Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Sitting astride his horse, Josiah White peered intently into the Lehigh River, hoping to foresee the future in its swirling, icy waters.

It was the winter of 1817. White, a Philadelphia merchant and iron worker with a genius for invention, with his partner Erskine Hazard, had recently solved the riddle of how to successfully burn anthracite in an iron furnace. Although their answer – which they arrived at accidentally-was simply to keep the draft closed, the implications were enormous: hard coal, rather than the far more expensive yet inferior charcoal, would now be used for iron making. On this chilly December day, White knew he would be able to solve his financial problems if he could only devise a way to transport anthracite from the hard coal fields of the upper Lehigh River Valley southeast to Easton, Northampton County, where the Lehigh River joins the Delaware River. The distance measured more than seventy miles – and through largely unnavigable waters.

As Americans moved inward, away from the coast, and settled further to the west, they were forced to depend on inland water routes for transporting goods and raw materials. Josiah White (1781-1850) and Erskine Hazard (1789-1865) realized that a river and parallel canal system would provide the only viable means of hauling hard coal to the industrial markets of Philadelphia and New York. In March 1818, the state legislature granted the partners permission to build a one-way, or descending navigation by “locks, dams, or any devises,” to be completed by 1824, and an ascending navigation system by 1838.

White and Hazard secured enough financial backing to create two companies – the Lehigh Coal and the Lehigh Navigation – for mining and for transporting anthracite. (The companies merged in April 1820 to create the formidable Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company.) Through the entrepreneurs’ ingenuity and persistence, the Lehigh Canal became one of the most successful financial ventures in Pennsylvania.

The Lehigh Canal’s Lower Division paralleled the eastern bank of the Lehigh River, whose waters had etched their mark deep into the craggy landscape. Flanked by towering cliffs and mountains, it was hacked out of bedrock and earth by “Yankee” and immigrant workers. Their tools were simple: picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and scoops pulled by horses or mules. When completed, this section consisted of thirty-four and a half miles of canal, nine pools of slack (or still) water where navigation without locks was possible, forty-nine standard locks with various lifts, and nine dams in the river, including the Easton Dam at the junction of the Delaware River, eight guard locks, four aqueducts, and various wharves, loading, and off-loading facilities. It ran 46.6 miles from Mauch Chunk (renamed Jim Thorpe in 1953) to Easton, where it connected with Philadelphia markets via the Delaware Canal and New York markets via the Morris Canal. The drop over the length of the waterway was 353.3 feet.

The huge locks on the canal’s Upper Division were White’s most dazzling engineering accomplishment. This section traversed twenty-six miles of an almost impenetrable wilderness of mountain and rock, from Mauch Chunk north to White Haven, where the Lehigh rushed fiercely through a narrow gorge. It consisted of about twenty miles of slack water pools interspersed by eight short lengths of canal totaling just under five miles. There were twenty-nine lift locks-one capable of raising and lowering boats an unprecedented thirty feet – and twenty stone-filled, timber­-cribbed dams. The drop over the length of the Upper Division measured a staggering 599.8 feet.

“We were filled with admiration and delight when we examined these stupen­dous works” praised the canal commis­sioners who inspected the Upper Divi­sion in 1838, adding they were “the best­-constructed and most easily managed locks within our knowledge and of such magnitude as greatly to exceed any public works in the whole United States.”

In full operation for more than a century, the Lehigh Canal saw millions of t.ons of anthracite shipped to foundries and factories in towns along the water­way and cities on t.he eastern seaboard. Devastating floods and the advent of the petroleum industry eventually spelled the canal’s doom. In its time, though, the waterway and rail transportation system that White and Hazard developed along the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers was one of the Commonwealth’s – and the nation’s – most colorful and successful financial endeavors, recalled with great enthusiasm and pride by those who saw its heyday. This is the story of one such individual.

Richard Arner, it is said, knows every stone of the picturesque canal section where he walks almost daily near his home in Weissport, Carbon County. His tall stature and dignified carriage have become as familiar to town residents as the canal itself. Now eighty-six years old, be devotes his life to documenting the history of the Lehigh Canal and making certain that the company he worked for, beginning in 1926, does not fade into oblivion. One of on!Y five known surviv­ing full-time Lehigh Canal workers,Arner is a central figure in keeping alive the movement to record the history of the waterway, and to preserve its contribu­tions co America’s industry and transpor­tation. So closely associated with these efforts is he that the recently opened National Canal Museum in Easton (see “Currents,” Winter 1997) features a larger-than-life image of Arner holding a carrying hook, one of the most potent symbols of canal life.

