By David G. Barber
One of the best preserved of America's towpath canals is the Delaware Division Canal running north from tidewater at Bristol, PA, along the west side of the Delaware River, to the Lehigh River at South Easton, PA. The canal closed to navigation in 1931 at the onset of the great depression.
Immediately after its close, the southern basin at Bristol was seen as wasted space and was filled in by the Corps of Engineers, with the encouragement of the leaders of Bristol, with dredging spoil from the Delaware River and made into a parking lot. In the early 1950's,a wide section just north of the basin was filled in by the local school district without permission and a school was built on it. A little further north and also in the early 1950's, a siphon culvert and a parking lot for a new shopping center replaced a section of the canal. Further north, just after World War II, a railroad branch line and a highway to provide access to the then new Fairless steel works were built across the canal (a state park) without bridges despite bridges being built over the adjacent railroad mainline and a highway. Also, some piers and the toe of the abutment fill of the new US Route 1 bridge at Morrisville were placed in the prism. There are reports that these obstructions were done intentionally as steps towards the eventual filling in of the canal.
In New Hope, PA, a pipe culvert in Lock 10 and a fill over it replaced a dangerous bridge. That solved the traffic problem at minimum cost. A several local roads north and south of Morrisville also cross the canal on culverts at towpath height.
Today, the steel works is closed and the shopping center has been torn down and is being redeveloped. Now, anyone who would so abuse this "navigable waterway" without a bunch of "mother may I's", is hauled into court by the Corps of Engineers. However, despite much agitation and concern about water flowing in the entire canal, the canal is still being thought about as a series of small sections and rather than as a total system. As long as we talk just about hiking trails and picnic areas, the sectional view will continue. Ironically, the southern end of the canal is now included in three planned regional hiking trails.
Boating doesn't work with the segmental approach. If we start making the goal being able to travel this navigation canal by boat from tidewater to South Easton, the discussion changes. Boating is concerned about water in the entire distance. Boating involves a clear channel, working locks, and bridges with sufficient clearance. With boating, we have to defend the entire system. Boating also provides the numbers and resources to defend the resource. The Boat Owners Association of the United States has over 500,000 members.
So, what about the problems mentioned above?
One interesting fact is that the entire canal including the intrusions is still owned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as the Delaware Canal State Park. The parking lot built on the Bristol Basin was built for the Bristol downtown. The downtown was there because of the canal. The parking area is large and most of what could be a minimum width canal route is not under the pavement. Wouldn't it be a boost to the area if a sixty-foot strip along the south edge of the parking lot became a canal again?
The school might be seen as a problem. But, fifty-year-old schools are obsolete and being replaced everywhere. This school has numerous additions and many modular classrooms. How about replacing it on a different site?
That leads to the shopping center, which is also obsolete and now being replaced by a Home Depot and other stores. Home Depot and the redeveloper had an opportunity to fix a fifty-year old mistake. Instead, they have shown a great lack of imagination despite local agitation. How about replacing the siphon culverted canal with a restored canal and park? Dealing with the entrance road, which crosses the canal below towpath grade, will be expensive, but the gain would be great. It could be eliminated or even run under the canal and the adjacent US Route 13. As a company, Home Depot would even be able to brag about it.
Progress is being made. Last year, the concrete aqueduct at Point Pleasant was replaced with a wooden one of navigable width. The new aqueduct has won several awards. Groundhog Lock was rebuilt, but without the lower gates. In March, I observed that the canal was watered its entire length, something I hadn't seen before. However, the US Rte. 1 obstruction remains despite a completed design and plans to do the work in 2001.
As everywhere, the Friends of the Delaware Canal and the state park folks have had trouble securing funds to do all that is needed. However, this state park is the third most visited one in Pennsylvania. I have come to the conclusion that part of the problem is that we are thinking too small and asking for too little. Let's be up front now. We want to boat from Bristol to Easton and soon!
Recently, a retired national trucking company CEO proved my point. He didn't like having a dry canal past his retirement home at the northern end of the canal and didn't like what he learned when he asked questions. So he formed a non-profit corporation to support the canal and park. So far they have raised over $ 4 million in private contributions. Their goal is $ 30 million. With a big vision and the right people, a great deal is possible.
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