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FreightWaves Classics/ Infrastructure: Construction of the Delaware and Hudson Canal began 197 years ago

Canal carried coal from Pennsylvania mines to urban areas

Mountains of coal were transferred to Hudson River barges at Roundout, NY. (Photo: Wayne County Historical Society/National Park Service)

The period between 1800 and 1850 has been termed the Canal Era in United States history. Since the country’s founding after the War of Independence, the new nation’s leaders understood the need for a network of internal improvements to make continental transportation easier. 

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The Erie Canal, which was completed in 1825, saw immediate success. Its opening began a period of intensive canal building in the nation. The several canals that were built during this time in U.S. history have been eclipsed by the birth and spread of railroads, which began in 1830. However, the canals were a key reason for much of the economic development that occurred during the early years of the republic.

A map of the Delaware & Hudson Canal. (Image: National Park Service)
A map of the Delaware & Hudson Canal. (Image: National Park Service)

The Delaware and Hudson Canal is built

On July 13, 1825, construction officially started on the Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal. The groundbreaking ceremony for the canal took place near Kingston, New York, which is about 90 miles north of New York City. Construction continued from 1825 to 1829. The difficult and often dangerous work was done by hand with picks, shovels and blasting powder. The canal’s primary purpose was to transport coal from the rich deposits in northeastern Pennsylvania to the Hudson River ports of New York.

Brothers William and Maurice Wurts were Philadelphia businessmen who owned coal mines. They had lobbied members of both the New York and Pennsylvania state legislatures to approve the construction of the canal. Their efforts were successful in 1823 when each state passed laws chartering the D&H Canal Company as the entity authorized to construct the waterway. Benjamin Wright, who was key to the planning and development of the Erie Canal, was hired as the chief engineer for the D&H Canal construction project. His assistant was John B. Jervis, who eventually became the chief engineer for the project.

More than 2,500 men worked to build the D&H Canal, and the project’s completion was hailed as a major engineering feat for that time. The canal ran from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, to Kingston. Along its length were 108 locks, 22 aqueducts, 136 bridges, 22 reservoirs, 16 dams and 16 miles of gravity railway.


The D&H Canal Company had originally planned to transport coal from the Pennsylvania mines to the Hudson River entirely by canal boat. But the lack of water at the summit and the number of locks needed to scale the Moosic Mountains between Carbondale and Honesdale caused the Wurts brothers to change their plan.

Stationary engines pulled carloads of coal over the mountains. The railroads then took the coal down the mountain to waiting canal boats. (Photo: Wayne County Historical Society/National Park Service)
Stationary engines pulled carloads of coal over the mountains. The railroads then took the coal down the mountain to waiting canal boats. (Photo: Wayne County Historical Society/National Park Service)

A “gravity railroad” was the solution; construction began in 1827. Designed by Jervis, the gravity railroad utilized a series of inclined planes and steam engines to pull carloads of coal up and over the Moosic Mountains, a rise of almost 1,000 feet. 

Much of the canal’s success was assured when the D&H Canal Company built the gravity railroad. In addition, the latest transportation technology from England was used – the first steam locomotive in the United States (named the Stourbridge Lion) was put into service. The railroad also had the first train to run on rails in the United States.

Completion of the “gravity” in 1829 enabled the canal to transport significant tonnage. While built primarily for coal, cargo also included wood, stone, brick, cement and provisions.

From where the canal began on the Hudson River in Kingston, the route of the canal ran southwest through New York’s Ulster, Sullivan and Orange counties. The canal then ran to the mouth of the Lackawaxen River (a tributary of the Delaware River) in Pennsylvania’s Pike County. The canal’s southern end was the west branch of the Lackawaxen at Honesdale in Wayne County.

Canal boat Little Freddie at the entrance to Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct. (Photo: Minisink Valley Historical Society)
Canal boat Little Freddie at the entrance to Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct.
(Photo: Minisink Valley Historical Society)

Life on and near the canal

Life on a canal boat was a “family business.” Wives and children worked 15- to 20-hour days alongside the boatmen. For all the hard work, the families generally eked out only a meager existence.