Richard Arner’s acute recollections of the exciting and heady days on the historic Lehigh Canal offer an unusual glimpse of life on one of Pennsylvania’s most dramatic and flourishing inland waterways.

This interview was conducted at Mahoning Valley in 1996.

 

You are a fourth generation canal worker. Did your ancestors specifically settle in Weissport to work on the canal?

My family came from Switzerland, but were of German descent. They originally settled in Lehigh County, then moved to the Weissport area, in Franklin Township. Why they came here, I don’t know. But they did mainly carpentry work on the canal. My great-grandfather helped to build the canal. My grandfather and father were carpenter foremen. I have my grandfather’s time book for the carpenter gang dating back to 1885. My uncle, Douglas L. Arner, was assistant superintendent under I. M. Church, superintendent of maintenance and operations for the canal.

Mauch Chunk served as the shipping depot on the Lehigh River for both Summit Hill Coal and the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company headquarters. What role did your hometown play in canal operations?

Weissport, 3.66 miles downriver from Mauch Chunk, was sort of a midway point between White Haven to the north and Easton. In 1889, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company combined its Mauch Chunk boatyard operations with Weiss­port, making Weissport the canal’s principal boat building and repair center. As coal output increased, company boats were also constructed there at the private boatyards of Moyer, Snyder and Weiss. Three general stores, two coal yards, and three locks – numbers 8, 9 and 10 – added to the area’s bustle and importance. So vital was Weissport to the operation of the canal that, with the exception of lock tenders and boatmen, eighty­-five percent of canal employees came from the Weissport-Franklin Township area.

Did you spend much time around the canal when you were a boy?

I used to sit on the towpath at the company boatyard in Weissport and watch the operation. The yard was a beehive of activity. Maybe thirty or thirty-five men worked there. Two men fired the boilers to operate steam-powered equipment; the majority built and caulked boats. Boats, some high in the water and others loaded with coal, plied the canal. Many boatmen and mule drivers came ashore to socialize, buy provisions, or board mules at the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company livery stables. As a youngster of eight or ten, I would spend a day with my father at work. We would go as far as Easton by train. I amused myself by playing around the boats or picking blackberries and wild grapes along the canal.

I learned to swim in the canal. It did not support any fish life, however, because of the acidic water that drained out of the mines into the Lehigh River and from there into the canal. Over the years, the quality of the water was improved by state filtration plants known as “yellow boys.”

Did you ever get to ride on a canal boat?

Many times! My brother Charlie and I were able to ride on the boats because we were the sons of Bert Arner, a carpenter foreman, and our uncle, Douglas L. Arner, was assistant superintendent. Some boatmen were more liberal than others. We could ride any boat on the canal, except the dredge boats, because of the danger of steam-powered machinery.

You started working part­-time for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company as a fifteen-year-old boy in high school. What did you do?

Carpentry and some dredging. Canal work was often miserable, especially in the winter when the canal was drained down. You sometimes worked in muddy, mucky water. When the water was out of the canal, it was easier to work on gates, and plank the sides and floors of the locks.

About 1935, I developed a diving helmet for underwater work. Before that, my brother Frank and I used to do repairs by diving without equipment. We had no other choice until I developed the helmet. If the lock tender Let the gates slam shut, the stop would be damaged. The stop was on the floor of the lock. It prevented the gates from getting out of position. If the stop moved out of place, the miter gates could not be operated. So we took chances free diving. When I dived, I could only work one or two minutes. My brother could stay under water much longer. I used to get such splitting headaches doing it.

Dredging was easier when water was in the canal. It could also be done when the canal was drained, but then silt and debris had to be removed by wheelbarrow. The dredge had a steam-driven engine, fired by bituminous coal. The company did not use its own anthracite because bituminous cut in half the time required to raise steam.

What did they do with the silt they took out of the canal?

