For these reasons, the canal was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1968. Much of it was drained and filled after it was abandoned in the early 20th century. A few fragments of the canal remain in both states today, and are in use as parks and historic sites.
In the early 19th century, Philadelphia businessman William Wurts often would leave his affairs aside for weeks at a time to explore the then-sparsely populated northeastern region of the state. He began noticing blackish rock outcroppings, and focused on mapping and researching them, becoming in the process the first explorer of the anthracite fields that have since become known as the Coal Region. He believed they could be a valuable energy source, and brought samples back to Philadelphia for testing.
Eventually he convinced his brothers Charles and Maurice to come along with him and see for themselves. Starting in 1812, they began buying large tracts of (very cheap) land and were able to extract several tons of anthracite at a time, but lost most of what they tried to bring back to Philadelphia due to the treacherous waterways that were the main method of transportation in the interior. While the southern reaches of the Coal Region were already beginning to supply Philadelphia, they realized that the areas they had been exploring and mining were well-positioned to deliver coal to New York City, which had experienced an energy crunch following import restrictions on British coal imposed after the War of 1812. The success of the recently opened Erie Canal inspired them. If they could build a canal of their own out of Pennsylvania and into New York, through the narrow valley between the Shawangunk Ridge and the Catskill Mountains, to the Hudson River near Kingston, a route followed by the Old Mine Road, America's first long-distance transportation route, it would be economical and profitable.
After several years of lobbying by the Wurtses, the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company was chartered by separate laws in the states of New York and Pennsylvania in 1823, allowing William Wurts and his brother Maurice to construct the Delaware and Hudson Canal. The New York law, passed April 23, 1823, incorporated "The President, Managers and Company of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company", and the Pennsylvania law, passed March 13 of the same year, authorized the company "To Improve the Navigation of the Lackawaxen River". The company hired Benjamin Wright, who had engineered the Erie Canal, and his assistant John B. Jervis to survey and plan a route. Many inhabitants of the region the canal passed through doubted the 600-foot (183 m) elevation difference between the Delaware River at Lackawaxen and the Hudson at Rondout could be sufficiently overcome. Wright put the estimated cost at $1.2 million, later revised to $1.6 million (in 1825 dollars).
Ground was broken on July 13 of that year. After three years of labor by 2,500 men, the canal was opened to navigation in October 1828. It began at Rondout Creek at an area later known as Creeklocks, between Kingston (where the creek fed into the Hudson River) and Rosendale. From there it proceeded southwest alongside Rondout Creek to Ellenville, continuing through the valley of the Sandburg Creek, Homowack Kill, Basher Kill and Neversink River to Port Jervis on the Delaware River. From there the canal ran northwest on the New York side of the Delaware River, crossing into Pennsylvania at Lackawaxen and running on the north bank of the Lackawaxen River to Honesdale.
To get the anthracite from the Wurts' mine in the Moosic Mountains near Carbondale to the canal at Honesdale, the canal company built a gravity railroad. The state of Pennsylvania authorized its construction on April 8, 1826. On August 8, 1829, the D&H's first locomotive, the Stourbridge Lion, made history as the first locomotive to run on rails in the United States.
Business took off as the Wurtses had anticipated, and in 1832 the canal carried 90,000 tons (81,000 tonnes) of coal and three million board-feet (7,080 m³) of lumber. The company invested the profits in improving the canal, making it deeper so larger barges could be used.
The company was also developing railroads, a technology that was continuing to improve and supplant canal transportation at the time, to extend its reach into other Northeastern markets. By the time Maurice Wurts died in 1854, the company was reporting profits of 10-24% annually and had paid off its original debt to both states.
The completion of the Erie Railroad through the Delaware Valley in 1858 began the end of the canal's days, although it continued to be very successful through the 1870s and '80s. Throughout the rest of the century, canals were perceived as quaint relics of pre-industrial times and began yielding to rail across the country. In 1898, the Delaware and Hudson finally joined them, carrying its last loads from Honesdale to Kingston, as rail could now carry coal more directly to the city, across New Jersey rather than via Kingston. The following year the company dropped the "Canal" from its name, the states authorizing it to abandon the canal if it deemed it suitable and concentrate on its rail interests, which it did.
After the end of the 1898 season, the company opened all the waste weirs and drained the canal. Catskill rail magnate Samuel Coykendall purchased the canal the next summer, reportedly to benefit the Ramapo Water Company for use as a water supply resource But that never came to pass. Instead, Coykendall used the northernmost section, from Rondout to Kingston, to transport Rosendale cement and other general merchandise to the river until abandoning that business in 1904. The canal was never used again.
