Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal

How did the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal come about? This page provides a brief history about the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal, the people who settled around it, and the industry rising along it.

Map of Pennsylvania showing the Pennsylvania Canal divisions, including that of the Delaware Division in Bucks County
Map of Pennsylvania showing the Pennsylvania Canal divisions, including that of the Delaware Division in Bucks County.

In a country of “magnificent distances,” like the United States, the problem of transportation is manifestly one of first importance. This became apparent in provincial and colonial times, when lawmaking bodies were besieged with appeals for authority to open roads. But roads were inadequate to handle fast developing needs of the people. Navigable rivers helped, though rivers met only primary and sectional needs. Canals and railroads as connecting links must inevitably come sooner or later. The people of Pennsylvania, through their Legislature, began to consider inland navigation as early as 1791. A Legislative committee made a report that year recommending in a general way improvements of the Delaware, Schuylkill and Lackawanna Rivers. But the plan developed very slowly and it was not until 1824 that an act was passed authorizing the Governor to appoint three commissioners to explore two routes for artificial waterways, both in the central part of the State. At the same time certain preliminary examinations in the eastern part of the State were authorized. Once the move toward actual construction began, it gained momentum rapidly. The Legislature of 1825 passed an act creating a Board of Canal Commissioners. Acts already passed were followed by others in the sessions of 1826 and 1827, authorizing construction of certain canals and providing for financing the work. Thus Pennsylvania soon became fully embarked upon a policy of State-aided internal improvements that developed rapidly, too rapidly, as can now be readily seen, for the financial health of the Commonwealth. At the beginning of the movement the credit of the State was fine and public sentiment in favor of a great system of internal improvements was strong and practically unanimous.

However, due perhaps largely to inexperience in handling projects of such magnitude, the plan was expanded far beyond what prudence should have suggested and the State found itself encompassed by financial troubles. It appears now, had the system of public works been confined to a main line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and to the Delaware Division, leaving all other similar projects to private enterprise and capital, the financial problem could have been handled without much difficulty. As it was, by 1841 and 1842 an effectual stop was put upon all further extension of public works because of impaired State finances and credit.1 The Act of April 9, 1827, dearly defined the conditions and limitations under which work was to proceed on the Delaware Division. Thomas G. Kennedy was appointed superintendent of construction. This was a most fortunate appointment, for without Superintendent Kennedy’s enthusiasm, energy and tenacity of purpose in clinging to a cherished job in the face of violent political assaults and almost unprecedented flood conditions in the river during two years while the construction work was at its peak, there would in all probability have been no Delaware Division Canal. Henry G. Sergeant was employed as chief engineer, and an office was opened at Bristol. Engineer Sergeant and his corps of surveyors began work about July 1, 1827, and completed the preliminary field work by the middle of August. It was ascertained that the length of the canal from the mouth of Mill Creek at Bristol to the level of Lehigh River at Easton was 59 miles and 60 perches and the fall from the Easton end to the Bristol terminus was 159 feet. Following the preliminary survey, the Engineer Corps was split up, one party passing again over the route to check up probable errors prior to the engineer’s making his estimates, while the rest of the party surveyed another proposed route from Bristol up Neshaminy Creek to Newtown, thence up Newtown Creek and across the county towards the Delaware to a point between Yardley and New Hope. This route may have been suggested by the fact that a company, known as the Neshaminy Lock and Navigation Company, had been organized and had already projected waterway improvements on Neshaminy Creek between the river Delaware and Newtown. However, the surveyors ascertained that the elevation between the Delaware and Newtown was too feet higher than the proposed canal level at Easton, and thereupon the Newtown route was definitely set aside. The advocates of this route made no attempt to press their claims, but intense rivalry did spring up between the people of Pennsbury Manor and those of Bristol to secure the location for the entrance into Delaware River, and the Pennsbury people lost out.

