When a British blockade cut off the supply of imported bituminous coal prior to the War of 1812, commercial development of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields was undertaken to address the fuel shortage. But transporting the anthracite from the mines to coastal markets was a problem; given the weight of the coal and the poor condition of the roads, a water route would be required. The Wurts brothers conceived of the D&H Canal as a way to transport coal from their fields near Honesdale, Pennsylvania to the Hudson River at Rondout (Kingston), New York. From there, barges carried the coal south to the growing New York City market, as well as north to Albany and the Erie Canal.
The canal was constructed along a previously unsettled route in less than three years, using only picks shovels, draft animals and blasting powder. This 108-mile, 108-lock waterway was America's first million-dollar private enterprise, and operated from 1828 until 1898 (although the northern end was used until 1917). It transformed the economic landscape, as towns and villages sprang up along its route, and industries developed to exploit local resources such as lumber, agricultural products, and bluestone. The discovery of natural (hydraulic) cement near High Falls in 1825 spawned the Rosendale cement industry, whose product was widely used in construction projects, including the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty. The availability of anthracite coal led to improvements in the production of Hudson Valley bricks—an industry that found a ready market after New York City’s Great Fire of 1835 destroyed an estimated 600 buildings.
A leader in 19th century technology, the D&H Canal Company is associated with such innovations as the:
- D&H Gravity Railroad, designed by John Jervis to transport coal over a mountainous region from the mines to the canal.
- Wire suspension aqueduct, four of which were designed and built for the canal by John Roebling between 1848 and 1852 (a technology he later used in the Brooklyn Bridge).
- Stourbridge Lion, the first steam locomotive to run on a track in America (albeit for only a single day).
The anthracite canals created a steady supply of inexpensive coal—which then fueled America’s Industrial Revolution. Steam-powered factories burned anthracite coal, and began to manufacture products such as glass, earthenware, beer, and spirits, replacing the work of artisans. Anthracite coal was also used to produce iron and steel—materials that were critical for the development of mechanized agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing.