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 Navigations
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
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).