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Heralding Our History: A boat helped keep Durham’s iron industry afloat


As you enter the village of Durham, one of the first things that catches your attention is a pavilion located on the village green. Under this structure stands a full size replica of one of the famous Durham boats, which once plied a path up and down the Delaware River between its upper reaches and Philadelphia.

These boats also played an important role in the American Revolution, carrying General Washington and his troops across the Delaware and making it possible to win the Battle of Trenton and create the turning point in the war.

Why, may you ask, is this replica located here in a seemingly out of the way place? The answer is simple. It was in the village of Durham that these boats came to be.

Robert Durham, whose name has no connection with the village, back in 1730, realized that the shallow nature of the Delaware caused many problems in affording a quick and easy navigable route from Durham to Philadelphia.

With the burgeoning iron industry here, it was important to find such a route. Robert Durham studied the design of many boats, including Native American canoes and some boats which were being used in the Scandinavian countries. He adjusted some of these designs to accommodate local conditions and the result was what became known as a Durham boat.

The boats ranged in size from 40 feet to 60 feet in length and 8 feet to 10 feet in width. They had the ability to float in less than 30 inches of water even when fully loaded with 20 tons of iron, wheat, corn, flour or casks of pork. After traversing the southward journey, the boats were unloaded in Philadelphia, refilled with about 5 tons of finished products (manufactured goods and items that the settlers in Upper Bucks could not make for themselves), and would then begin their return journey up the Delaware.

Moving against the current was hard work. If the boatmen were lucky, a south wind could assist them. The boat carried a mast, a boom and a triangular sail which could then be deployed. However, south winds were rare and most of the time the boat had to be “poled” up the river. This meant that the crew of four to six men, having placed iron-tipped poles into the river bottom, would put the other end of the pole against their shoulder and walk the length of the boat along a 12-inch plank fastened to the top of the boat’s sides. The captain would then jam another pole into the river bottom at the stern of the boat to keep it from drifting backward while the men hurried to the bow to again push the vessel another boat length up the river.

This laborious task often caused the men to have huge calluses develop on their shoulders and often boatmen could be recognized as such by these malformations.

The trip upstream from Philadelphia could often take three or four days. Under the small deck at the bow of the boat was a small shelter where the weary boatmen could sleep. A similarly sized compartment at the aft end carried their supplies, food, drink and extra clothing.

The success of the boats on the Delaware caused them to be used on other rivers as well. Remnants of Durham boats have been found in the Hudson, Susquehanna, Schuylkill, and Connecticut rivers. Several years ago a complete Durham boat was found submerged in the shallows of one of the Finger Lakes in New York.

Basically, most water too shallow for other craft could be navigated by a Durham boat.

But despite their significance in helping to build the economy of the colonial era, these boats are probably best remembered for their role in helping General Washington during the dark days of the American Revolution.

Having strategically evacuated his army from New Jersey to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, Washington confiscated all the Durham boats along the river’s shore to prevent the British from following him.

We are all familiar with the story of how he accumulated these boats at Washington’s Crossing and, on Christmas Night during a blizzard, used them to transport his men back across the river and successfully attack and defeat the British and Hessian troops. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for this success to have taken place without the Durham boats.

So what happened next? The vicissitudes of the river with spring freshets and times of drought impacted the ability of the boats to keep up with the ever-increasing needs of the growing economy. People of vision saw the need for change and eventually, the creation and building of the Delaware Canal and other canals took place.

Canal boats could haul larger cargoes and due to the use of locks, could always be sure of enough deep water to navigate. Being towed by horses or mules in an efficient and stable canal eliminated the toil of poling a boat against a river current and cut the return trip time from Philadelphia in half. The day of the Durham boats plying their way up and down the Delaware River was over.

Interesting stories about the Durham and Durham-type boats may be found in old newspapers such as the National Gazette of Philadelphia and Dunlap and Claypool’s American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia. Check them out if this article has piqued your interest or if you’d just like to learn more about these fascinating vessels.

David Oleksa is president Durham Historical Society.

“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.

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