Before the railroad was the canal

Clockwise from top left: The canal route began in Honesdale, Pennsylvania and followed one of the oldest roads in the country — today’s Route 209 — and then ran along the Rondout Creek until it reached the Hudson River (D&H Canal Historical Society); enormous piles of coal sit on Island Dock awaiting shipment on the Hudson River after being transferred from canal boats (Friends of Historic Kingston); a locktender mans at his post in Ellenville (D&H Canal Historical Society).

Anthracite coal, abundantly available in northeastern Pennsylvania in the early 1800s, was in high demand as an inexpensive source of energy, especially after the British coal supply was cut off during the War of 1812. However, transporting such heavy goods beyond the already saturated markets around Philadelphia was a challenge. It was cheaper to ship coal to New York from England than overland from Virginia. 

Along came the brothers Maurice (pronounced “Morris”) and William Wurts, who had begun mining the area and developed the idea of building a canal from their fields in Carbondale, PA up to Rondout, then still a small village neighboring Kingston. 

Advertisement

Construction began in 1825, the same year the Erie Canal opened, and took only three years, an impressive feat considering the 108-mile canal was built using only pick shovels, draft animals, and blasting powder in an era before dynamite. It was called the Delaware & Hudson Canal after the two rivers it connected. Many of the thousands of laborers were Irish immigrants who had fled the first of two great famines in their homeland. They toiled alongside Germans and African-Americans. Rosendale cement, a natural cement with unique properties for construction, was discovered by engineer James McEntee—father of painter Jervis— in High Falls shortly after canal construction began.

Rondout prospered as a large workforce settled the area building homes, businesses, churches, hotels, and taverns. Today’s residents will recognize street names stemming from this era, including Hone, McEntee, Wurts, Jervis, and President’s Place. The D&H Company headquarters overlooking the creek has since been demolished. 

Canal boats were pulled by mules, often handled by children. A family poses with their boat named Little Freddie. (D&H Canal Historical Society)

The original canal was 32 feet wide at the waterline, 20 feet wide at the bottom, and four feet deep. It had more than 200 bridges, 22 aqueducts, and 110 locks. 

Long and narrow wooden canal boats capable of carrying up to 30 tons were pulled by mules along adjacent towpaths. Mule drivers, a job sometimes held by the children of boat operators, were known as “ho-gees” after two commands given to mules. They traveled ten to 20 miles a day. The boats were purchased in installments, with small payments made on each trip on the canal. Once paid in full, the numbered boats could be given a name.    

Industry thrived along the canal, Shipyards, factories, mills, and brickyards sprung up in towns and villages along the route. While coal was the inspiration for the canal and remained its largest customer—one million tons traveled the route at its peak—large quantities of other goods were transported as well: lumber bluestone, salt, flour, bark, hay, molasses, marble, plaster, bricks, mill stones, leather, glass, and other agricultural and manufactured goods were shipped to New York City and beyond, greatly expanding the reach of local farmers and businesses. 

The canal was expanded and improved in the 1840s. Four aqueducts were added to reduce travel time and accidents at river crossings. Engineer John Roebling, a German immigrant, invented a cable suspension aqueduct , a technique he would use when building the Brooklyn Bridge 20 years later. Only one Roebling aqueduct remains. It is still in use between Lackawaxen, PA and Minisink Ford in New York State.

During the last decade or so of the D&H Canal, the Gravity Railroad, used on a stretch of steep terrain between Carbondale and Honesdale, offered recreational rides on Sundays. (D&H Canal Historical Society)

The last days of the D&H Canal came about when railroads surpassed it as a more affordable, year-round transportation alternative. As early as the 1840s, trains had begun competing with the canal by following similar routes. The final load traveled the canal in November 1898. The company adapted by converting to railroad ownership. Samuel Coykendall purchased the canal in 1899 for $10,000 and used the eastern portion to transport bluestone and cement between High Falls and Rondout. For decades, abandoned canal boats lined the Rondout Creek until the Army Corps of Engineers burned them in the 1950s. A few remnants can still be seen at low tide. 

In 1968, the D&H Canal was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, the D&H Canal Historical Society in High Falls preserves the canal’s history, lore, and artifacts. Curator and historian Bill Merchant gives guided tours of the museum and the remaining portions of nearby locks.

To see sample pages and information about supporting this 450-page book featuring 850 images that will be released in December 2021, please visit: HudsonValleyHistoryAndArt.com.

Check out more articles from this series.