As an archivist and historian, the National Canal Museum’s Martha Capwell Fox knows a lot about the Lehigh Valley’s contribution to America’s Industrial Revolution. But it is also personal. This Catasauqua native recalls vividly the time back in the 1980s when her father closed the Catoir Inc. silk mill at 918 N. Lumber Street, the last silk mill operating in the Lehigh Valley. “I had almost forgotten,” she says wistfully, “it was 30 years ago this March.” For Capwell Fox it did not seem so long ago that hundreds of workers in the Lehigh Valley were making a living locally in the silk and textile industries, which in part drove her toward writing her latest book, “ Geography, Geology and Genius: How Coal and Canals Ignited the American Industrial Revolution.”

Perhaps more important though to Capwell Fox is explaining that this industrial past was not, as some want to believe, a golden age when philanthropic industrialists employed thousands of workers as almost a form of charity to poor immigrants. Certainly, those who formed unions and fought vigorously for their rights back then didn’t think so. It was the technology of the 19th and mid-20th century that required industrialists to use lots of both skilled and unskilled labor to make money and expand their business. As technology changed and new industries developed that needed to employ fewer workers, they did so, a practice that continues to this day. 

“This work,” she writes, “is not meant to be an exercise in recalling the past glories of the region of the (Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage) Corridor and painting them as the now-vanished ‘good old days.’ There were winners and losers. There were triumphal accomplishments and abject failures. There were progressive philanthropies for improving the common good and cruel exploitation of the powerless. There were visionary well-planned achievements and calamitous disaster beyond human control. There was constant, sometimes violent change… A work of history… after it fulfills the first and most important principle of recounting history-telling it accurately-the next step is to attempt to answer the question , ‘what does this mean for us now?’”

Capwell Fox has taken a large step in her book by making it comprehensive. Along with profuse illustrations are biographies of the men and women who made it possible. Although a lot of special papers over the last 30 years or so have covered aspects of the Valley’s industrial past, hers is the first to cover it from its start to its later days, including everything from iron, steel and coal to silk and beyond.

In general, the history of the industries of the Lehigh Valley and America until roughly 50 years ago has been spotty. They were tales of either heroic “captains of industry” or the struggles against “robber baron” tyrants. While this approach was not always flawed, it took the discussion away from the overall picture. For many years, historians ignored America’s Industrial Revolution, concentrating instead on political or social causes. When industrial history was taught it was having begun with the textile mills of New England. Why this is so can be debated. Perhaps it was that most American historians of the late 19th and early 20th century were educated in New England and the textbook writers they influenced and the teachers that followed them were convinced that American historians from New England should set the standard.

As Capwell Fox points out, it was a historian named Alfred Chandler who began roughly 50 years ago to give this a second look. Chandler, who, although born and raised in Delaware, lived in New England, began to argue with the textile mill view. He pointed to Pennsylvania’s anthracite region as where industry had really had its American birthplace. By the 1980s, others, a small but committed group of local industrial historians, many non-academics, encouraged the study of and preservation of the records from the industrial history era. Among them were Lance Metz, Craig and Ann Bartholomew, Donald Sayenga, Donald Young, Michael Knies, Vincent Hydro and Donald L. Miller. According to one story from the early 80s, several of these individuals rummaged through the records of Bethlehem Steel‘s Schwab Library as they were being consigned to a dumpster.

Over the next several years lectures were given, and papers presented and published at the Canal Museum’s yearly Canal History and Technology Symposia held in the spring at Lafayette College. These, along with archival documents, are the basis for Capwell Fox’s history. She takes the reader back to the early 19th century when the region, like most of the country’s economy, was dominated by agriculture. A fast horse was the speediest form of land transportation, and sailing ships and sail boats were much more reliable than the rutted roads.

It was a shortage of wood in the early 19th century, sometimes known as America’s first energy crises, that sparked the quest for another type of fuel. As American cities expanded, wood became not only scarce, but more expensive. It was Quaker businessman Josiah White and his partner Erskine Hazard who believed they had found the solution with anthracite coal. As Capwell Fox shows, they had huge obstacles to overcome. When the state legislature gave them a charter to own the right of way of the Lehigh River, one skeptical legislator said he was glad “to give them the right to ruin themselves.”

By a combination of careful planning, skillful use of resources, inventive genius and at times luck, they not only did not ruin themselves but created a system of canals that were able to supply anthracite coal to Philadelphia. Others, including state governments, followed their lead and by the 1850s anthracite coal was heating homes and boasting the creation of the iron industry as it was used as an industrial fuel. Of course, not everything ran smoothly. Thanks to stripping the hills of timber, two huge floods, one in 1841 and another in 1862, large parts of the canal was wiped out.

By the time of White’s death in 1850 the canal system he led in creating was under siege by the railroad. By the time of the 1862 flood it was clear that canals were losing to the iron horse. The Lehigh Valley Railroad was the leader locally. By the close of the Civil War their Bethlehem Iron Company rail making subsidiary was shipping its iron railroad rails around Cape Horn to San Francisco to the Central Pacific Railroad, then building the first transcontinental railroad.

These are just two examples of the many shifting technologies that helped to shape the industrial history of the Lehigh Valley as it re-shaped industrial America. “Geography Geology and Genius” will tell you a lot more. It is currently available at the National Canal Museum in Easton.