Susan Taylor is amazed that she learns something new about the Delaware Canal every time she gives a tour of the long narrow strip of water and towpath that for nearly 100 years served as an important thoroughfare.
“The canal itself has changed or someone on the tour has something to share” of the canal that took five years to complete construction in the 1800s, she said. “The stories that people tell me about the canal keep me going. This long, but narrow strip of water and towpath is so many things to so many people.”
The 60-mile waterway, where thousands of mule-drawn boats traveled until 1931, has been closed for nearly 81 years, but the memories live on in photos, journals, letters and word-of-mouth stories.
Completed in 1832, the canal was originally constructed to be about 60 feet wide and 5 feet deep and drop 165 feet in a series of waterway steps through 23 locks. In addition, 10 aqueducts carried the waterway over streams and valleys. The locks raised and lowered the water levels of the canal, allowing boats to navigate the stream up and down.
The Delaware Canal stretches from Bristol in Bucks County to Easton in Northampton County, where it connects with the Lehigh Canal. The primary purpose of these two waterways was to transport anthracite coal from the northeastern Pennsylvania coal regions to the cities along the eastern seaboard, according to Taylor.
For Taylor the canal is historic, educational and environmentally important. That’s why she leads the fight to keep it open and alive in Bucks County and surrounding areas. She founded Friends of the Delaware Canal, of which she runs the daily operations as executive director.
“The Friends of the Delaware Canal exists because the canal needs people to stand up for it and proclaim that it is worthwhile,” she said. “We offer ways through which people can discover and learn to appreciate its value and many virtues.”
During spring and summer, visitors will find themselves surrounded by tall tress, chirping birds and a relaxing ambiance that surrounds the National Historic Landmark.
But that serenity quickly vanishes when heavy rains and snow melt from up north flood the canal, resulting in millions of dollars in damage.
Every year, Taylor keeps a close eye on snow and rain falls. And when they are high she keeps her fingers crossed hoping the damage will be minimal to her beloved canal.
In recent years, she’s had significant financial help from state and federal grants for the repairs that total more than $5 million, spending that some say is uncalled for.
“In editorials we’ve argued against spending millions to repair the canal because inevitably Mother Nature will ruin what we fix – at a huge cost. (It) happened in back-to-back years when floods decimated millions’ worth of repairs and upgrades,” said Guy Petroziello, editorial page editor for the Bucks County Courier Times. “In a tongue-in-cheek way, I’ve advocated paving the canal over or filling it in to create an extra-wide path that could accommodate hikers, runners and bikers all at the same time. That incited angry responses from humorless tree-huggers and bark-eaters. Guess I’d be mad, too, if I had a mouth full of wood chips.”
But Taylor never minds the critics, and she goes on with her preservation goals.
The canal caused Bucks County to change, she said; the canal’s history is the story of expansion of America during the Industrial Revolution.
“We are more than our colonial/Revolutionary War heritage,” Taylor said. “I think that the canal’s history is also important because it is a story about how people can work together to preserve and improve something that they hold dear.”
Inspired by the tremendous success of New York’s Erie Canal, thePennsylvaniabegan building a 1,200-mile system of canals to connect Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. The new transportation routes carried raw materials and manufactured products that powered the country’s industrial revolution, according the Friends’ website, fodc.org.
“When the canal was built, the old made way for the new because opportunity flowed with the canal,” Taylor said. “The settlement in Smithtown, business and all was demolished when the canal came through. The Neely Gristmill at Washington Crossing Historic Park was moved upstream because the canal disturbed the flow of Pidcock Creek.”
In the most productive years just prior to the Civil War, more than 3,000 mule-drawn boats traveled up and down the canal, moving over one million tons of coal a year. A mule-powered boat loaded with 80 tons of cargo traveled 30 miles or more each day, she said.
Boats also carried smaller quantities of goods such as lumber, building stone, lime, and produce, Taylor said.
The work shifts for the men, women and children who worked on the canals weren’t easy. Their work days began at 4 a.m., grooming and harnessing the mule-team. They would work up to 10 p.m. or even later until the locks stopped being operated and boats weren’t allowed to go through.
Because people traveled the canal in the boats, communities such as Yardley Borough were created along the canal to serve those workers and passengers.
“Towns had growth spurts after the canal was built because it offered business opportunities. An entrepreneur could service the canal trade by opening general stores or providing shelter for the crew and their mules, or building boats,” Taylor said. “Farmers, quarrymen, and craftsmen could use the canal to transport their products to a wider, more lucrative market. In New Hope, there was very little development beyondMain Streetbefore the canal came through. The canal was just ‘the ditch up on the hill.’”
The days of the canal came to an end as railroads took over the transportation of goods and passengers. The railroads were competitive to obtain the freight contracts, which lowered the canal revenue.
“In 1858, the decision was made to sell theDelawareCanalto private operators,” according to the website. “From 1866 to 1931, theDelawareCanalwas run by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, which also owned of the Lehigh Canal.”
Taylor said the “iron horse” finally beat the mule, when the last paying boat locked through on Oct. 17, 1931. That same day, 40 miles of the Delaware Canal was deeded to Pennsylvania and was named RooseveltState Park.
Then, in 1940 Pennsylvania obtained the outstanding 20 miles of the canal. And by 1989, the park was renamed to Delaware Canal State Park by popular demand.
The Delaware Canal was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1978, and is preserved today as the most intact and fully watered ofAmerica’s towpath canals, Taylor said.
“Older people, who lived close to the canal, have such great stories about learning to swim in it,” she said. “Veterans of the Boy Scout camp onTreasure Islandpositively glow when they recount their accomplishment of walking ten miles north on the canal and then canoeing back down the river to the camp.”