Engineer Sergeant submitted his report to a meeting of the Board of Canal Commissioners in Philadelphia early in September, indicating that the work could probably be done within the limit of the average $12,000 per mile allowed by the law and designating Bristol as the most feasible point of entrance into the river Delaware. The board accepted the report and ordered work of construction to proceed. On September 13 Superintendent Kennedy from his office in Bristol advertised that he would receive proposals for construction of the first section of the canal, commencing at the mouth of Mill Creek, Bristol, and extending thence up the valley of the Delaware a distance of eighteen miles. Governor George Wolf, in compliance with the Act of Assembly, gave his consent to the construction, and on October 20, 1827, the contracts for the eighteen miles were awarded. A week later, Saturday, October 27, ground was formally broken at Bristol. This ceremony, agreeably with previous announcement, was made a jubilee occasion. The great crowd assembled was made up mainly by people from the country side on both shores of the river and included also distinguished men from all walks of life in this State and New Jersey. Col. Condy Raguet, Charge d’Affairs of the United States of Brazil, was an interested spectator. With William T. Swift as chief marshal, a procession was formed at 12 o’clock in the following order: Marshal and aides, engineers with instruments, workmen with spades and other tools: Peter Ihrie, Jr., of Easton, Pa., and George Harrison, the ground breakers, in carriage: laboring men with wheelbarrows, plows and horses, canal contractors, clergy, Colonel Peter A. Brown, orator of the day, members of the Legislature of Pennsylvania, members of the Legislature of New Jersey, distinguished guests, band of music, committee of arrangements, citizens. After marching through the town, the parade was disbanded at the point of ground breaking. Following Colonel Brown’s address, the ground breaking ceremony was performed by Messrs. Ihrie and Harrison, who spaded two generous barrow loads of earth. Among the toasts at the banquet concluding the ceremonies at the Bessonet Hotel, none was greeted with more sincere applause than that of Vice President Lewis S. Coryell’s graceful tribute to “Michael Fackenthal, the Revolutionary companion of Morgan, now our venerable guest.” Michael Fackenthal, grandfather of Dr. B. F. Fackenthal, Jr., late president of The Bucks County Historical Society, was one of the most ardent champions of the canal. Little work was done on the canal in the fall of 1827, but by the middle of June, 1828, Superintendent Kennedy’s pay roll showed disbursements of $270,000. The work progressed smoothly throughout that year with few interruptions. Work on some sections of the canal was attended with danger and three workmen lost their lives by drowning. The entire canal was under contract at the opening of the year 1829, except the portion from Section 106 to Easton, about six miles, for which Superintendent Kennedy advertised on April 3 for proposals, the bids to be opened on May 20 at William Shouse’s Inn at Easton. The mechanical work remaining to complete the division was awarded at the same time. Today we are prone to marvel at the number of competitive bidders for contract work, but it will be seen that there was some competition in the old days from the fact that nearly 400 contractors bid on these few jobs 113 years ago and almost that number of people gathered at the inn while the contracts were let. On the 5th of May of that year, while workmen were engaged in making excavations on Contractor Porter & Hough’s section in Durham Township, eighteen cannon balls were dug up about three feet under the surface and beneath them a number of human bones. The find created considerable local excitement at the time. On June i the Lehigh Canal, which was built by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, was completed and boats were plying to and fro between Mauch Chunk and Easton by the middle of the month. The work on the Delaware Division progressed steadily during the summer and fall, and the construction of the dam and locks on the Lehigh was well advanced when cold weather stopped operations.

By this time it became evident that it would be necessary to secure water from the Delaware River to supplement that supplied by the Lehigh. David Scott, John Ross and Nathaniel B. Eldred were appointed a commission to treat with New Jersey on this matter. The report of the Board of Canal Commissioners for 182g showed that the expenditures on the Delaware Division to date (December 18) amounted to $476,338.22, including $6,528.82 paid for land damages. The year 1830 opened auspiciously and the more optimistic canal enthusiasts looked forward to the entire completion of the work by the end of the season. Late in July the stretch of twenty-five miles between Bristol and New Hope was finished and water was let into the canal at New Hope. How this was accomplished does not appear, as the water wheel at Wells Falls had not yet been built. The water passed down the canal as far as Morrisville, where seepage from the porous character of the ground prevented the water’s further progress for the time being. On July 31 a company of about forty persons made an excursion of four miles down the canal from New Hope and return in a boat drawn by a horse. This is the first recorded trip on the canal by parties other than construction employees. The water at that time averaged 21/2 feet in depth. In many places above New Hope the canal was constructed on the river road bed, closing that road to travel until August 1, 1830, when newly-built sections of the road were completed and the stage line between New Hope and Easton resumed its regular schedule.

