The Delaware River runs through parts of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. It provides most or the entire border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Delaware, and is part of the New York/Pennsylvania border. Not only did it play a significant role in the American Revolution, it is an irreplaceable source of water for more than 5 percent of the population and one of the most significant commercial waterways on the east coast. Being close to highly populated areas, it has also always been a valuable recreational resource, although this is not the focus of this article.
The Delaware River plays an incredibly significant role in the birth of the United States. Starting on Christmas Eve of 1776, General George Washington led three crossings of the Delaware. After a few victories, the revolution itself was in a crisis. Washington and his troops were forced out of New York City, and many, including the Second Continental Congress, had fled Philadelphia fearful that it would be captured. The troops were poorly supplied and starving, without needed cold weather clothes. Washington would also lose many of his troops at the beginning of the New Year as enlistments were for only one year. Washington led a daring raid from the Pennsylvanian shore and on to Trenton on Christmas night, attacking while the enemy was drunk after celebrations. They left at approximately 6pm, fighting ice floes and later snow and sleet before finally arriving on the New Jersey shore at around 3am.
After landing on the eastern bank Washington’s troops marched to Trenton. The Hessians had been ordered to build defenses around Trenton, but failed to follow those orders. Even worse for the Hessians, Commander Rahl ignored a message delivered earlier in the evening warning of the crossing and imminent attack by Revolutionary soldiers. The Americans had only two injured, one being Lieutenant – and future president – James Monroe While the Hessians suffered 20 killed, 100 wounded and 1000 captured. Monroe was not the only future luminary who participated in the crossing. Future president James Madison, future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, as well as future Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s Vice-president Aaron Burr participated as well. After his attack succeeded, he led an even more dangerous trip back to the Pennsylvania side loaded with prisoners of war and much needed supplies. A few days later, Washington led another crossing to the New Jersey side. This time defeating British troops in Princeton and forcing those British not captured to winter in New Brunswick. His victories protected Philadelphia and the north from further incursions, and provided needed supplies. Much more important than any strategic benefit – the crossing and attack on Trenton involved some 2400 Revolutionary soldiers and 1400 British soldiers – was the morale boost to the revolution. Without the daring and incredibly successful raid and successive battles, there likely would not have been enough enlistments and re-enlistments to field an army.
The Delaware River also provided the port that gave birth to Philadelphia. The river gave goods easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, and commercial traffic encouraged the rapid population growth, making Philadelphia the largest city in the Thirteen Colonies, as well as the capital of the nation until Washington D.C. was completed. Many canals were built in the mid-nineteenth century so other rivers, including the Raritan and Hudson, were built to connect rivers to the Delaware to ease the transportation of goods. Then, in 1885 the Federal government expanded the river to a size of 600 feet wide and thirty feet deep so even more traffic and larger vessels could travel between the Delaware bay and Philadelphia. Work has begun to further widen some bends in the river and deepen the river to 45 feet so even larger ships and tankers can traverse the river to the port.
The port is one of the nation’s busiest, with nearly 3 miles of berths handling more than 3.9 million tons of cargo in 2011 alone. That is more than two tons for every resident of the city. The Maritime Exchange of the Delaware River and Bay also estimates more than $4 billion in revenue and 70,000 jobs are directly related to the Delaware River.
The Delaware River is also an important source of water for the Northeast. It provides water to more than 15 million people living on the east coast. Philadelphia receives all of its water from the Delaware, while New York City receives nearly half, some 440 million gallons per day from the Delaware and its tributaries. In 1961, President Kennedy created the Delaware River Basin Commission, made up of governors of the four Delaware River States, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania plus a federal representative from the Army Corps of Engineers. The DRBC is responsible for water use and water quality as well as flood and recreational management of the river and its tributaries. The DRBC was the first federal agency to address issues of water pollution and water quality.
Recently the Delaware River and the DRBC have had to address issues regarding fracking. Fracking or Hydraulic fracturing is a form of drilling for natural gas, where wells are drilled thousands of feet down, then pumped full of water and other chemicals to force the shale gas out of the well. In 2000, shale gas provided only 3% of the natural gas in the United States, but increased demand has driven that up to 30% of the total natural gas used in the United States today.
Unfortunately, fracking requires large amounts of water, and many undisclosed chemicals are involved in the process that may seep into the drinking water supplies rendering them unsafe. In some cases, the drinking water was even flammable. Fracking has also been blamed for a number of small earthquakes. A number of fracking facilities are seeking to use water from the Delaware River in their operations. The DRBC indefinitely postponed a meeting to finalize regulations for fracking. Previously they stated they would not approve any fracking applications before there were approved regulations.
The Delaware River not only provides an important link to the American Revolution and supplies drinking water to a significant part of our population. The decisions made in management of the river will continue to affect the economy of the east coast and decisions made with regard to fracking will likely play a major role in future debates over environmental policy.
- DRBC’s Outgoing Director Says Delaware River Basin Needs Strong Regulator (njspotlight.com)
- Initiative Seeks to Safeguard Water Quality, from Highlands to Delaware Bay (njspotlight.com)
- Delaware River Basin Fracking Decision Delayed For Now (huffingtonpost.com)
- 10 things you didn’t know about the American Revolution in N.J. (nj.com)