Quest for Coal Fueled Canal Fever
By Steve Wartenberg of the Intelligencer
First Place for 2001
Steve Wartenberg is a projects reporter, feature writer and columnist with The Intelligencer and The Record, which are two, two, two newspapers in one. He has written about a wide variety of topics over the years, including: James Michener, the Delaware Canal, the malpractice insurance crisis, What Workers Want, how people eat pancakes, his quest to rid the world of fake turkey, all the cool names kids call their grandparents and stealing pens from the office.

Pennsylvania was once crisscrossed by man-made waterways used to transport coal and goods. Today, the 59-mile Delaware Canal is a living, though ailing, remnant of that era. this was the first installment of a five-part series in the Intelligencer. It is our winner in the newspaper writing, daily category.


It's a delicate, fragile ribbon, 59 miles long, only 40 to 50 feet wide as it stretches from Easton to Bristol, through scenery so beautiful it often takes your breath away.

Itıs also a ribbon of history, one that reaches back more than 170 years, to a time when a young, confident country was bursting at the seams and needed a way to get its coal down from the mountains to its cities to fuel an Industrial Revolution.

It has woven itself into the very fabric of Bucks County and become an indelible part of our history and culture.

And yet, this ribbon has been ravaged by nature and neglect, taken for granted and cut apart and patched back together so many times itıs a wonder there's anything left other than a few frayed threads.

But itıs deceiving - it is stronger and more durable than it looks. In some places, the Delaware Canal and the surrounding countryside look exactly the way they looked when mules towed boats filled with coal along its banks. In other places, itıs eroded, dry, filled with garbage and covered by an endless series of roads and highways. A section of the canal in Bristol - a stretch just less than a mile long that once included locks 1, 2 and 3 and the boat basin - was paved over a long time ago. And turned into a parking lot.

A five-day series will explore the rich history of the canal, how it was saved when other canals were filled in and paved over, and how today the canal lives on, battered and bruised but still here, still flowing.

In recent years, several forces - and organizations - have come together to help the canal gain momentum, to water it from end to end, to maintain and restore it and turn it into a first-class recreational facility. Its legacy seems safe for now.

The day of the boatman is long gone, but maybe, just maybe, if you stand on the towpath and listen, with a little imagination you can hear the ancient echoes.

The rhythmic clip-clop, clip-clop of a team of mules pulling a coal-filled boat; the softer, pitter-patter, pitter-patter of a barefoot 12-year-old boy, a boatman's son, leading the mules along the towpath.

The sun is just starting to rise, but already the Delaware Canal has been buzzing with activity for several hours. Boatmen have begun their long day, one that will last until after 10 p.m., when they tie up for the night and their mules are finally unharnessed, fed, brushed and bedded down. Some boats are headed down to Bristol, and on to Philadelphia, filled with 80 or 90 tons of rock-hard anthracite coal. These barges ride low in the water.

Others are empty and ride high. Theyıre heading upstream, to Easton and then on to the Lehigh Canal for the trek to the town of Mauch Chunk (now called Jim Thorpe), to reload and do it all over again ... and again ‹ and again. Itıs the mid-1800s, and the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal - its official name back then - and the Lehigh Canal are part of a 1,300-mile system that runs through Pennsylvania, making it the canal capital of the Union.

The still of the morning is suddenly interrupted by the sound of a boatman blowing his conch shell, warning the lock keeper heıs approaching. If there's one thing these rough, tough, always-in-a-hurry boatmen hate, it's spending one minute more than is necessary at a lock. On the canal, time is money.

To the east, running parallel to the canal, separated only by a thin sliver of tree-lined land - sycamores, oaks, poplars and willows - is the mighty Delaware River. On the other side of the river are the hills and forests of New Jersey.

As a barge glides quietly by, the aroma from a pot of extra-strong coffee and a cast-iron frying pan filled with eggs and slabs of bacon frying on the deck-top stove comes wafting up the towpath. The boatman pours himself a cup of coffee and shouts over to his son, who scampers aboard to eat his hearty breakfast.

The mules? They know what to do and keep going - clip-clop, clip-clop - down the towpath.

The history of the Delaware Canal stretches back more than 250 million years to the Carboniferous Period. Much of what is now the eastern half of the United States was flat, hot and covered with lush vegetation, mostly ferns, growing in swamps. All this vegetation slowly died out, became submerged in the swamps and started to decompose.

As time passed, these carbon-rich deposits were covered by layers of sand and mud that further compressed them, producing - over the course of millions of years - coal.

