Remnants of the Past: the Lehigh Canal

Lehigh canalThe pillar formations of the stacked rock walls of the Lehigh Canal stand solidly upright after 185 years. About half of that time they were unmaintained and unused. The pillar and gap construction pattern probably contributed to the stability, by reducing the pressure of the forest against the walls. But what use could the gaps have served?

From old photos I learned that the spaces between the stone pillars were once fitted with wood posts, which functioned, somehow, in an elaborate lock system that made it possible for early Pennsylvania coal companies to get barges downriver from Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) to Easton, and, somewhat miraculously, back up again. This particular location was probably the site of a weigh lock, without which these entrepreneurial industrialists would not have been able to do what entrepreneurs aim to do—make lots of money.

The Lehigh Canal was constructed using an elaborate series of locks and lifts that overcame the 350-foot elevation difference between Mauch Chunk and Easton. Before the canal was built the only way to get anthracite coal from Summit Hill to Easton, where the Lehigh River meets the Delaware, was by raft, and this could only happen when the river was high and not blocked by ice.

Two Philadelphia businessmen desperate for fuel (so that they could make lots of money) set out to improve the situation. They purchased coal holdings and, in just two years, built a 46-mile canal. Their business, Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, had a near monopoly on both production and transport, and charged exorbitant tolls to independents who tried to get a piece of the action. On the way up barges were navigated into a support connected to a weighing mechanism. The water was drained downstream and the empty barge weighed. On the way down the procedure was repeated and the cargo calculated, with tolls based on weight. This activity may have been going on 150 years ago in the very spot I stood while taking this photograph. It’s a familiar story—measuring, arguing, concession, and resentment—human greed … that is, human nature … being what it is. Lawsuits ensued then, as they do now.

dip in the forest floor

Leaves collect in depressions left by uprooted trees.

Remnants of past lives are all around us, often hidden in plain sight. Dips in the forest floor might mean that a tree was uprooted many years past. A prevalence of double or triple trunks can be subtle evidence of a long ago logging operation.

double trunkCut a tree down and its roots live on, sending up multiple sprouts that are thinned by time and the availability of light and other resources. The same thing can happen when a disease suddenly ravages a region. American chestnut sprouts still rise up from living roots, a hundred years after an Asian fungus wiped out every nut-bearing tree east of the Mississippi. The imposing giant that once dominated the eastern forest is now a twiggy understory sapling that will never reach the ripeness of adult life.

Other human changes on the land are more obvious—rock piles on the perimeters of farm fields, cemeteries, old lime kilns, crumbling foundations of abandoned houses. Garbage dumps. Fences. Obsolete transportation systems.

Reading the past puts the present in perspective. Here, ingenuity conquered gravity—until the big storm of June 4th, 1862 that washed out the upper part of the Lehigh canal, and until the 1942 flood that deposited tons of silt somewhere between Weissport and Easton, and until the very cold winter of 1980 led the Army Corps of Engineers to dynamite a great buildup of ice causing a crippling dam breach downstream. We will leave remnants of our own inspired experiments behind, 185 years from now.

Suburbia, maybe?

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