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Historical Context: The Delaware and Hudson Canal

Larry Lowenthal, National Park Service

New York built a superb canal system, which reached nearly every major city in the state. These canals were owned and operated by the state, and any profit they earned went into the state treasury. 

In addition, New York was home to an important privately owned canal. This was the Delaware and Hudson, which began in northeastern Pennsylvania and entered New York through the Delaware Valley. At Port Jervis it turned and went overland to reach the Hudson River at the port of Rondout, part of Kingston. Ships and barges moved coal from Rondout down the Hudson to New York City. This was a circuitous way to bring coal to market, but mountains made a more direct path impossible. 

This canal was built mainly to carry anthracite, or hard coal, from mines in the Lackawanna Valley of Pennsylvania to markets in New York City and New England. Unlike powdery soft coal, anthracite burned hot and clean. It was valued for home heating and industrial use, especially as cities exhausted nearby wood supplies. 

The Wurts brothers owned coal mines and conceived the idea of building a canal. Other mines provided too much competition in their home city of Philadelphia, so they looked to New York City for a market. Many New Yorkers understood that their fast-growing city needed a large supply of anthracite and were willing to invest money in the project. They formed the Delaware and Hudson Company in 1823. 

It was impossible to build a canal the whole distance between the mines and the Hudson River because a steep mountain stood in the way. The canal could be built only as far as Honesdale, Pennsylvania. From there to the mines, more than 16 miles, the engineers built a “gravity railroad." Horses and cables powered by steam engines and the force of gravity moved empty and loaded railcars up and down the steep track. The total length of railway and canal was almost 125 miles. The cost of building this combination canal and rail system was greater than the company's engineers had expected. The company could not raise additional money, so it requested help from New York State. The state government agreed to loan the Delaware and Hudson enough money to complete the railway's construction. Although the Delaware and Hudson was a private venture, it probably could not have been completed without the help of the state of New York. 

The Delaware and Hudson Canal opened in 1828, and the gravity railway a year later. Although the canal was built mainly to carry coal, it was also available to haul lumber and other freight. Originally, there were few people living along the canal route. Soon, however, busy towns sprang up along the canal, creating jobs and opportunities for new businesses. 

One of these towns was Honesdale. Before the canal opened, only a couple of families lived at “Forks of the Dyberry.” Five years after the canal opened, the population of the town exceeded 1,200. Honesdale was named for Philip Hone, a wealthy New Yorker who was the first president of the Delaware and Hudson. Other towns such as Port Jervis (named for one of the company engineers) and Wurtsboro carry on the memory of the canal. 

Jason Torrey was one of those who grasped the new opportunities the canal created. Born in Massachusetts, he had explored and surveyed large areas of northeastern Pennsylvania and owned much of the land on which Honesdale was built. He was a true “adventurer," a risk-taking investor. He also encouraged others who hoped to make their fortunes in an expanding new land. 

For many years the Delaware and Hudson Canal faced challenges from railroads, other canals, natural disasters, and political opposition. Only in the 1840s did the canal begin to produce large profits for its investors. In later years, the Delaware and Hudson Company built railroads and grew into a railroad company that still exists. The Delaware and Hudson Canal gradually shrank in importance. In 1898, the company shipped its last boatload of coal on the canal. 

The Delaware and Hudson Company became one of the largest businesses of its day and one of the first to be worth more than $1 million. It was also an innovative company, willing to try new technology and new ideas. For example, the company bought steam locomotives in England for use on the gravity railway. Although this experiment was a failure, it was the first time a full-sized locomotive ran in the United States. Later, the company spent years developing steamboats that could burn anthracite fuel. It also pioneered business methods still in use today by large corporations.