the Delaware and Hudson Canal.
The old Delaware and Hudson Canal, in its wanderings from Rondout, on the Hudson, to Honesdale, on the Lackawaxen, passes through some of the most picturesque and interesting country of any that lies near New-York. More than half a century ago Washington Irving wrote:
Honesdale, August 1, 1841.
My Dear Sister: I write from among the mountains in the upper part of Pennsylvania, from a pretty village which has recently sprung into existence as a deposit of a great coal region, and is called after our friend Philip Hone. I came here along the Delaware and Hudson Canal, which extends from the Hudson River, near the Catskill Mountains, upwards of a hundred miles into the interior, traversing some of the most beautiful parts (as to scenery) of the State of New-York and penetrating the State of Pennsylvania. I accompanied the directors of the Delaware and Hudson Canal in their annual visit of examination.
I do not know when I have made a more gratifying excursion with respect to natural scenery or more interesting from the stupendous works of art. The canal is laid a great part of the way along the romantic valleys watered by the Rondout, Delaware and Lackawaxen. For many miles it is built along the face of perpendicular precipices rising into stupendous cliffs with overhanging forests, or jutting out into vast promontories; while on the other side you look down upon the foot of an immense wall or embankment which supports the canal. Altogether, it is one of the most daring undertakings I have ever witnessed to carry an artificial river over rocky mountains and up the most savage and almost impracticable defiles.
For upwards of ninety miles I went through a constant succession of scenery that would have been famous had it existed in any part of Europe; the Catskill Mountains to the north, the Shawangunk Mountains to the south, and between them, lovely valleys, with the most luxuriant woodlands and picturesque streams. All this is a region of which I have heard nothing -- a region entirely unknown to fame; but so it is in our country. We have some main routes for the fashionable traveller, along which he is hurried in steamboats and railroad cars, while on every side extend regions of beauty about which he hears and knows nothing. Some of the most enchanting scenes I have beheld since my return to the United States have been in out of the way places into which I have been accidentally led.
THE SCENERY UNCHANGED.
History does not say whether Washington Irving ever rode a wheels. If he did it must have been of the ancient velocipede variety, which had more novelty than pleasure in it. But the scenery which called forth his admiration from the deck of the directors' special boat has changed but little to-day, and the wheelman an see and do in two days what probably took Irving five or six. The ride along the canal path is an ideal one for the wheelman, and it is rather strange that it is not more known to the touring wheelman. The riders of the immediate neighborhood use the towpath constantly to get from place to place along its banks, but the wheel with baggage roll or baggage carrier strapped upon its frame, showing the rider to be a tourist from a distance, is a rarity. It is an ideal route for touring, as it takes the rider by rolling farmlands and quiet meadows through mountain passes and rugged forests, along babbling brooks, placid ponds and tumultuous dashing rivers, and yet there is not a hill to push up, for it is all on the level. It has all the advantages that can be obtained in wheeling through a beautiful mountainous country, without any of the disadvantages of hill climbing and rough roads.
Probably the principal reason why the path has not been more popular and better known to the touring wheelman is that the canal company was supposed to have prohibited wheeling, and at many of the lockhouses are signs warning wheelmen that a $5 fine will be the penalty for riding on the path. But the law has been practically a dead letter, and the writer, who has ridden the path for three years, never heard of its being enforced. Now that the canal has practically been abandoned, and the patient mule, which his melodious voice and his playful habit of kicking at a wheel, is a thing of the past, there is no longer any reason for riders not to visit this wild and romantic region.
The canal is something less than 120 miles long. While, of course, it can be easily done in a couple of days, or even in a day, if the rider rides à la Murphy or Taylor, still, a congenial party of three or four can make a most delightful holiday of it by taking a week or ten days to it, that is, if the entire trip from the city and back is made awheel, going up the Hudson to Rondout and doubling back from the coal fields to Port Jervis (better make that stretch by rail), and then south by the Milford [illegible] to the Water Gap and toward the city again, down and through the mountains of Northern New-Jersey. Such a holiday party should not neglect to strap a rod or two to wheels, as the numerous rivers which are feeders to the canal are noted for their bass, trout and perch. As a generous appetite generally waits on the wheelman, a mess of fish fresh from the stream will add much to the bill of fare if the wheelman has to tarry overnight with some obliging farmer.
