Here's a headline we never thought to make: Ship Full of Treasure Sinks in Downtown Hawley.
HAWLEY - Here’s a headline we never thought to make: Ship Full of Treasure Sinks in Downtown Hawley.
This isn’t the April Fool’s edition. If not a ship, then a canal boat, loaded with an expensive cargo of anthracite coal, sank to the bottom of the basin in Hawley, circa 1865. The canal basin made up the northern half of today’s Bingham Park.
What’s more, the boat sank and was not recovered for at least 35 years.
Today the basin site is a broad, mowed field with two baseball diamonds, baseball and tennis courts. It is that great expanse between the playground, next to the bandstand, and the skate park near where Park Place meets Hudson Street.
Today it is easy to see the remnants of the berm that marks the rim, especially along Hudson Street, Park Place and the portion of the berm extending from Park Place and ending just before the toddler’s playground and the bandstand. This whole area was once filled with water and at times jammed with hundreds of boats.
The Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal, which opened in 1828 and operated 70 years, extended from Honesdale through Hawley, on its 108 mile route to Rondout near Kingston, NY on the Hudson River.
At Hawley, the canal came in closely parallel to the plank-lined road to Honesdale (Route 6) and the followed Hudson Street (known then as First Street). The canal and basins were dug by hand, utilizing Irish immigrant laborers. Hawley had a whole neighborhood set aside for them, known as Shanty Hill (Marble Hill).
The canal was used mostly for shipping coal. In 1849 the basin at Hawley was opened, part of the a project by the D&H to widen and deepen the canal. This was done to accommodate larger boats to help meet the demand for increased coal shipments. The Pennsylvania Coal Company (PCC) arose, at first in partnership with the D&H to help bring more coal from the mines, and was responsible for the basin. The PCC’s gravity rail system was opened in 1850, bringing the coal from mines near present day Pittston, Pa. in the Wyoming Valley, to Hawley. Coal was transferred to the PCC’s own fleet of boats at the Hawley basin.
Coal arrived near the bandstand site where boats docked. The PCC had a fleet of 495 boats by the end of 1854. In 1849, Levi Barker came to Hawley, and started a boat yard in the southern end of today’s park. PCC gave him a contract for 25 boats of 140-ton capacity. They cost $1,600 each. Barker made around 600 (one source said 645) canal boats at Hawley, in 40 years. Boats carried primarily coal, but also lumber, bluestone and other cargo. The PCC shipped 3,978 cargos in 1854.
After the PCC switched to transferring coal onto steam trains in 1863, Hawley began to wane as a boat center. The gravity railroad closed in 1885. Hundreds of jobs were lost, partly made up by Hawley’s growing manufacturing phase. Shipping coal on the canal finally ended in 1898, in favor of railroads which shipped coal much faster.
Only three boats continued to be loaded at the basin, with PCC coal, and transported only from Hawley to Rosendale, NY. Shipments of coal or other cargo on these shorter trips were weighed for tolls, at Lock 30 just below the Hawley basin along Hudson Street.
In 1869, a portion of the basin was to be filled up by removing culm. The railroad was building shops in the flats between the basin and the Lackawaxen River in the area where the Borough Hall and gas station are today.
When the D&H abandoned the canal, basins at Honesdale, Hawley, Port Jervis and other locations, as well as the canal itself, were suddenly dormant. Only sections of the canal in New York State continued to be used for several years, for shipping other commodities. The entire canal was not fully closed until 1914.
Communities dealt with the problems of stagnant, polluted water. Left over coal, however, presented an opportunity.
About that sunken boat…
The Evening Gazette, published in Port Jervis, ran a story October 11, 1900, about an opportunity found for residents to mine the coal that had spilled in the canal and the Hawley basin.
“A new industry has developed at Hawley,” the unnamed reporter penned. “The coal mines have been opened in the bed of the Delaware & Hudson canal. During the many years that the canal was in operation millions of tons of coal were shipped from Hawley and of course a great many of the black diamonds fell overboard and went to the bottom of the canal and sank in the mud.
