Winter on the Canal
Life on the canal was not an easy one in the best weather. But what was it like in the winter? Several of our Friends asked the question. So, in the spirit of trying to be a source of information, useful and otherwise, we did a bit of research.
Most Canal boatmen and their families would take to solid ground in the winter. Many Canallers had established homesteads on land, or they would move to a nearly town or shanty. According to some oral histories, there were people, mostly young men, who might spend the colder months on the boat, but that was an exception, not the rule.
People who worked on the canal could not afford to remain idle all winter. Some men were employed to repair boats and other equipment in anticipation of a fresh start in spring. Others may have gone to the coal mines or worked cutting ice for refrigeration. Still others would work on repairing the canal itself.
In the winter, sections of the canal were drained. Boats that were not housed in a boatyard would be positioned in the middle of the canal. As the water level dropped, the canal boats would rest in the bottom of the canal prism where they would stay until spring.
The ice could damage boats that became frozen in place, so every effort was made to store them safely for the winter. Some accounts describe how ice breakers were drawn through the canal to release boats that were stuck. This task took a great deal of manpower as well as mule-power. In freezing temperatures, it was an arduous and dangerous process.
Today, a frozen canal no longer traps boats or provides ice. Instead, the canal in winter provides free fun for kids of all ages. Ice skating and hockey are two favorite pastimes. And you often see
cross-country skiers using the snowy towpath as they enjoy a relaxing and level glide.
So, be sure to take advantage of the Delaware Canal State Park in winter. Enjoy the serenity of the towpath covered in snow. Or, if skating is your passion, look for a solidly frozen spot to practice your figure-eights. And remember, always bring a friend or two.
See you on the towpath!