by Bill Merchant, Historian, Delaware and Hudson Canal Historical Society
The Hudson River was integral to the development of the Delaware and Hudson Canal. The canal was conceived by Philadelphia dry goods merchants Maurice and Charles Wurts in the second decade of the 19th century, in order to transport anthracite coal from Pennsylvania mines to New York City.
The coal traversed the 108-mile-long canal, winding through the Lackawaxen, Delaware, Neversink, Bashakill, Sandburgh and Rondout valleys before arriving at the Hudson River near Kingston. From there, the cargo would travel south on the Hudson for over 80 miles to supply the primary market in New York City. Coal was also shipped north to Albany — about 45 miles — and from there it could be transported on the Erie Canal to support the westward expansion of the population.
Benjamin Wright (the chief engineer of the middle section of the Erie Canal) oversaw the original plans for the D&H Canal, which date from 1823. He believed that “the Canal boats may navigate the Hudson. A steam boat of 50 horse power will tow ten of them, and if double manned will perform the trip to New York and back in 2 days, the distance 100 miles.” However, the earliest canal boats, which were 75 feet long and nine feet wide with a capacity 30 tons, proved unsuitable for river travel. As a result, coal had to be offloaded from canal boats to other vessels at Rondout for transport on the Hudson River — a time-consuming and costly process. In Steamboats for Rondout Donald Ringwald writes, “ … the canalboats obviously had to be small size and because of this and a need to keep them on their regular work, they generally did not go beyond the Company works on Rondout Creek.”
By 1831, the company had begun purchasing barges for use on the Hudson. The first two were the Lackawanna (146 feet in length) and the James Kent (135 feet in length). To tow them, the D&H Canal Company “chartered and then purchased an elderly sidewinder named Delaware.”
As the Canal Company prospered, the Canal was enlarged. In the 1840s, the depth was increased from four to five feet, then five and a half feet, with no change in the original width of 32 feet. In 1847, anticipating increased traffic from a deal with the Wyoming Coal Association (which later became the Pennsylvania Coal Co.) to transport their coal on the D&H Canal, the company enlarged the waterway, which reached its final depth of six feet and width of 40 to 50 feet by 1850. The canal’s new dimensions accommodated boats 91 feet long, 14 and a half feet wide, and could carry up to 130 tons of coal.
Safe navigation of the Hudson was considered so important that, in a letter dated Jan. 21, 1852 from head engineer Russel Farnum Lord to D&H President John Wurts, a discussion of the new boats for the enlarged canal noted: “The Birdsall Lattice Boats derive their advantage of carrying the largest cargoes, mainly, if not entirely, from the difference in their weight when light — Their plan of construction however is such that there is a reason to doubt their durability and substantial ability for use on the river.”
Later, referring to boats from a different builder, he wrote: “From the experience had, it is evident that the Round Bow Section Scows are, and will be, the best and most desirable for the Coal Canal business — With them an important and permanent reduction in the rate of freight may be established — The only draw back is, whether they will be competent for the river transportation.”
The cost of handling the coal at Rondout was uppermost in their minds and the larger boats that the company ordered proved Hudson River-worthy.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, rafts of up to 100 canal scows were frequently encountered on the Hudson. On August 18, 1889, The New York Times wrote:
Very few persons who journey up or down the Hudson River either upon the palatial steamers or upon the railway trains that run along both banks of this great waterway know how great an amount of wealth is daily floated to this city on the canalboats and barges that compose the immense tows that daily leave West Troy, Lansingburg, Albany, Kingston, and other points along the river bound for this city…. From Kingston, which is the tide-water outlet of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, another class of merchandise is shipped in the same manner. From the mouth of the Rondout Creek, which forms the harbor of the thriving and busy city of Kingston, can be seen emerging every evening huge rafts of canalboats, tall-masted down-Easters, and barges of various sorts, laden with coal, ice, hay, lumber, lime, cement, bluestone, brick, and country produce. Many of these craft have received their cargoes at the wharves of Kingston, while others have come from the coal regions about Honesdale and Scranton, in Pennsylvania, all bound for this port and consigned to, perhaps, as many different persons as there are boats in the tow.
From its opening in 1828 through the closing of most of the canal in 1898 — and even through 1917, when the section from Rosendale to Rondout finally stopped carrying cement — the Delaware and Hudson Canal was responsible for vast amounts of traffic on the Hudson River. Indeed there would not have been a Delaware and Hudson Canal without the Hudson River!
Copyright 2017 by Bill Merchant, all rights reserved.
published in The Kingston Wire, June 30, 2021