THE BEST ROUTE TO RONDOUT
As most riders are familiar with the roads on both sides of the Hudson to Rondout this part of the trip need not be dwelt upon. Suffice it to say that the easiest and best way north is up the Saddle River Valley from Hackensack, to Suffern, thence up the Ramapo Valley to Newburg, crossing the Hudson to Fishkill, and continuing on the east bank to Rhinebeck. Then go by ferry over the river again. After all that is said about bicycling along the shores of the Hudson, the roads are poor and the hills hard north of Tarrytown, and only in a few places are the river views within sight to repay for the labor and discomfort of poor "going." The Hackensack-Suffern-Newburg route is trustworthy, and the roads are uniformly excellent.
At Kingston, a quiet spin may be made around the ancient capital of the State. The State House is still in existence, also several other old buildings whose history might be interesting to look up. In the cemetery of the old church are buried several heroes of the Revolutionary War. Rondout, the eastern terminus of the canal, is now politically part of the city of Kingston. While it is not a particularly attractive town in any way, it is a busy one, being the river shipping point of several important industries. A dusty and not very attractive road leads out of Rondout, following the river of the same name under the shadow of Fly Mountain to the canal basin at Eddyville, where the enormous tows or collections of canal boats were formerly gathered for the trip to the city. The towpath proper begins here, passing several small groups of houses at the locks. Rosendale of cement fame, is the first and the only important town for fifty miles. Out in the open country, beyond Rosendale, the fascination of the canal path riding begins. As there are no hills or grades to be overcome, the rider can reserve his strength for the distance he has planned to do. The surface is always fair, and at times excellent; even when fresh gravel has been placed on the path there is generally a footpath worn by the motor power of the canal. The drawbacks for wheeling are the numerous locks, there being more than fifty between tidewater and the Delaware River. Sometimes they are frequent, nine of them in one section of two miles; at others they are miles apart: as at Summit there is a seventeen-mile level, and further on a ten-mile level. The approaches to the locks are comparatively easy, and the ten or fifteen feet rises can usually be "rushed." It is seldom the rider is forced to dismount, but when they come half a dozen to the mile they get monotonous, and the rider is apt to discover something interesting in connection with the lock, which will give him an excuse to dismount and inspect it.
A WIND THROUGH THE HILLS.
The canal is seldom straight for more than half a mile. It constantly follows the twists and turns at the foot of the Shawangunk range of hills. The vistas which are constantly opening before the wheelman are delightful. On one side of the narrow towpath is the placid canal, and on the other the Rondout Creek, sometimes a rushing mountain stream, and at others widened out into a small lake. On the south the Shawangunk (pronounced Shongum) Mountains follow the canal to Port Jervis, with the hotels at Mohawk, Minnewaska, Mount Meenahga and other places perched high above. To the north are the Catskill Mountains, with their summer hotels and sky-perched villages. Bold Slide and other prominent mountains are land marks until the day's trip is nearly over.
The flora is particularly varied and abundant. Wild roses, daisies, black-eyed Susans, loose-strife, convolvulus and other make patches of color, which are reflected many times in the canal and river. The canal seems to be specially attractive to may forms of animal and bird life. Rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks are constantly dashing across the path and flitting among the bushes and trees, or flying overhead are innumerable flocks of spike-tailed swallows, brilliant orioles, indigo birds, robins, yellow birds, jays, cuckoos, red winged blackbirds and pugnacious king birds, chasing their hereditary enemies, the crows. Off the mountains sometimes an enormous hawk or eagle may be seen. The sharp, shrill cry of the catbird and the cheerful bobwhite, and toward dusk the call of the whip-poor-will may be heard.
In the sixty miles between Rondout and Port Jervis there are only a few small towns. Rosendale, Napanock, Ellenville, Wortzboro and Cuddabackville are the principal places. They all have fairly comfortable hotels and bicycles shops, where repairs can be attended to.
At Ellenville the activity on the canal ceases as the Delaware and Hudson company no longer ships coal by boat. The eastern end is at present kept open to accommodate the stone industries, but at no distant date the entire waterway will be abandoned, and a railroad will probably take its place. In the mean time the League of American Wheelmen and others are taking steps to make the towpath a permanent bicycle path.
Today, many former canal towpaths and railroads (some of which were originally canal towpaths) are being converted into rail trails and bike paths. If you would like to bike the Empire State Trail, try the Hudson Valley Greenway Trail, including the Kingston, NY portion that goes right by the Hudson River Maritime Museum!
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