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Heralding Our History: Opportunity flows from the Delaware Canal in Yardley


Hundreds of dignitaries and common folk gathered in Bristol on Oct. 27, 1827, to see the first shovelful of earth dug for the Delaware Canal. The future waterway connecting the Lehigh Navigation-Canal in Easton to the deep, navigable Delaware River in Bristol was touted as the “grandest enterprise of the age” in the ceremony oration.

The 58.9-mile-long, 40-foot-wide, 5-foot-deep “ditch” divided private properties all along its length. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the builder of the Delaware Canal, compensated very few owners for their lost land and the inconvenience of having to cross their properties by bridge. (The commonwealth did provide the needed bridges and still does to this day.) The reason given for non-payment was that the canal would greatly enhance property values and commerce.

The commonwealth’s prediction of prosperity did come true. Taking advantage of the reliable transportation route, new businesses were started, and established villages grew into small towns. Yardleyville, as the village was then called, was no exception.

Anthracite coal was the primary cargo hauled in the mule-drawn canal boats. Most of the coal and other materials and goods were bound for Philadelphia, but some were offloaded along the way. Supplying coal locally was a lucrative business opportunity, and three merchants opened coal yards in Yardleyville.

The most prominent coal yard was located along Canal Street and was last owned by Louis Leedom. It had the distinction of receiving the last shipment of coal to be hauled on the canal. The delivery was made in 1932, almost a full year after the Delaware Canal was designated as a Pennsylvania State Park.

Today the only remnant of the Leedom business is a tall metal- clad pole standing on the edge of the Canal Street Grille parking lot. The pole was a ship mast transported to Yardley on a canal boat and used in the process of unloading coal from canal boats.

Other businesses catered to the needs of the canal boatmen, mule tenders and their mules. A general store operated along the canal at East Afton Avenue. The supplies that the canallers needed could be purchased and their mules stabled in the barns next to the store.

It is said that the store and barns served as a station on the Underground Railroad. The owner Aaron LaRue, a sympathetic Quaker, sheltered slaves while they journeyed hidden in canal boats.

Just to the south was the LaFarge Hotel that catered to canallers who wanted the luxury of sleeping somewhere other than the 8-foot-by-10-foot cabins in the rear of their boats.

Other locals benefited, too. Owners of barns along the canal stabled mules overnight for a fee. There was a boatyard off South Canal Street. Boys caught snapping turtles in the canal and sold them to taverns and inns, where the cooks turned them into snapper soup. The 25-cent bounty paid for trapping a canal bank-destroying muskrat was very tidy pocket money.

The Delaware Canal was all about commerce, but there was fun to be had. Outings on the canal were popular with families, church groups and civic organizations. A flat, open work scow was cleaned out, a makeshift canopy erected, a mule team found, chairs and food loaded, and off the excursioners would go. In a more mischievous vein, Yardley youth were known for their ability to flick watermelons off canal boats without the captain noticing.

The Delaware Canal’s commercial life lasted 100 years. Its enduring value was recognized when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania again took it over in 1931 and designated it as a State Park. It was saved as such because of its recreational value, historic significance, natural assets and scenic beauty.

In Yardley Borough, the Delaware Canal was the town’s only recreational space until the opening of Buttonwood Park in 2004. Today, the long, narrow canal and adjacent municipal amenities create a wealth of opportunities for both residents and out-of-town visitors. What could be better than a walk along the towpath followed by a visit downtown for a treat.

Susan Taylor is the president of the board of directors at the Yardley Historical Association.

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

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