History of the Delaware Canal
In the early 1800s, America was growing rapidly. Its population was increasing, westward migration had begun and business was booming. Poor roads and unnavigable rivers could no longer meet the young nation’s needs. Legislators and entrepreneurs looked to canals, which had been used in Asia and Europe for centuries, as a way to provide better, faster and cheaper transportation.
Inspired by the tremendous success of New York State’s Erie Canal, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began building a 1,200-mile system of canals to connect Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Lake Erie. These new transportation routes carried the raw materials and manufactured products to power the nation’s Industrial Revolution.
The 58.9-mile-long Delaware Canal is part of this great network. Completed in 1832, it runs from Bristol to Easton, where it connects with the Lehigh Canal. The primary purpose of these two waterways was to transport anthracite coal from northeastern Pennsylvania coal regions to cities on the eastern seaboard. In the most productive years just prior to the Civil War, more than 3,000 mule-drawn boats traveled up and down this route, moving in excess of 1 million tons of coal a year. Smaller quantities of goods such as lumber, building stone, lime and produce also were carried.
Life was difficult for the men, women and children who worked on the canals. A typical day started before 4 a.m. with the grooming and harnessing of the mule team and ended at 10 p.m. or later when the locktenders stopped operating the locks and the boats could go no farther. A mule-powered boat loaded with 90 tons of cargo traveled 30 miles or more each day.
Over its course of 58.9 miles, the Delaware Canal drops 165 feet through 23 locks. Ten aqueducts carry the waterway over small
valleys and streams. Including its towpath and berm bank, the canal is approximately 60 feet wide and originally was five feet deep.
As railroads began to compete for freight, canal-generated revenue to the Commonwealth dropped, and in 1858 the decision was made to sell the Delaware Canal to private operators. From 1866 to 1931, the Delaware Canal was run by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, owners of the Lehigh Canal. Canal traffic and revenue declined until the “iron horse” finally beat the mule when the last paying boat locked through on October 17, 1931.
On this same day, 40 miles of the Delaware Canal was deeded to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and made the Roosevelt
State Park, named by Governor Gifford Pinchot to honor his fellow preservationist, Theodore Roosevelt. The Commonwealth finally acquired all 58.9 miles of the canal in 1940. By popular demand, the park was renamed the Delaware Canal State Park in 1989.
The significance of the Delaware Canal was recognized in 1978 when it was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is
preserved today as the last towpath canal in America capable of being fully-watered and restored.