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. Today, the canal retains almost all of its features as they existed during its century of commercial operation.
In the early 1800s, America was growing rapidly. Canals provided a better way of transporting natural resources to urban areas. When completed in 1832, the Delaware Canal connected with the Lehigh Navigation System at Easton and helped develop the anthracite coal industry in the Upper Lehigh Valley. These canals provided a convenient and economical means of transporting coal to Philadelphia, New York, and the eastern seaboard.
As railroads became a more efficient means of transporting goods, it became increasingly difficult to profitably operate canals. The last, paying canal boat completed its journey through the Delaware Canal on October 17, 1931.
On the same day, 40 miles of the canal were deeded to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The commonwealth acquired the remaining 20 miles in 1940.
A National Historic Landmark
The U.S. Congress officially recognized the canal's importance to the economic development of America by establishing the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor in 1988. The canal is a Registered National Historic Landmark and its towpath is a National Recreation Trail.
Delaware Canal (Delaware Canal State Park)
National Register Number: 74001756
Statement of Significance: Completed in the early 1830s and in operation for a century, the Delaware Canal, running from Easton to Bristol, a distance of 60 miles, opened up the anthracite coal riches of the Lehigh Valley to markets in Pennsylvania and New York.
A Day on the Canal
The day of the boatman is long gone, but if you stand on the towpath and listen with a little imagination, you can hear the ancient echoes. The rhythmic clip-clop of a team of mules pulling a coal-filled boat; the softer pitter-patter of a barefoot 12-year-old boy, a boatman’s son, leading the mules along the towpath.
The sun is just starting to rise, but already the Delaware Canal has been buzzing with activity for several hours. Boatmen have begun their long day, one that will last until after 10:00 P.M., when they tie up for the night and their mules are finally unharnessed, fed, brushed, and bedded down.
To the east, running parallel to the canal and separated only by a thin sliver of tree-lined land, is the mighty Delaware River. Beyond the river are the hills and forests of New Jersey.
As a barge glides quietly by, the aroma from a pot of extra-strong coffee and a cast-iron frying pan filled with eggs and slabs of bacon frying on the deck-top stove wafts up the towpath.
Some boats are headed down to Bristol and on to Philadelphia, filled with 80 or 90 tons of rock-hard anthracite coal. These barges ride low in the water.
Others are empty and ride high. They’re heading upstream to Easton and then on to the Lehigh Canal for the trek to the town of Mauch Chunk (now called Jim Thrope), to reload and do it all over again… and again… and again.
The still of the morning is suddenly interrupted by the sound of a boatman blowing his conch shell, warning the lock keeper he’s approaching. If there’s one thing these rough, tough, always-in-hurry boatman hate, it’s spending one minute more than is necessary at a lock. On the canal, time is money.
The early nineteenth century saw a Pennsylvania ready for industrial growth, but sadly lacking in its ability to transport goods. The discovery of anthracite coal fueled the need for better modes of shipping.
The Pennsylvania Canal system was developed to answer some of these needs, and helped make Pennsylvania one of the leaders of the industrial revolution.
April 9, 1827 -- Bill passed authorizing the construction of the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Bill sponsored by State Senator Peter Ihire of Easton.
October 13, 1827 -- First of 118 construction contracts let for the construction of the canal.
October 27, 1827 -- First shovelful of dirt dug at Bristol.
July 23, 1832 -- Canal complete. First boatload of coal arrives at Bristol.
1834 -- Canal construction (and continual reconstruction) costs up to $1.43 million.
June 25, 1857 -- After much legal wrangling, Pennsylvania decides to sell its state-owned canal system to Sunbury & Erie Railroad Company.
July 10, 1858 -- Sunbury & Erie Railroad Company sells the Delaware Division Canal to the newly formed Delaware Division Canal Company for $1.78 million.
August 20, 1866 -- Delaware Division Canal leased to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, its primary user.
1867 to 1931 -- Traffic steadily declines on the canal. In later years the canal is operated at an average loss of $50,000 per year. 1931 was the last official year of operation for the Delaware Division Canal.
October 17, 1931 -- Last recorded canal boat headed north from Bristol. It was empty.
March, 1936 -- Flood extensively damages canal and its structures, requiring many costly repairs.
December 18, 1940 -- Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and Delaware Division Canal Company donate the entire canal to the state. The property becomes known as Roosevelt State Park.
