History of Lehigh Canal and Lehigh Valley Railroad

The Lehigh Canal

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The Lehigh Canal
A Brief History

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

In 1791 Philip Ginder, hunting on Mauch Chunk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania, discovered some mysterious black stones which he put in his pocket and carried home.  The curious stones turned out to be "stone coal".  From this discovery, the Lehigh Coal Mine Company was founded on the hopes of mining and selling the coal.  But market prospects for "stone coal" or anthracite coal were not promising as the hard coal was nearly impossible to burn and because of the difficulty of transporting it to the Philadelphia market.  The anthracite coal had to be hauled to Mauch Chunk from the mine, a distance of nine miles, in wagons over difficult terrain.  Then at Much Chunk the coal would have to be transferred to river boats and floated down the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers to Philadelphia.  It wasn't until 1803 that an attempt was made to actually float boats loaded with coal down these rivers to the Philadelphia market and because of the difficulty in navigating the Lehigh River, only two of six boats actually arrived at their destination.

Little was accomplished until the outbreak of the War of 1812 when the supply of soft coal was disrupted and anthracite coal was viewed as a possible alternative.  But navigation of the Lehigh River was still a deterent to success.   Two enterprising young men, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, saw the possiblities offered by anthrcite coal and negotiated with the original Lehigh Valley Coal Mine investors to acquire controlling interest. Thus, it was in 1818 that the Lehigh Navigation Co. was organized with the intent of improving navigation on the Lehigh River.  Stock cetificate, Lehigh Coal & Navigation CompanyA system utilizing a series of dams, pools, and sluice-gates was devised.  The system that was devised used a one-way lock with a sluice-gate that, when lowered into the lock bed, sent the boat riding down a flume on a rush of water and into a slackwater pool at the next lower level.  The system operated crudely but successfully.  However, it was a one-way system; the boats were floated down the rivers and then had to be broken up upon reaching their destination as there was no way to transport them back up stream.  The coal mining operation and the navigation company were subsequently merged to form the Lehish Coal and Navigation Co.

As the newly formed company found more and more markets for it's coal, it sought to improve the transportation system that it relied on to get the coal to market.  A gravity railroad was constructed to bring the coal from the mines to Mauch Chunk.  Mules were used to pull the empty cars back upgrade to the mines.  This primitive but effective rail line was the first railroad in the Lehigh region and one of the earliest in the United States.

The gravity railroad was known as a switchback railroad and operated utilizing inclined planes. Switchback Railroad, Mt. Jefferson Plane, Summit Hill The tracks ran downhill from the mines at Summit Hill to the point in Mauch Chunk where the coal was loaded into canal boats. The gravity railway was placed into service in 1827 eliminating the need to haul the coal from the mines using wagons.

Initially, the railroad utilized a single track system whereby the loaded coal cars ran downhill with the speed regulated by the use of brakes. Empty cars were periodically hauled back up the rail using mule power. The mules would then be returned downhill in special stable cars designed for that purpose.

A second track was added in 1844 and steam power was introduced which hoisted empty cars up an incline plane that carried the cars up Mount Pisgah which overlooked the town of Mauch Chunk. Switchback Railroad, Tourist attraction Gravity rails carried the empty cars to the floor of Mauch Chunk Creek Valley where a second incline plane (Mt. Jefferson plane), hoisted the empties to the mines. The use of steam power does not refer to locomotives, but was in the form of stationary steam engines at the top of the inclined plane that pulled the cars uphill using a cable and drum system.


Advertising flyer - Incline RailwayThe switchback railroad operated in coal service until 1871. It continued to be operated as a tourist attraction, hauling car loads of passengers to the top of the mountain, until 1933. It is said that this pioneer rail system actually inspired the amusement park roller coaster.

In 1825 plans were laid to convert the river navigation system to a slackwater operation which would allow the boats to return upstream.  Canal boats moored at Mauch Chunk waiting to be loadedThe canal construction began at Mauch Chunk in 1825 and was completed in Easton in September 1829.  Improvements to the Delaware River navigation system were completed in 1832.  By the mid 1830's the LC&N was shipping over 200,000 tons of coal to Philadelphia annually.

Although the canal system, as originally constructed by the LC&N, ran from Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe), to Easton where it connected with the Delaware Division Canal, in 1835 the company extended the canal system northward.  The canal was expanded to include that portion north above Mauch Chunk to Fort Jenkins.  The upper section of the Lehigh Canal covers a distance of twenty-five miles.  On this section there are twenty dams and twenty-nine locks.

The lower section of the canal, for the most part, followed the east bank of the Lehigh River for much of it's length.  The Lehigh Canal was known as a "towpath canal" as a towpath ran parallel to the canal and was located on the west bank of the canal, between the canal and the river.  The bank opposite the tow path is called the "berm".  Two mules were used to pull each canal boat.  These two mules were hitched in single file and a rope extended from them back to the canal boat where it was attached to a cleat on the front of the boat.  The mules were driven by a mule tender that walked along behind the mules to keep them moving and to attend to their needs.  More often than not, the individual attending to the mules was the young son of the "canawler", as the boatmen were called. Mules pulled barges at a speed of 1 1/2 to 3 miles per hour.

"Canawlers" (canalers) frequently lived on their boats. If he was married, then his wife and children also lived on the boat, more often than not.  Often times the canawler would trade small amounts of coal to farm families along the canal for cabbages or other fresh garden vegetables or fruit along the way.  It was in this way that the boatmen and their families obtained fresh vegetables and fruit to supplement the stores of supplies that they had brought with them for the trip.  LC&N canal boat leaves lock #24 at Easton, ca. 1920  The canal was open only during the months when the weather was agreeable.  It was closed throughout the winter months as the canal would freeze over.  When it was in operation, however, it operated six days a week. The locks were closed from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and all day on Sunday. Boatmen plied the waters of the canal 18 hours per day, making for long difficult and tiresome days.  Canawler's were paid by the tonnage hauled, not by the hours worked and it was important that they cover as much distance as they could while the light held.


Lehigh Canal History (Cont'd)


View a map of the area of the Lehigh Canal

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Lehigh Canal & Navigation Company
History of the Lehigh Canal