How the Delaware & Hudson Canal Fueled the Hudson Valley

Before railroads and superhighways dominated the Hudson Valley, the D&H Canal helped to move cargo and goods.

It’s hard to remember today—considering all of our superhighways—that prior to the early 1800s, it was hard to move stuff from here to there. Roads were primitive (or nonexistent) and neither railroads nor motor vehicles had been invented yet—never mind airplanes. And our relatively young country was really, really big.

That’s what made canal-building the most important economic engine of the early 19th century. New York’s best-known canal, the Erie Canal, had a song written about it, and the more famous Barge Canal system linked the Erie to other canals in the Finger Lakes, Oswego, and Champlain Valley regions. But in the mid and lower Hudson Valley, the Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal is our special, but nearly forgotten marvel.

The Five Locks Walk follows the towpath of the D&H Canal
The Five Locks Walk follows the towpath of the Delaware & Hudson Canal. Photo by Bill Merchant.

This engineering wonder helped create towns like Port Jervis, Phillipsport, Port Orange, and Port Jackson (now known as Accord). It’s why Port Jervis has a Canal Street, why Ellenville and Wawarsing have a Towpath Road, and why Wurtsboro is named Wurtsboro.

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The D&H was the solution to a problem facing brothers William and Maurice Wurts, two merchants from Philadelphia who owned land in northeastern Pennsylvania that contained rich deposits of anthracite coal. The War of 1812 had virtually shut off the supply of bituminous (soft) coal from the United Kingdom, sparking America’s first energy crisis. The Wurts brothers believed their harder coal offered a new, cheaper fuel source for the area’s biggest energy consumer, New York City, and the rest of the country.

So, in 1823, the Wurts siblings hired Benjamin Wright and John Jervis—engineers of the Erie Canal—to design a canal from Honesdale, Pennsylvania to Eddyville on the Rondout Creek near Kingston. From there, the coal could be sent down the Hudson to New York City or upriver to Canada. Wright and Jervis designed a canal four feet deep and 32 feet wide, with 108 locks, 137 bridges, and 26 basins, dams, and reservoirs. The cost: $1.2 million, equal to about $37 million today.

The D&H Canal in Rosendale, 1903
The D&H Canal in Rosendale, 1903. Larry Arvidson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The state helped with some of the cost, but to raise the rest, the brothers needed to prove that anthracite coal would work. On January 7, 1825, they convinced several business and financial leaders to meet at the Tontine Coffee House on Wall Street to watch anthracite burn. And burn it did. Within hours, their freshly minted stock sold out. Armed with cash, the company built the 108-mile link between the coal mines and the Hudson River.

The canal led to a population boom, especially in Ulster County. Kingston grew from a village to a major city, and Esopus went from hundreds to thousands of residents. During the peak years mid-century, thousands of boats floated up and down the canal. For much of the 1800s, it was the most powerful economic engine of the region.

By the end of the century, though, railroads had become the preferred means of transportation. In 1898, only 200 coal-carrying boats were still in operation. That year, the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company, which had been investing in trains since the 1860s, officially became the Delaware & Hudson Railroad Company. Still in operation, the D&H is now America’s oldest continuously operating transportation company.

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And what about the canal? The company sold the land, which was gradually filled in over time. Today, only a few fragments of the canal remain, and they are protected as National Historic Landmarks. The best place to see these remains is at the D&H Canal Museum in High Falls. If weather permits, take the Five Locks Walk along the former towpath—and if you do, remember that this scenic path once supported a whole lot more than hikers.

David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years.

Related: Irish Immigrants Boast a Long History in the Hudson Valley

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