Coal boats to everywhere

Canal Fest celebrates the D&H

Posted 8/31/21

HAWLEY, PA — It’s a small space, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet. And it seems full-to-bursting with two people, a bed, a table.  

That’s roughly the size of the …

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Coal boats to everywhere

Canal Fest celebrates the D&H


HAWLEY, PA — It’s a small space, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet. And it seems full-to-bursting with two people, a bed, a table.  

That’s roughly the size of the family’s cabin on a 19th-century canal boat, but with a lot more people.

At the Wayne County Historical Society’s Canal Fest on August 21, held at the Lock 31 historical site in Hawley, you could see it for yourself, and imagine what it was like to spend time on one of those boats.

“It was a hard life,” said Susie Kasper, a ranger with the National Park Service. That day, though, she’d traded her uniform for 19th century garb, a skirt and shirt, and stood under a tent in a space that replicated a cabin on a canal boat. She was interpreting the lives of the families who piloted those boats on the Delaware and Hudson canal, carrying coal from Scranton-area mines to Hudson River markets.

The Gravity Railroad brought the coal to Honesdale, and the canal picked it up, shipping anthracite over water, following the Lackawaxen River till it hit the Delaware. Then it followed that river to the Hudson, then up to the city.

The whole was the brainchild of the Wurts brothers, particularly William Wurts, and grew over the years to become the D&H Railway.

But first, the canal. The National Park Service says it was originally “32 feet across at the top, 20 feet at the bottom, with a depth of four feet; its... locks could accommodate 20- to 30-ton- capacity boats.” The boats were often owned by families, and were  pulled along by mules, driven by the family, often by children. (For more on those children, who were sometimes orphans brought into a family to work, see the River Reporter’s Summer 2021 Upper Delaware magazine).

Running a canal boat meant long days for the whole family, working six days a week, from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. some days, Kasper said. Boats were slow, and the round trip took seven to 10 days.

“They did have Sundays off,” she said.

Food could be bought from lock tenders (there were 108 locks on the canal) or from stores along the way.

There was more to see at the festival, of course, much of it shedding light on the history of the canal and the region’s present challenges. Penn State had a display on the spotted lanternfly, an invasive, destructive pest. There were craft projects to do, demonstrations to watch, and live music. A large crowd meandered past the tents and along the trails canalside, or in the grassy remains of the canal itself. (The water is long gone, creating a space for walking.)

The Daniels Farmhouse, built in the early 19th century, now houses the Lock 31 shop. Lived in by the Daniels family for many years, the post-and-beam house has also been a store that served the canal-boat families.

In the book-signing area, S. Robert Powell, head of the Carbondale Historical Society and expert on the Gravity Railroad, talked about the first half of the coal-delivery system. “It was part of the same company [the Delaware and Hudson] and was shipping four million tons of coal by the end of the 19th century,” he said. “America was in its first energy crisis.”

As in, desperate for coal.

“‘More coal, more coal’ cities said,” Powell explained. “The market expanded north into Canada. We have receipts from New Orleans.”

Finally, market pressure forced the Delaware and Hudson to focus on the railroads for coal transport. Boats simply couldn’t carry enough to meet needs, he said.

In 1868, the D&H contracted with the Erie to build a line north from Carbondale, connecting to the Erie main line at Lanesboro, according to the NEPA Rail-Trail Council. That led to an expansion of service, shipping coal far and wide, not to mention passengers, food, and the myriad other things carried by the D&H or its partners.

In 1991, Canadian Pacific acquired the then-bankrupt railway for $35 million, according to an AP story at the time. In 2015, Norfolk Southern acquired the south line of the D&H Railway.

It was the end of an era.

The company, Powell said, had done a great deal of good. It donated land for parks, for churches, and looked after its employees. “They affected for the better every community they served.”

canal boat, Wayne County Historical Society, Canal Fest, Lock 31, coal mines, Gravity Railroad, Lackawaxen River, Delaware River, Hudson River, Wurts brothers, D&H Railway


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