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Delaware Canal Facts
Dates of operation: 1834-1932
Length: 60 miles
Northern terminus: Easton, Pa, at the junction with the Lehigh Navigation
Southern terminus: Bristol, Pa
Type: Towpath, lift locks
Width/depth: 40 feet/5 feet
Locks: 23, each 95 feet long by 10 feet wide
New locks: 6 original locks altered to 22 feet wide
Cargo transported: anthracite coal, lumber, quarried stone, produce, manufactures
Chief engineer(s): Johns Hopkins, Lewis Coryell, Josiah White
Owner: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 1834-1858; Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company 1858-1932
History of the Delaware Canal
The State of Pennsylvania built the Delaware Canal as a part of the Pennsylvania Public Works, a publicly funded canal system linking most of the major cities of the Commonwealth. The Delaware Canal was built to connect with the Lehigh Navigation at Easton and carry coal from this waterway to Bristol, Pa. A cable ferry between Easton and Phillipsburg, NJ allowed boats to cross over to the Morris Canal and make their way to New York harbor. In 1848, the state built an outlet lock and cable ferry at New Hope that enabled boats from the Delaware Canal to cross to New Jersey’s Delaware and Raritan Canal at Lambertville.
Begun in 1827, bad design and faulty workmanship slowed the construction of the canal. Only the intervention of Josiah White, co-founder of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (LC&N), brought work on the waterway to a successful conclusion. The Delaware Canal opened for commercial navigation in 1834.
The finished canal was approximately 59.4 miles in length, with 23 lift locks, nine aqueducts, a guard lock, and a tide lock to climb 164 feet between Bristol and Easton. Because of its connection with the Lehigh Navigation, the Delaware Canal soon carried a large percentage of the coal traffic to Philadelphia. This coal traffic helped make it the only consistently profitable part of the Pennsylvania State Canal System. Despite its profitability, the state sold the Delaware Canal, like the other portions of the Pennsylvania Public Works, to private corporations during the 1850s. The Sunbury and Erie Railroad purchased the canal in 1858, and sold it the same year to a subsidiary of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. From that time onward, the LC&N operated the Lehigh Navigation and the Delaware Canal as a single system. The peak year for the Delaware Canal was 1860, when it carried 792,000 tons of cargo.
The LC&N made many improvements to the Delaware Canal, including rebuilding and widening several of its locks. During the course of this work, locks Nos. 23 and 23 at Raubsville were consolidated into the present Ground Hog Lock. This lock, with a lift of 17.3 feet, is the highest along the entire canal. The company also maintained and improved their dam at Easton, which, like the present dam, not only supplied water to the Delaware Canal, but also formed the slackwater pool for the final section of the Lehigh Navigation.
The Delaware Canal continued in full commercial operation until 1931. During the autumn of 1931, the Delaware Canal began to assume a new role as a recreational and historical resource. The LC&N gave the waterway to the Commonwealth, and the Delaware Canal between Raubsville and Bristol became Roosevelt State Park. In 1955, the state acquired the remaining canal segment between Easton and Raubsville. Re-named Delaware Canal State Park in 1989, nearly the entire length of this historic towpath canal is accessible to the public and fully-watered.
The Delaware Canal is the most intact towpath canal in the United States. It is the second most frequently-visited state park in Pennsylvania. The canal passes through Washington’s Crossing Historic Site, the location where Washington led the Continental Army across the Delaware to defeat the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas night, 1777.
Suggestions for further Reading
Robert J. McClellan, The Delaware Canal. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1969.
C.P. Yoder, Delaware Canal Journal. Bethlehem, Pa.: Canal Press, 1972.
Albright G. Zimmerman, Pennsylvania’s Delaware Division Canal: Sixty Miles of Euphoria and Frustration. Easton, Pa.: Canal History and Technology Press, 2002.
Friends of the Delaware Canal, www.fodc.org
Delaware Canal State Park www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/delawarecanal.asp