The Durham Boat

Durham Boats in the water
The Durham boats were specifically noted by Washington in his order to gather the crafts along the Delaware River.

The large flat-bottomed boats housed in the Washington Crossing Historic Park Boat Barn are known as Durham boats. Robert Durham, an engineer at the Durham Iron Works in Reiglesville, Pennsylvania, reputedly designed a prototype for these large cargo boats as early as 1757.

Durham boats hauled cargo such as ore, pig-iron, timber, and produce from upcountry mines, forests and farms down the Delaware River to Philadelphia's thriving markets and port. At the time, Philadelphia ranked second only to London in the value of its imports and exports. The largest Durham boats (up to 65 feet long and 8 feet in the beam) could transport up to 20 tons of iron or 150 barrels of flour downstream. Smaller loads of manufactured goods such as sugar and molasses were carried in these boats upstream from Philadelphia.

The Durham boat moved swiftly downstream with the current, aided by a pair of 18 foot oars and a 25 to 30 foot long sweep to steer through the rapids. When rigged with a 30-foot mast and triangular sail, this vessel was said to have moved silently and gracefully downstream. Traveling upstream against the current and through the treacherous rapids of the river above Trenton required a crew of six men and a captain. The crew captain at the stern wielded the long steering sweep, while two to four men pushed against the river bank or bottom with iron-tipped setting poles (12 to 18 feet long), and the rest of the crew oared against the current. Along each side of the vessel was a narrow gangway, which provided footing for the crew as it poled the boat upstream. When weather did not encourage sleeping in the open, the crew slept in the forward cabin.These craft were able to travel down the river through its many shallows because when fully loaded, they drew only about 24 inches of water. They were able to travel against the current and through the treacherous rapids up the Delaware River because when partially loaded with a cargo of about 2 tons, they drew only about 3 inches of water.

0ars used to row the Durham boats
Rich Buser
Durham boats could be rowed with oars in deeper water and poled in shallow water.

Durham boats played an important part in Washington's Crossing of the Delaware on December 25, 1776. Washington wrote to Governor Livingston of New Jersey, directing him to secure "Boats and Craft, all along the Delaware side...particularly the Durham Boats" for his anticipated crossing. General Washington had, no doubt, observed these stable vessels, painted black, at the docks in Philadelphia and understood that they would be ideal craft to transport troops and supplies for his surprise attack on Trenton.

After the Revolution, these boats continued to haul vast amounts of cargo up and down the Delaware River between Philadelphia and points upriver above Trenton until the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal was completed in 1832. Merchants like Mahlon Taylor (of Taylorsville, now Washington Crossing, PA) accumulated wealth hauling upcountry resources down the Delaware River in Durham boats to the prosperous markets in Philadelphia.

The Durham boats housed in the Washington Crossing Historic Park's Boat Barn are reproductions of this mid-eighteenth century form and are used in the site's annual re-enactment of the Crossing on Christmas Day. Two boats were constructed in 1965 and 1976 by the Johnson Brothers Boat Works in Point Pleasant, NJ. The remaining boats were constructed in 1996-97 by Paul E. Rollins, Boatbuilder, in York, ME.