Off the Beaten Path
The following story was published in Western and Eastern Treasures, June 1995.
Scenic as well as historic, the canal offered miles of treasure hunting in tranquil surroundings.
Metal detecting has become a very competitive hobby, and finding a choice site can be a chore. Most of the obvious hot spots have been hit hard: schools, churches, and parks. Today, these areas usually only give up coins to the most persistent of coin shooters. Better detectors with greater depth capabilities allow some sites to be worked again and again, producing older coins (which is what most of us coin shooters are looking for); but as the coins are thinning out, the coin shooter must come up with sites that are really off the beaten path. Sometimes that "beaten path" can be within walking distance of your own home.
I just retired from the U.S. Army and have settled down for the last time in Pennsylvania. Our property runs adjacent to the canal which opened to riverboat traffic in 1831. The canal is approximately 60 miles long, starting in Easton and ending in Philadelphia. For almost 100 years it was a very important link in the transportation system of eastern Pennsylvania. The peak traffic years occurred just prior to the Civil War, when more than 3,000 boats, traveling up and down the canal, transported one million tons of coal alone, not to mention countless tons of other commodities each year. The boats or barges were pulled by mule teams. In 1931, the canal was abandoned as a public waterway since it could no longer compete with the newer transportation methods. Along one side of the canal is an area approximately 12 foot wide called the towpath. This is where the mules walked when pulling the barges. It is also where people have been walking, playing and fishing for the last 160 plus years. This is the "beaten path" I was referring to, and it is practically right outside my front door. I first started metal detecting the towpath about 20 years ago while home on leave from the Army. I recall finding wheat cents, new silver and lots of .22 shells. Until recently, I had almost forgotten about it as a metal detecting site.
In September 1993, armed with a White's 5900 Di Pro Plus, I made my attack on the towpath. After scanning the first 100 feet and finding only a wheat, I realized that I was definitely not the first one down this beaten path with a detector. It was now time to try something different. Actually, it was a technique that I first learned about while serving overseas in Germany. I was metal detecting along a river in Trier, an old Roman town, and not doing well at all. A schoolteacher came along with her class and asked what I was doing. When I told her that I was searching for Roman coins, she told me that I would have to search the banks and in the water to find coins. I searched the banks and had a Roman coin within five minutes. In fact, some of the Roman coins were right on top of the ground, staring up at me.
What made me think about this technique was the fact that the water level in the Delaware Canal was lowered about 5 foot, exposing 3 to 6 feet of bank that used to be underwater. I decided to give it a try since the coins were pretty sparse on the towpath. Almost immediately I got a target ID reading of "penny/dime" at 3 inches and was rewarded with a 1941 wheat cent. It seemed that this technique was going to work after all. I searched another ten feet and received a "half dollar" reading at 3 inches. Could it be possible?
I dug a little deeper so as not to scratch my "half dollar", then ran the detector over the hole. It was silent, but I received a loud response over the dirt I had just removed. It took a few minutes to locate the find because of the muddy conditions, but soon I saw a disc I just knew was a Kennedy half dollar. Upon closer inspection, I could see a woman's head with Liberty on the headband. It turned out to be an 1834 large cent. It was in bad shape but still identifiable.
Twenty feet farther, I got a quarter reading on the meter. After moving the coil out of the way, I could see a coin right on top of the ground. It was black, unlike the brown, rusty colored clad coins. It turned out to be a 1935 silver Washington quarter. Another swing revealed another silver quarter, and still another. The last reading was a nickel, dated 1954. Not bad for one square foot of ground!
Soon the bank became too steep to hunt comfortable, so I went back to where I had started and worked in the opposite direction. I was glad I did. Within 10 feet I got another half dollar reading which turned out to be a Walking Liberty at 2 inches. It, too, was blackened by years in the canal, but I could still read the date: 1918-S. What a way to wind up a great day of metal detecting!
The next morning I made my way down to the canal. What a disappointment! The water level was back up to normal. Metal detecting the canal would have to wait until the water level was down, whenever that might be. The time finally came during the first week of October. The water level was down even farther than I hunted the first time. I started in the same area since there was about 2 feet more of new bank that hadn't been searched. Things got off to a slow start at first, although wheat and memorial cents popped up once in a while. However, when I made it to where I left off the first time, things started to change immediately.