The canal brought a new note of optimism into country life along its banks, and the residents gave vent to their feelings by staging a “canal excursion” on Saturday, August 7. The water was then of sufficient depth for several miles below New Hope to float boats of light lading. Between seventy and eighty dwellers in Upper Makefield made the trip in a boat drawn by two horses, furnished by Captain Day. The excursion is thus described by one of the party: “The boat bore the cognomial of Governor Wolf, in honor of our worthy Chief Magistrate. It was fitted up in the neatest style, with awnings overhead and the sides, stern and bow tastefully decorated with laurel and ‘evergreen pine.’ The fore and aft cabins were well stored with the choicest provisions and the midship filled up with seats and avenues for the accommodation of the ‘passengers’ and ‘crew.’ At 11:30 o’clock a. m. she ‘put off’ from Aqueduct 3, near the mills of Mr. Knowles, and wended her way for a few miles down the canal. She then ‘tacked’ and passed up to New Hope, going at the rate of four miles an hour. The Governor Wolf in her passage through the artificial flood was greeted by many long, loud and hearty cheers from the throngs of spectators who had assembled in groups along the line to witness the delightful spectacle. The fields of blooming corn, the toiling husbandman, the grazing flocks and herds performing their sportive gambols or loitering in the luxury of the forest shade, the rural family mansion with all its surrounding comforts, with now and then a view of the majestic Delaware meandering her way onward at the foot of lofty mountains clothed in ‘living green,’ all conspired to blend in harmonious profusion. We cannot dismiss this subject without availing ourselves of the present opportunity of returning the thanks of the company to Captain Day for the loan of the Governor Wolf and to Captain Merrick for his gentlemanly deportment while at the New Hope Hotel.”

The canal basin at Bristol was completed in August, 1830. The close of this year marked the beginning of a series of reverses that postponed for a long time the final opening of the canal for business. Heavy rains about the middle of November caused a big freshet in the Delaware. The canal above New Hope was badly damaged. The soft newly-made banks were readily eroded by the swift running current, resulting in many washouts. A long vertical wall on section 116 below Easton was swept away and the aqueducts at Point Pleasant and Lumberville were wrecked. But the freshet was not an unmixed evil. It gave Superintendent Kennedy his first opportunity to completely fill the stretch between Bristol and New Hope with water. And thus also it gave the officials an opportunity on December 7, 1830, to celebrate the passage of the first canal boat over any portion of the line. At to o’clock that morning the James Clark, 70 tons burthen, in charge of James Clark, master, put off from New Hope, freighted with passengers and a few tons of coal from Mauch Chunk for the sake of realism. With flags flying and a band playing, the craft passed down the waterway, greeted, it is alleged, with salutes of artillery and the cheers of crowds of people gathered upon the canal bank. Within four hours the first boat glided into the Bristol basin. After it passed through Lift Lock No. 1, willing hands towed the boat around the basin to the loading place. A banquet followed at the Bessonet Hotel. Lewis S. Coryell, Esq., was appointed president and Crispin Blackfan, Charles Lombeart and William F. Swift vice presidents. Many after-dinner toasts were drunk, it is related, “amidst the roar of artillery and huzzas.” The annual report of the Board of Canal Commissioners for 1830, published late in the year, gives important details of construction and cost of work on the Delaware Division, and for that reason it is presented herewith entire:

The Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal commences at Bristol on the Delaware River and runs along that stream through Bucks and Northampton Counties to Easton. The whole length of the division, measured along the towpath bank from the tide basin at Bristol to the northern side of the feeder darn across the Lehigh at Easton is fifty-nine miles and three-fourths.

The country along the division presents about thirty miles of surface extremely favorable for the construction of a canal, about sixteen miles less favorable and fourteen miles that is difficult and along a considerable portion of which the river bluffs or cliffs are high, steep and rocky.