After nearly 100 years of operation, and many ups and downs and changes of ownership, the canal property became a state park in 1940. Here are some of the significant dates in Delaware Canal State Park history.
December 18, 1940 -- Entire canal conveyed to state and Roosevelt State Park is created.
December, 1954 -- Southern end of canal is transferred to Bristol Borough; another section leased to same.
August, 1955 -- Hurricanes Connie and Diane cause record flooding, and extensive damage to the canal and towpath.
April, 1988 -- Park Advisory Committee is formed -- first action is to recommend a name change for the park.
April, 1989 -- Arthur Davis, Secretary of PA Department of Environmental Resources, announces the park name is changed from Roosevelt State Park to Delaware Canal State Park.
January 13, 1989 -- Nockamixon Cliffs transferred to the Commonwealth, designated as State Park Natural Area in 1993.
August, 1993 -- Shad ladders on the Lehigh River are completed. Delaware Canal State Park is responsible for maintenance and upkeep.
December, 1996 -- Hendrick Island and adjacent shoreline acquired.
July, 1997 -- Lynn Island group acquired.
November, 1997 -- Dedication of restored Bristol Lagoon.
June, 1998 -- Delaware River Islands State Park Natural Area designated.
November, 1999 -- Acquisition of 22-acre plot adjacent to canal, near Washington Crossing Historic Park.
2001 -- Shad ladders at the Easton dam and the chaindam reworked to modify flow.
September, 2001 -- Reconstructed woooden Tohican Aqueduct in Point Pleasant is dedicated.
2002 -- Former sand quarry on Rt 32 near Upper Black Eddy acquired. Dedicated as "Giving Pond Recreation Area" in 2003.
September, 2004 and April, 2005 -- Near-record floods damage canal and towpath.
June, 2005 -- Dedication of historically rebuilt Lock #11 in New Hope.
June, 2006 -- Third near-record flood in less than two years compounds damages to canal and towpath.
Places of Historical Interest
The entire 60-mile length of Delaware Canal State Park is full of historical treasures. The canal tells the story of a growing nation, an innovative method of transportation, and the industrial development of eastern Pennsylvania.
In the canal itself, structures such as lift locks, weirs, waste gates, weigh locks, tide locks, cable ferries, and aqueducts show how the canal was a cleverly engineered waterway capable of moving millions of tons of cargo during the years of its operation.
Nearby, many historic homes, factories, and other traces of the people that made their livings on and around the canal can be found.
From Bristol, the Delaware Canal rises 165 feet above sea level. This elevation change was overcome by the use of 23 lift locks. Other structures along the canal include:
- 10 aqueducts
- 21 waste gates
- 8 stop gates
- 9 dams
- 27 overflows
- 125 bridges
- 2 guard locks
- 1 weigh lock at Easton
- 1 outlet lock
- 1 tide lock
Weigh Lock and Canal Entrance
The confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers marks the beginning of the Delaware Canal. Officially known as the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal, this canal served primarily to carry boats laden with anthracite coal from Easton, Pa. to Philadelphia.
Canal boats traveling from the coal fields at Mauch Chunk (today known as Jim Thorpe, Pa.) first passed through the Lehigh Canal, which ended near the confluence of the two rivers. At this point, boats bound north or east would cross the Delaware River on a cable ferry and enter the Morris Canal. Boats headed south would enter the Delaware Canal.
The first structure a boat would pass on the Delaware Canal was a guard lock. It prevented high water events on the Lehigh River from flooding the Delaware Canal.
After passing through the guard lock, the boat entered a weigh lock, where a complex cradle mechanism would take the weight of the laden boat to determine how much cargo it carried. The state of Pennsylvania, which owned the Delaware Canal for much of its working history, charged tolls based on how much cargo boats carried and how far they traveled on the Delaware Canal.
The locks on the Delaware Canal were numbered from south to north, so a laden boat began its trip at Lock 24 in Easton and worked its way down to Lock 1 in Bristol.
Locks 22 and 23 on the Delaware Canal are approximately 5.7 miles along the canal from the headwaters at the Lehigh River, just south of the town of Raubsville. Known as Groundhog Lock, these two locks were combined into one double lock in the mid 1850s.
This consolidated lock lifted boats 17.3 feet, which made it the highest on the Delaware Canal.