As the 20th century began, the company used some of the canal right-of-way for its expanding rail operations; some of the rest was sold to various private companies, mainly other, smaller railroads. Developing communities along the route also filled it in as necessary to expand their own neighborhoods, or for safety reasons as when a Port Jervis man supposedly drowned in 1900.
The ruins of the canal and its associated structures remained standing. The Delaware & Hudson Canal Historical Society was formed in 1967; the year afterwards, the Neversink Valley Area Museum was formed in Orange County New York and the National Park Service recognized the canal site in Orange County as a National Historic Landmark. In 1969, New York's Sullivan County bought a four-acre portion to develop as a park. Many other buildings and sites associated with the canal have been added to the National Register of Historic Places and state and local landmark lists.
The finished canal ran 108 miles (174 km), from Honesdale to Kingston (counting the tidewater portions of the Rondout where the canal joined the creek at Eddyville). Its 108 locks took it over elevation changes totaling 1,075 feet (328 m), more than the Erie Canal's 675 feet (206 m). The channel was four feet (122 cm) deep (eventually increased to six feet (2 m)) by 32 feet (10 m) wide. It was crossed by 137 bridges and had 26 dams, basins and reservoirs. Originally it crossed the four rivers along its course — the Lackawaxen, Delaware, Neversink and Rondout Creek — via slackwater dams. Aqueducts were built over the rivers to replace them by John Roebling in the 1840s, cutting a few days from canal travel time and reducing accidents that were occurring at the Delaware crossing with loggers rafting their harvest downstream.
Barges were pulled by mules along the adjacent towpath, a power source employed even after the development of steam engines, since the bow wave from a faster steamboat would have damaged the channel. Children were often hired to lead the mules at first; in the canal's later years grown men were employed. They had to walk 15-20 miles (24-32 km) a day, pump out the barges and tend the animals. For this they were paid about $3 a month.
The canal was divided into three sections for operational purposes: the Lackawaxen, from Honesdale to the Delaware; the Delaware, along the river from there to Port Jervis; and then the Neversink, from Port Jervis to Kingston. A trip along its length took, initially, a week. It was closed on Sundays, and would suspend operations each winter when the canal froze up or was likely to.
Its primary business was the transport of coal and lumber from the interior to the river. There was little traffic to Pennsylvania other than empty barges. The company tried offering passenger service at one point, and Washington Irving, a friend of Hone's, made the trip in the 1840s, but it was ultimately given up as unprofitable.
Besides its historical firsts, the canal's most significant impact was to stimulate the growth of New York City along with the other anthracite canals. Fueled by the cheap and plentiful coal barged up the canal and down the river, the city was able to develop and industrialize at the same pace as other Eastern cities. There would be other benefits to the city as well. The company's first president, Philip Hone, served a term as the city's mayor during the canal's construction. Later, John Roebling's experience building the canal served him well in designing the Brooklyn Bridge.
On the Pennsylvania end, the interior anthracite regions were able to grow and develop from the rough wilderness they had been when William Wurts traveled them and mapped the coal deposits. The viability of its anthracite led to other markets opening up, sustaining the region economically well into the 20th century.
Along its route, the canal created many small boomtowns at frequent stops. Many towns took their names from canal executives. Honesdale took its name from Philip Hone, the company's first president. The village of Peenpack, New York, renamed itself Port Jervis after the engineer shortly after incorporating in 1853. Further along, the Wurtses are remembered by Wurtsboro, New York. A number of other New York communities with "port" in their name (Phillipsport, Port Orange and Port Jackson, now Accord) reflect their origins as canal towns. Summitville in turn takes its name from being the highest point along the canal route.
As automobiles began to displace the railroads that had once done the same to the canal, its corridor and towpath saw new life as highway routes. US 6 and PA 590 follow part of the route between Honesdale and Hawley, with 590 running along the towpath and now-dry bed as it continues east along the Lackawaxen. The New York section of US 209 links the same communities in that state as the canal did, and intersects or runs closely parallel to its remnants in several areas. Within towns, Canal Street follows the route in Port Jervis, as does Towpath Road in Ellenville and the Town of Wawarsing.
The canal led to improvements in other technologies as well. The Rosendale cement discovered while excavating the canal bed near that town in 1825 would not only provide the canal itself with a cheap building material but created an industry that sustained the region for some time. Jervis turned his expertise to designing locomotives, and the 4-2-0 type is commonly called the "Jervis" in his honor.
Following its National Historic Landmark designation, interest grew in preserving what remained of the canal in the late 1960s. The canal, its infrastructure and associated buildings survive in many areas along its length.