On this division the width of the canal at bottom is twenty-five feet, at top of water line forty feet and its depth of water five feet. In its course there are twenty-three lift locks, ranging from six to ten feet, also two outlet and two guard locks. The canal and locks are arranged for boats of sixty-seven tons burthen. Eighteen lock-keepers are necessary on this division.

The rise and lockage from mid-tide at Bristol to the level of the comb of the feeder dam across the Lehigh at Easton is one hundred and sixty feet. The comb of the dam is twelve feet above low water mark in the Delaware at the outlet lock immediately below the dam.

The original estimate for constructing this division was $687,000. The first letting took place in October, 1827. The filling the canal for navigation in its whole course commenced in October, 1830.

It is now ascertained that the whole cost of the division, exclusive of damages to property, will be $1,203,765.o5. The amount of damages paid on this division prior to the 1st of November, 1830, was $34,262.64.

The following is a statement of the principal works and their respective cost. The stone work of the locks, aqueducts, culverts, bridges, abutments, etc., on this division, is generally rubble masonry.

Cost of constructing the section, excavation, embankments, etc.$533,986.52
230,191 perches of outside wall$147,091.54
37,594 perches of inside wall$34,490.17
Expenditures in making roads, but which, in the engineer’s estimates, are returned as expenditures for constructing sections. This sum includes the cost of 10,000 perches of stone wall, properly chargeable to the cost of roads$30,473.54
Cost of 23 lift-locks2$108,715.70
Cost of 2 guard locks and 1 outlet lock$21,794.30
Tide lock at Bristol$9,500.00
Feeder dam across across Lehigh, at Easton, crib work filled with stone and gravel, three hundred and seventeen feet long and twelve feet high$9,000.00
9 aqueducts, the shortest twenty-five feet, the longest one hundred and seventy-eight feet between the abutments, length of the whole six hundred and thirty-one feet; the abutments and piers are of rubble masonry, the superstructure of wood, trunks twenty feet wide, towing path bridge forming part of the superstructure$63,005.98
20 culverts, rubble masonry laid in cement. The span of the whole is one hundred and thirty-eight feet…$24,863.63
19 waste weirs, with sluice gates; woodwork with protections of masonry. The whole overfall is one thousand four hundred and forty-one feet…$22,783.45
16 lock houses built…$9,200.46
Tide basin of five acres and a half, constructed in Delaware, and pier at Bristol, nearly finished, estimated lately to cost, when completed$32,000.00
47 road bridges, stone abutments, superstructure of wood, embankments included…$54,552.34
49 frame bridges, as above…$24,388.78
3 turnpike and 3 foot bridges…$5,114.96
52 miles fencing along canal…$12,182.13
Paid for alterations and for repairs before supervisors were put on the division…$25,297.88
Incidental expenses, postage, books, papers, etc..$2,441.69
Cost on one culvert and 15 waste weirs, which were afterwards dispensed with on the plan of location altered…$2,239.92
Paid engineers, superintendent and other officers for surveys…$43,672.04
2 lock houses and collector’s office…$1,350.00
Fencing yet required, about 12 miles…$2,920.00
A foot bridge ordered…$200.00
Waterways around locks 2,500…$6,970.00
Add damages already paid…$34,262.64

