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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On March 16, 1893 the Saugerties Weekly Post recounted a freshet on Rondout Creek. Freshets are spring flash floods caused by quick melting of snowpack in the mountains. Usually, the quick thaw comes while there is still ice on the larger creeks and rivers, causing ice dams. The meltwater builds up behind the ice, until the ice finally breaks, and a wall of water with huge chunks of ice rushes down the creek.
Rondout Creek has an enormous watershed, draining most of the eastern Catskill mountains. Lower Rondout Creek also contains the entire watershed of the Wallkill River, which flows north from northern New Jersey, through Orange County up into Ulster County. Because of this, lower Rondout Creek was frequently plagued by floods.
Freshets were common in the 19th century, and caused much damage. In the 20th century, many tributaries and creeks were dammed for hydroelectric power. The upper ends of Rondout Creek are curtailed by the Rondout Reservoir, part of the Catskills Aqueduct system, as well as smaller dams left over from industrial mills, such as the Eddyville Dam near Lock 1 of the D&H Canal.
Two dams located near the confluence of the Wallkill River and the Rondout Creek greatly curtail the amount of water that flows naturally into the Rondout. Sturgeon Pool hydroelectric dam sits at the confluence of the two bodies of water. Just northwest of Sturgeon Pool, the Dashville Hydroelectric station was installed at the naturally-occurring Dashville Falls. Both hydroelectric stations are some of the earliest in the region, completed in the 1920s.
Combined with climate change, which has limited the buildup of snowpack in the Catskills, these dams have helped mitigate catastrophic flooding in the modern era.
The Freshet of 1893 was a doozy, like other freshets in 1878 and more famously in 1936. Captain William O. Benson also recalled both the 1893 and 1936 freshets in his 1978 article. Catherine Murdock also recalled the Flood of 1878.
"Freshet in the Rondout"
The following is a verbatim transcription of "Freshet in the Rondout," originally published on March 16, 1893 in the Saugerties Weekly Post. Many thanks to researcher George Thompson for finding and transcribing this article.
The freshet in the Rondout creek Monday did great damage. The great ice gorge below the dam at Eddyville broke about 3:30 p. m. The immense body of water behind it rushed down the creek, carrying thousands of tons of ice with it. This struck the Cornell fleet, which winters there, and swept almost every steamboat and forty or fifty other boats into the river. The ropes which moored the boats between the Delaware and Hudson coal dock and the mainland were snapped like thread, and even heavy anchor chains were broken. In the course down the creek many boats were badly stove, and the Pittston, valued at $10,000, and the Adriatic, at $8,000, are thought to be so badly damaged that they will sink.
The news of the great flood spread over the town, and in a very short time the docks were crowded with people. The screams of the men on the helpless boats and the crunching of the big steamers and canal boats as they were stove, added to the rush of water, caused the most intense excitement. Ropes thrown out to hold the boats availed nothing. The large side wheeler Norwich and the tug C. D. Mills, the only boats with steam up, could not save the drifting boats. They had great difficulty in saving themselves.
Besides about twenty-five steamboats, thirty Northern canal boats loaded with ice and twenty-five Delaware and Hudson boats were swept away. Many of these were crushed and sunk on the way down the creek. Some of these canal boats were occupied by families, and they were rescued with great difficulty. The sight of the women wringing their hands, and the frantic men, was witnessed with horror by the people on shore. Those in the boats either jumped ashore as the craft swung in or escaped over the immense cakes of floating ice.
The ice dam below Eddyville formed Saturday. The heavy rain that night caused the water to raise fully eight feet. A large part of Eddyville was inundated and families have had to leave their houses for higher ground. The damage there will amount to many thousand dollars. The Lawrence Cement Company had 18.000 barrels of cement, valued at $22,000, stored in their Eddyville mill. This is a total loss.
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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.
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