What’s the Delaware Canal?

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The Delaware Canal is a 60-mile man-made waterway in Pennsylvania. Mule-drawn boats distributed coal and goods in the 1800s, and immigrant workers dug the canal by hand. The canal has 24 locks, and only one remains operational after restoration. The canal’s importance faded with railways, and it is now used for recreation and tourism.

The Delaware Canal is a man-made waterway located in eastern Pennsylvania in the United States. It stretches 60 miles (about 96 kilometres) from Bristol to Easton. The canal runs parallel to the Delaware River and more than half of its length is in Bucks County. Mule-drawn boats were used in the canal to distribute anthracite coal and other goods in the 1800s and early 1900s. During its busiest years, it moved more than four million tons of coal annually in about 3,000 boat trips .

Construction of the canal began in 1827 and was completed in 1832. Immigrant workers, mostly of Irish descent, made up a large part of the workforce. They dug the canal by hand for less than 1 US dollar (USD) a day and earned an extra quarter (1 cent) for every tree stump they removed from the ground. Many of the men perished during construction, some in accidents, some after contracting cholera.

The Delaware Canal has 24 locks. Like a water-powered elevator, the locks raised and lowered boats across the 165-foot (about 50 meters) drop between the north and south ends of the canal. Only one lock remains operational after a $1.2 million dollar restoration in 2005.

Originally the locks were narrow, only 11 feet (about 3.4 meters) wide and allowed only one vessel to pass at a time. Impatient boatmen who wanted to finish their voyage and collect their pay sometimes ended in brawls to determine who would enter a lock first. In 1852, when the toll on some locks was 2 cents, some locks were raised to 22 feet (almost 7 meters). According to Friends of the Delaware Canal, widening the locks has helped reduce squabbles among boatmen, increase traffic flow and increase tolls.

The coal distributed by the Delaware Canal came from western Pennsylvania. It was shipped up the Lehigh Canal and into Easton. From there, it traveled the Delaware Channel south to Bristol. From Bristol, coal was shipped across the river to Philadelphia, about 20 miles (about 32 kilometers) away. Or, if the final destination was New Jersey, the boats crossed the Delaware River to the Raritan Canal through a lock located in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

The canal’s importance began to fade with the advent of the railways. By 1931, its last year of operation, the canal was losing money and operating in the red. Five years later, a flood caused severe damage to the canal.
The channel changed hands several times. In 1940, its owner donated it to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Today, the Delaware Canal is used for recreation and for attracting tourism. The canal is a National Heritage Landmark and the towpath, where mules walked along the canal and pulled boats, has been designated a National Heritage Trail.

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