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What is the Delaware Canal?

By Britt Archer
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Delaware Canal is a manmade waterway located in eastern Pennsylvania in the United States. It stretches 60 miles (about 96 kilometers) from Bristol to Easton. The canal runs parallel to the Delaware River, and more than half its length is located 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 a year in some 3,000 boat trips.

Construction of the canal began in 1827 and was completed in 1832. Immigrant laborers, mostly of Irish descent, made up much of the workforce. They dug the canal by hand for less than $1 US Dollars (USD) a day and made and additional quarter of $1 USD (25 cents) for each tree stump they removed from the ground. Many of the men perished during construction, some in accidents, others after contracting cholera.

The Delaware Canal has 24 locks. Like an elevator powered by water, the locks raised and lowered the boats through the 165-foot (about 50-meter) difference in elevation between the canal's northern and southern ends. Only one lock remains operational after a $1.2 million USD restoration in 2005.

Originally the locks were narrow, only 11 feet wide (about 3.4 meters), and allowed only one boat at a time to pass. Impatient boatmen who wanted to finish their trip and collect their pay sometimes ended up in fistfights to determine who would enter a lock first. In 1852, when the toll at some of the locks was 2 cents, some of the locks were increased to 22 feet (almost 7 meters). Widening the locks helped decrease fights among boatmen, increase traffic flow and increase toll collections, according to the Friends of the Delaware Canal.

The coal distributed by the Delaware Canal came from western Pennsylvania. It was shipped down the Lehigh Canal and into Easton. From there, it traveled the Delaware Canal south to Bristol. From Bristol, the coal was shipped via the river to Philadelphia, about 20 miles (about 32 kilometers) away. Or, if the ultimate 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 rise of railroads. By 1931, its last year of operation, the canal was losing money and operating in the red. Five years later, a flood caused significant damage to the canal.

The canal changed hands several times. In 1940, its owner donated it to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Today, the Delaware Canal is used for recreation and to attract tourism. The canal is a National Heritage Landmark and the towpath, where mules walked beside the canal and pulled the boats, has been designated a National Heritage Trail.

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