In the early 1800’s, America was growing rapidly and business was booming. Poor roads and unnavigable rivers could no longer meet the young nation’s needs. Legislators and entrepreneurs looked to canals. These man-made waterways had been used successfully in Asia and Europe for centuries as a way to provide better, faster and cheaper transportation.
Inspired by the tremendous success of New York State’s Erie Canal, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began building a 1,200-mile system of canals to connect Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Lake Erie. These new transportation routes would carry the raw materials and manufactured products that would power this country’s industrial revolution. The Delaware Canal is part of this great network. Completed in 1832, it runs for 58.9 miles from Bristol to Easton, where it connects with the Lehigh Canal. The primary purpose of these two waterways was to transport anthracite coal from the northeastern Pennsylvania coal regions to the cities on the eastern seaboard.
In the most productive years just prior to the Civil War, over 3,000 mule-drawn boats traveled up and down this route, moving over one million tons of coal a year. Smaller quantities of goods such as lumber, building stone, lime, and produce were also carried.
Life was hard for the men, women, and children who worked on the canals. A typical day started before 4 a.m. with the grooming and harnessing of the mule-team. It ended at 10 p.m. or later, when the locktenders stopped operating the locks and the boats could go no further. A mule-powered boat loaded with 80 tons of cargo traveled 30 miles or more each day.
Over its course of 60 miles, the Delaware Canal drops 165 feet through some twenty-three locks. Ten aqueducts carry the waterway over small valleys and streams. Including its towpath and berm bank, the canal is approximately 60 feet wide and originally was five feet deep.
As railroads began to seriously compete for freight contracts, canal-generated revenues to the Commonwealth dropped. In 1858, the decision was made to sell the Delaware Canal to private operators. From 1866 to 1931, the Delaware Canal was run by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. Traffic and revenue declined as the “iron horse” finally beat the mule, and the last paying boat locked through October 17, 1931. The same day, 40 miles of the Delaware Canal was deeded to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It was named Roosevelt State Park by Governor Gifford Pinchot, to commemorate his fellow preservationist, Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1940 the Commonwealth acquired all 60 miles of the canal. By popular demand, the park was renamed Delaware Canal State Park in 1989. The significance of the Delaware Canal was recognized in 1978, when it was designated a National Historic Landmark. The 60-mile Delaware Canal is the only remaining continuously intact canal of the great towpath canal building era of the early and mid 19th century.
The Canal has become an important scenic and recreational resource. In recent years floods have devastated the canal, but the Commonwealth is committed to restoration. In addition the Delaware Canal has an excellent advocacy group, the Friends of the Delaware Canal, which continues to devote its energy and resources to a fully-watered canal.
Approximately 8 miles of the Delaware Canal traverse through Solebury Township with several access points, including the Virginia Forrest Recreation Area, providing abundant recreational opportunities in a bucolic peaceful setting. Take a stroll or bike ride on the towpath and enjoy lovely views of the Delaware River, historic homes, and the wildlife in this unique State Park and National Historic Landmark.
Parts excerpted from the website of the Friends of the Delaware Canal.
View an interactive map of the locations of nationally recognized properties and districts in Solebury Township.
See also the website of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.