History of Lehigh Canal and Lehigh Valley Railroad

The Lehigh Canal

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The Lehigh Canal
A Brief History (Cont'd)

Old print showing canal boats being loaded with anthracite coal at Mauch Chunk

Although a number of towns sprung up along the canal, most of the locktender's lived in fairly remote areas Locktender's family along the canal's length.  The locktender and his family, if he had one, lived in the locktender's house year round, but the locktender was paid only for the months in which the canal was open and in operation.  It was necessary for the locktender to find some other form of employment during the winter months.  Frequently the locktender's wife took in laundry to supplement their income. Many canalers dropped off their dirty laundry on the way upstream and picked up the clean laundry on the way down. In some cases, the locktender worked at some other trade even during the time that the canal was open, Locktender's wife opening gates leaving it to his wife or some other family member to operate the lock gates in his absence.  Boatmen warned the locktender of their approach using some type of horn.  Conch shells were popular among the canawlers.  With efficiency born of repetition, the rhythm of a choreographed dance, the locktender or a family member would open and close the gates eighteen hours a day, early spring to late fall.

As the canal boats began their journey down stream, they went through a Weigh Lock located one-half mile south of Mauch Chunk, the second lock in the series of locks, as there was insufficient room for it at the first lock.  Weigh lock, Near Mauch Chunk, ca. 1930The Weigh Lock was covered by a shed and was used to weigh the boats in order to determine payment for the canawler.  In early spring, as the boats came upstream the empty canal boat was weighed to ascertain it's weight prior to receiving it's load of coal.  The weight of the boat empty would be the standard upon which all future loads of coal would be measured.  Once loaded at Mauch Chunk the canal boat passed into the Weigh Lock at the upper end and then the water would be drained from the lock lowering the loaded boat on to a scale mechanism.  After the boat was weighed, the lock was again filled and the boat moved on through.  The weight of the boat's cargo was determined by subtracting it's weight while empty from the weigh while loaded.  Canal boats held up to 100 tons of anthracite coal within their hull.  Lock #2 was used by boats returning upstream, allowing them to bypass the weigh lock.

The lower section of the Lehigh Canal Restored Lock House, lock #23, Canal Park, Walnutport, PAbetween Mauch Chunk and Easton covered a distance of forty-six miles and consisted of nine dammed pools connected by eight canal sections.  Each of the nine dams was positioned to create a slack water pool which supplied water for a section of the canal. At the end of each section, the boats would briefly exit the canal section and then re-enter at the guardlock at the upper end of the next section, a short distance downstream, just above the dam. These dams were needed to provide water for the canal sections. Between the two points (Mauch Chunk and Easton), there were a total of fifty-two locks with their attendant Lock Keeper's house. Between Mauch Chunk and Easton the canal dropped 353.2 feet in the 46.2 miles.  During it's heyday, the Lehigh Canal was known as the largest capacity and the longest running towpath canal in America.

The first four Locks on the Lehigh Canal were 30 feet wide and 130 feet long.  All other locks on the lower portion of the canal were 22 feet wide and 100 feet long and were designed to accomodate two barges traveling in opposite directions.  Dog houseThe canal measured 45 feet wide at the bottom and 60 feet wide at the top and drew 5 to 6 feet of water. The locks on the Lehigh Canal utilized miter gates at the lower (downstream), end and were designed to close from both walls to form a 'V' pointed upstream.  When opened, the gates fit into a recess in the lock walls.  The gates were opened and closed by cranks and gear sets located in small wooden frames called "dog houses" which were located on the lock walls.  Water flow at these gates was controlled by wickets which were located low on the gates themselves.

Lock #23, Lehigh Canal Park, Walnutport looking north at the upper end of lock 11-1-2002At the upper end or upstream end of the locks, miter gates were also used on guard locks.  The upstream gates were higher than was needed for navigation in an effort to provide some protection against floods.  On lift locks, drop gates were used at the upper end instead of miter gates.  Lock #23, Lehigh Canal Park, Walnutport looking north at the lower end of lock, 11-1-2002Lift gates are hinged at their bottom edge and are open by falling to the floor of the canal in the upstream direction.  Water flow at these gates is through wickets located on the canal floor under the open gate.  Both the drop gate and it's wickets were operated by chains running to the floor of the canal from the lock wall.  Locks were constructed of native stone. The interior walls were then lined with wood cribs.  All gates were of wood construction, as well.

Although the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company continued to enjoy financial success through the early and mid 1800's, in many parts of the country the railroad was replacing canal navigation.  At least one newly formed company in Easton had plans to build a railroad from the mines at Summit Hill to Easton to challenge the supremacy of the LC&N.  The Delaware, Lehigh, Schuylkill & Susquehanna was one such railroad and was formed in 1846 by a group of business men in Easton.  But, the effort lanquished for a number of years and little was accomplished to threaten LC&N's monopoly position on shipment of anthracite coal from Mauch Chunk to Easton until Asa Packer brought his considerable wealth and expertise to bear on the situation.

Asa Packer, entrepaneur, principal in Lehigh Valley Railroad, etc.Oddly enough, Asa Packer gained his considerable wealth by virtue of his involment with the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co.  Packer, originally from Connecticut, was a carpenter by trade and was plying his chosen profession in Northern Pennsylvania when he became interested in the canal business.  In 1833 he relocated to Mauch Chunk and using his carpentry skills, he built canal boats.   In due time, he owned a canal boat, a venture that proved so successful that he soon acquired a second boat.  Additionally, he bought a general store at Mauch Chunk, established a canal boat yard and became a construction contractor, building canal locks on the upper portion of the Lehigh Canal.  He also invested in coal mining operations.  In 1851, Asa Packer acquired the controlling interest in the DLS&S railroad and took over the leadership of the construction of the railroads right of way paralleling the Lehigh River.   A short time later the railroad was renamed the Lehigh Valley.  By September 1855 the completed railroad stretched form Mauch Chunk to Easton.  The initial operation of the new railroad was primarily passenger service.  But it's ultimate goal was the shipment of anthracite coal.

Lehigh Valley Railroad logoWith the coming of the railroad, LC&N no longer enjoyed a monopoly on the shipment of anthracite coal from the Summit Hill coal mines.  But, bear in mind that the company owned it's own coal mining operation and thus had a ready supply of coal to ship to market.  Also, once it adjusted it's rates downward, the canal company was able to continue to compete effectively with the Lehigh Valley Railroad for a number of years, but it's operations became increasingly dependent on it's coal mining operations.

The Lehigh Canal was opened in 1829 and remained in service until the early 1930's.  In 1953 the property was leased in Walnutport from the LC&N for the purpose of restoring the canal. In 1964, LC&N offered the canal property to municipalities along the route. In the ensuing years the canal has seen significant restoration efforts in Weissport, Walnutport, Freemansburg, Easton, and the area between Allentown and Bethlehem.

In 1988 the United States Congress designated the Lehigh & Delaware Canals as a National Heritage Corrider. Today, the entire length of the Lehigh Canal as well as the Delaware Division Canal has been federally designated as the "Delaware and Lehigh Canal Heritage Corridor" and has undergone additional restoration efforts beyound that of the local commmunities.

Lehigh Canal Park, south of Walnutport, PA, looking south, 11-1-2002


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Lehigh Canal & Navigation Company
History of the Lehigh Canal