The Delaware River Blog

What is the Delaware River Water Gap?

The Delaware River Water Gap is where the Delaware River, in its over 300 mile southward flow from its source in the Catskill Mountains, crosses over a major ridge of the Appalachian Mountains. The river is approximately 55 feet deep at the Delaware Water Gap. The gap itself is a mile wide spanning from New Jersey’s Mt. Tammany (1,527 feet) to Pennsylvania’s Mt. Minsi (1,463 feet.)  The river lies 290 feet above sea level at this point, a remaining height that it gradually descends in its course through to Delaware Bay, over 175 miles of a meandering downstream later.

The Delaware Water Gap, where the Delaware River cuts through a mountain range, by Underwood & Underwood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The geographically significant Delaware Water Gap is located on the border of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, nearest the town of Stroudsburg, PA. The gap marks a change of boundary for the river, leaving the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania and entering into the Kittatinny Mountains of New Jersey. Both the Blue and Kittatinny ranges are sub-chains within the Appalachian network.

Several hundred million years ago, the river emerged through either side of the rocky range. The Appalachians, containing much gray quartzite, were once the highest mountains on earth – comparable to the Himalayas of today. The hardness of this rock has allowed it to be relatively resistant to a few hundred million years of weathering. The durability of the composite minerals accounts for the impressive perseverance of the Appalachian Mountain range, the world’s oldest mountains.

Water gaps are noteworthy because they offer geological evidence indicating that some rivers are older than their surrounding mountains. Such is the case with the Delaware, meaning it surpasses 460 million years of age. One theory describes how the Delaware Water Gap began when two rivers on either side, provided enough lateral erosion to forever alter the watershed. Gradually, through tectonic shifts and continued water erosion, the two rivers have formed into one as the earth’s ever-shifting topography has morphed into what is now known as the Delaware River.

There is archaeological evidence of paleo native american settlements from as early as 10500 BC.  These tribes hunted the giant mastodon, which had not yet gone extinct. In pre-colonial days, Lenape and Delaware Indian tribes would camp near the gap and recite stories and creation myths. Seasons were marked by the positioning of the sun and moon in relation to the cliffs. Hunting trips and field plantings were determined by how the shadows fell on the cliffs of the water gap. These tribes had connection with the northern Algonquins, linguistic evidence indicates, and occupied the Delaware River valley for centuries before the Europeans arrived with expansion and pestilence. There was an early period of cooperation between natives and new arrivals. The Dutch and the local Indian tribe in particular had a symbiotic bond.

Of the time of the European immigration and merger into Indian lands, local legend tells the tale of the daughter of a prominent Indian Chief Wissinoming. Winona was her name; and her Dutch companion: Hendrick Van Allen. Local legend in this case means Luke W. Brodhead’s 1870 book, The Delaware Water Gap: Its Scenery, Its Legends and Early History.  According to the text, the two dear ones were torn by allegiances and the shifting power struggles during the time when the British had taken domain over New York, around 1750. Somehow both figures, the disillusioned Dutchman and the Indian Princess, end up falling or jumping off what is now known as Winona Cliff.  It is a tragic tale of love lost during a collision of civilizations.

For modern civilization, there is a Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area that consists of a river shoreline forty miles upstream reaching the New York State border. This region is primarily for recreational use such as boating, hiking, rock-climbing and camping.  Floating down the ‘Dirty Delaware’  in over-sized tire tubes while drinking beer is also part of this landmark’s more recent cultural history. An anti-Drowning-while-intoxicated campaign is part of the Park Service’s latest strategy to counter fatalities.

A view of the eastern end of the Delaware River Viaduct from I-80 at Delaware Water Gap (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This exact region, including the Delaware River Water Gap, was once slated for intentional flooding to allow for a permanent reservoir.  This was in accordance with the plans for the Tock’s Island Dam, which congress authorized the building of in 1962 but which was never realized due to heavy opposition and obstacles. The land in question is now governed by the National Park Service.

Water gaps are logical places for trails to follow, for the gap provides a pass over the corresponding ridge. Interstate 80 runs directly through this pass in the mountains. I-80 was laid over the old railway bed of the former New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway.  There is now another railway leading through the gap along with an adjacent state road route. Before these, there were wagon trails to enable the fledgling commerce of the early American colonists.  Before the Europeans landed, centuries of Native Americans used the gap as a strategic pass. Lenni Lenape were the people who inhabited the region for several thousand years. Some modern speculators believe that the cliffs of the gap were too steep for foot paths; however, certainly the river’s shoreline provided enough room for a sure-footed aboriginal. The gap’s strategic importance was too great to not be fully utilized by, not only humans, but also animals; for it provides an opportunity to cross into new hunting territory and new resources. Water travel should not be ignored either considering that a river is a major element of this geological phenomenon.  As water mobility increased, as the indigenous people propelled their canoes, the Delaware Water Gap gained even more prominence.

Delaware Water Gap (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Alabama to Maine, traverse through the Delaware Water Gap, typing text messages where once smoke signals rose. Regional dialects are in effect. It boggles the mind to contemplate how dinosaurs once drank from these same shores.

In the early 19th century, the Delaware River Water Gap began getting developed as a commercial resort area as newly laid railways brought wealthy families, mostly from Manhattan and Philadelphia. They would spend weeks at a time at the large resorts to escape the heat of the city summers. Today most of those establishments are gone, but people, over four million visitors per year, still pass through the famous Delaware Water Gap.

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