History of Delaware Canal

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.

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 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, separated only by a thin sliver of tree-lined land – sycamores, oaks, poplars and willows – is the mighty Delaware River. On the other side of 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 comes wafting 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, warming 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.