The year 1831 was not altogether a happy one for either the canal or its projectors. Much of the flood damage had been repaired, but in a construction of this magnitude, some of it was necessarily faulty, and this made plenty of trouble. Again, loss of water by seepage through a porous soil was great. The Lehigh River could not supply enough water to permit boats to be loaded to their full capacity. People in the county became restive over delay in opening the canal. It got into politics, and politics in those days, depend upon it, was virulent. Rival schemes in opposition to the canal developed. Late in 1830 a memorial was presented to the House of Representatives, signed by many citizens, asking to be incorporated as the Pennsbury Canal and Railroad Company for the purpose of constructing “a canal and railway across the Manor from a point on the Delaware opposite Lambertville, N. J., to the river Delaware below the shoal water to the mouth of Vanhart’s Creek, the distance being about six miles.” Petitions were presented to the Legislature for and against this proposition, and on February 14, 1831, the House committee to which the memorial was referred reported it negatively. About the same time a resolution instructing the Canal Commissioners to make a survey of a proposed route of sloop navigation through Penns Manor was also negatived on second reading. On February 24 the House rejected a resolution relative to a survey and estimate for sloop navigation on the Delaware River by a vote of 47 to 36. While these rival enterprises failed to receive legislature sanction, doubters still freely predicted the canal would never be fit for navigation. But the workers worked on, repairing breaches in embankments, and conditions improved. In March, 1831, the canal was opened to navigation between Bristol and New Hope and boats engaged in up-river traffic all passed through it, thus avoiding the rapids in the river. The same month it was announced that a daily line of packet boats had been established to run between those two points in four hours. In November of this year a boat load of 20 tons of coal came through from Easton to Point Pleasant, consigned to Joseph Hough, and another, on November 28, arrived at Lumbervine. It was hoped to get this boat through to New Hope, but with December came a cold wave that stopped navigation for the season. The Lehigh Canal had closed a profitable season. The tolls for 1831 on that canal amounted to $45,000 and 58,868 tons of coal were moved.

The opponents of the Delaware Division Canal played their last card early in 1832. For some time the sale of the canal to Porter & Carey, of Northampton, a private concern, had been advocated. Actual steps to this end were taken at a public meeting held at Joseph Archambault’s tavern in Newtown on February 4. Hugh Thompson presided and John Yardley was secretary. The preamble to a long set of resolutions adopted at this meeting set forth that the State had become involved in a debt of $15,000,000 without any prospect that toll receipts from public works would meet the interest in a reasonable time, but that the Delaware Division might prove a profitable investment in the hands of a “frugal and judicious company.” Therefore it was resolved that the proposition of Messrs. Porter Sc Carey to purchase the canal was a liberal and fair one, and William Math, Mahlon K. Taylor, Peter Gwinner, John Story and Jolly Longshore were appointed a committee to memorialize the Legislature, recommending the sale. One to four persons were appointed from each township as a correspondence committee. That the meeting was not entirely certain of its ground was indicated in one of the resolutions which admitted “That we disapprove of multiplying incorporate companies, but in the present juncture, of two evils we choose the less.” But the Legislature was not convinced that the memorialists had chosen the lesser evil, and the move for a sale to private parties failed.

Prospects for opening the canal in its entire length were bright in the spring of 1832 until mid-March, when southern rains and melting snow around the headwaters of the Delaware caused the biggest freshet in that stream since 1814. Between Easton and New Hope the canal in many places was completely submerged. Eight thousand yards of embankment at Lower Black Eddy was washed away. The Lumberville wharf was wrecked and damage was general throughout that part of the line. The contractors put large forces of men to work as soon as the flood subsided and in an almost incredibly short space of time closed up all the breaches. On June i i water was let for the first time into the whole division between Easton and Bristol, but it was not until September that enough water was obtained to start active business operations. On September 7 seventeen canal boats, each carrying 30 tons of coal on their way from Mauch Chunk to Philadelphia, passed through Tinicum Lock No. 19 in two hours and twenty-five minutes and boating continued active for the rest of the season, The Delaware Division Canal was never officially or formally opened, but the opening year is generally conceded to have been 1832. General William T. Rogers was appointed collector of tolls at Bristol and entered upon his duties on May 1, 1833. Another big freshet in the Delaware closed the canal to navigation for two weeks in May of that year, but by June operations had been resumed. A second flood on June 21 caused more damage than the June freshet. As fast as the breaches in the canal were made by this discouraging succession of floods, the energetic superintendent put hundreds of men to work to close them. Navigation was resumed on July 6 between New Hope and Easton and on July 15 the whole line was again open. About fifty boats belonging to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, each carrying fifty tons of coal, arrived at New Hope between the 6th and the 15th of the month, and eighteen canal boats and twelve Durham boats cleared from New Hope on the 14th. Collector Rogers reported on July 1 that the receipts from tolls at his office in Bristol since navigation opened in the spring was $3,085.14 and that the whole number of boats cleared was 770. The report of the Auditor General for the entire year 1833 showed tolls received on the division for that year as follows: Caleb Dusenberry, collector at Easton, $31,731.46; Charles B. Knowles, collector at New Hope, $1,675.03: William T. Rogers, collector at Bristol, $6,915.65; William F. Swift, late collector at Bristol (prior to May 1), $4,503; total, $44,825.14. But the canal was not yet on a paying basis as to tolls, as the report of the Canal Commissioners listed $59,408.33 in expenditures during the year, the greater part of the sum for repairs.

