For Christmas, Diane gave me “The Delaware Canal: from stone coal highway to historic landmark,” by Marie Murphy Duess. It’s a typical History Press (2008) imprint. There wasn’t much new for me but refreshed many Canal memories.
I grew up near the Delaware canal and have lived near it most of my life. Currently the canal is across a back street beyond our yard. Since retirement, I walk on it several days a week. Growing up we lived in a Bristol Mill Street apartment over several store fronts owned by my grandfather. The area behind us was part of the canal basin, the end of the line for many coal filled canal boats. I have a foggy recollection of the basin being filled in during the early 1950s when the river was dredged to make way for iron ore ships headed for Fairless Steel, just south of Morrisville. The area became the Mill Street parking lot.
There was a small section of the canal with water at the head of Mill street. We played and fished it. I also remember falling in one day. Rather than being caught by my mother, I dried the wet clothes in a dryer in a wharehouse under our apartment. My family owned a General Electric appliance store on Mill. The wharehouse was filled with appliances. I’m not sure if I used a new dryer or one that was hooked up for my mother in a small laundry room. Whichever my fall in the canal was kept a secret.
Sometimes we walked the canal bed and towpath through town. A large section was filled in the 1950s to create land for the new Warren Snyder Elementary School. There were still coal bins along the right of way, for the canal or railroad spar that ran adjacent. Years later students in a Canal Camp that I organized interviewed Bristol residents about their canal memories. Carl Nelson, who was about 90 at the time, sheepishly admitted to one 5th grader that he was the contractor responsible for filling it the canal in Bristol. He no longer thought that it was a good idea. Beyond the school was a section of watered canal that flowed past the Grundy Mill into the Lagoon — a small town park today.
I have several clear memories of a Boy Scout canoe trip I took on the canal. Not sure where we started but the first night we camped right on the towpath near Woodside road. The Scudder’s Falls bridge on I-95 had just been completed (1959) but was not yet opened for traffic. In the dark we climbed up on the bridge and walked out to the middle of the Delaware River. There must have been some lights but I remember it was extremely erie.
The last night on the way back we camped on the towpath in Washington Crossing State Park. It started to rain and I don’t think we had tents, so we climbed under the canoes. The rain pinged on the the canoes but we were dry and them someone called out, “Hey guys, these canoes are aluminum, lightening you know!” I think we stayed under them.
At New Hope we crossed into the river. I’m not sure how far up river we traveled or where we slept the second night. I will nerver forget the cross back into the canal on our way home. We were dragging the canoes across a stretch of land at Chez Odette’s — the same place we had crossed the day before. Only this time we heard a woman’s shrill voice. “Get off my property, get off, you aren’t allowed there.” Our leaders informed us it was the French, singer-actress, Odette, who was opening a restaurant there. Even today when I drive past I can hear her scream.
The canal in the Bowman’s Tower section of Washington Crossing State Park was a favorite Sunday family picnic spot. We would walk along the canal, climb Bowman’s hill and tower. There was no elevator then. Father grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. I think picnics to this area ended after my mother was attacked by yellow jackets. Years later I saw aa amazingly large woodpecker there. A park employee told me, “Oh, that’s our Pileated Woodpecker.” The first and only time I ever saw one.
In 1970 Diane and I rented a house on Canal Street in Yardley. It was a small colonial next to the original Borough Hall and lock-up. We had been attending Quaker Meeting and met Sid Cadwallader who introduced us to the house and Helen Leedom who collected our rent from her desk in the lumber company at the head of the street along the canal.
Although we only lived in the house for just over a year, we have many pleasant memories. There was one of the earliest Harvest festivals on the street. A Bucks County Guild of Craftsmen woodcarver, Maurice Ganter, set up in front of our house. At the end of the day he gave us a small carved fish. It still hangs in our bedroom window. The house was charming with a workshop area ground level. I actually ran a small summer camp for about 6 students in the room (I was teaching elementary school at Saint Michael’s in Levittown).
We had a fireplace and narrow curved steps that led to two rooms on the second floor. We hosted at least one large party. Diane bred and sold Labrador pups; the old library on Lake Afton was a favorite walk especially on cold snowy nights; we had a small flower garden. Our neighbors had a canoe that we were free to use. On our first canal trip we were attacked by young teens swimming near the Afton Avenue bridge. I seriously thought they were going to tip the canoe. We moved after deciding to rent a house in New Hope with John and Barbara Paglione.
Our Old York rental was outside of town but we frequently walked on the canal towpath. There were several shops and a canalside restaurant that we enjoyed. We could walk south to Washington Crossing or north to Center Bridge. We also discovered the Black Bass in Lumberville and the Golden Pheasant in Erwinna. For our budget these were expensive but we ate in them several times. We also took Many bike trips; sometimes riding for hours.
