How the Delaware & Hudson Canal Fueled the Valley

In the 1800s, the D&H Canal was the engine of growth for the mid-Hudson Valley

Here’s a quick Hudson Valley quiz: What do the Ulster County towns of Port Jervis and Wurtsboro have in common? Hint: consider the names Jervis and Wurts.

Stumped? Then also ask yourself why the towns of Phillipsport, Port Orange, and Port Jackson (now called Accord) are called ports. Why, for that matter, does Port Jervis have a Canal Street, and Ellenville and Wawarsing a Towpath Road? And what is Summitville the summit of, exactly?

The answer to all these questions is the early 19th-century engineering marvel and economic stimulus package known as the Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal.

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New York’s better-known canal, the Erie, 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 the D&H Canal is of special value to the mid-Hudson Valley.

d&h canalA modern-day view of the north abutment of Roebling’s High Falls aqueduct

Photograph by Patti Motzer

It’s hard to remember, in these days of superhighways and high-speed freight trains, that when this country was still in its infancy in the early 1800s, it was hard to get stuff from here to there. Roads were primitive or nonexistent, railroads hadn’t been invented yet, and the new country was really, really big. That presented an interesting problem for the brothers Wurts — William and Maurice — two merchants from Philadelphia who owned land in northeast 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, setting off America’s first energy crisis. The Wurts brothers believed their harder form of coal offered a new and cheap — but as yet untested — fuel source for the area’s biggest energy consumer, New York City, and the rest of the growing country.

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Dig this

But how to get it there? Believe it or not, in the 1820s building an artificial river was more economical than building a road. Yes, it was more expensive up-front. Digging and blasting through wilderness required the labor of thousands of men. (It took 2,500 men and 200 teams of horses just to complete the section of the D&H between Cuddebackville and Kingston.) But once it was done, a canal moved a lot more product. A two-horse barge could transport 100 tons of coal much faster than a two-horse wagon could move just one ton.

So the Wurtses built themselves a canal. In 1823, they hired Benjamin Wright and John Jervis, engineers of the new 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 waterway four feet deep and 32 feet wide, with 108 locks; 137 bridges; and 26 basins, dams, and reservoirs. The final cost in 1828: an estimated $2.2 million, which was serious money then.

The state kicked in some of this serious money, but to raise the rest, the Wurts 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 New York’s Wall Street to watch anthracite burn. And burn it did. Within hours, their freshly minted stock had sold out.

coal stockpilesCoal stockpiles along the canal

Armed with cash, the company set to work, and in less than three years they had built the 108-mile link between the coal mines and the Hudson River. The locks could accommodate boats of up to 30 tons, and could raise or lower them between eight and 12 feet for each lock. (The canal reached its apex at what became Summitville.) The original canal included two major aqueducts to carry boats over the Neversink River and Rondout Creek. And when it was enlarged between 1847 and 1851, the company added four new aqueducts, engineered by John A. Roebling (who took much of what he learned here and used it several years later to build a rather famous bridge that connects Brooklyn to Manhattan).

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Follow the money

While the canal made its Pennsylvania owners and New York City investors wealthy, it also provided a boon to the vastly unsettled counties through which it passed. “It helped enrich people all along the canal, especially in Ulster County,” says Stephen Skye, a historian and president of the Neversink Valley Area Museum, in Cuddebackville. “People worked to build the canal, to run it, and to maintain it. The county’s population exploded. Kingston’s major industry was the canal, and it grew from a village to a major New York and American city. Esopus went from a tiny village of hundreds to a town of thousands.”

The canal began as a way to move coal, but as it was widened, deepened, and improved over the years, it quickly added other products, including human passengers. “Some days, people in Cuddebackville would get on a boat and go up to Wurtsboro, visit family or friends, have a meal, and boat back down,” Skye says. But leisurely canal travel didn’t last for very long. The boats could only travel up to three miles per hour — any faster and the waves would put wear on the sides of the waterway — and in the late 1840s a railroad was built, providing faster travel. By the 1850s, canal passenger boats were outdated.

During the canal’s peak years mid-century, thousands of boats floated up and down the canal at any one time. “It was the economic highway for the entire area,” says Eileen Camasso, president of the board of trustees at the D&H Canal Historical Society and Museum in High Falls. “A lot of people today know it was there — there are so many places with the word ‘canal’ in the name — and they know there are little villages seemingly in the middle of nowhere because of the canal. But I don’t think they understand how powerful an engine of the economy it was for 100 years.”

End of an era

By the end of the century, though, railroads had become the preferred means of transportation in the country. 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 Railway.

What of the canal? The company sold the land, which was largely filled in over time. “Once it closed, many of the villages along it had to find new roles,” says Camasso. “Some may have disappeared, but many redefined themselves.” Today, only a few fragments of the canal remain, protected as National Historic Landmarks and parks. The best place to see these remains is at the D&H Canal Museum and its Five Locks Trail, where visitors can walk along a towpath to see the original stone structures and locks 16-20, which were built as the canal was expanded for increased traffic. When you do visit, remember that this scenic path once supported a lot more than hikers — it supported the entire mid-Hudson Valley.

Low Bridge, Everybody Down!

To learn more about the D&H Canal’s history, visit:
D&H Canal Historical Society and Museum
23 Mohonk Rd., High Falls

This month, look for a performance by the Bel Canto Institute (Aug. 14).
The museum is offering free, guided tours of the Five Locks Trail on Sept. 11, 18, and 25.
Neversink Valley Area Museum
26 Hoag Rd., Cuddebackville

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