“Now that the canal is abandoned and on account of the coal strike there are many idle people in Hawley and the men conceived the idea of securing this coal. Each man staked out a claim, the same as gold miners do, and began work. They removed the heavy crust of earth, in some cases as much as 10 feet, and began taking out the coal.
“So far at least 100 tons have been gathered and stored away for future use and the work is still going on. The coal miners, many of them Erie railroad men, say they enjoyed the work, although they complain of lame backs and blistered hands.
“The land being worked is about one-eighth of a mile in length and is rich with coal.
“Another scheme on hand is to find a canal boat that was sunk in the basin at Hawley about 35 years ago. This boat had about 80 tons of coal on board when it went down and it was never raised. The men are now looking for this deposit and when found will prove to be a rich lode.”
This opportunity proved to be short-lived.
Little other reference has been found to this activity. The Tri-States Union of Port Jervis, October 16, 1900 edition, reported:
“The mining of the coal in the canal basin was ordered stopped last Friday afternoon. Some people were not contented with getting the canal for their own use, but went to selling it to other people, hence the mining was stopped for every one.”
A column in The Hancock (NY) Herald, Oct. 19, 1950, looking back at news items from 1900, doesn’t really make the water less murky.
“Oct. 18, 1900 - During the anthracite coal strike, Hawley people have recovered from the D&H canal bed, 80 tons of coal lost overboard from canal boats during recent years.” That doesn’t refer to a lost boat, but the figure “80 tons” resurfaces.
Not enough information has been handed down to explain what happened to the canal boat, why it sank and when (and if) its remains and the coal were finally recovered.
The D&H had enlarged the canal twice, to accommodate larger and larger shipments. At first, the wooden boats had only a 20-ton capacity. In 1844, the canal was enlarged to provide for 40-ton capacity boats. By 1850, the newly expanded canal allowed for boats that could carry 98 tons. Finally, boats of 130 ton capacity could be used. This helped the D&H meet the goal to transport as much as a million tons in the 1855 and 1856 seasons.
The 130-ton capacity boats were 91 feet long and 14-1/2 feet wide.
It doesn’t seem likely that an older boat was loaded at the Hawley basin with 80 tons of coal, exceeding what it could handle.
We have to presume that any canal crew members on board were able to escape safely.
We’d also like to know how well the wooden boat would have lasted underwater for 35 years, how much was buried in sediments and whatever happened to the salvaging effort.
Apparently the basin was deep enough that the sunken vessel did not hinder navigation.
Boats were purchased by canal boat operators and were a major investment. These weren’t pleasure craft. They were the bread and butter for hundreds of hardy canal families, who found taking to 10 - 11 day trip down the canal in all sorts of weather, a way of life. Loss of a boat had to have been devastating, unless there was insurance for them.
A search of old newspapers did not find more on this incident, but it did find that sunken canal boats were not all that uncommon. If it was blocking a canal that was a serious issue and created a traffic jam for other canalers, just as a highway accident might.
An article published in 1898 told of the methods used to retrieve coal from a sunken canal boat. The old method was to try to raise the boat with the coal with pontoons and chains. A less expensive method was developed which pumped the coal out, using a siphon. Emptying the sunken boat would typically cause the boat to float to the surface, unless it was too badly damaged, water-soaked or wedged in.
Further information was not located in Honesdale newspapers. Regrettably, archives of The Hawley Times from 1900 are not known to have survived.
Black diamonds to baseball diamonds
The Hawley basin was mostly drained of water, and was being used as a ball field starting in 1903. Known as Athletic Field, serious baseball was waged here for many seasons before it was an official borough park.
Bingham Park was created in 1929 once land for the entire park was donated to the borough.
Bits of coal have surfaced at times even in recent years. When the restrooms were being built near the bandstand in 2015-2016, large amounts of coal dust and small chips of coal turned up in the excavator’s shovel.
Perhaps there’s still remains of a sunken boat somewhere under a baseball diamond or in the outfield.
Vintage newspapers found at Fultonhistory.com
Coal Boats to Tidewater (1971) by Manville B. Wakefield