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The Impetuous Lehigh
Douglas Waltner
Oct 6, 2007
The Impetuous Lehigh

One of the most prominent and interesting features of the Pocono Plateau, is the Lehigh River. It is little more then a mountain stream, especially the upper third, hardly up to the tasks expected of it when Anthracite was discovered in Summit Hill in the late 18th century. There were no trucks, highways, and railroads, to transport large quantities of goods to market. The principal forms of transportation were rivers, horses, or walking. The terrain was rough, and it appeared to Philadelphia industrialists Josiah White and Erskine Hazard that the best way to transport large quantities of much needed coal to the markets at Philadelphia and New York was to float it down the Lehigh River.

The Lehigh was shallow and rocky. The level of the river went up quickly when it rained, and down just as quickly when it didn't. They first attempted to make the Lehigh navigable by removing the rocks from the center of the stream, creating a channel capable of floating arks loaded with coal from Mauch Chunk down to Easton. This was accomplished with a work force of over 500 men, who waded into the river and manually removed the rocks. This effort met with marginal success, at best, and many arks never made it to market, and during dry times, no arks could traverse the river at all.

So Josiah White and company invented ingenious devices they called Bear Trap Locks, which were essentially dams with gates in them. A lake would be created behind the dam, and when the arks approached, one man could trip the gate, allowing the water to flow through it, along with the arks on what they called "freshets", and float them down to the next lock. The short coming of the Bear Trap Lock system was that it was strictly a one way trip, as there was no way to travel upstream. The arks would be disassembled at the end of their journey in Philadelphia and sold for lumber.

Eventually a more traditional canal and lock system was built which reached from White Haven all the way to Easton, a distance of 72 miles, with a drop in elevation of 953 feet. In order to overcome this difference in elevation, a total of 28 dams and 81 locks were built between these two destinations. Five additional bear trap locks were built between White Haven and Stoddartsville, the site of the Lehigh Falls, but the two way canal system was never extended above White Haven, contributing to the early demise of Stoddartsville as a viable center of commerce.

The canal system was built through the largesse of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, who passed special legislation to virtually hand over control of the river between Stoddartsville and Easton to White's company, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. Their control over the river was so complete, that no one could legally use the river without their permission, or paying tolls. This law was passed on March 20, 1818, and remained in effect until 1967 when it was repealed.

Over the next 100 plus years of operation, you could stand on the banks of the Lehigh and watch not only coal, but timber, furs, and grain pass in front of you on their way to the large markets downstream. Once a transportation system was created, suddenly the native white pine, oak, chestnut, and maple became marked for the lumberman's axe.

Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company went into lumbering in a big way. They hired a man named Jediah Irish to oversee this operation.

World famed naturalist and wild life artist John James Audubon stayed at Irish' home in what was called the Great Pine Swamp, now Penn Forest Township. He wrote this about his experience.

"The Lehigh about this place forms numerous short turns between the mountains, and affords frequent falls, as well as below the falls, deep pools, which render this stream a most valuable one for mills of any kind.

"But no sooner was the first saw mill erected, than the axemen began their devastations. Trees one after another were, and are yet, constantly heard falling, during the days; and in calm nights, the greedy mills told the sad tale, that in a century the noble forests around should exist no more. Many mills were erected, many dams raised, in defiance of the impetuous Lehigh. One full third of the trees have already been culled, turned into boards, and floated as far as Philadelphia.

In such an undertaking, the cutting is not all. They have afterwards to be hauled to the edge of the mountains bordering the river, launched into the stream, and led to the mills over many shallow and difficult places. Whilst I was in the Great Pine Swamp, I frequently visited one of the principal places for the launching of logs. To see them tumbling from such a height, touching here and there the rough angle of a projecting rock, bouncing from it with the elasticity of a football, and at last falling with awful crash into the river, forms a sight interesting in the highest degree, but impossible for me to describe. Shall I tell you that I have seen masses of these logs heaped above each other to the number of five thousand? I may so tell you, for such I have seen. My number, the river becoming in those places completely choked up."

Aside from the marvelous and much prized White Pine, the Hemlock was in abundant supply. The bark of the Hemlock was useful in the tanning industry, so with an allegedly "Inexhaustible supply" of Hemlock trees, tanneries sprang up along the Lehigh, using the bark of the hemlock, and leaving the rest of the tree to rot where they were cut. The river's water was used in the processing of hides, and waste was released back into the river untreated. Over the years, with the coal silt, discharge from tanneries and other industries, sewage, and manufacturing waste, the water in parts of the Lehigh was described as "black flowing lava".

Eventually the timber ran out, railroads became a cheaper and more dependable means of transporting coal and other goods to market, and when nature contributed by wiping out dams and locks on the Lehigh, the canal system was abandoned. With the tanneries gone, and the implementation of the clean water act of the seventies, the river's water quality began to improve. Under the watchful eye of several state agencies including the EPA, the PA Fish and Boat Commission, and especially private organizations such as the Wildlands Conservancy, the Tobyhanna Creek/Tunkhannock Creek watershed association, and the North Pocono CARE organization, water quality of the Lehigh has rebounded significantly, and is reportedly better now than it has been for over 150 years. To be sure, many challenges remain, primarily suburban sprawl, loss of wildlife habitat, loss of open space, loss of productive farmland, and abandoned mine drainage, all impact the river adversely. The Wildlands Conservancy, in cooperation with other groups, has put together a comprehensive plan, which they intend to see implemented, which will help maintain or improve the river for future generations.

The Lehigh River is truly a one-of-a-kind special resource, and an asset to be treasured and protected. With proper care and vigilance, the impetuous resilient Lehigh will run clear and clean as long as the sun shines and the rain falls on the beautiful Pocono Mountains.

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