History of the Delaware & Hudson Canal - Supplying coal to the 19th century industrial era.
From its opening in 1828 till its closing in 1899, the barges of the D&H canal carried anthracite coal from the mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania to the Hudson River at Kingston where it was transshipped to market in New York City.
William Wurts was the first to explore the anthracite coal fields of North East Pennsylvania. He believed anthracite, sometimes known as “hard coal” could be burnt for heating and fueling of steam boilers. He brought samples back to Philadelphia for successful testing. When restrictions were placed on the import of British coal and inspired by the success of the newly opened Erie Canal , Wurts wanted to build a canal of his own from Pennsylvania to New York, through the narrow valley between the Shawangunk Ridge and the Catskill Mountains ending at the Hudson River near Kingston.
William convinced his brothers Charles and Maurice to join him in creating the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. In 1823 they successfully obtained charters from the States of New York and Pennsylvania to establish the canal company. Unlike the Champlain and Erie Canals the D&H company was to be privately financed. To attract investment, the brothers arranged for a demonstration of burning of anthracite in New York City in January of 1825. The reaction was enthusiastic, and the stock oversubscribed within hours raising 1.3 million dollars.
D&H canal construction started in May 1825 and was completed October 1828 with the labor of 2500 men. The engineering challenges were significant as the canal had to climb 600 feet from the Hudson River at Rondout to reach the Delaware River and then proceed to Honesdale Pennsylvania. Overall 108 locks were required to travel the 108 miles. Fifteen miles of gravity railroad brought the coal over mountains, which were too steep for a canal, from the mines near Carbondale to be loaded on barges at Honesdale. The canal had to cross the Delaware River and did so using a slack water dam allowing barges to float across relatively still water of the Delaware. In 1847 a suspension bridge aqueduct designed by the now famous engineer John A. Roebling, increased traffic capacity and reduced conflict with log rafters bringing timber down river.
The canal was quite successful and by 1832 carried 90,000 tons of coal and three million board-feet of lumber. Also shipped down the canal was Rosendale cement, bluestone, and agricultural products. With the canal’s success the communities along the canal grew into vibrant villages and towns. High Falls, Ellenville, Wurtsboro, and Port Jervis are present day reminders of the canal’s economic impact.
During the later part of the 19th century, the canal faced increasing competition from railroads which ultimately benefited from a more direct route across New Jersey and the ability to operate for much of the winter, while the canal boats were wintering over, iced in at Rondout and New York. The canal ceased operation in 1899.Unlike many other canals of the 19th century the D&H canal remained a profitable private operation for most of its existence.
Roy Justice is a singing historian known as a Time Travelling Minstrel. He presents programs on different aspects and topics of American History, combining music of the time period with the historical landscape within which the music was a part. https://royhjustice.com/home
THE D & H CANAL - LYRICS
Around and round the Wurtsboro Bend
The big boat chased the squeezer
Ed Lax’s boat had passed them both
Slicker than the weasel
In eighteen hundred and seventy-eight the canal was hit by a freshet
The embankment broke and flooded the vly
The damage was terrific.
A load of cement went through the break
Houses and barns were uprooted
To try and save whatever they could
To the river the big boat scooted
There was a girl named Sarah Jane
And a youth named Samuel
They courted long and happily
On the D&H Canal
They loved each other tenderly
And the Rosendale folks all said
That before the boating season was o’er
These lovers would be wed. These lovers would be wed.
But they never did, for he succumbed to hard times.
And his lifeless body was buried six feet beneath the sod
Along the Twelve Mile level.
And e’re her lover was dead one week
She started keeping company
With a junk dealer that did live up back in Rondout.
Up back in Rondout.
From “Of Canals and Coal”. Roy Justice Time Travelling Minstrel. 2007.
Thanks to HRMM volunteer Mark Heller for sharing his knowledge of Hudson River music history for this series.
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