The year 1834 started the Delaware Division on its long career of prosperity. The canal opened for trade on the first of March and continued in good navigable condition throughout the season. The dam and water wheel built in the Delaware at New Hope to raise water from the river into the canal was doing good work and the difficulty in supplying the levels below that point with water was gradually overcome through negotiations with New Jersey as to an increased supply from the river. During the year the old dam on the river Lehigh at Easton was made entirely secure by building a new breast. At the end of the 1834 season, President James Clark and Secretary Francis R. Shunk, of the Board of Canal Commissioners, made the following report: “On the 4th day of July, 1826, a little more than eight years ago, the State of Pennsylvania commenced her great system of internal improvements by breaking ground on the canal near her capital at Harrisburg, and notwithstanding the formidable difficulties and embarrassments incident to the prosecution of the work, which for extent, magnitude and utility, stands unrivaled in modern times, the Canal Commissioners have the satisfaction of announcing to their fellow citizens that all the lines of canal and railway authorized by law are so far completed as to admit of transportation throughout their whole extent?’ In the course of a few years it developed that the Delaware Division was the most profitable and important of all the State’s internal improvements. From year to year, as excavation, embankment and masonry began to settle and adjust itself to the natural surroundings, seepage and breaches in the canal were reduced to a minimum and needed repairs were slight. The tolls collected in 1835 in the two offices in Bucks County, Bristol and New Hope, alone amounted to $16,044.35. To increase the supply of water above New Hope a dam was thrown across Durham Creek and water was carried by a feeder 1800 feet long to the canal. Use of this water was discontinued by 1840. In 1854 the outlet lock was built at New Hope and boats were taken across the river to Lambertville, and sent down the feeder of the Delaware and Raritan Canal to Trenton, thence on to New Brunswick and via the Raritan River to New York. Until about 1855 boats ran day and night, the canal never being closed. In some years as many as 3,000 boats were moving back and forth between Bristol and Easton. The tremendous development of business over the first twenty-three years after the canal opened is shown by the report of the collectors of tolls for the year 1855: At Easton, $348,292.46; at New Hope, $14,749.75; at Bristol, $25,872.42; total, $388,914.63. The total weight of coal shipped down the canal from Easton that year was 755,265 tons. In the next year (1856) the canal began seriously to feel the effects of railroad competition for the heavy carrying trade. Its revenues had dropped from $388,914.63 in 1855 to $353,782.74 in 1856. The Lehigh Valley, the New Jersey Central and the Belvidere Delaware Railroads had penetrated the Lehigh regions and were carrying much of the coal. The canal was further handicapped by its smaller water capacity than the Lehigh Canal, the principal source of its coal and lumber business. Lehigh Canal, with its six-foot depth, could carry boat loads of 100 tons, whereas the Delaware Division at that time, with its five feet of water, could float only 71 tons. This necessitated Lehigh Canal boats, which entered the Delaware Division, unloading part of their cargoes at Easton, a very great disadvantage. As the Delaware Division had theretofore yielded a larger profit on its cost than almost every other canal or railroad in the country, the Canal Commissioners urged the Legislature to appropriate about $loo,000 to deepening the channel a foot, a work they estimated would take two years. It appears that this was not done. Instead, by the Act of April 21, 1858, the Delaware Division was sold by the State to the Sunbury and Erie Railroad Company, which, on July 10 of the same year conveyed it to Delaware Division Canal Company. This company in 1866 leased the canal to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, by which organization it was operated until October 17, 1931, when the part between Raubsville and Lock No. 5, below Yardley, was taken over by the State. After the State sold the canal in 1858, its business declined, very slowly at first, more rapidly towards the end. In Dr. B. F. Fackenthal’s Improving Navigation on the Delaware River, p. 108, we find that the elimination of the Delaware and Raritan feeder and the Morris Canal dealt heavy blows to the traffic on the Lehigh and Delaware Division Canals, which became still further reduced until the spring of 1931, when but twenty boats remained in operation. Dr. Fackenthal states that the last boat, No. 81, passed north on the canal on the morning of October 17, 1931. Two industrial plants are still operated by the overflow from the canal, one at Groundhog Locks, Raubsville, by the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company and the other at Yardley, a grist mill. A Map of the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal, by A. W. Kennedy, draftsman, (a copy of which is deposited in the Library of The Bucks County Historical Society), no date, but probably made in 1834, gives the following data about the canal at the time of its completion: Length from Bristol to Easton, 59 miles and 60 perches; whole amount of lockage, 165.05 feet; mechanical work-25 lift locks, 3 guard locks, 1 outlet lock connected with the feeder lock at Easton, 1 tide lock connected with the basin and piers at Bristol, g aqueducts, 20 culverts, 19 waste weirs, 2 safety gates, 3 turnpike road bridges, 47 common road bridges, 49 farm bridges, 7 foot bridges (total bridges, 106), 18 lock houses.

