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March 27, 2015
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Not your great-great-grandfather’s river; How times have changed

These bark peelers are hard at work supplying hemlock bark for the tanning industry. In 1900 Pennsylvania was the largest leather-producing state in the nation. (Photo taken in the Hammersely region of Clinton County, PA.)
Photo courtesy PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

By Greg Belcamino

We think of the Delaware and its tributaries as the locale of some of the very best trout fishing in the east, but the area and its angling would be unrecognizable to its earliest anglers. Even though the region remains relatively unpopulated, the river has been transformed by a series of man-made events. And although the angling is now perhaps better than it has been in many years (the 2012 trout season, because of an unusually mild and dry winter, will be remembered as legendary), it is far different from what it had been before settlement by Europeans.

Historically, the only trout in the Delaware and its tributaries were brook trout (which is actually a char, and not a true trout). Brook trout require cold, clean water. The scientific name for the brook trout is Salvelinus fontinalis, or “char of the springs,” and they lived in the smaller headwater streams where temperatures were suitable.

Settlement brought with it industry, transforming the landscape and habitat for the native trout. Perhaps the most destructive industry was tanning, which required bark from native hemlocks as a raw material for tanning hides brought mainly from South America. Enormous tracts of large hemlock were killed for their bark, and the disappearance of these trees led to greater erosion and less shade for the rivers, and consequently higher water temperatures unfavorable for the native brook trout. In addition, waste from the tanneries created pollution that further damaged brook trout habitat, driving them farther into the headwaters.

After the tanning industry went into decline in the second half of the nineteenth century, other assaults on the rivers continued. Precursors to the modern chemical industry, acid factories appeared on the rivers, along with charcoal kilns, both requiring large quantities of wood and producing pollution, so that deforestation continued. (One well-known pool on the Beaverkill is called “Acid Factory.”) By the late nineteenth century, much of the original forest of the Delaware River basin was gone, and its rivers were warmer and their waters less pure. Historical photos show a landscape devoid of trees that would be unrecognizable to either 17th- or 21st-century visitors. (The impacts of industry on the Delaware tributaries are well documented in Ed Van Put’s two books, “Trout Fishing in the Catskills” and “The Beaverkill.”)