The Delaware & Hudson Canal operated from October of 1828 to November 5, 1898 when Captain Frank Hensberger guided the last canal boat on its final voyage. For seventy years canal boats traveled the 108 miles from Honesdale to Rondout, New York and back.
The journey usually took about seven days and it was necessary to pass through 108 locks although each mile did not have a lock. It was possible to travel several miles before encountering a lock. The locks made it possible for the boat to continue to travel on the canal despite changes in elevation of the terrain.
Each lock on the canal was manned by a lock tender employed by the D&H Canal Company who lived in the company-owned lock house. As a canal boat approached the lock, the captain blew a horn to alert the lock tender. Once the boat was in the lock the lock tender closed that gates at the fore and aft of the boat and allowed water to flow into the lock to raise the boat to a higher level. When the boat had reached the desired elevation, the gates were opened and the boat continued on its way on the canal. During its years of operation the canal provided employment for hundreds of men in various capacities. Aside from the captains and lock tenders, many men worked as hands on the boats or on the docks loading and unloading coal and a variety of goods and merchandise. Men also were needed to see to the continuing maintenance, repair and improvements of the canal. A list of boatmen employed on the canal during the 1898 season includes sixty four names.
In the beginning, the D&H Canal Company owned all of the boats and the captains were employees. As the years went by some of the captains purchased their boats and contracted with the canal company to carry the freight. New boats could cost as much as $1800 but if a captain did not have enough cash to purchase the boat the company would deduct $15 for each trip as payment towards the boat. The boats owned by the canal company were only identified by number. When a captain purchased his own boat it simply might carry the owner's name or the name of a patriotic figure such as George Washington or Patrick Henry. Frequently the captain's imagination would take flight resulting in fanciful names such as Hard Times of Anyplace; Mermaid; Old Bull; No License; The Cork and even Santa Claus.
On July 17, 1938, the former canal workers held a reunion on Ridge Street in Honesdale to mark the fortieth anniversary of the closing of the canal. The festivities were held at what was known as the Old Canalers' Haven, a small building that was built in the shape of a canal boat. Kreitner Brothers constructed the canal boat for Jim Ennis, a former boatman, who operated a confectionary store at that site for many years. It was Jim Ennis, Nick Stegner and John McGinnis who came up with the idea to have a reunion of former boatmen and canal workers. The resulting celebration was declared "one of the best times in forty years" by one of the attendees.
Page 2 of 2 - The reunion was bittersweet as captains, steersmen, mule drivers, lock tenders and all canal workers gathered together to relive, if only for an afternoon, "the good old days" on the canal. Many had not seen one another since the closing of the canal. Reminiscences were shared and old friendships renewed as the old-fashioned accordion music provided by Frank Sporer and John Goodline brought back many pleasant memories. Even some of the oldest canalers took to the floor to dance the familiar canalers' hornpipe and other boisterous dances of their day. R. L. Stanton, Herm Niemeyer, Griff Harris and Larry Weidner were among those who showed the crowd that they still could dance. Patrick Weir told stories of helping his father at Lock 31 and mule driver, John McGinnis, described how to sleep on a mule's back as it walked along the tow path. To sum up the pragmatic attitude of the canalers, one old timer recited the familiar lines, "Canaler, canaler you will never get rich; you live in the mud and die in the ditch."
At lunch time the revelers sat down to the traditional canalers' meal of ham and cabbage. It took one hundred pounds of potatoes, a barrel of cabbage and fifty pounds of roasted ham to provide generous portions to the hungry crowd. One man held the record of consuming five plates of food until one of the "younger" guys ate six. It was decided to disqualify him once it became known that he had been fasting for days to prepare for the challenge. Of course, there was an abundant supply of foamy liquid to be had throughout the day and it could be safely said that a good time was had by all.
The "Plain Speaking" presenters at 5 p.m. July 12 at the Wayne County Historical Society are Mimi Steffen and Linda Lee on "The Rural Schools of Preston Township." Call 570-253-3240 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.