CUDDEBACKVILLE—Standing beside the D&H Canal on a late May morning, Jane Sorensen Lord swats mayflies from her face as she talks about her efforts to repair the historic canal and fill it back up with water.
The mayflies, she said, are always out this time of year, but since the canal dried up in 2007, the dragonflies, which eat the mayflies, have decreased, and the mayflies have multiplied.
While the flies are annoying, what really irks Sorensen Lord is to see a piece of U.S. history disappearing before her eyes.
The Westbrookville resident sits on the board of the Neversink Valley Museum of History & Innovation, and has been driving past the canal on her way to the meetings for years.
After watching the plants multiply in the canal bed and their roots bore more and more holes in the once-watertight puddle clay, she started a Facebook group called “Wet the Canal” last October to connect people interested in seeing it filled with water again.
Shortly after that, she met with Deerpark Supervisor Gary Spears, who was sympathetic to her mission and invited her to speak at a Town Board meeting.
She also invited a group of local and county officials to visit the Canal, among them Richard Rose, the county’s Commissioner of Parks and Recreation and the overseer of the D&H Canal Park.
“We would all love to see the canal look like it did,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s [just] going to be very difficult to figure out how to make that happen.”
For nine years, the section of the canal that flows through Deerpark, part of a 17-mile stretch called Summit Level, has been dry due the removal of a dam that ensured enough water flowed to it.
The problems with the water started in 2004 when The Nature Conservancy got a permit to remove a dam in the Neversink River. They said it was preventing endangered species like the dwarf wedgemussel from moving upstream and promised removing it would not affect the water level in the canal.
That assurance proved to be false, and the canal, which has just a little water left in its basin areas, has mostly dried up.
Ironically, a flood that hit the area in 2005 scoured the riverbed, wiping out many of the dwarf wedgemussels The Nature Conservancy was trying to protect.
What Sorensen Lord is asking is for is a less than a one-mile stretch of the canal from Hoag Road to Oakland Valley Road be filled with water.
For that to happen, the dam in the Neversink that allows the water to flow to the feeder, and the feeder, which connects the canal to the Neversink; as well as the waste weir that lets water out if there is too much in the canal, will also need to be repaired.
But before any of that happens, the county is going to have to get permission from the powers that be to divert water from the Neversink, Rose said. The state, New York City and possibly other entities have jurisdiction of its water, he said, and getting that permission is not going to be easy.
“There are considerable obstacles,” Rose said. “That whole area serves as a water source for New York City.”
Sorensen Lord estimates when all is said and done, the repairs could cost between $10 and $20 million. With that kind of money in the picture, she thinks the only way it is going to get done is if a large donor steps in to fund it.
“I honestly think a company like the Koch brothers, who were into mining and water and all this big stuff, I think they could take on the whole project and use it as a public relations tool,” she said. “I really think that kind of money would be called ‘chump change’ to them.”
Cliff Robinson, the founder of the D&H Canal Conservancy, a nonprofit that has been working on clearing the tow paths from Carbondale to Kingston, said his group, which has a permit to work on the canal, could easily repair the dam, the feeder, and the waste weir for a few thousand dollars. What it would cost to make the canal bed watertight again, he had no idea.
It’s a catch 22, he said. To find where the leaks in the canal bed are, there has to be water in the canal, but the county isn’t likely to approve putting water in the canal till the leaks are fixed.
He said without putting water in, anyone who claims to be able to estimate the amount of leaks in the canal bed would just be guessing.
Working Through Government
The money is one thing, but working through government bureaucracy is the most frustrating part of it, Robinson said.
To start, the county needs an engineering report made to assess how much work needs to be done and how much it will cost, and funding for this report will need to be approved. If the report is satisfactory and the county decides to go ahead with the repairs, it will have to go through committees and the full legislature for it to be approved. The earliest anything could happened, Robinson estimates, is 2018.
“It’s just a glacially slow process,” he said.
While it may be slow, the wheels of the legislature have finally been set in motion.
Legislator Tom Faggione, who represents Deerpark in the County Legislature, has been supportive of the effort and has been in talks with Rose and Chris Viebrock, the county’s commissioner of the Department of Public Works. He said it was too premature to start talking to other legislators about their support for funding for the canal, but would bring it up when the time was right.
Orange County Historian, Johanna Yaun, said at the county’s Education and Economic Development committee meeting in April that it was in her top four funding priorities for county-owned historic sites.
“But it looks like it [funding] is going to be Algonquin Park the first year,” she said after the meeting. “We’ll ask again for more money next year that we would be hoping would go towards them [the people working on the canal].”
Rose said his department would ask for it to be included in the 2017 budget as a capital project.
The D&H Canal was commissioned by two brothers, Maurice and William Wurts from Philadelphia (for whom Wurtsboro was named) who were looking for a more efficient way to get coal from their coalfields in Pennsylvania down to New York City, where there was a high demand for fuel. Two mules pulling boats on the canal could carry 100 times more weight than they could in a wagon, and much faster.
Mostly using just picks, shovels, and black powder for blasting, thousands of men and hundreds of horses were employed in cutting through 108 miles of mostly unsettled land, connecting the Delaware and Hudson Rivers. In less than three years, they created the 108-mile canal, complete with 108 locks and many aqueducts, dams, and feeders.
Not only did the towns and villages that sprang up along the canal thrive because of trade with New York City, but material sent down the D&H Canal was used to build icons like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Anthracite coal, cement, wood, and bluestone from the area all helped build New York City.
The rise in rail transportation, which was faster and more efficient than canal travel, ultimately spelled the end of the canal. After operating for over 70 years, the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company sold the canal in 1899, and a few years later it was completely shut down.
In 1968, it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service, one of eight in the county.
The stone that bears the plaque identifying it as a landmark sits near lock 51, which is the end of what was the last navigable portion of water on the entire canal, Sorensen Lord said.
She remembers taking the Neversink Kate, a boat that now sits behind the museum on Hoag Road, out for rides on the canal.
“It’s sad because it was such a beautiful, beautiful thing,” she said.
Walking along the canal in Deerpark, boats are still parked next to the banks like a temporary drought hit the area.
Sorensen Lord said she doesn’t know if property values have gone down along the canal since it dried up, but said she didn’t think people were asking for a reassessment to lower their taxes. “I think that is because they think the canal is going to come back,” she said.
The Wet the Canal Facebook page is full of stories of locals swimming, fishing, boating, and ice skating on its waters.
A woman who lives in what was most likely the lock keeper’s house next to lock 51, who declined to give her name, said when she moved in two years ago from Newton, New Jersey she and her family had dreams of being able to fish in the canal.
“We would love it,” she said.
People in the community are generally supportive of the idea, Sorensen Lord said, although some have given up hope it will ever happen because of the expense.
She argues that while it may be expensive up front, it will all come back in the form of increased tourism dollars to the area.
“Now the big thing is historic travel,” she said. “That we didn’t have before. That would throw some people up into this area, which would foster our little businesses.”
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