by Anne Pyburn Craig
The Delaware & Hudson (D&H) Canal Historical Society and Museum of High Falls announced last December that the deal was sealed: the society now owned and would be relocating their museum to the 1797 Depuy Canal House.
”I’d been a trustee for around a year when we started putting this together, and I’d thought from the start that it could be done,” says society president Bill Merchant. “We put in three CFAs (consolidated funding applications) before we were finally approved; then, of course, the state doesn’t ever give you all the money for a project. You have to find somebody else out there who really cares.”
On the third try, the right combination of caring people got together. Jennifer Schwartz Berky, an architect and planner whose firm Home Strategic, LLC is active in a range of endeavors that blend historic preservation and sustainability, helped with the third grant application and brought the similarly-inclined Open Space Institute into the picture. In December 2014, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation announced the $500,000 award that would make the dream attainable.
“Jennifer contacted (OSI vice president) Bob Anderberg and got the OSI on board,” says Merchant. “And John Novi, of course, bought the building and restored and protected it and started the society. Without any of those three people, we wouldn’t be where we are today – God love ‘em.”
It’s been 50 years since High Falls native Novi, then a 20-something chef, artist, and history buff, drew a crowd of 65 for the inaugural meeting of the Delaware and Hudson Canal Historical Society, Inc. Two years earlier, he’d purchased the 1797 DePuy Canal House, which he was then in the process of restoring.
The Society eventually established a small museum with a “nostalgic 19th century flavor” in a nearby former Episcopalian church, and Novi opened the Depuy Canal House, which became a destination restaurant after a four-star review from Craig Claiborne eight months after his 1969 opening. That was probably the first time many New York Times readers had given the hamlet of High Falls a thought — at least since 1960, when Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty were in town filming Splendor In The Grass. (Before that, Marc Chagall painted there; soon after, Jan Sawka would take up residence; when High Fallonians say their hamlet is the Center of the Universe, they’re only half joking.)
It was the canal, though, that had powered the early development of the entire Rondout Valley–and helped shape New York City’s future.
A Treasured History
Before 1812, the United States relied on England for bituminous coal to supply its energy needs. It was too costly and burdensome to attempt to move it overland from the mountains where it was found to the urban centers where it was increasingly needed.
The War of 1812 meant no more British coal. Two Philadelphia drygoods merchants, William and Maurice Wurts, believed that the future of fossil fuel lay in anthracite coal, harder and cleaner burning and in ample supply in the mountains of Pennsylvania. The brothers purchased land and began mining, and soon realized that they needed to get their product to energy-hungry New York City.
The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, made history as the first way of moving large quantities of material between the Great Lakes region and the Hudson River. William and Maurice hired Benjamin Wright, an Erie Canal designer, to supervise surveying and construction. A year later, Wright turned leadership of the D&H project over to his Erie Canal subordinate John B. Jervis.
In three short years, with the efforts of 2,500 laborers using shovels, pickaxes and blasting powder, a marvel was constructed. Stretching 108 miles from Honesdale, Pennsylvania to Eddyville, where it met the Rondout Creek, the D&H Canal opened in 1828 and was soon carrying anthracite to the brick furnaces of Kingston and the blossoming industries of Manhattan. Goods were moved three miles an hour on barges as large as the canal’s 108 locks could accommodate. Four feet deep and 32 feet wide, the canal cost $2.2 million in 1828 dollars to build.
Towns sprung up where no towns had been before. Names like Port Jervis and Wurtsboro are two of the most obvious D&H connections; other traces are evident in the names of Towpath Road in Wawarsing and Creeklocks Road in Rosendale.
“They were hard nosed businessmen,” says Merchant of the Wurtses and their collaborators. “This was the first private million-dollar project in US history, and you can’t really overstate the impact it had on the region. The New York Times kept predicting failure for them, but that coal played a role in growing New York City into one of the world’s largest and most important.”
So did Rosendale cement, first discovered in 1825 and made portable when the canal opened. Small communities like Port Jackson, now known as Accord, had a steady influx of hungry and thirsty “canawlers” and a means of getting lumber and barrel staves to market.
High Falls, which began the 19th century as a fairly isolated agricultural spot, grew into a bustling center of industry and commerce, boosted in mid-century when that section of the canal was expanded and the Roebling aqueduct, a technological marvel of its day, was constructed. By the dawn of the 20th century, railroads had displaced canals. The DePuy House–which had prospered as a tavern and then served as canal office, store and lodging space after Simeon DePuy sold it to the D&H in 1835–became a tavern once again, eventually fated to fall into elegant disrepair and intrigue a local youth named John Novi.
Onward to the future
“I’m an antiquarian; my wife and I deal in antiques,” says Merchant, whose day job as a double bass luthier involves restoring antique instruments to their original condition. “We bought a house here that had been sited where it is because of the canal, and naturally we had to learn the history. What a story it is! Imagine High Falls as that bustling canal town. I love the D&H. It’s history right there in the ground. “
With such rich material at hand and already-developed assets such as the Five Locks Walk and the flourishing Sunday Market, the Canal Museum has already evolved into a tourism anchor; the move into the Canal House is the next logical step.
“Jennifer sees this as a potential tourism hub for Ulster County,” says Merchant, who has been delving into newly discovered source documents–the journals and letters of chief engineer Russell Farnum Lord, who oversaw the Five Locks Expansion in the mid-19th century, and an unpublished history he found on eBay–and presenting his discoveries at historic societies around the region. “It’s been lovely to see the surge in enthusiasm ever since we acquired the Canal House. It’s a challenging project; I have a great board, and they’ve rolled with it, and we have wonderful people involved like Peter Bienstock (an attorney and honorary Canal Society trustee) and Kim Elliman, the head of the OSI, who have helped make it happen.”
Turning the restaurant into a home for the museum will be a major endeavor; besides the $500,000 from the state, $350,000 in grants and $600,000 in bridge loans from the OSI, the society will be launching a capital campaign this fall to raise an additional $2 million for renovations, educational programming, creating endowment and reserve funds, and underwriting paid staff positions to supplement the work of the volunteers who’ve kept things rolling for the past five decades.
Themes the trustees would like to expand include farms and the canal, ruins, art and artifacts of the canal, regional tourism history, and the history of transportation ranging from Native American trails to the Thruway. By January of 2017, trustees expect to be able to present more detailed plans including timelines, renderings, budget and programming goals. Meanwhile, if you haven’t checked out the current museum’s offerings, there’s no time like the present.
“Right now, along with the artifacts, dioramas and documents, we have the Romeo Muller exhibit –the guy who wrote Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and a lot of other stuff, just a typical lovable High Falls genius–and you can come catch the whole show for five bucks,” says Merchant. “During the Hudson River Ramble in September, we’ll have guided tours of the Five Locks Walk, and in October we’re hosting a wine tasting there with Stone Ridge Wine and Spirits and local food from Emmanuel’s.”
Much remains to be decided, and Merchant says the society welcomes community input as the journey continues.
“We are in the entertainment business,” he says. “We want to have a really strong program that’s compelling and fun, that makes people happy. Meanwhile, I won’t rest until we’re open in that building.”
For more information, visit canalmuseum.org.