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Celebrating the first crossing

John Conway
Posted 4/12/24

On April 26, 1849, the first boat crossed over the newly built wire rope suspension aqueduct on the Delaware River designed by John A. Roebling for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company.

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Celebrating the first crossing


On April 26, 1849, the first boat crossed over the newly built wire rope suspension aqueduct on the Delaware River designed by John A. Roebling for the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company.

Hundreds of onlookers had gathered at Lackawaxen and at Minisink Ford for the occasion, some no doubt expecting—perhaps even hoping—to see the aqueduct collapse under the weight of the coal laden boat.

“There was some apprehension in the crowds on hand when the first boat went across as to whether the bridge would stay up or not,” wrote Manville B. Wakefield in “Coal Boats to Tidewater.” “After all, reasoned the expectant spectators, the water by itself weighed a great deal, let alone a loaded boat too. Great cheers went up when the boat arrived safely on the New York side.”

Roebling was born in Prussia, on June 12, 1806, and grew up in a world of private tutors, learning the music of Bach and the poetry of Goethe. According to some sources, he built a model of a suspension bridge when he was just nine years old that bore a striking resemblance to what would be his most famous work, the Brooklyn Bridge. He gained admission to the prestigious engineering program at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin, where he studied languages and philosophy as well as architecture, bridge construction and hydraulics. He graduated in 1826, and went to work for the state, as was the requirement at that time, serving three years building roads in Westphalia.

Roebling wanted to build bridges, big bridges, and there was little work of that kind in his native land, so he and his brother, along with a parcel of friends and acquaintances, immigrated to America in 1831. They purchased a large tract of land, and established the community of Saxonburg, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where inexplicably, Roebling, the aspiring bridge builder, began to farm.

Tilling the fields did not satisfy his ambitions for long, and he grew increasingly restless, finally returning to engineering in 1837, the same year his wife gave birth to their first child, a son they named Washington Augustus. 

Before long, John A. Roebling had begun manufacturing wire rope for use in the suspension bridges he proposed to build. In 1844, he won a contract to replace a wooden canal aqueduct across the Allegheny River with his suspended trough design. This first wire rope suspension bridge in America encompassed seven spans of 163 feet each.

Roebling had completed a few other projects by the time the directors of the D&H Canal contacted him in 1846 to ask for a proposal to build two aqueducts at the point where the 108 mile long waterway crossed from Pennsylvania into New York. Roebling was no stranger to the canal company, nor was his wire rope an unknown commodity. Two years earlier, the canal had begun purchasing the woven wire to replace the fiber ropes on the planes of the gravity railroad. 

Still, there was some discussion required before they decided to award the aqueduct contract to Roebling instead of opting for wooden aqueducts, which would have been considerably cheaper in initial cost.

“At its meeting on December 28, 1846 the board appointed a committee to review the two aqueduct proposals,” writes Larry Lowenthal in his 1997 book, “From the Coal Fields to the Hudson,” “On the next day, (John) Wurts wrote to (Russel) Lord telling him to be ready for a trip to Pittsburgh to examine a suspension aqueduct Roebling had built for the Pennsylvania Canal. A week later, the committee presented a report tentatively favoring the suspension bridge. It compared a wooden aqueduct on stone piers, which was expected to last 36 years, versus the wire supported aqueduct, which was assumed a life expectancy of 60 years. With interest compounded, the wire was calculated to save over $55,000 in its 60 year duration– ‘provided the estimate of time that each will last is correct, that the wire is imperishable, never to be replaced, which the Committee must confess they have much doubt of.’”

Both the Delaware and the Lackawaxen Aqueducts were completed in time for the 1849 shipping season, and the canal company commissioned Roebling to construct two more structures, one over the Neversink River at Cuddebackville and one at High Falls, in Ulster County. Both were finished in time for the 1850 canal season.

Although the other three aqueducts are long gone now, the Delaware Aqueduct has survived to this day, known to most now simply as the Roebling Bridge, and on Saturday, April 27, there will be a public celebration of the 175th anniversary of the first crossing, hosted by the Delaware & Hudson Transportation Heritage Council.

Tickets for the event are now on sale at $25 per person, which includes a 10 a.m. guided walking tour of the Delaware Aqueduct, followed by a program at The New Inn at Lackawaxen, 188 Scenic Drive, with a buffet lunch, a canal music sing-along, commemorative program, exhibits, and historical remarks by this columnist, your Sullivan County Historian, as well as D&HTHC President Bill Merchant, and Professor Paul C. King. To reserve by the April 19 deadline, contact D&HTHC Secretary Laurie Ramie at laurie@upperdelawarecouncil.org or (845) 252-3022.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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