During construction of the canal, work was often pushed day and night, especially following floods in the river. From check rolls kept by assistant superintendents and foremen, now in possession of The Bucks County Historical Society, it appears the wages paid to workmen in 1832 and 1833 varied from month to month. The rate of wage seems to have been fixed on the first of each month. For day work, pick and shovel men received from 43 to 54 cents a day and mechanics from 68 to 85 cents. The pay of assistant superintendents and foremen seems to have run about $1.00 to $1.09 a day. Water carriers were paid 13 1/2 to 26 1/4 cents and cart drivers received about the same pay as mechanics. For night work wages were slightly higher, running from 75 to 90 cents, with 38 1/2 cents paid to water carriers. As to the operative equipment of the Delaware Division, it was discovered at the outset that canals called for the creation of a new type of freighter. The old river craft did not fit into requirements. The “Ark,” the “Flicker” and the Durham boat3 had to be abandoned. At first Durham boats were found useful for small shipments, but they soon disappeared from the canal. Sloops for passengers and light freight were contemplated between Bristol and New Hope. There is no record that they were ever used with success. Only the wooden canal boat, which came into being with the opening of canal navigation, filled all requirements for heavy cargoes. It was never supplanted by any other type of carrier. The boat was built in yards established at several points along the line. The standard size was 87 feet 6 inches length, to feet 6 inches width and 7 feet height at midship, with a shear of only 6 inches, bow and stern. It was designed to carry too tons of coal, lumber or iron. The record load of 112 tons of coal was carried in August, 1872, from Mauch Chunk to New York in No. 6 Boat, built in the yard of R. Francis Rapp at Erwinna. Boats were usually in two sections. These were called hinge boats and could be uncoupled for convenience in loading and unloading. A few smaller single section boats were known as stiff boats. Hinge boats were mostly drawn by two mules, though three were often used. The well-known Red Line used as many as four mules geared tandem. Horses were rarely substituted for mules. Harness was the same as the common kind, lacking breeching, and the mules were protected from trace chafing by stretchers. The first mule was geared to a cross-stick, called stretcher. Often a saddle of small bells was a part of the caparison and bridles were decorated with rosettes and brightly colored plumes. The crew comprised two men, or a man and two boys, or a man and wife. They took turns at driving the mules and steering the boat. Boats never stopped between locks, meals being cooked and eaten aboard boat. From 1832 to 1855 boats ran all day and all night. After 1855 locks were closed between 10 p. m. and 4 a. m. At night a lantern, a foot square, called the “night hawk,” was hung in the bow. A polished reflector made the night hawk visible far away. Upon approaching a lock, the boatman signaled to the locktender by blowing a long tin horn, a bugle or a conch shell. These musical blasts were familiar sounds between the picturesque Delaware hills in boating days. Mule stables were conveniently located along the canal, generally near locks. When the boats reached Bristol and passed from the basin through the tide lock into the Delaware, they were assembled in fleets of a dozen to twenty-one, three side by side, and towed to Philadelphia by one of the three side-wheel steamers Lehigh, Herald, and Delaware, and after unloading were towed back by the same steamers to Bristol. The life of a boatman was not easy, the hours were long and the work at times dangerous. There were rough characters among the boatmen, and fights were frequent, caused mostly by one boatman stealing another’s turn at the lock, but these clashes were soon forgotten in the fiddling, dancing and social glass at night at one of the many inns along the berm bank. Most of the boatmen, however, were men of steady habits who had comfortable homes in the hills back from the river, where they spent the winter, employed between seasons at some other useful occupation. Locktender houses were built close to the locks on small tracts belonging to the canal, and some had productive gardens attached. The locktender was often assisted by his wife, who could handle the gates as skillfully as her spouse, The job of a locktender was his for life if he was trustworthy. Several attempts were made to apply steam to canal boating, but without success, principally because the banks were injured by the disturbance of the water by the propeller. H. C. Bender, of Colmar, Pa., in 1878 invented a propeller which, it was claimed, overcame all objections to steam navigation. But it came too late. Canal transportation at that time was too far on its way out, and the staid, noiseless, slow-moving old canal boat was left to the very last to pass into history, along with the “raging canawl” that had borne it upon its bosom for a full century.


