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History's Headlines: When canals moved the Lehigh Valley

History's Headlines: When canals moved the Lehigh Valley

EASTON, Pa. - When word came recently that the National Canal Museum was moving out of its "digs" at Two Rivers Landing in Easton's Centre Square to Hugh Moore Park, it was in a way déjà vu all over again. "Being here is almost a coming home," said museum executive director Tom Stoneback. 

In this fast paced time it is hard to think of a canal system as ever being a cutting-edge technology. But canals in the 1820s transformed the region, starting a revolution that was as important as any in how it changed the way people lived and worked and related to the big world outside of eastern Pennsylvania.

What was transportation like in the Lehigh Valley before canals arrived?  Not very good, even by early 19th century standards. There might never have been a Lehigh County but for the fact that local farmers found it difficult to travel from western Northampton County to the county courthouse in Easton every time they wanted to settle a dispute with a neighbor.

Roads were muddy ruts most of the time. And although "express," same-day stage service between Allentown and Philadelphia was promised, leaving at 5:00 a.m. or so and arriving well after dark, in reality it was a sometime thing. When a coach got stuck in a rut the driver would order all male passengers to help get it out. "Now, gentlemen, push to the right. Now, gentlemen, push to the left," was a commonly heard cry along the Lehigh Valley's highways.

The roads were often dotted with stumps that were supposed to be removed by the property owner who lived in front of the highway. Sometimes they did and sometimes they did not.

Using water transport had been a dream since the days when Thomas Penn, William Penn's eldest son, and his brothers, rode into the future site of Easton in the 1730s. But the Lehigh and the upper Delaware, especially in the Lehigh Valley, were good for little more than floating a Native American's birch bark canoe.

Canals finally came to the Lehigh Valley in the 1820s thanks to the ambition and business skills of Philadelphia merchants Josiah White and Erskine Hazard. They decided the only way to get the coal they owned from the coal regions to the city was on man-made water ways. And the success of the Erie Canal in New York seemed to point the way.

The state legislature gave White and Hazard the navigation rights to the Lehigh River, at their request. Most people laughed. One state legislator scoffed that he was glad to give the Philadelphians "the right to ruin themselves" in such an impractical venture as attempting to tame the Lehigh. But as the old song goes "they all laughed at Christopher Columbus when he said the world was round."

Soon work crews of Irish immigrants, African American and Pennsylvania German canal workers could be seen digging busily along the canal's route. They died in large numbers. Some Irish workers, according to one observer, were buried in mass graves.

Perhaps the most ingenious thing about the canal was the system of locks that when flooded could raise or lower a canal boat loaded with the black diamonds of anthracite coal. Once it linked up with the state of Pennsylvania's Delaware Canal at Easton the coal was flowing down to the bustling city of Philadelphia, heating homes and eventually industry.

As someone once observed, "victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan." Once White and Hazard had shown the way, and become quite wealthy as a result, many others who had scoffed decided to plunge into canal building. Soon state legislatures and bankers all over the country began to speculate on the building of canals. Even in far off Vandalia, Illinois, then that state's capital, a young legislator named Abraham Lincoln was to recall later the canal building mania of the 1830s, with capital coming hopefully, "from England or who knows where."

The boom got an added kick in 1840 when, thanks to the skills of Welsh ironmaster David Thomas, the first successful anthracite coal powered iron furnace opened at what is now Catasauqua. By then lumber and passengers were already moving along the waterways of the state.

Canal boatmen were not always the most genteel of folks. Asa Packer, a canal boat captain-tough as they come-who later created the Lehigh Valley railroad, once confronted his crews in a nasty labor dispute. In an 1843 confrontation the future captain of industry and father of Lehigh University found himself tossed into the canal.

With the Morris Canal that went across New Jersey from the New York region to Easton, canals had opened the Lehigh Valley to the rest of America in ways that no one could have imagined in the 1820's. But even at the moment of their greatest success canals were an endangered species.

Railroads were starting to dot the landscape. Unlike canals they did not freeze up in the winter or dry up in the summer. Railroads traveled inland far from rivers and opened up the natural resources of the country to further development. In 1855 the Lehigh Valley Railroad made its inaugural run from the coal regions to Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. That same year, the tonnage of coal carried by the Lehigh Canal plummeted.

By 1885 canals had become a quaint way to travel for wealthy excursionists like Louis Comfort Tiffany, the stained glass artist, and his society friends. Along with reading Dickens and taking photos on glass plate negatives, they discussed how one should dress for dinner on a canal boat.

The Lehigh Canal, victim of a series of floods, closed for good in the 1930s. But the National Canal Museum is there to remind us of its golden age.   

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