Right away I got another one of those "half dollar" readings. At 3 inches up popped another large cent, this one an 1851 and in better shape than the first one. Next came more wheat's, and then the first Indian head cent, an 1864 (no L). A reading of penny/dime at 2 inches proved to be the best find of the day...a capped bust half dime dated 1837. It was in excellent shape and would grade at least Fine/Very Fine. This was also the lowest mintage year for this series as only 871,000 were produced. It is valued between $23 and $46. Other goodies included a religious cross and medallion, fishing sinkers, buttons, bullets, and an old tube of lipstick.
While hunting, I noticed that most of the coins found were in the rocky areas of the bank. When the bank was smooth and free of rocks, not many coins were detected, although it did make for some easy swinging. Also, I did get to detect the middle of the canal in some spots. This area produced no coins at all. All of the coins were found on the bank angling down to the bottom of the canal. One other oddity I noticed was the lack of silver dimes. With all the wheat's that were popping up, some silver dimes should have been among them.
The next day was perfect for metal detecting...clear blue sky, sun shining, and the temperature near 70°F. This time I decided to head in the opposite direction and go north, hunting the banks between two bridges. This was approximately half a mile. I put my headphones on, turned on the detector, made one pass, and immediately received a reading. As I moved the coil over I could see an Indian head cent right on top of the ground. A quick check revealed it to be an 1889. What a way to start!
Coins were popping up at a very regular interval. Another signal produced an English penny dated 1861. A few feet further, I finally popped up my first silver dime, a '62 Roosevelt. Things really started to pick up now. After finding a clad quarter and then getting another "quarter" reading, I fully expected a clad to pop up. Was I ever surprised! At first I thought I had a seated Liberty quarter, but after washing it off in the canal I could see that it was foreign. It was well worn, but I could still make out all of the details. It was a 1793 two Reals minted in Mexico. This is equivalent to a quarter (two bits). These were actually legal tender until 1857.
Next, I found nine silver dollar-size aluminum tags that were used by the Weights and Measures Department for sealing cargo. They are marked "Sealed, Bucks County Penna., Arthur C. Shaw, Sealer." They have to date 1931 or earlier, since that is when the canal was shut down to traffic. Another "penny/dime" reading produced a 1943 Mercury dime...nothing unusual, except I could see it sticking out of the mud. All I had to do was bend over and pick it up. Memorial cents were really abundant, almost annoying, but a coin is a coin. A dry spot came up for about 50 feet, and then my headphones blasted out once more. The target turned out to be an 1840 seated Liberty dime (w/o drapery). The next bridge was in sight now, and my destination was near.
I decided to hunt between two bridges that were about 300 yards apart and are located in the center of our town. Coins popped up at regular intervals again. A 1903 Indian head penny was the first find of the day. Soon I was rewarded with my first two cent piece. Unfortunately, it was corroded to the point that I could not make out the date. Right after that, I found a silver Roosevelt dime right on top of the ground. About 50 feet beyond, a "penny/dime" at 2 inches turned out to be a well worn 1788 Spanish colonial coin...a one-half real minted in Mexico, that gave new meaning to the phrase "one thin dime".
This brought me to the next bridge, so I walked the towpath a half mile to the point where I had stopped the day before. After walking another 200 feet, I found only wheat and memorial pennies. Then an 1863 Indian head penny turned up, and not 10 feet away I located yet another 1863 Indian head penny. I could only envision that some poor lad had lost his candy money while fishing.
It is a shame that the copper coins came out of the mud in such a corroded condition. Numismatically speaking, they are not worth much, but what a great conversation piece they make. The silver pieces fare much better and do have some collector value. However, like most detectorist, I'm in it for the fun and the history. Besides, I've got 59 more miles of hunting to go!
I found this campaign business card for Arthur C. Shaw in a family photo album. It is the same Shaw as seen on the aluminum seal above. It reads: For Recorder of Deeds, Bucks County, Arthur C. Shaw, Bridgeton Township, Election November 7, 1911, Your Vote and Support Respectfully Solicited.
The responsibility of the Bucks County Recorder of Deeds Office is to record and maintain for permanent record all documents related to real estate (deed, mortgages, subdivision plans, etc.) and various other documents such as veterans' discharges, notary public commissions, etc.
Remember, always obtain permission to hunt an area!
Read about finding an 1876-S Seated Liberty Quarter on the canal banks.
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