routes built for commerce developed slowly in eastern
Pennsylvania, and it was not until after the American
Revolution that some thought was given to open the upper
river regions to transportation canals. Routes to the
interior promised opportunity but bad roads limited development.
Areas easily accessible by water, such as lower Bucks
County, were settled first, and had a strong relationship
to Philadelphia. Remote farming settlements far from navigable
waters in upper Bucks and the Lehigh Valley remained isolated
and developed small self-sufficient economies. Many of
the settlers struggled to take advantage of local natural
resources such as lime, iron, timber and slate, but lack
of transportation restricted their use. Settlers did not
move into the remote and difficult terrain north of the
Blue Mountain until after the better agriculture lands
of the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont had been settled.
Current view of one
of the Lehigh Canal locks and a lockkeeper's house
Photograph by Sue Pridemore courtesy of the
Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor
During this time the young city of Philadelphia was
growing into a powerful political and economic center,
and until 1825 was the largest city in North America.
Transport of goods to markets there was critical to
the development of the region's economy. Navigation
was possible on the Delaware River as far north as Morrisville.
Here, at the Falls of the Delaware, the Coastal Plain
rises to the Piedmont, and rocks and river rapids form
barriers to ships. Such barriers did not stop shipping
completely: massive log rafts of felled timber and flat-bottomed
Durham boats were floated down the Delaware and Lehigh
rivers. The Durham boats were laboriously poled back
upstream, although their limited size and the intensive
labor required made this form of transportation expensive.
The economic impetus for the development of reliable inexpensive
transportation on a large scale occurred early in the
19th century. With the exception of small regions in Colorado
and New Mexico, Pennsylvania contains the only anthracite
coal regions found in the United States. Two ambitious
Philadelphia entrepreneurs, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard,
secured rights to thousands of acres of these anthracite
coal lands. After they demonstrated the marketability
of anthracite as a efficient fuel, they began to modify
the Lehigh River for navigation. To bring coal from the
mountains of Carbon County and later, the Wyoming Valley,
the Lehigh Navigation System and
the Delaware Canal were constructed.
Built in stages from 1817 to 1845, the canals opened the
region to exploitation. The canals were largely hand-dug
by local farmers and Irish immigrants using picks, shovels,
and wheelbarrows. The navigation system of canal and slackwater
consisted of dams and locks of unprecedented size. The
Lehigh Canal extended from Easton
north to White Haven. The final connection to Wilkes-Barre
was made by rail, and it included the remarkable set of
three inclined planes near Ashley.
The Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal originally
ran from the terminus of the Lehigh Navigation System
in Easton south for 60 miles to Bristol.
Today, the old boat basin and tidal locks are gone, but
the canal is intact in Bristol and flows past the 19th-century
Grundy Mill. Along the restored
river front is the Colonial and Federal era core of the
town, as well as Victorian mansions built during the industrial
heyday, among them the Senator Joseph Grundy Mansion.
Historic image of Lock
#42 of the Lehigh Canal, in Bethlehem, date unknown
Photograph from National Register collection
The canals were most active during the 1830s to the 1860s.
Even at the Lehigh Navigation System's peak in the 1850s,
adjacent railroads began eroding the canals' business.
To connect the Lehigh Navigation System to the Susquehanna
River and the surrounding Wyoming Valley coal fields,
the Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad was extended over
the mountains from White Haven north to Wilkes-Barre.
When much of the 22-mile upper grand section of the canal,
from White Haven to Jim Thorpe,
was destroyed by a flood in 1862, it was never rebuilt.
Use of the 47-mile lower canal slowly declined, and portions
were in operation until 1942. It was America's last and
longest-operated towpath canal. The Delaware Canal ceased
operation during the Great Depression and is today significant
as the most intact, accessible, and watered towpath canal
in the nation. One hundred and sixty years later, much
of the stonework of the canal's retaining walls and locks
is still visible and the canal is capable of being fully
The Lehigh Canal passing
through Jim Thorpe in 1879
Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division [pan 6a19686]
Written by Carol Lee of the Pennsylvania Historical
and Museum Commission