Riegelsville: A river town unlike any other along the Delaware
Dining at the Riegelsville Inn at the canal.
Travelers north or south along Easton Road (Route 611), are struck by the beauty and architecture of Riegelsville, a Delaware River town, as they pass through this remarkable Victorian town.
Although it is contained in a mere square mile on the northeastern tip of rural Bucks County, Riegelsville is home to a legacy of post-Civil War development and former industry.
The original settlers of the area were the Shawanese people, who called it “Pechoqueolin,” and were supposedly there to protect the natural mineral resources. Those resources ultimately shaped Riegelsville’s economy: first as a gateway for transporting Durham Iron Company’s precious iron ore, and ultimately a hub for moving products from the Riegel family’s paper mill.
In between, it was also known as “Shank’s Ferry,” denoting its location as a thoroughfare for iron ore reaching New Jersey and New York via the Delaware River. Long before Riegelsville had the Delaware Canal and its famed Roebling Bridge, ferries were the only mode of transportation across the river. Riegelsville’s proximity to Easton (north) and Philadelphia (south) was ideal for post-war production.
Benjamin Riegel founded his namesake town approximately in 1832 at the height of canal commerce. The company provided coal and agricultural product transportation between Northeastern Pennsylvania and Easton to points south.
The Riegelsville Inn – still in operation today, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places – was built in 1838, and served as a resting area for workers – tourists, who began to flock to Bucks County shortly afterwards to escape Philadelphia’s summer heat.
The Riegel family made not only an industrial statement as the magnates of the area’s large paper mill, but also as philanthropic founders of the town’s most valued landmarks. John C. Riegel, son of Benjamin, established the “Academy” in 1885, a progressive school for its time that educated both boys and girls for collegiate aspirations.
He also established the town’s library, which to the present day is staffed by volunteers, and is funded through a trust and private donations.
The Riegel family was of German origin, likely from the Rhineland region. As German migration in the Philadelphia area grew exponentially, opportunities for prosperity in the antebellum era abounded. With the demand for Durham’s iron ore and advent of rail transportation, the canal system was eventually outdated.
But the Riegel family adapted, and continued to keep Riegelsville both a tourist stopover and a company town. The town was thriving long before its official chartering in 1916.
A covered wooden bridge to Pohatcong, N.J., was authorized in 1835. A major flood destroyed it in 1841 but it was repaired and it survived until the “Pumpkin Flood” of 1903.
As traffic from ferries across the Delaware increased, the Riegels sought the help of the John A. Roebling Sons firm to design and build a bridge, which was erected in 1904.
The Roebling cable suspension bridge remains an iconic treasure of Riegelsville. Interestingly, in the great flood of 1955, the bridge managed to be the only intact bridge structure along the Delaware River corridor, suffering no apparent damage, while countless others were destroyed completely.
Ghost-like remains of some of the bridges’ footings still remind residents of the river’s power. Today, the Riegelsville Toll Supported Bridge is operated by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission. Flooding is a perpetual and pervasive concern of the town and its residents; however, many preventive engineering adjustments continue to be made.
Riegelsville also prides itself in owning another landmark bridge traversing the canal, now maintained by PennDOT.
According to Tom Stinnett, borough council president for more than two decades, the borough is focusing not on bridge maintenance, but instead on plans to retain the integrity of the borough’s character and tourist appeal.
About half of the borough’s mass is still farmland toward its western border. Owned primarily by St. Lawrence Catholic Church, this land is of interest to borough officials who want to see the area preserved, not opened up to commercial or more residential development. Plans are under way to build a trail for bikers and pedestrians that will loop around the borough’s confines. It is hoped that the loop will generate tourism.
Besides the inn, Riegelsville has the Riegelsville Tavern at the south end of town, Villa Richard, Fig Tree Market and the Borderline Cafe. Several businesses are off the main road.
Riegelsville is an appealing town for a number of reasons. Asked to describe a “typical” resident of the town, Stinnett claims there truly aren’t people who fit into a given character.
It is close to Easton and Allentown, where many of its residents work, and also near the I-78 corridor, considered by some as ideal for a commute to New Jersey and New York.
But it is also a community of Bucks County with its own personality. With its magnificat churches, riverfront and canal, its open field across from the library and borough hall set on a hill, it is a destination within Bucks that is worth exploring.