Blazing A Trail

Pennsylvania: The Delaware Canal towpath leads bicyclists on an easy ride, despite the summer heat, past a string of quaint villages and straight down the middle of history.

September 05, 1999|By Mike Shoup | Mike Shoup,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just south of Riegelsville, Pa., the Delaware Canal towpath we were biking swept close enough to Route 611 to see the yellow numbers on the big digital sign outside First Savings Bank.

The time flashed: 11:30 in the morning. Then the temperature: 95 degrees.

We'd picked an early June day for our 35-mile, mountain-bike ride between Easton and New Hope, and we were getting the worst kind of August weather. Still, the three of us agreed, as hot as it was -- and we'd already sweated at least a quart of Gatorade apiece -- the riding thus far had been pleasant.

The tree canopy had kept us in shade for most of the way, preserving a hint of coolness in what remained of the early morning mist. The air was heavily scented with honeysuckle and wild roses, a fragrance that, despite the heat, bespoke late spring. And, because this was an old canal towpath, the riding was not that arduous -- all flat and on grass or a dirt path.

Best of all, we were biking what is certainly one of the most historic routes in America, riding through quaint villages and towns and past old stone homes and barns that were built well back into the 18th century, even before the canal was conceived. The towpath itself dates to 1834, when the canal opened to carry anthracite coal to market in Philadelphia.

Today, almost all of its 23 locks are intact, as are most of its aqueducts and other engineering features, including the shanties, called "wickets," where lock tenders operated the lock gates, and the nearby homes where they lived. Most of the latter are now private dwellings that have been restored.

The canal and towpath constitute a 60-mile state park that meanders in a ribbon of green south along the Delaware River to tidewater at the borough of Bristol. This is "the only surviving canal of the 19th Century building era to remain intact" in America, says the author C.P. "Bill" Yoder in his "Delaware Canal Journal, A Definitive History." It's also a great place to spend a weekend, whether by car, bike or canoe on the adjacent river, which follows the canal for much of its length.

Following the canal

The three of us -- Don, Jim and myself -- had met 90 minutes earlier south of Easton, where the canal begins at the juncture of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers.

After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, a frenzy of canal construction followed in America. When the Delaware Canal began operating in 1834, it was a link to the Lehigh Navigation Canal, which was already carrying coal from upstate anthracite fields. At Easton, that coal would now head down the Delaware Canal to Philadelphia, or up the Morris Canal -- which began across the river in New Jersey -- to Central Jersey and then east to the New York market.

The narrow but sturdy canal boats could carry up to 70 tons of coal at a time; on the return voyage, they brought provisions from Philadelphia to settlements along the canal and upstate in the anthracite coal fields.

Shortly after 10 a.m., we started pedaling southward, spooking within 100 yards the first of what would be dozens of gaggles of Canada geese and their goslings. Wildlife is plentiful along the canal -- we'd see turtles and catfish, muskrats, groundhogs and deer, and bird life that included a stunning Baltimore oriole and a kestrel being chased by starlings. But the geese are definitely in the majority, and their droppings constitute something of a hazard, spattering not just onto legs but onto the mouths of water bottles bolted to bicycle frames.

The towpath essentially follows two scenic highways, first Route 611, then Route 32, making the canal and its historic features almost as accessible from the road as from the towpath for weekend automobile wanderers.

The first village, Raubsville, has one of the most interesting locks on the canal, a double one that permitted two boats to be "locked through" at the same time, side by side. There's also the remains of an old stone hydroelectric generating station, complete with precipitous, tumbling waterfall, that was generating electricity as late as 1954. Because of the water power available here, there was a sawmill, paper mill and distillery operating even before the Civil War.

We rode on, over the first of 10 aqueducts outside Riegelsville, then through the back of town and out the other side, with a brief stop for granola-bar snacks and water in the mounting heat. Past the bank sign that registered 95 degrees, we came upon Trauger's Farm Market, and with strawberries in season, we stopped and bought a quart then split it under the shade of an old maple whose enormous girth had undoubtedly propped many a weary traveler's backside.

Like the little market, the strawberry fields in the fertile bottomland were immediately beside the towpath and canal, accessed from a bridge off the highway. In fact, we often found that we were pretty much riding through people's back yards at points, so we did what others also seemed to have done, and left not a trace behind.

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