Jump ahead a couple of hundred million years - through the days of the dinosaurs and when man first appeared in primitive form - to about 15,000 years ago and the end of the Pleistocene Period. Much of the northeastern United States was covered with glaciers, including a huge ice deposit at the mouth of what we now call the Delaware Water Gap. This ice acted as a dam, holding back the waters of a massive ice lake above it.

When the glaciers began to melt, the ice dam broke. Torrents of water poured through and headed south, forming the modern Delaware River, which starts in Hancock, N.Y., and runs between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, into Delaware and out into the Delaware Bay where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

At about this time, the first Native Americans were coming into the area, said Dr. Michael Stewart, an anthropology professor at Temple University. (The river) was very dynamic. It had a lot of energy and the potential to meander and cut away chunks of landscape and build other chunks of landscape, re-cutting its bed. It probably wasn't until, we're estimating, 6000 B.C. that it settled down into its present channel.

Anthracite coal has a higher carbon content, burns hotter and cleaner, and is harder than the bituminous coal mined in many places in the United States and England. It was first discovered in Pennsylvania in the early 1760s in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.

There were vast fields - billions of tons - just waiting to be mined. However, there were two problems: getting the coal down from the mountains to the big cities, and figuring out how to efficiently burn this newly discovered fossil fuel. Roads, if they even existed, were primitive, and the major mode of transportation was slow, inefficient wagons.

Enter Josiah White, a businessman and visionary, who almost single-handedly developed the coal fields and canals of eastern Pennsylvania. In the early 1800s, White owned a rolling mill, which manufactured iron, and a wire factory in Philadelphia, not far from the site of today's Philadelphia Museum of Art.

White burned bituminous coal from Virginia but became intrigued with the cheaper anthracite coal and acquired some to experiment with. Frustrated after several unsuccessful trials, a large amount of the coal was left unattended in a closed furnace to burn off. When White returned, he discovered the furnace was red hot. Anthracite coal burned best with less Oxygen.

An industry was born. White and his partner, Erskine Hazard, purchased the barely operational Lehigh Coal Co. and later started the Lehigh Navigation Co., eventually merging the two into the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co.

The company built a wagon trail from Summit Hill, high up in the mountains, down to Mauch Chunk on the Lehigh River. This trail was later turned into a gravity railroad, also known as the Switchback Railroad. Itıs considered the world's first roller coaster.

Mules pulled the coal cars back up the mountain to be reloaded. By the late 1800s, Mauch Chunk was known as "Little Switzerland" and ranked behind only Niagara Falls as America's most popular tourist destination. People from all over came to ride the Switchback Railroad.

While all this was going on up in the mountains, canal fever was starting to grip the United States. Canals were nothing new, even back then.

More than 2,000 years ago, canals were built in China and in Egypt (linking the Nile River and Red Sea); the Greeks and Romans built canals throughout northern Europe and in England; France built miles of canals in the 1600s; Russia built a canal connecting St. Petersburg and the Caspian Sea in the 1700s.

And then there was the Erie Canal, the first major canal in this country. Work started in 1817 and was completed in 1825. The canal stretched 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo - and Lake Erie - with a navigable link from Albany straight down the Hudson River to New York.

As anticipated, the Erie Canal quickly made New York's harbor the country's busiest, which meant money and jobs. Before the Erie Canal opened, panic gripped many Pennsylvanians, especially businessmen in Philadelphia, which had once been home to the nation's busiest port.

As early as 1791, canals were considered for Pennsylvania, but it wasn't until 1825 - with the Erie Canal nearly completed - that the state legislature authorized the formation of a Board of Canal Commissioners, whose mission was to oversee the development of a statewide system of canals.

White had already formed the Schuylkill Navigation Co. by this time, and the company had built and was operating a canal that ran from Manayunk in Philadelphia through Montgomery County and north to Port Carbon. It was a total of 108 miles, including 62 miles of canals and 46 miles of pools and channels in the river. White and the LC&N were also at work digging the Lehigh Canal, which ran 46 miles from Mauch Chunk to Easton. There were also ambitious plans for a state-built system of canals (with railroad links in a few areas) that would run from Philadelphia through the Allegheny Mountains and all the way to Pittsburgh.

On April 9, 1827, a bill sponsored by Col. Peter Ihire, a state senator representing Easton, authorized construction of the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal. It would link up with the Lehigh Canal in Easton and provide a link from Mauch Chunk all the way to Philadelphia.

Canal fever was going strong; Pennsylvania was ready to answer the challenge of the Erie Canal.