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A Small, Poor Place No Longer

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 10/11/19

By the time the D&H Canal began operation in 1828, effectively creating the community of Barryville, a rope-tow ferry was already running across the Delaware River not far from the outlet of Halfway …

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A Small, Poor Place No Longer

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By the time the D&H Canal began operation in 1828, effectively creating the community of Barryville, a rope-tow ferry was already running across the Delaware River not far from the outlet of Halfway Brook, connecting the New York side to Shohola, PA.

Like many of the Delaware River ferry boats, this means of conveyance proved adequate in providing a way to get goods and people across the river until the Erie Railroad arrived in Shohola in 1849. At that point, by which time Barryville had grown into a bustling center of commerce with a population of about 300, the need for a bridge spanning the Delaware was becoming more and more obvious.

By 1854, a private company, the Barryville and Shohola Bridge Company, had been formed with Chauncey Thomas of Shohola as president, and plans were drawn up for a structure connecting the two communities.

”Mr. Thomas attempted to hire bridge expert John A. Roebling,” `Frank T. Dale writes in his 2003 book, “Bridges Over the Delaware River: A History of Crossings,” “but Roebling was busy on another span in Niagara, New York, on the Canadian border. This undertaking required all of Roebling's personal attention, and he could not at this time take on the construction of the Shohola bridge. Roebling gave Thomas verbal instructions when he visited the Niagara work site, and followed this up with written instructions.”

Thomas had the bridge built, using a crew of inexperienced workmen. The resulting ten-foot-wide, single-lane, single-span bridge, 495 feet in length, cost about $9,000 to construct. Without a center support to add stability, it was not a very sound structure. In fact, on July 2, 1859, the bridge's third birthday, a windstorm completely destroyed it, leaving only the abutments remaining.

The bridge was rebuilt, but continued to be problematic, requiring numerous repairs. Finally, on January 1, 1865, a suspension cable snapped and the bridge collapsed, sending several mule drawn wagons loaded with cargo into the icy waters of the Delaware. The wagon operators survived, but three mules perished and much of the freight was lost.

The Barryville and Shohola Bridge Company was unable to come up with the money to rebuild the bridge yet again, and soon went out of business altogether. While the ferry was forced back into operation to once more link the two sides of the river, Chauncey Thomas, the original president of the bridge company who had long since been replaced, purchased the destroyed bridge at a Sheriff's auction, and set about to reconstruct it.

Thomas spent about $4,000 to build a new bridge, this time including a center pier, and that bridge more than adequately served the two communities until it was replaced by a modern two-lane bridge just downriver in 1941, even surviving the Great Pumpkin Flood of October, 1903, and a subsequent flood the following spring.

By 1870, Barryville had grown to comprise two hotels, two churches, four stores, three blacksmith shops, one wagon shop, a dry-dock for repairing canal boats, a grist mill, a stone quarry, and a public school in addition to D&H Canal buildings, including a superintendent's office and docks for loading and unloading materials.

But the canal ceased operations in 1898, and former town of Highland Supervisor John W. Johnston, writing just after that, noted that the community had become “a small poor village now. The lumber of the region being exhausted, the business of canaling declining and now abandoned, it has for the last 25 years been waning , until now it seems to have reached a bottom of hardpan.

"Human imagination can hardly reach anything in (the) future likely to improve it; but it will probably remain indefinitely the small poor place it now is."

But Johnston was not an adept prognosticator, and he did not foresee the role the Delaware River - and the Erie Railroad - would play in the development of another great industry in the Delaware River valley: tourism.

“The 20th century saw many changes in the fortunes of the area,” Dale writes. “By the end of the 19th century, the canal was out of business, as were the lumber and mining companies. Local prosperity, however, continued to grow. The area attracted many tourists as a summer resort with several hotels and boarding houses built for the visitors. And at the same time, some city folks built summer homes in the area, thus becoming local taxpayers without sending their children to local schools in the winter time.”

The story of Barryville and its many historical landmarks: the remains of the ferry boat crossing, the canal and the suspension bridge, the tourism industry, and, of course, the Delaware River and its many influences on the region, will be the subject of a walking tour being conducted along River Road on Saturday morning, October 19. The tour, which will also include a discussion of the impact of the Erie Railroad and the revelation of an interesting link between Barryville and the Boston Tea Party, is sponsored by the non-profit history education group, The Delaware Company in collaboration with the Barryville Farmers' Market, and will be narrated by the Sullivan County Historian as well as the town of Highland's co-historian, Debra Conway.

“The Historical Walking Tour of River Road” will begin at the cul de sac on the south end of River Road at 9:30 a.m. and will last about an hour. It is free and open to the public. Participants are asked to park in the lot adjacent to McKean Realty on Route 97.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. He will be one of the narrators for “The Historical Walking Tour of River Road” in Barryville from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 19. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.

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