Since the formation of the Delaware Canal State Park (originally called Roosevelt State Park) in 1940, residents along the 58.9-mile greenway have advocated for the restoration and preservation of this vital community asset. Many canals throughout the country have been filled in and paved over. The Delaware Canal remains one of the last canals capable of being fully watered once again. Many notable people have made significant contributions to the Canal over the years. And, while we can’t mention them all, we can honor those that left a unique legacy for future generations.
Betty Orlemann—A Force for Nature
“Something has to be done” indeed. This short but telling quote from the founder of the Friends of the Delaware Canal, Betty Orlemann, set the tone for the vision and purpose of this organization.
In 1977, Betty and her young family took up residence in an old farmhouse on River Road in Smithtown adjacent to the Delaware Canal. Seeing the disrepair and neglect of the Canal, bridges, and towpath, she organized volunteers to get to work, doing what they could to improve the Canal and its surroundings.
This small early band of volunteers was the start of what Betty would call the Friends of the Delaware Canal. The Friends had their first official meeting in October 1982, and by January 1983, they were incorporated. One of the first members of this newly formed non-profit was Virginia Forrest.
Betty was also a founder and Board member of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D & L) and the creative inspiration behind the Miles of Mules art installation. In 2009, Betty was presented with the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the D & L National Heritage Corridor.
Virginia Forrest—Crusading Conservationist
Virginia O. Ranson Forrest was a lifelong conservationist. In the 1970s, as a member of the Delaware Valley Protective Association (DVPA), a precursor to the Friends, Virginia, along with Will Rivinus, Hal Clark, and C.P. Yoder, were instrumental in attaining the designation of National Historic Landmark for the Delaware Canal. This recognition helps preserve and protect the Canal and towpath today.
Virginia passed away in 1991; however, her legacy lives on. A popular recreation area along the Canal in New Hope bears her name, and she was the catalyst behind several other important conservation-minded groups.
Ms. Forrest founded the Bucks County Conservation Alliance and the Bucks County Audubon Society. And at the age of 83, she received the Conservation Service Award, the highest honor given to a citizen by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Zabel Davis—Making It Happen
Zabel Davis, Friends’ fundraiser extraordinaire, never ran from a challenge. So, when the Friends and the Park determined that the Canal needed some major excavation work, Zabel marshaled efforts to raise money for a dredging machine.
This equipment had a price tag of $100,000, a figure that would scare most from pursuing this acquisition. But undaunted, Zabel made up her mind and began raising funds by any means possible.
Through her efforts, and those of Friends members, the Pledge for the Dredge was a success. It took three years and numerous fundraising activities including cookbook sales, barge parties, and teas. Pennsylvania gratefully accepted the donation, the largest amount raised by an organization for a state project.
Susan Taylor—A Legacy of Service
Susan began her relationship with the Friends as a volunteer, helping wherever she could to support their efforts. Her enthusiasm and commitment led the Friends to offer Susan the position of Executive Director of the organization, a position she held for 30 years. Now retired, Susan’s legacy continues to inspire us all.
During Susan’s tenure, much was accomplished. Camelback bridges were rebuilt, interpretive signs were installed, and the Locktender’s House was restored. Susan also created the Loop Trails, a popular way to travel and explore both sides of the Delaware River and two Canals.
“Since 1991, Susan Taylor has served as the Executive Director of the non-profit Friends of the Delaware Canal,” said Representative Brian Fitzpatrick during Susan’s retirement celebration. “For over 30 years, Susan helped preserve and protect this Canal, which helps link our community to our shared history and our area’s natural beauty…let us honor her legacy of dedicated service to this historic treasure.”
Will Rivinus—Historian, Author, and Devoted Canal Promoter
Much of the interest in the historical and ecological importance of the Delaware Canal can be attributed to the lifelong dedication of Will Rivinus. “I went on up the towpath to Easton, and I said this area is phenomenal. It has a slice of the Atlantic coast of America” said Rivinus in a recent interview. “You really need a book about the Delaware Canal. It’s fascinating.” And so, Will did just that, he wrote a book.