The water power generated at Groundhog Lock was used in many ways over the years. Various industries were located at the site, including a sawmill, a distillery, and later a paper mill. In the early 1900s a hydroelectric plant was built on the site, the remains of a which can still be seen today.
Located just south of Groundhog Lock is Theodore Roosevelt Recreation Area. When the land for what is today known as Delaware Canal State Park was given to Pennsylvania in the 1940s and 1950s, the park was initially named Roosevelt State Park. The name changed to Delaware Canal State Park in 1989, to better reflect the park's rich history. Theodore Roosevelt Recreation Area is the only part of the park that still retains its original name.
Durham Furnace, Boats, Cave
Durham Furnace, now little more than a few houses and businesses, was once a bustling community busy making pig iron out of iron ore. The earliest furnaces in the area were located several miles from the river, and operated from 1727 to 1789.
In 1840 the first anthracite coal burning furnace was developed, and gave new life to the Durham area. Two of the new furnaces were constructed at the mouth of Durham Creek in 1848, enabling them to get deliveries of iron ore and anthracite coal from the canal.
Durham Iron Works became one of the great innovators of this new method of iron production, and was ranked one of the best in the country. Much of the pig iron and finished products produced at Durham Iron Works were shipped to Philadelphia and elsewhere via the Delaware Canal. The Durham Iron Works closed in 1908 and was dismantled in 1914.
Today, only the canal remains.
Durham was also famous for the development of the Durham Boat, which was a little like a large, flat-bottomed canoe used for transporting goods down river. The largest of these boats were capable of carrying up to 20 tons of cargo downstream.
On the return journey upriver, they could only carry a maximum of 2 tons of cargo. In order to travel upriver, rapids and shallows had to be navigated by pushing the boat upstream with large poles.
When the canal was in operation, Durham boats often elected to leave the river and return upstream via canal, a much easier trip. Much to the boatmen's dislike, a one way trip upstream on the canal was charged double tolls.
Durham boats were used during Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware, and replicas can be seen at Washington's Crossing Historic Park.
Another attraction of the Durham area was its famous cave. Once only a hundred yards from the river and comprised of three enormous rooms, Durham Cave's main misfortune was that it was made of limestone.
The cave, once an important site to the Lenape Indians, was slowly demolished and its limestone burned to make fertilizer and later to feed the iron furnaces. Already aware of this problem, on July 9, 1850, the Doylestown Democrat reported: "The entrance and first rooms are gone, leaving but a small one in the rear. … We very much doubt whether the rest of mankind can then be persuaded that such a cave ever existed in Durham Township."
What little still remains is located on private land, and is inaccessible to visitors.
Giving Pond Recreation Area
A former sand and gravel quarry, the Giving Pond is now a quiet, 90-acre body of water nestled between the Delaware River and the Delaware Canal.
An ideal spot for paddling, fishing, bird watching, and more, the Giving Pond is a hidden gem and the newest addition to Delaware Canal State Park. Acquired in 2002 and dedicated in 2003, it is a habitat progressing toward a more natural environment, providing an interesting opportunity to observe nature's resiliency up close.
The Giving Pond is open to unpowered boats and craft with electric motors only.
Archery hunting is allowed during the appropriate seasons.
From June to October, Delaware Canal education staff offer public paddling programs at Giving Pond on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
The Giving Pond is located on River Road (PA 32) in Tinnicum Township. The parking lot is on the west side of River Road, between Uhlerstown Hill Road and Jugtown Hill Road, 0.8 mile north of the Uhlerstown/Frenchtown River Bridge and 2.5 miles south of the Upper Black Eddy/Milford River Bridge.
The Smithtown area was named for Joseph Smith, an early area resident who invented, patented, and sold plows with cast iron moldboards. The buildings he used for his shop no longer exist, as they were demolished in the construction of the Delaware Canal.
Smithtown was the location of double lock #15-16, which was the second deepest on the canal after Groundhog Lock. Locktender Flora Henry, one of the few female locktenders on the Delaware Canal, inherited the Smithtown locktender's job from her father in 1931, and held it until the final closing of the canal, which occurred later that year.
The Tohickon aqueduct, which is the longest on the Delaware Canal, spans Tohickon Creek in Point Pleasant. The impressive 221-foot span caused many problems during the years of canal operation, as it periodically collapsed or was carried away by floods.