The canal affected life throughout the region. During its construction, Irish and German immigrants were among those who helped to build (and later enlarge) the canal. Many stayed in the area and increased its cultural diversity. They brought new customs to an area that had previously been populated mainly by the descendants of Dutch and English settlers.

New towns and industries such as (canal) boat builders, glass works and foundries began along or near the canal. Industries already in the area, such as lumber mills, paper mills, tanneries and stone quarries, prospered because of the improved transportation provided by the railroad and canal. 

Island Dock in the Rondout Creek showing coal loader machines made by the Dodge Coal Storage Co. of Philadelphia. The canal boats behind the steamboat have had their rear compartments 'hipped' (the addition of higher sidewalls to accommodate a greater load), and appear to be possibly rafted together to be towed by the steamboat. (Photo: D&H Canal Historical Society Collection)
Island Dock in the Rondout Creek showing coal loader machines made by the Dodge Coal Storage Co. of Philadelphia. The canal boats behind the steamboat have had their rear compartments ‘hipped’ (the addition of higher sidewalls to accommodate a greater load), and appear to be possibly rafted together to be towed by the steamboat.
(Photo: D&H Canal Historical Society Collection/Hudson River Maritime Museum)

Disease spread due to the canal

Unfortunately, the canal was a breeding ground for disease because of its relatively shallow, stagnant water, which was often contaminated with human and animal waste.

In December 1880 an outbreak of scarlet fever swept through the canal towns of Pond Eddy and Barryville, among other communities. It was attributed to the canal.

“Scarlet fever is raging in this part of the country,” the Port Jervis Evening Gazette reported on December 11, 1880. “A family of three children are affected with it at Pond Eddy, and at Barryville there have been several deaths. First class physicians say it originates from the Delaware & Hudson Canal. For years, the filth of inorganic matter has been allowed to accumulate on the bottom of the ditch.”

The article goes on to claim that the canal company had been promising to clean the bottom of the canal for years, and was supposed to undertake the project that very winter. Given the poor season on the waterway that year (it had been plagued by drought), the article noted that the cleaning project would provide much-needed employment for locals and “would greatly improve the health of the community.”

Generally controlled now by antibiotics, scarlet fever was a killer in the 1800s, especially among children. Several epidemics struck in the United States between 1820 and 1880. Understanding that there was an association between the disease and the streptococcus bacteria did not occur until 1884, and a full understanding of the disease was still decades away. 

A busy day on the D&H Canal at Rondout, New York in 1880. The passenger steamer “M. Martin” is turning in the Rondout Creek to leave amid a crowd of canal boats, some full of coal, at the end of Island Dock. (Photo: Hudson River Maritime Museum Collection)
A busy day on the D&H Canal at Rondout, New York in 1880. The passenger steamer “M. Martin” is turning in the Rondout Creek to leave amid a crowd of canal boats, some full of coal, at the end of Island Dock. (Photo: Hudson River Maritime Museum Collection)

Seven decades of use 

Throughout the 19th century the D&H Canal and the Pennsylvania Coal Company gravity railroad expanded to become part of a 171-mile transportation system. As noted, the coal company’s stationary engines at the top of a series of inclined planes pulled carloads of coal over the mountains. The railroad used sweeping curves and gravity to take the coal down the mountain to waiting canal boats.

Travel on the canal began at the boat basin in Honesdale, where the coal was transferred from the gravity railcars to canal boats. The canal followed the banks of the Lackawaxen River until it met the Delaware River.

The canal boats then crossed the Delaware at Lackawaxen, where the canal paralleled the New York shore of the Delaware to Port Jervis. The canal turned eastward at that point, following the Neversink and Rondout Creeks to the Hudson River. The coal was unloaded at Rondout (near Kingston) and sent by steamship to market.

The D&H Canal was originally 32 feet across at the top, 20 feet at the bottom, with a depth of four feet. Its 76-feet by 10-feet locks accommodated boats that had 20- to 30-ton capacities. At a speed of 1 to 3 mph, the canal boats (which were pulled by mules) made the round-trip in seven to 10 days.