The Wayfarer Guide to the Delaware Canal was first published in 1964. In all, Will wrote and published eight editions of the book which included photographs from Louis Comfort Tiffany, who liked to take canal excursions on his boat, the Molly-Polly Chucker.
Will’s enthusiasm didn’t stop at writing about the Canal. In 1987, he led the first Canal Walk, a tradition that continues today. His tireless advocacy has been recognized by both the Senate and the House of Representatives of Pennsylvania.
Dennis Gerhart—Illustrator Extraordinaire
No one could draw a mule like Dennis Gerhart. And he shared his love of these creatures and the Canal through his numerous illustrations, children’s books and field trip classes.
Dennis was an industrial designer by training. But it was his talent for interpreting historic structures and scenes that enhanced our understanding of the inner workings of the Canal. Dennis Scholl, an author and Education Manager at the Delaware & Lehigh Heritage Corridor said Dennis “was a unique person who not only was a master illustrator but also a man who truly understood history and could interpret it accurately, with great precision through his art. His art reflected that. He drew the best mules I have ever seen.”
Dennis may be gone from us too soon, but he left behind an archive of material that will continue to educate, inform, and amuse future generations.
Pete Sperry—Creator of Landmark and Mileage Chart
When Pete Sperry participated in his first Canal Walk, sponsored annually by the Friends of the Delaware Canal, he was full of “where” questions. There were no reliable mile markers or any accurate way of knowing where you were and how far you had traveled.
So, in 2002, Pete began the challenging task of documenting and setting distances along the towpath trail. His approach was two-pronged. The mile marker situation had to be corrected, and a detailed chart of mileage and landmarks needed to be developed.
Today, his Landmarks and Mileage Chart has proven to be an invaluable resource for visitors, educators, and park staff. The information on the chart is color-coded to highlight key structures and features along the way. And it includes latitude/longitude coordinates that visitors can use to plot their course with a mapping program (like Google Maps).
William Taylor—Artist and Early Friend
Before the Friends of the Delaware Canal came into being, there was the Delaware Valley Protective Association, and William Taylor was its first president. Formed in 1933, the DVPA was responsible for encouraging the state to restore and maintain the Canal. Later, the organization was also responsible for securing an essential historic national landmark designation, protecting the Canal and towpath for generations to come.
In 1939, Taylor launched a magazine titled Towpath Magazine, a monthly publication dedicated to preserving “the beauty and value of the valley.” He wrote numerous articles focused on nature and the environment.
As an artist, William Taylor was considered part of the New Hope Impressionist School. He was well known for his landscapes and a depiction of Washington crossing
the Delaware. His works can be found at the Corcoran Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Other notable Canal Supporters
While many people have been a positive influence on the Canal, here are a few whose contributions made a lasting impact on the Friends as well.
Dave Heckler, a former State legislator, was instrumental in encouraging the state to buy the Locktender’s House and lease it to the Friends. The Friends, in turn, restored the house and maintain it as their headquarters and canal museum.
Robert F. Pierson was the founder of the Heritage Foundation and an early Friends supporter. He developed a database of Canal neighbors, a vital mailing list used to drive interest and membership.
C.P. Yoder, author of Delaware Canal Journal and a founding member of the Delaware Valley Protective Association. Yoder, along with Will Rivinus, Virginia Forrest and Hal Clark, lobbied for and secured the National Historic Landmark designation for the Canal and towpath.
Canal Tenders and Volunteers
From Bristol to Easton, residents understand the value of the Canal and towpath which connects communities with each other and with nature.
However, our Canal Tenders are at the heart of maintaining the towpath for all to enjoy. Each one has a designated section of the path they maintain, keeping it clean and visitor friendly. They often go above and beyond, removing large amounts of trash and debris and alerting the Friends and park staff of critical issues.
Every year, we welcome a new season with a Canal Clean-up Day. One hundred plus volunteers descend on the towpath with bags, gloves, and tools in hand to clear the way for the arrival of spring.
The Canal Tenders, seasonal volunteers, and financial supporters of the Friends all work to preserve and protect this important landmark. They carry on the legacy of so many others who came before us and set an example for future generations to follow.