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Restoring a Historic Stop on the Hudson Valley’s D&H Canal

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The Depuy Tavern, circa 1910. When the canal was no longer in use, the owner of the building tended the locks east of here until at least 1916. Photo courtesy of the D&H Canal Historical Society.

An 18th-century stone building most recently occupied by the popular Depuy Canal House restaurant in High Falls is the new home of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Museum.

Through the war of 1812, America depended on England for its coal. It was cheaper to ship the rock across the Atlantic Ocean than it was to move by land in the nascent United States. There was no shortage of material—northeastern Pennsylvania is home to three-quarters of the world’s known anthracite, also known as “hard” or “black” coal, which offers the highest energy density of any type of coal—the problem was moving it. Eventually, America would be connected via thousands of miles of railroad tracks. But, before the railway came a slower, yet equally consequential solution: the canal.


In the early 19th century, the United States had what Bill Merchant—Deputy Director for Collections, Historian, and Curator of the D&H Canal Historical Society—calls “canal fever.” He explains, “Canals were the most efficacious way of transportation infrastructure,” before swiftly adding, “until railroads.” Between 1828 and the turn of the century, the Delaware & Hudson Canal connected the mines of Pennsylvania with the market in New York City, simultaneously expediting the city’s growth while encouraging settlement along the canal’s route. This isn’t just a story about how America learned to transport coal; this is a story about how America underwent the metamorphosis from rural nation to industrial giant.

A cement boat in Rosendale. Photo courtesy of the D&H Canal Historical Society

Merchant, who has spent the last decade sifting through primary sources related to the canal, underscores its significance, asserting, “The D&H Canal fueled the industrial revolution.” He continues, “You have to remind people that in 1812, America was, largely, the states east of the Appalachian Mountains, which were a huge barrier to settling further west.” The implementation of the canal system into American infrastructure expedited growth of industry, and simultaneously, the westward expansion of manifest destiny.


This all begs the question: what exactly is a canal? At the D&H Canal Museum in High Falls, you will find the answer to that question and many, many more. The collection of artifacts—displayed in a building that once acted as a tavern for travelers of the canal—ranges from tintype photographs to period boat tillers to a sample of anthracite coal. Merchant and the Historical Society have curated an experience that goes beyond viewing historical objects with lofty descriptions. The museum is interactive, and even includes a working model of the canal to simulate how a boat might travel from lock to lock.

The new visitor center is expected to be used by hikers and bikers exploring the many trails in the region. Rendering by Avery Zucker

The hands-on approach is also applied in the way of an interactive map, “where folks can actually put together the rest of their itinerary,” says Jack Braunlein, the Executive Director of the Historical Society. “You can select different sites in the area, with individual site information. You can scan a QR code and download information to your phone.” This way, when you’re finished at the museum, you can visit outdoor sites related to the history you just learned about.

canal museum

Inside the Canal Museum. Photo by Bill Merchant

Another standout feature of the museum is the collection of artifacts which illustrate the role of women, immigrants, and people of color in the construction and maintenance of the canal system. By including these artifacts, the truth of our country is made clear: women, immigrants, and people of color were integral in the construction of the industrial United States. “In the tavern room, we focus on these populations,” says Braunlein. “Bill has done incredible research into these people because they’ve been suppressed in history.” The photographs, paintings, sculpture, and historical documents on view paint a refreshingly honest picture of the hands and minds that built America’s infrastructure.

canal museum

Photo by Bill Merchant

Between acting as a tavern for canal travelers and its acquisition by the Historical Society, the building housed the Depuy Tavern, a four-star restaurant which attracted a number of notable diners. “Everyone who’s been here [when it was] a restaurant has a story,” Merchant primes. “Robert DeNiro’s second wedding was held here. And one April Fool’s Day, somebody called up and made a reservation for John Lennon and Yoko. Everybody thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t! John and Yoko came and had dinner here.”

 

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After the Depuy served its final dish in 2015, the building was purchased by the Historical Society, and so began the process of transforming the eatery into a historical museum. Braunlein says that the level of care taken by the previous tenant is remarkable. “John [Novi, of the Depuy Tavern] did such a good job of preserving things. He didn’t muck around.” Thanks to Novi’s efforts—which include sourcing materials for renovations from demolished buildings of the same period—the building maintains a historical integrity suited for the museum.

The D&H Canal Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. with free admission (though donations are appreciated). To plan your trip, head to the website, where you will find visitor information, a parking guide, and more history about the canal.

Related: A Timeline of the Revolutionary War in the Hudson Valley

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