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The development of Lehigh Navigation


The Lehigh Canal (also referred to as the Lehigh Navigation) was a major source of transportation built because the Lehigh River had limitations as a shipping route. In 1790, navigation of the Lehigh River began with the use of rafts that were referred to as "arks." The arks were made of 3 inch thick pine and were12 to 18 inches wide. They were used to transport grain or coal down the river. The Lehigh River was not very predictable due to the fact that it tended to flood or become too shallow for barges, depending on the season. The river was also very swift, making it impossible for boats to make a return voyage against the current. Often, when attempting to journey down the river, a boat would get caught in the rapids of the river or on rocks. It became apparent that a new system of travel besides the Lehigh River would have to be implemented.

In 1791, the discovery of anthracite coal in the present site of Summit Hill helped pave the way for the future development of the Lehigh Navigation (Historic Resources Study). The Lehigh Coal Mine Company was formed in 1792, but eventually business began to falter because of the cost of transporting anthracite coal to Philadelphia. The company could not compete with the bituminous coal that was being shipped over from England. The company briefly increased its sales during the War of 1812 under the control of Jacob Cist because bituminous coal could no longer be shipped over from England. Unfortunately, sales plummeted once again when the war was over.

Two men in Philadelphia, Josiah White and Erksine Hazard, had purchased some of the anthracite coal from Cist and discovered that it was an excellent industrial fuel. They decided to lease, and then eventually purchase, the lands of the Lehigh Coal Mine Company. White and Hazard received permission from the Pennsylvania State Legislature to improve navigation on the Lehigh River (Historic Catasauqua Preservation Society).

Developments on the Lehigh River itself came before the Lehigh canal was built. A system formed by Josiah White created sufficient water levels to transport anthracite coal down the Lehigh even during summer. This system involved a series of channels and "Bear Trap" locks. Hydrostatic pressure allowed barges to be transported into a lock, and from there, the boat would go to the next lower slack water pool. By 1820, the system on the Lehigh River was finished, but more was to come when the development of the Lehigh Navigation began (Historic Catasauqua Preservation Society).

The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (LC & N), developed by Hazard and White in 1821, wanted to create a canal system which would enable ascending and descending traffic on the Lehigh. They employed Canvass White to help them with their plan because he was highly involved in the development of the Erie Canal. The Lehigh Navigation project began in 1827 and was completed in 1829. The canal was 60 feet wide at the top and 45 feet wide at the bottom and was 5 feet deep. There were a total of 48 lift locks over the Lehigh Navigation’s 46-mile route from Mauch Chunk (presently Jim Thorpe) to Easton. Ten miles of this route was made up of slack water pools (Hugh Moore Historical Park and Museums).

The Lehigh Navigation allowed anthracite coal to be transported to both New York and Philadelphia because of its connections to both the Morris Canal and the Delaware Division Canal, respectively. The Lehigh Navigation was lengthened with the finish of the Upper Grand Section in 1836. This portion of the canal connected White Haven and Mauch Chunk, traveling 26 miles and overcoming a difference of 600 feet in elevation. In 1841, a flood damaged the Lehigh Navigation. However, it continued to be prosperous until 1855 when it carried the highest annual amount of anthracite coal to the market (Hugh Moore Historical Park and Museums).


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