Today's beautifully reconstructed wooden aqueduct was completed in 2001.
Lumberville was a lumber and sawmill town. William Tinsman purchased the lumberyard in 1869, and his descendants still run Tinsman Bros., Inc. in Lumberville to this day.
Lumberville is also home to a historic canal-side inn called the Black Bass Hotel, which has been operating since 1745. A scenic suspension footbridge spans the river next to the Black Bass Hotel, leading to Bull's Island Recreation Area, a New Jersey state park.
An ill-fated site for vehicle bridges, the historic covered toll bridge that once stood here washed away in 1903. Its replacement, a steel truss structure, was condemned in 1944. The current pedestrian structure was erected in 1947. Elements from both historic bridges can still be seen.
Virginia Forrest Recreation Area
A mile north of Center Bridge, near the midpoint of the canal, is Virginia Forrest Recreation Area.
Named for Virginia R. Forrest (1897-1991), a passionate Bucks County conservationist and environmentalist, the area has parking, river access, and restrooms.
Virginia Forrest was the first woman to win the Governor's Conservation Award in 1961. She founded the Bucks County Conservation Alliance in 1972.
This 112-acre island has a long history of use. Part of the Delaware River Islands Natural Area, the northern tip of Hendrick Island can be seen from Virginia Forrest Recreation Area.
Hendrick Island was once part of the Delaware River shoreline, but a meander in the river cut it off and turned it into an island.
The island is a Delaware Canal State Park special management area due to sites of archaeological importance. During archaeological digs by students and staff of Temple University, artifacts dating from 3000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. were found, many relating to the manufacture of stone tools. The prehistoric peoples living on Hendrick Island are thought to be the ancestors of the Lenape Indians. Artifacts such as weapon heads, knives and pottery were also found on the island.
More recently, the island housed a farm, a sawmill, and a farmhouse. The buildings were destroyed in the 1955 flood.
In 1955, PECO energy purchased the island, intending to use it as a site for a hydroelectric plant. The plans never came to pass, and in 1996 the island became part of Delaware Canal State Park.
This property was preserved thanks in part to the Heritage Conservancy.
New Hope & Lock 11
Walking on New Hope's crowded Main Street, one might never guess that the canal was there. Nestled behind the shops and restaurants, the canal and towpath lie hidden and quiet.
The restored Lock #11 and Locktender's House Museum is home to the Friends of the Delaware Canal and New Hope's famous mule drawn canal boat ride.
Much of Delaware Canal State Park's canal education programming takes place at the Locktender's House Museum, and a park educator is available to give tours and answer questions on weekends.
This is a great spot to visit to see how a canal lock functioned or want to see mules treading on the towpath.
Outlet Lock & Cable Ferry
Just below Lock #11 the canal disappears under River Rd (PA-32) and re-emerges to flow through Locks #10 and #9.
A sudden sharp bend to the left marks what was once an outlet lock and feeder canal through which boats could leave the Delaware Canal and cross the river via cable ferry to enter the Delaware & Raritan Canal feeder in Lambertville, New Jersey.
Boats making this crossing reportedly had to pay a heavy toll.
Mules had to walk back through New Hope and cross the river on the New Hope/Lambertville bridge.
The feeder canal associated with the outlet lock did a poor job of putting water into the canal. In 1831, a pair of waterwheels were installed at Union Mill, just south of New Hope, which pumped water into the canal. While some of the housing for the wheels still remains behind a condominium development, the wheels were washed away in the flood of 1936.
Another historic canal town, Yardley is located near mile 14 along the towpath.
William Yardley settled the area in 1682, before either Philadelphia or Trenton existed.
Yardley is known to have been a station on the Underground Railroad. There are several known hiding places for fleeing slaves located around the town, including warehouses on the Delaware Canal. The canal was likely a mode of travel for north-bound slaves.
Bristol and Tide Lock
For canal boat crews headed south with a full load of coal, they knew their journey was almost at an end when the Grundy Clock Tower came into view. This marked approximately one mile to the end of the canal, and meant the crew would soon earn a well-deserved day of rest.
Today, the picturesque Bristol Lagoon park marks the spot and is, for the most part, the end of the canal. The next mile of the canal has been lost to development. Markers and signs point out the former location of locks and canal structures.
The end of the canal, where the five acre tidal basin and tide lock were once located, have been replaced by a parking lot and Bristol Wharf.