BRISTOL BOROUGH >> A series of 12 interpretive signs documenting where the historic Delaware Canal once flowed through Bristol Borough are boasting a fresh new look along with new images and information.
On July 26, Susan Taylor, the Executive Director of the Friends of the Delaware Canal, joined partners - Eugene Williams from the Grundy Foundation, Alexa Johnson from Visit Bucks County, Betty Rodriguez representing the Bristol Borough Council and Jeanette Ruano from the Bristol Cultural and Historical Foundation - in unveiling new and improved signage between the Delaware Riverfront to Washington Avenue.
The signage, installed by the Canal Action Crew on July 22, tells the story of the Delaware Canal at Bristol, the terminus of a 60-mile-long journey southward from Easton to Bristol Borough for mule-pulled barges carrying coal, lumber, iron and other products.
Here at Bristol, barges would wait in a large boat basin - today’s Mill Street parking lot - for their cargo to be offloaded onto boats bound for Philadelphia.
Begun in 1827 and completed in late 1830, the Delaware Canal connected Bristol to the rich anthracite coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania and transformed Bristol into a bustling transportation hub. The boat basin along the river’s edge was always full of canal boats filled with coal, lumber, iron and other products of the industries along the Lehigh River.
The need to transfer goods to and from the canal boats at Bristol created a local real estate boom in the 1830s and 1840s. The demand for riverfront property suitable for the construction of wharves, docks, and warehouses soared.
The canal also brought new residents and buildings to Bristol. Wealthy and prominent people built their houses along Radcliffe Street, while longshoremen and other workers lived in modest frame row homes constructed in the northern portions of the original town and on new streets carved from farmland that bordered the northeastern edge of town.
“After the canal was closed commercially, (the basin and the canal) was considered a detriment and I can understand why after reading some of the stories,” said Taylor. “The borough decided to fill in the canal from Washington Avenue south to the basin and the river.”
In 1996, Bristol Borough developed the idea of installing a series of informational signs documenting the location of the basin and the path of the canal from the Delaware River to Washington Avenue, said Taylor. That project, which was installed in 1997, also included the placement of a series of blue bollards between the parking lot and the Bristol Marsh denoting the original path of the canal and various brick and masonry work inlaid into the ground that showed where things were, including the toll collector’s house and Bristol’s three locks.
Time, however, took its toll on the signage and, according to Taylor, after 20 years it had deteriorated to the point of being unreadable.
So the Friends of the Delaware Canal approached the Bristol Borough Council with the idea of replacing the panels. The idea subsequently received the support of the borough, which has agreed to maintain the new signs.
Funding and support for the project came from the Grundy Foundation, Visit Bucks County, the Bristol Cultural and Historical Foundation and the Friends of the Delaware Canal.
“This to me has been a very good partnership project with the borough saying, ‘Yes, we should do something and agreeing to maintaining them in the future.’ The Grundy Foundation, Visit Bucks County and the Bristol Cultural and Historical Foundation coming in with funding,” said Taylor. “And everybody working together along the way to help with the proofreading, including Carol and Harold Michener, Gene Williams and Borough Manager Jim Dillon.”
In addition, the Friends of the Delaware Canal contributed by developing the text for the signs, research, finding graphics and coordinating the effort.
“On behalf of the borough, we appreciate your hard work and joining forces with us to have this happen,” Bristol Borough Council Vice President Betty Rodriguez told Taylor. “This is a town that has so much to offer and we appreciate it.”
According to Taylor, the development of the new sign panels involved incorporating new graphics, photographs and updating the stories, relying on information provided by the Grundy Library and the National Canal Museum in Easton.
Through the process, new information also was discovered, placing the only two "bump bridges" on the Delaware Canal in Bristol Borough, but little was know about the unique spans than two long-distance aerial views and the tales of kids climbing on the bridge when a canal boat passed through.
After Taylor put out a request for information on the internet, a man from the Miami & Erie Canal in Ohio responded with both a description that fit the aerial views and a detailed drawing of a bump bridge.
Gene Gerhart, an artist from Quakertown, adapted the drawing to a Grundy Mill setting and added his own playful touches. His drawing now appears on the interpretive sign located by the Grundy Mill at Jefferson Avenue.
He also submitted a preliminary drawing of Lock 1, but passed away unexpectedly before it was completed. The artist and graphic designer who designed all 12 of the signs finished Dennis' drawing, being careful to honor his intent and style.
“The sign system here is a testament to Bristol’s desire to share its rich history and its pride in the town,” said Taylor. “From a visitation standpoint, the Friends of the Delaware Canal want people to visit all of the canal. This signage gives the people here in Bristol a feel of what the canal is and hopefully be inspired to venture a little further.
“I also think it’s important for town’s to take advantage of their own character - what makes them special because that is what ultimately attracts visitors.”