The conclusion of the $29 million project was celebrated in Easton on Friday with a ceremony attended by about 500 people. As the gate at the convergence of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers was opened, water began the 58.9-mile journey to the south along the 178-year-old canal.
The "rewatering" ceremony marked the first time the canal is being filled completely since 2004, and the entire process will take about a week, according to Rick Dalton, Delaware Canal State Park manager.
In the 1800s, as many as 3,000 mule-drawn boats traveled the canal, carrying more than a million tons of coal a year from the mining areas of northeast Pennsylvania to cities along the East coast. After trains took over, the last commercial barge ran in 1931, and the canal is now a favorite of river enthusiasts and a National Historic Landmark.
Following devastating floods from 2004 to 2006 that washed away entire sections of the canal and towpath, contractors hired by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation have repaired the towpath and its banks and also restored the waterway, including structures such as bridges and lock gates.
The cost of the repairs came in for some criticism, even though federal emergency funds covered three-quarters of the tab and the poor economy helped costs come in far below the original $40 million estimate. Proponents argued that the park draws up to a million visitors each year and has irreplaceable historical value.
"It's an absolute pleasure to see people coming back, riding and walking on the towpath, kayaking and canoeing, and to see the wildlife coming back, too," said Susan Martin, executive director of the Friends of the Delaware Canal. She said the Audubon Society has identified 90 species of birds along the canal, including a nest of bald eagles.
The festivities Friday included not one but three ribbon-cutting ceremonies. The first ribbon spanned the towpath and was broken by 350 bicyclists traveling 50 miles along the Rails and Trails Conservancy Greenway Sojourn. The second ribbon strung across the guard lock was cut by kayakers, and the third was snipped by state and local officials.