Stories: Coal

I’ve got to take you back to a day before the Revolutionary War. This was a farming community and, as in most middle Atlantic and New England farms, farming was very difficult. They tried to plow this rocky soil, nothing like the Great Plains out in the Midwest which had not yet become part of our United States. But these farmers eked out a very difficult living in this rocky soil: mostly dairy farming, and they had various sorts of cattle, pigs, horses, and so on. There was a farmer by the name of Jacob Snyder who had his farm on the banks of the Rondout Creek. That’s at the foot of the hill, you go to the right, westbound, about three-quarters of a mile. There’s a series of rapids there and Jake Snyder had built a dam cross the Rondout Creek to create a waterfall and at this waterfall he built a water-powered flour mill where he ground his grain into flour. And all the farmers in the neighborhood would bring their grain to Jake to be processed into flour.

After the Revolutionary War, when we had made our peace with England, one of the imports from England was bituminous coal from Liverpool, needed to fuel the furnaces of our growing nation. But when the War of 1812 came along Mother England said “If you’re going to be mad at us again and fight us we’re not going to send you any more coal,” and so the coal supply was cut off. We needed coal desperately and we knew that there was coal in Northeastern Pennsylvania, north of the Poconos. It was a hard coal, anthracite coal, whereas the coal we were getting from England was bituminous coal, or soft coal. But that didn’t make any difference — we needed the coal. But there was no way to get it out. Even though — and this was in the days before the railroads — even though there was a canal-building fever going on in the country, canals being built all over the place, there was no canal up into the coal fields. And there was no navigable stream. The closest stream was the Delaware River and that wasn’t navigable. So it was very difficult to get this coalout of those mountains north of the Poconos by wagon-train.

There were a couple of brothers from Philadelphia by the name of Wurts and they owned a big tract of land up there and they figured, “Well, we’ve got to make some money by selling this coal. How are we going to get it to market? How are we going to get it to New York City?” That was the big problem. They engaged the services of a canal-building engineer by the name of Benjamin Wright. Ben Wright had just finished building the Erie Canal connecting the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo. They asked Ben Wright to design a canal route to bring their coal to market. After an exhaustive survey, Ben Wright determined that the best route for his canal would be to start at the mouth of the Rondout Creek, where it empties into the Hudson just about seven miles from here, through Creeklocks, right through the village of Rosendale, right past the bottom of the hill where the highway now stands, and on to High Falls which is the next village to the west. From there the canal route took a long, long southwest passage on a long, flat valley between the Shawangunks on the south and the Catskills on the north, all the way to Port Jervis. At Port Jervis the canal took a northward turn on the east bank of the Delaware River, an awfully long distance to a point, past Barryville, New York, opposite Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania. There the canal crossed the Delaware River on the first suspension bridge built in this country by John Roebling. Then it went on up the Lackawaxen Creek and ended at Honesdale, Pennsylvania, fairly close to the coal fields.