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Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here

After 30 years, relinquishing the helm


Susan Taylor speaks in measured words. After 30 years directing a nonprofit organization, she understands the significance of clear communication.
Susan retired this summer as executive director of the Friends of the Delaware Canal, which works with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to restore, preserve, and improve the National Landmark canal and its surroundings. “Our primary goals are to ensure the canal is fully-watered from Easton to Bristol and the towpath trail is usable over its entire length,” according to the mission published on the Friends’ website.
While a fully watered canal has not materialized, the Friends have done projects that make a difference, Susan said this summer.
So for three decades, Susan has dealt with storms, floods, leaks, wall failures, pump expenses, invasive plants and insects and obstructions along the 58.89-mile canal. It is the only remaining, continuously intact canal of the great towpath canal building era of the early- and mid-19th century. She has raised funds for repairs and enhancements, has organized social and educational events and has led hundreds of walks and paddles along the waterway.
The Friends’ group grew out of the Delaware Valley Protective Association (DVPA), founded in 1933, after the canal boats had stopped running. Even then, local residents feared that a highway could be built.
They viewed the neglected canal and towpath as historically valuable. In 1940 the group persuaded the state to take over the canal and it became Theodore Roosevelt State Park thanks to Gifford Pinchot and other environmentalists.
The Friends’ group was officially established in 1983 with Betty Orlemann at its head. Susan Taylor took on the job eight years later.
At the time, Susan, who had majored in advertising at Penn State, was selling wire and cable for a company in East Norriton. It’s not a strange background when you consider what Susan says today, “I don’t think a single day went by when I didn’t find anything in my sales experience to help me.”
In 1991, in the first week on the job, she discovered that she had to raise $5,000 in two weeks, part of the $100,000 the Friends were raising to pay for dredging equipment.
“The Friends had an angel,” Susan said. Two days after she had the news, a man called. “He wanted to know how he could help,” Susan said. Another two days and a check for $5,000 arrived.
Next, the Friends took on restoration of the Locktender’s House, Philadelphia’s Pew Charitable Trust provided most of the “bricks and mortar” money, Susan said. “To this day, we never pinned down the date it was built.”
The Locktender’s House was turned into the canal visitor center. The Friends used part of the Pew grant and a legislative initiative to create displays. “I’m proud to say the exhibits have been there since 1994,” Susan said.

The Friends have concentrated on projects that are not state priorities. The Friends have put a major focus on the canal’s history – like the six camelback bridges that cross the canal.
During Susan’s tenure, the Friends were instrumental in forming a legislative caucus in Congress and the federal government established the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, which includes the Lehigh Canal, a link to the Delaware Canal and trade with Philadelphia. That union enhanced the possibilities of telling the canal story of the mule barges that pulled cargoes of coal and lumber. Will Rivinus, a member of the national heritage corridor commission and the Friends, has led many tours and written books about the towns and villages along the canal.
Working with the national heritage corridor, for bikers and walkers, the Friends developed measured loops around bridges crossing the river and the pathways in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
One of the projects the Friends undertook was the restoration of the Smithtown double lock. While it was normally submerged, taking advantage of the dry canal to make the restoration, “Daring masons repaired the walls,” Susan said, as she feared for their safety.
So many stories surround the canal, she said. “The canal has played a vital part in the community. Kids can go fishing, people can leave the towpath and explore the towns.”
With all of the improvements, from Easton to Bristol, fully watering the canal has eluded the Friends and DCNR. While it has been filled from Point Pleasant north and water is pumped into the canal at Centre Bridge to accommodate New Hope, Lumberville, which has been without water for 12 years, is most beleaguered.
Susan sees the vulnerabilities. “The canal is old and it was not built well,” Susan said.
Major change is in the works near Yardley at the new two-span Scudder Falls Bridge, a federal project. It will have a visitor center and access to towpaths on both sides of the Delaware for hikers and bikers. The Friends provided research advice for DCNR as the bridge design progressed.
Looking back, Susan sees a community of people – lock tenders, mule tenders, people who ensure the canal is taken care of. She believes she is leaving a strong organization behind and she will continue to serve on the board and lead canal walks.
There are always challenges, she said, but we must be sure “we don’t lose sight of the serenity and beauty. We must be mindful not to allow the qualities of what motivates us disappear.”

The Friends announced that Michael D. Ginder has stepped into the executive director’s role.