Whether you’re looking for scenic beauty, or perhaps you want to learn more about how our region was developed in times gone by, why not take a weekend and follow the trail of the old Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal? You’ll be exploring the remnants of our country’s early industrial and transportation history—the story of how, early in the 19th century, two clever entrepreneurs, the Wurts brothers, were able to bring Pennsylvania’s black gold—anthracite coal—to New York City. What they did was critical in our country’s development and would power the young nation’s industrial revolution, providing the fuel that gave an industrial North its edge over the agrarian South in the Civil War.
The canal, built by William and Maurice Wurts between 1825 and 1828, was connected to PA coal country via John B. Jervis’s “gravity” engine railroad over Northeast Pennsylvania’s Moosic Mountains. Starting in Honesdale, PA, the canal followed the Lackawaxen River in Wayne and Pike counties, crossed the Delaware River at Lackawaxen, and followed in the shadow of the Delaware River to Port Jervis, NY. Here, it turned northward along the Neversink River, reaching the mighty Hudson at Roundout, NY near Kingston, where the coal was put on barges chained together and, powered by steam tugs, floated downriver.
Two interesting Pennsylvania towns grew up around the canal—Honesdale and Hawley. The gravity railroad brought coal from Carbondale to Honesdale, where canal boats loaded up before proceeding east to the Hudson River. Today, the Wayne County Historical Society (WCHS) is housed in the old canal company’s office building in Honesdale. The town is named after Philip Hone, the first president of the D&H Canal Company (1825-1826), who soon became the mayor of New York City (1826-1827).
Between Honesdale and Hawley, a series of locks allowed canal boats to navigate around rough waters and raised areas of the river. The boats were pulled by mules led by young children, some only seven or eight years old, trudging along the raised canal towpath that ran along the water’s edge. The WCHS is currently restoring parts of the old towpath and a historic farmhouse, circa 1820, located at Lock 31 between White Mills and Hawley. (The lockkeeper’s house no longer stands.)
In Hawley, another large boat basin, the site of the current Bingham Park, served as a depot for another railroad that brought Pennsylvania Coal Company coal from Pittston to Hawley, and then onward via the canal to New York. The town was named after the company president Irad Hawley. In time, that railroad had passenger service west to Dunmore, PA. One of those railroad cars now sits at the public library next to the park.
At first, boats crossed the Delaware River at Lackawaxen, PA by means of a slack water dam, which allowed them to navigate across the river by slowing its flow. However that irritated the raftsmen, who relied on the river’s flow to float their timber rafts downstream. So in 1848, the canal was routed over the Delaware River by means of an aqueduct, while the logs tumbled below. Today, you can drive your car through the old aqueduct via Roebling Bridge in Lackawaxen.
While other canals were usually financed by the states, for example the great Erie Canal, the D&H was the result of private investment. It was one of the largest corporations of its time.
Progress, of course, was the enemy of the canal, which was eventually replaced by a railroad that hauled the coal to New York City. The canal was closed in 1898, and soon thereafter, the Roebling Bridge carried automobiles over the Delaware River.