52. The Enduring Durhams

The image above is that of a replica Durham boat housed in the boat barn at Washington Crossing Historic Park (WCHP) along the Pennsylvania banks of the Delaware River. None of the Durhams that plied the Delaware and Lehigh rivers in the eighteenth century—some fifteen to twenty of which were used to transport George Washington’s infantry across the Delaware on Christmas night 1776—exist today, at least not on dry land. However, the four seaworthy (or river-worthy, to be precise) replica craft at WCHP are used in the re-enactment of that nautical enterprise undertaken twice each December, once on the second Sunday of the month (December 11 this year) and the other on Christmas afternoon. This ritual became routinized in 1953 and has been ongoing ever since.

The Boats

At Washington’s command, the Durham boats that were to be used in the crossing on the night of December 25-26, 1776 were collected from the upper Delaware and Lehigh rivers. Daniel Bray, Jacob Gearhart, and Thomas Jones, all captains in the Hunterdon County militia, engineered this effort and reportedly concealed the boats behind Malta Island below Coryell’s Ferry (today New Hope) on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, several miles above the site at McConkey’s Ferry where the main Continental force would cross. (Malta Island cannot be discerned today because of topographical changes to the area.) In addition to the Durhams, the militia gathered other boats over a forty-mile stretch of the Delaware and moored them in various creeks and behind wooded islands along the river’s west bank, intending to deprive the enemy of these craft while keeping them ready for the Americans’ use.

The Durham boats, which were constructed at the Durham Ironworks or Durham Furnace near Easton, Pennsylvania, typically ranged from thirty to sixty feet in length and were about eight feet wide in the beam. It is estimated that each of these boats carried between thirty and forty soldiers, in addition to a crew of several rowers and a captain. The latter functioned as a pilot by steering the boat with a “sweep” oar, about twenty-five feet long and weighing some ninety pounds, which protruded from the stern (rear). The crew used oars that were about eighteen feet long and weighed some thirty-five pounds; two men were required to operate each oar, and there were two to four oars on each side depending on the length of the boat. The soldiers would have been required to stand on the Durhams, as these vessels had no seats since they were not built to hold passengers but rather to transport heavy cargo such as iron ore, pig iron, produce, and timber downriver to Philadelphia.

The River

The float ice on the Delaware that night—and there were copious amounts of it—posed a particular impediment to the Durhams. The swift current combined with the ice, bitterly cold winds, freezing precipitation, and swollen river to make the army’s endeavor especially challenging. Moreover, the full-blown northeaster that descended on the area by 11 p.m. compounded the difficulty of carrying out Washington’s battle plan. As a result, it took between nine and ten hours for the entire 2,400-man force to make its way to the New Jersey side. By the time those troops did so, it was 3:00 a.m., and it would be another hour before their march to Trenton commenced.

The Result

With the aid of the Durhams and the sailor-soldiers of the 14th Massachusetts Continental Regiment known as the Marblehead Regiment, who with other units rowed the Durhams (accompanied by ferry boats that conveyed the army’s horses, artillery, and wagons), Washington’s troops succeeded in traversing the ice-laden river. Remarkably, they did so without losing a single soldier, cannon, horse, wagon, or boat and later that morning defeated the brigade of German soldiers, known to us as “Hessians,” occupying the town of Trenton. The victorious rebel troops made further use of the Durhams on the night of December 26-27, when they returned to Pennsylvania with some nine hundred prisoners, and again between the 29th and New Year’s Eve as they crossed the river once more—the fourth time that month—back to New Jersey. From there, the Patriot forces went on to win two more battles, at Trenton on January 2 and Princeton the next day, to complete their remarkable “Ten Crucial Days” campaign and reverse the momentum of the war.

The sturdy Durhams accomplished what Washington envisioned when he ordered that they be rounded up for the army’s use. In fact, you might say those boats kept the Revolution afloat (in a manner of speaking).

Season’s Greetings! 

I’ll be taking a break from blogging until 2023. In the meantime, my best wishes to all for a joyful holiday season and a healthy and happy new year.