MacReynolds, George. Place Names in Bucks County Pennsylvania, 2nd Edition. Doylestown, PA: The Bucks County Historical Society, 1955.

  1. The first official sanction for a canal in the lower Delaware Valley will be found in two sections of the Act of April 9, 1827.

    Sec. 6. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That it shall be the duty of the canal commissioners, during the ensuing summer, to cause examinations, surveys and estimates to be made along the valley of the Delaware from Philadelphia, or from Bristol, or any intermediate point between Bristol and the head of tide water, to Carpenter’s Point, with the view of ascertaining the most eligible mode of effecting a navigable canal communication, and the said commissioners shall report in like manner as is directed by law in relation to other canal routes.

    Sec. 7. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That, after suitable examinations as aforesaid, by competent engineers, it should appear to the board of canal commissioners that a navigable canal can be constructed between a point at or near Philadelphia, or at Bristol, or any intermediate point between Bristol and the head of tide water and at a point at or near the borough of Easton, then, with the consent of the governor, the board of canal commission-men are hereby authorized and required, in behalf of this commonwealth, during the ensuing year, to locate and contract for making a portion of said navigable communication, the expense of which shall not exceed one hundred thousand dollars, and such locks, and other works, as may be necessary thereto; Provided the average expense thereof shall not exceed twelve thousand dollars per mile, and the further sum of one hundred thousand dollars is hereby appropriated towards the accomplishment of the aforesaid object, to be paid in like manner, as is provided for by the nineteenth section of this act; Provided that the existing natural navigation of the river Delaware shall not be obstructed or injured by the construction of said canal. []
  2. The lift-locks are eleven feet wide and ninety-five long, clear, in the chambers, &c. They are constructed of rubble masonry laid in cement, on timber bottoms with longitudinal sills and upright posts, faced with plank spiked to the timbers. The tide lock at Bristol, guard lock at Easton, and the outlet lock into the river Delaware from the pool at Easton are twenty-two feet wide by one hundred feet long, clear, in the chambers. The guard lock at New Hope is eighteen feet by one hundred feet and affords a communication with the Delaware. []
  3. For description of these boats. see Dr. B. F. Fackenthal, Jr., in “Improving Navigation on the Delaware River,” 1932; John A. Anderson in “Navigation on the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers,” 1912, and R. Francis Rapp in “Lehigh and Delaware Division Canal Notes,” 1916, Papers Read before The Bucks County Historical Society, Vol. VI, pp. 103-230; Vol IV, pp. 283-312; Vol. IV, pp. 600-606. []

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