Matt Schickling, the Wire
During the first round of public meetings for the Delaware Canal Vision Study, one thing became abundantly clear: People want to see water in the canal.
It’s a reasonable request for something that by definition contains water, but six major floods in 10 years, lack of state funding and its 60-mile length make it difficult to maintain the canal as it was when it was first built in 1832.
“It was originally a watered system,” BIll Collins of Simone-Collins Landscape Architecture said. “As time went on, structures started to fail.”
Perhaps the reason for this is that canals are not needed now as they were through history. Several canals were built in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s as a means of transporting freight throughout the state. Their use diminished by the 1850s as railroads became the preferred means of transportation and by the end of the century, most canals were not in regular operation.
That includes the Delaware Canal, which runs along a 60-mile stretch across the state from Easton to Bristol Borough. To people in New Hope, Washington Crossing, Yardley, Morrisville, Bristol and parts of Levittown, the canal is linked to the aesthetic identity of these communities.
At the meetings, held on three consecutive nights in Riegelsville, New Hope and Morrisville, people shared memories and stories of the canal. One woman spoke about her two ancestors, who were lock-tenders. A man talked about how he used to ice skate from Stockton, New Jersey to Washington Crossing using the canal. Others reflected on visiting the park or relaxing by the water.
“We want to keep it as a historic landmark, but manage it in a modern way,” Collins said. “The water doesn’t have to be a liability—it should be an asset.”
The study is being conducted by the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor and Delaware Canal 21 to create a vision to sustain the canal. For that to happen, those involved have to identify what issues are standing in the way and find a consensus for the vision to move forward.
“It hasn’t been properly managed over time,” Harris Steinberg, a Drexel University professor who is advising the team, said. “It’s not really functioning as a canal should.”
One way to get the canal back on track is by synchronizing the organizations and groups that have a stake in it. Right now, there are about nine government agencies responsible for canal management in different capacities. The study seeks to find a way to streamline the management process, define the roles of each group and increase communication.
They also want to develop ways to use the canal proactively. Collins suggested that the effort to keep water in the canal could pay dividends. For example, the Delaware and Raritan Canal in New Jersey produces drinking water. He also spoke of the possibility of hydroelectric power.
But these developments are secondary to sustaining what is already there.
Rick Dalton, park manager at Delaware Canal State Park, said that the 60-mile greenway along the canal is an asset to the communities that surround it.
“When it’s watered, it’s a habitat for fish and reptiles. It’s great for recreation. People that live along it like to see the water and use the trail,” he said.
But through his 10-year tenure, he’s seen storms cause wall collapses, toe paths blow outs and trail erosion. These things are unavoidable, but with proper attention, the canal can be maintained and improved.
Elissa Garofalo, president of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, said that this is the impetus behind the study. The combination of historical significance and natural beauty surrounding the Delaware Canal make it something that should be sustained, and these meetings are held to make sure the public has a say in what happens. This is the beginning and there will be several more, including in November when a draft vision is presented.
Until then, the process of the study will be as transparent as possible and details will be posted on www.delawarecanalvision.org as they become available.