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Delaware Division Canal

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The Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal, also known as the Delaware Division or the Delaware Canal, was born out of the need to move coal out of the mines in northeast Pennsylvania. The idea of the canal began in the mid-1820s when the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company suggested a lateral canal from the Main Line system, to connect with their Lehigh Canal. After its construction, it was mainly used to haul coal southward down into Philadelphia. When the state divested itself of its canal interests, the LC&N purchased the canal, and continued to run it into the 1930s. Today, the full length of the canal is a State Park, with the majority of it still navigable.


The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company was born on February 13, 1822 out of the Lehigh Coal Company and the Lehigh Navigation Company.[1] It was formed to move coal out of the mines in the northeast, down to the Delaware River. However, the problem then became getting it from Easton, Pennsylvania, to either New York or Philadelphia. Starting in 1823, the company began to petition the state of Pennsylvania for a canal down the Delaware River to Philadelphia.

In 1827, three surveys were conducted for a possible canal leading south from Easton. From these surveys came the question of whether it should be a 56-mile canal terminating in Tullytown, or a 60-mile canal terminating in Bristol. Ultimately, water hazards north of Bristol were used as a reason to choose the 60-mile plan with an estimated cost of $686,596. Construction on this plan was begun on October 27, 1827. The canal system was basically completed at the end of 1830, with a cost to that point of $1,195,558.92. However, there were notable sections that had not been finished yet; in 1831, $97,339.51 was sent on repairs and additional water sources for the canal.[1] The sand and gravel channel leaked badly, and it was determined that the lowland section of the canal below New Hope had been designed to be too shallow. An additional water inlet in New Hope was designed and built to fix this error. The entire cost of the canal was $1,454,936,63.

The close of 1832 saw the canal completed and fully watered, with boats traversing the entire length. The canal was 60 miles long, and had 23 locks, a guard lock at Easton, a dam and outlet lock at Easton, and a basin, pier and tide lock at Bristol. It had 110 overhead bridges, 9 aqueducts and 20 culverts.[2]

Operation by the State

While it was judged fully operational in 1832, the canal had its setbacks. Three floods in 1833 rendered large sections unusable, and took months to repair. The canal was in use again by 1834, and started to see profitability for the next several years. In addition to the LC&N moving coal southward, a company was formed to move produce along the canal, and there was even an attempt to provide passenger traffic. There were additional floods in 1839 and 1841 which again caused large amounts of damage to the canal. However, the system as a whole remained profitable event through this period.

As an example, in 1846, 7,907 boats moved through Easton. Bristol saw 8,275 boats. 453,643 tons of anthracite, 15,613,970 feet of cut lumber, 157,328 barrels of flour and 584,247 gallons of whiskey were moved south from Easton, along with other goods. At the same time, boats up from Bristol moved tobacco, whiskey and foreign liquors, 29,925 pounds of mahogany wood, iron machinery and all manner of finished goods.[3]

Even though it was profitable, there was a major flaw with the Delaware Division in the eyes of the LC&N: its locks. The Lehigh Canal had been designed with 22-foot wide locks. The Delaware Division had been designed with 11-foot locks, even over the loud objections of the LC&N. As the company tried to increase its coal output through the 1840s, this became a major issue. Alternate routes, linking to the Morris Canal, or the Delaware and Raritan Canal were considered, to cut out some or all of the Delaware's travel. In response to this, a call for deepening the Delaware Division began in 1847. This spawned a decade of suggestions, proposals and reports on how to increase traffic on the canal, increasingly viewed as at capacity. Some advocated increasing the length of the locks, others suggested merging locks together. While some expansion of the canal actually occurred in the early 1850s, for the most part debate continued up until the sale of the canal.

Following the financial crises that Pennsylvania experienced in the 1840s, there was a strong push for the state to divest itself of its canal works. The Delaware Division was the lone profitable endeavor, keeping it safe from sale for a period. However, once the Main Line was finally sold, the rest of the canals were at the end of the road. All the lateral works were sold to the Sunbury and Erie Railroad for $3,500,000 on April 21, 1858. On July 10, 1858, the S&E sold the canal for $1,775,000 to the newly-formed Delaware Division Canal Company.[1]

Private Ownership

On August 20, 1866, the Delaware Division Canal company leased the canal for 99 years to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, which proceeded to operate it until 1931.[4] However, by that time, the canal had already had its most profitable year. There were a series of floods in the 1860s, and again in 1870, that hampered navigation and reduced profits. Further, railroads became a much more efficient means of transportation.

Even with these problems, the Delaware Division continued to operate. It experienced a boom during the 1880s, including boats from New Jersey carrying iron ore. This had dissipated by the 1890s, and in the 1900s the canal was forced to lessen tolls to compete with the railroads. Next, there were a series of high waters and floods from 1901 to 1906, decreasing the amount of boats able to traverse the canal and piling up reconstruction costs. This entire period, the canal posted a loss. From this point on, the canal saw an overall decline in traffic and revenue. This increased in the 1920s, when there was a combination of high-water and low-water problems in the canal. In 1931, the LC&N turned away from the increasing difficulty in maintaining both the canal and a trained workforce, and moved fully to railroads.

A Rocky Rebirth

In 1931, Pennsylvania took ownership of a 40-mile stretch of the canal bed, towing path and berm bank of the canal from the Delaware Division Canal Company.[5] This section was named Theodore Roosevelt State Park. At this time that it was decided all the bridges on the canal would be preserved in their current style. Later in the 1930s the Borough of Bristol acquired the canal basin, and filled it in to create a parking lot. It seemed that other regions might meet a similar fate, and in 1933 the Delaware Valley Protective Association was formed. This organization pushed for the entire length of the canal to be gathered up, kept watered and operating, and maintained as a park.

In 1936, the state worried about the cost of upkeep on the 40-mile stretch of canal it had taken, along with having to repair the recently collapsed aqueduct at Point Pleasant. It attempted to revert the entire section back to the Delaware Division Canal Company. The Company, along with the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, refused to take ownership or provide upkeep. This escalated to a suit in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, culminating in passing the canal back to the LC&N. Legal wrangling ensued as to who should own and operate the canal. Finally, on December 18, 1940, the entire Delaware Division canal property was deeded to the state.

The period since has seen much rebuilding on the canal, attempting to restore water to the full length; at the same time, there have been numerous floods and breaches along the canal, along with several aqueduct collapses. In 1982, the Friends of the Delaware Canal was formed to help oversee the canal.[6] In 1989, the park consisting of the canal was renamed to Delaware Canal State Park. At present, the canal is watered along its length from Lock 4 northward all the way to Easton. The section south of that, down to the canal basin and tidal lock in Bristol, is filled in, but there are currently plans to have it cleared and rebuilt.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Albright G. Zimmerman (2002) Pennsylvania's Delaware Division Canal: Sixty Miles of Euphoria and Frustration ISBN 0930973267
  2. William H. Shank, P.E. (2001) The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals ISBN 0933788371
  3. Hubertis M. Cummings (1954) Pennsylvania History, Vol. 21 - Pennsylvania: Network of Canal Ports
  4. Ann Bartholomew and Lance E. Metz (1989) Delaware and Lehigh Canals ISBN 0930973097
  5. Pennsylvania State Parks - Delaware Canal State Park
  6. Friends of the Delaware Canal

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