By Peter Becker
HAWLEY- Both Honesdale and Hawley, Pennsylvania rapidly developed in their early years not because of trains or busy highways, but around the activity of boats. Not close to shore or even a lake (Lake Wallenpaupack had not even been thought about), these towns had no harbors.
They a steady stream of had long, narrow wooden boats traveling a canal connecting them and serving as a conduit of commerce to the outside world.
Not many photographs have surfaced focusing on the canal boats in Hawley, or of the grand basin carved along what would be named Hudson Street. We lack pictures of the industry in Hawley centered on building canal boats, led by Levi Barker alongside the basin.
How we would love to see more images of Hawley's heyday as a canal boat hub, which included the terminus of the grand Pennsylvania Coal Company (PCC) Gravity Railroad. Tantalizing pictures of the gravity rail system beg us to compare with the existing maps of the operation.
We have just enough, coupled with our town as its stands today, to imagine the tough-skinned workers, toiling with the transfer of coal, the families bringing in the canal boats, the housewives trying to keep the clothes clean on the line with every cloud of coal dust. We can imagine the company whistles, the shouts as men communicated their orders, the deafening crash of coal being loaded or the squeals of gravity rail car wheels on the track and stationary steam engines roaring to life to haul up the empty cars- as well as passenger coaches loaded with merry passengers.
Picture the tired and grimy Irish and German men as they trudged home at the end of another long day at the coal pockets or canal basin. Many of the Irish lived on Shanty Hill (Marble Hill) or on the East Side. Let your mind wander as the bread winner was welcomed home at the doorstep of their humble cottage by his wife and their litter of children running out to meet Papa.
Imagine for a moment the delightful play of a generation of Hawley children of well over 100 years ago. Watch in your mind as they frolic around the coal cars, try and fish in the canal and play with the mules and horses that hauled the coal-laden boats.
Certainly this was all to the distress of mother, fretful that her own would be the next child to drown or have a limb crushed by a gravity rail train.
Until the steam railroads came in- starting with the line to Lackawaxen. in 1863 and next the Honesdale branch in 1868, their connection to the world was mainly the canal, and the gravity railroad. The boats would ferry merchant's goods as well as the coal, down the line through Lackawaxen. and on the way to the Hudson and the New York market. The PCC gravity was the line to Scranton and beyond.
Other than that, rough roads would bring the stagecoach and wagon, in the time when a round trip to Honesdale or Milford would be an all-day affair.
The Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal opened in 1828, and was in full operation for 70 years.
Initially, the canal was dug to contain water to a depth of four feet and was 32 feet wide at the water line. As the productivity of the coal mines in and near Carbondale increased, the managers decide to widen the canal. The goal was to raise the water level to 5-1/2 feet, allowing boats of 50 ton capacity.
The expansion project was undertaken in 1843-1844 but was not fully complete until 1847.
A second enlargement of the canal soon commenced, and was finsihed in 1850, allowing boats able to ship 130 tons. The water level was raised to six feet, and substantial changes were required to the locks and aqueducts.
Canal boats were loaded in Honesdale, where the D&H Gravity Railroad met the canal west of Main Street. There was no additional loading of coal in Hawley until 1850, when the PCC finished its gravity system, a project responsible for a major spurt of growth in the village.
This also created the need to build the canal basin and attracted Levi Barker in 1849 to set up his boat manufacturing business in Hawley. The PCC operated its own fleet of boats, independent of the D&H.
The community was named Hawley in 1851 (shortened from Hawleysburgh as the village was briefly called), in honor of Irad Hawley, the first president of the PCC.
Size of the boats was dictated by the dimensions of the locks. From the final enlargement, D&H canal boats were 90 feet long, 14 feet 2 inches wide at the bottom and 14 feet 4 inches wide at the top. The average cabin aboard the canal boat had two bunks along one side and on the other. Each bunk consisted of a straw bag with sheets and a blanket over it. A dish cabinet was installed over the bunks. There was a drop-leaf table and a small coal and wood stove. Canal managers disapproved of burning the coal assets for their family meal.
Conditions were often so crowded that the stove was put on deck.
This were the amenities of a canal boat family, who worked each season save for winter when the canal was closed and the water frozen. The Shanty Hill (later known as Marble Hill) school in Hawley, which served children of the Irish canal and PCC workers, was open only October-April when the canal was shut down.
Other boats carried only a captain and a crew mate, one to guide the horses on the towpath and the other to run the tiller.
More and more mules were used, as they were found to be hardier than the horse.
The canal was wider next to the lock where they could tie up for the night. Locks normally shut down at sunset bus as business boomed, they could run the boats till 10 p.m. Business gradually waned in the 1880's and 1890's, and the canal hours reduced to 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The canal was never operated on the Sabbath.
There were other boat companies using the canal which transported lumber and other cargo for businesses along the way. Passenger travel was enthusiastically received in the beginning, but patronage fell over steadily over the years, due to poor accommodations. A graceful passenger packet boat, The Fashion, was launched in 1850, making regular trips from Honesdale in the early morning, arrived to meet the afternoon train Lackawaxen. It could hold up to 60 people and was festooned with choice refreshments and furnishings. The luxury boat, and a second packet boat, the Daniel Webster, were destroyed in an inferno that struck downtown Honesdale in April 1851. There were never replaced.
The PCC sold the coal to the D&H to ship on its canal. A long court battle developed over tolls, which resulted in the PCC abandoning the canal in favor of its own steam rail line from Lackawaxen, opened in 1863. The PCC shut down in 1885, its gravity rail lines succeeded by a new Erie steam line to Scranton. The D&H Canal finally succumbed to the growing use of railroads, and closed in November 1898.
Editor's Note: The Wallenpaupack Historical Society is planning a new book on the D&H Canal, based on old newspaper accounts. It is expected to be available in late April or in May.
Reference: Coal Boats to Tidewater, by Manville B. Wakefield, 1971