In 1977 Jenny was born, Paglione’s moved to Ann Arbor, MI and we bought 121 N. Delaware Avenue in Yardley. Our property was river front and the canal was across the street (Morgan Avenue) from the back yard. Our access was through an empty lot or walking a block south to the Mary Yardley foot bridge. Built to access the trolley on Main Street and critical Today during floods. We pushed Jen in a baby carriage into town, walked and rode bikes on the towpath. Sometimes all the way to Bristol or north to New Hope. Jen had a kids’ seat on the rear of Diane’s bike. On one trip there was another attack near the College Avenue bridge. This time it was several Canada Geese.
Around 1980 I answered a local Yardley News ad — volunteers needed for Canal clean up. I remember Rick, the Council President, in a truck as we picked up trash along the canal. Near Lock 5 and the Railroad Bridge I pulled out an old tire, throwing it on top a pile of trash, it made a Courier Times photo op. Meeting a number of community leaders led me to apply to council for a position. I was initially appointed to an opening on the Cable TV Commission. Within a year I agreed to run for Borough Council.
I served eight years on Borough Council. My running mate was Susan Taylor who would get a position as Director of the Friends of the Delaware Canal. A position Susan still holds decades later. For about 10 plus years I became active in several community organizations — the Yardley Historical Association, Community Center, Friends of Lake Afton and I served on the board of the Friends of the Delaware Canal. There were many activities and issues. Sometimes I helped lead the annual Canal walks; clean up days; membership programs and annual auctions. I shot a lot of canal photographs.
In the 1990s I was hired by the Friends (with a State grant) to develop educational materials about the canal. The state educational interpreter was basically an environmental educator and the hope was that she could also be encouraged to do some historical interpretation. For two summers myself and an elementary science teacher, Trish Rienes, piloted a week long summer camp for 4th and 5th grade students. Trish and I spent a summer developing a variety of lessons and activities exploring the canal from Bristol to Easton.
Working on this project immersed me totally in the history and culture of the canal. It was a lot of fun and I think the kids involved in the camps had a great experience. We discovered a delightful age appropriate book, “Tune for the Towpath,” and developed a variety of reading and language arts activities. We learned and then taught about material culture and archaeology related to the canal. We hired an art teacher to have kids make a paper mural while riding on a canal boat in New Hope. I interviewed a former lock tender and students interviewed senior Bristol residents related to growing up in that canal town. We developed and took kids on canal centric walking tours of Bristol,, Yardley and New Hope. We did environmental surveys of the canal and learned about local flora and fauna. We visited the Canal Museum in Easton and rode on the canal boat on the Lehigh Canal.
Trish took our canal curriculum back to Pen Ryn where she taught and Bonnie Tobin, the state educator, and a few others used some of the material. Our materials were given to the Friends but time passed and we never published the curriculum. Some years later a formal canal curriculum was published by another educator. I used many of the ideas, activities and lessons in a college class, Teaching Social Studies in Elementary School, that I taught for many years at Holy Family University. Hundreds of elementary school teachers learned about the Delaware Canal.
In recent years my canal related activity for the most part has settled into an easy pattern. I’ve enjoyed introducing my grandson, Eli to fishing in the canal. On his first time out several years ago he hooked a small sunny within ten minutes. His sister Viv provided the worm dug from our garden. Several years ago we turned our canoe into a fairy boat. Eli and Viv with their father competed in the canal festival boat decorating competition. We’ve also had flooding from the canal in early 2000s. The worse was in 2006 when canal and river met — our house was in the middle.
Since retirement in 2014, I try to walk most days and it is frequently along the canal. I’m slower but can walk to town (Eli and Viv like trips to Cramer’s bakery) or I can head to lock 6, or Woodside road, sometimes to lock 7. Some days I’ll take pictures to post on Facebook — changing seasons, birds and animals, water abstractions. Since my surgery I’ve been slower but try for an hour walk. Diane gets tired of the same route and frequently takes the dog for a drive-walk. The canal at Washington Crossing is a favorite. For the past few years we’ve enjoyed walking the canal in Yardley during Canal O Ween when locals compete and display hundreds of carved pumpkins. It’s pretty amazing.
A drive along the canal and river is still an outing. We celebrated our 50 anniversary last year with a family brunch at the Black Bass. We’ve bought several original Bucks County oil paintings — several are canal scenes. And several times a year we go to the Mitchener, always enjoying Bucks County art, including canal paintings. As much as I enjoy to explore new things, I take total enjoyment in the familiar. Each step I take walking the canal evokes a memory.
This reminds me, I have a box of books and memorabilia about the canal in the basement that I need to sort and hundreds of slides. More memories.