Morning On The Upper Delaware

They stand in the woods like Mayan ruins, big masonry structures that evoke nostalgia for all the life and labor here lost to time.

The last panthers were hunted out in the early 1800s. Somewhere I came upon the story of one that followed a woman for miles through the woods, making a sound like a crying baby the whole time. In 1837, which was a year of financial panic in the United States, the beechnut crop was astonishingly plentiful in the upper Delaware Basin and passenger pigeons descended on the area by the millions. The forest was littered with beech branches broken off by the weight of the birds, and the settlers said that the noise they made was so loud you could fire a gun into their midst and it would not be heard a hundred feet away. The locals killed them by the hundreds of thousands—shooting them, clubbing them, capturing them in nets—and shipped them downriver. They made more money from pigeons that year than from rafting.

We didn’t canoe as far as Minisink Ford, but we stopped there after we picked up the car and looked at the old battle site. During the Revolutionary War a group of Indians and Tories under the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant defeated a band of pursuing militia. It was a foolish battle; the militia was outmaneuvered and outfought, and should have stayed home; of eighty militiamen, only thirty survived.

Brant’s biographer tells us that as the chief wandered around the battlefield after his victory, he found one Gabriel Wisner, “a gentleman of great respectability,” mortally wounded but still conscious. Brant could see that the man was dying, that he couldn’t save him, and that he couldn’t leave him to the wolves either. “The thought … that Wisner might be torn in pieces while yet alive, seemed to him even more than savage cruelty.” Distracting the man with conversation and diverting his attention, Brant “struck him dead in an instant, and unperceived, with his hatchet.” Wisner and his fellow dead were not buried, incidentally, until 1822, when their bones were gathered and taken to Goshen, New York, for interment.

Minisink Ford is also where the Delaware & Hudson Canal, which carried coal from the hills of eastern Pennsylvania to the Hudson River near Kingston, whence it was taken to market in New York, crossed the Delaware on an aqueduct. The aqueduct still stands. Today it is owned by the National Park Service and has been restored to its original appearance, except that now, instead of barges, cars cross it—one at a time. Opened in 1849, it was the work of John A. Roebling, who later designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge, and it is the oldest cable suspension bridge in America.

We stopped to look at it, and a park ranger gave us a brief account. When it was an aqueduct, he said, it supported 2,000 tons of water, but Roebling so overdesigned the bridge—each cable is made of 2,150 wrought iron wires—that it could have taken a lot more. Each boat held 130 tons of coal, and it took four or five days to walk one through the 108-mile length of the canal.

The canal has attracted a lot of attention from historians, but the Roebling bridge is all that remains of it. The railroads ultimately drove it out of business. In the valley of the Neversink River, about ten miles northeast of Port Jervis, stand the piers of another Roebling suspension bridge that carried the canal over that river. Part of the D&H Canal Park, they rise in the woods like Mayan ruins, large abandoned masonry structures that cannot help evoking a kind of nostalgia for all the life and labor here irrecoverably lost to time. You can see the last surviving piece of the canal nearby and visit a small museum on the site.

On this Saturday in mid-May, the river, while not crowded, was well populated, so if you like your rivers lonely, weekdays are best.

Five miles below Big Eddy we ran our last small rift and I pulled over to the landing at Ten Mile River. We had traveled eleven miles and been on the water about three and a half hours. It was a peaceful trip, mildly adventurous here and there but never particularly dangerous, nor was the paddling any real effort. We passed one short freight train going north, its sound filling the valley long before it appeared. The rifts are loudest after you have gone through them. On this Saturday in the middle of May, the river, while not crowded, was well populated, so if you like your rivers lonely, weekdays are best. But even on busy days the upper Delaware doesn’t get the visitors it once did. In the late 1800s the tiny village of Shohola, with a permanent population of fewer than a thousand people, boasted no fewer than twenty-six hotels, boardinghouses, and eating establishments catering to one hundred thousand tourists a year. Now Shohola has one surviving hotel. Whereas the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, south of Milford, gets more than four million visitors a year, the river above Port Jervis is, comparatively, practically unknown.