Large tows of canal boats were a common sight on the Hudson River in the second half of the nineteenth century. D&H Canal Historical Society Collection,
Large tows of canal boats were a common sight on the Hudson River in the second half of the 19th century. (Photo: D&H Canal Historical Society Collection/Hudson River Maritime Museum)

In the late 1840s and 1850s, the canal’s depth was increased to five and then to six feet. Its locks were enlarged to 90-feet by 15-feet. These actions increased the canal’s capacity from 200,000 tons to one million tons of coal annually. Boats of 40-ton capacity were replaced by boats that could hold up to 140 tons, which could also go directly from the canal to markets up and down the Hudson River without transloading.

During this expansion period, John A. Roebling was brought in to work on four suspension aqueducts, one of the distinguishing features of the canal. Roebling also designed and built wire rope suspension bridges, in particular the Brooklyn Bridge. (To read a FreightWaves Classics article about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, follow this link.) 

The D&H Canal was in use for 70 years. During that time, millions of tons of anthracite coal  were transported on the canal for use in furnaces, fireplaces and stoves in New York City and New England. The canal also spurred increased settlement in an area of Pennsylvania that had previously been sparsely populated.

"Port Ben, Delaware and Hudson Canal," by Theodore Robinson, 1893. (Image: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts)
“Port Ben, Delaware and Hudson Canal,” by Theodore Robinson, 1893. (Image: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts)

The canal’s end

The canal was different from a number of other 19th-century canals in the U.S. – it remained a profitable private operation throughout most of its tenure. Despite its success, by 1898 the D&H Canal had outlived its usefulness. Transportation by canal was limited by winter weather conditions, droughts and floods. 

Moreover, the railroads of the day were better able to reach new markets. In the Upper Delaware River Valley, the Erie Railroad was thriving at the same time the D&H Canal was abandoned.

After the canal was abandoned, much of it was subsequently drained and filled. Despite that, the canal is an important part of the country’s transportation legacy; in 1968 it was declared a National Historic Landmark.

The Delaware Aqueduct on the Delaware & Hudson Canal. (Photo: sah-archipedia.org)
The Delaware Aqueduct on the Delaware & Hudson Canal. (Photo: sah-archipedia.org)

The canal’s legacy

Most of the canals built during the nation’s canal era were financed by the states that they ran through. The Delaware and Hudson Canal was the nation’s first canal built as a private enterprise.

According to Hudson Valley Magazine, “the positive impacts of the Delaware and Hudson Canal on Sullivan County were indisputable.” The waterway made it possible to easily transport goods to and from the area, “and directly led to the growth of the tanning and bluestone industries. Entire communities, such as Barryville, Wurtsboro and Phillipsport, owe their very existence to the D&H, and while the canal was in operation, each was among the largest communities in the county in terms of commerce and population.”

The canal remains among the most significant enterprises in the history of the nation. In 1873, James Eldridge Quinlan wrote that “the benefit of this canal to Sullivan [County] is a mere bagatelle when compared with its benign influence on the coal-region of Pennsylvania, on New York and other cities, and on the country at large. Its success led to other works for a similar purpose, which now minister to the comforts of the poor, and add to the wealth of the rich. Destroy the coalfields of the Lackawanna, and the public improvements which have been made to convey the carbonaceous deposit to those who consume it, and you will bring upon an immense number of the human family an evil not exceeded by famine and pestilence. From such a contingency only could we learn truly to estimate the benefits conferred by William and Maurice Wurts, whose memory should be honored by all good men.”

Quinlan was publisher of the Republican Watchman newspaper until 1866 and was the author of the History of Sullivan County, which was published in 1873. His use of language is different than what we are used to today, but among other things, Quinlan praised the coal industry – something that few do today.

According to the National Park Service, little survives of the D&H Canal and its associated industries. However, remnants of the canal may be seen along its former route. 

The Lackawaxen Aqueduct no longer exists. The Delaware Aqueduct (now known as the Roebling Bridge), stands within the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River. Remnants of the Neversink Aqueduct are preserved within the Neversink Valley Area Museum properties in Cuddebackville, New York, and remains of the High Falls Aqueduct are near the D&H Canal Historical Society and Museum in High Falls, New York.

FreightWaves Classics thanks the National Park Service, the Hudson River Maritime Museum and other sources for information and images used in this article.

An historical marker erected by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation in 2018. (Photo: wgpfoundation.org)
An historical marker erected by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation in 2018. (Photo: wgpfoundation.org)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.