When they dredged in the levels between locks, at some places they loaded the silt in mud scows and dumped it at the nearest available dam. But mostly they put it on the canal banks. They formed a little ridge on the towpath, then, on the other side of that, dumped the material. It would slide into the Lehigh and, sometime or other – maybe when there was a rise in the river – make its way down to the next dam. This meant that it had to be handled more than one time. After 1936, when the company began using onshore, mechanical equipment, silt was bulldozed along the towpath to heighten it.

How did canal workers travel to work along the canal?

We went to job sites along the canal on a Central Railroad of New Jersey scheduled passenger train. The company paid for our transportation. They gave us a monthly ticket, good for sixty rides – thirty rides down and thirty rides back. We never worked on Sundays unless there was an emergency.

The train left Weissport at 5:20 A.M. and arrived in Easton at approximately 7 A.M. We got off at the station nearest our work. The average walk to a work site was half an hour. We carried lunch cans and ate on the carpenter boat moored at the job. The carpenter boat con­tained carpenter’s, blacksmith’s, paint shops, and storage for tools and lumber. Everything had its place, neatly arranged. Before leaving to catch the 4:10 train home at night, we washed ourselves and changed our dirty clothing on the boat. The train arrived in Weissport shortly before 5:30 P.M. We were away from home for twelve hours but got paid for a ten-hour day.

Ninety percent of canal workers spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. Skilled workers like carpenters, operating engineers, and blacksmiths made fifty-eight cents an hour. When I started out in 1926, my wage was forty cents an hour. About 1931, when trucks replaced the railroad as worker transportation, I drove a transportation truck and received two extra hours’ pay a day.

Did women work on the canal?

Women tended lock, steered boats, and drove mules, but I never saw a woman clerk, even in the corporate offices.

Was the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company a good employer?

Everybody along the line, including administration, were good people. Gentlemen from the word, “go!” There were no labor troubles among maintenance people but boatmen went on strike in the 1920s for higher tonnage rates.

Canal employees never unionized. After 1936, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company gave canal workers the same benefits as their mine workers. They boosted the wage scale and increased pensions. When I was a kid, there was no such thing as retiring at sixty-five. My father was seventy-five years old when he retired.

Were canal boats privately owned or did they belong to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company?

Most of the boats belonged to the company. About thirty to one, in my time. Private boats were known as “hackey boats.” They were built in places like Uhlertown on the Delaware. A deed to a hackey boat from 1858, the Henry Clay of Philadelphia, shows that it cost two thousand dollars.

Could you describe the canal boats and how they were steered?

At first, “stiff boats” – one continuous length of eighty-seven and a half feet – were used on the waterway; then, because of the problem of turning an eighty-seven­-foot boat in a sixty or sixty-five-foot­-wide channel, they were replaced by two-section “hinged boats” of the same length. These were ten and a half feet wide, nine feet two inches high at the bow, seven feet ten inches high at the stern, and were composed of two sections known as the front and rear boxes. The sections were separated at the hinges. That reduced the length of each section to forty-three feet nine inches and made it easier to turn a boat around in the canal and load and unload it.

A boat was controlled by an adjustable rudder. The boatman stood on the deck above the cabin and used a tiller handle to steer. Although the width of the canal is given as sixty feet, it varied depending on the terrain. Some places were narrower and some places wider. The cabin, approximately eight by ten feet, was located in the stern. There were bunks, attached to the side wall, which could be stowed. A folding table was hinged to the back wall and a storage chest, the width of the boat, doubled as a seat. There was a one-lid potbelly stove for cooking and heating in inclement weather. In fine weather, cooking was done mainly on deck on a two-lid stove, made specifically for boatmen, known as “The Boatmen’s Choice.” A hatch permitted entrance to the cabin from the deck. Two small rear windows, without glass or screens, had adjustable wooden shutters. When it was stifling hot in summer and the heat in the cabin was unbearable, boatmen and their families would put blankets down and sleep on deck or on the coal pile.

What about the boatmen and families who lived on canal boats?

Boating was pretty much a father-son operation. Boats operated with a two­-man crew: the boatman and the mule driver. In my time, there were three families who lived on company boats during boating season: John Best, his wife and daughter, from Walnutport; Robbie Best – no relation to John – his wife, daughters, and sons Clifford and Robert; and the Caspar Dreher family. The Drehers would tie their two young sons, Leon and Edward, fast to the deck with rope so that they would not fall overboard. Later on, four sets of brothers boated as two-man crews: the Dreher, Gessler, Kilpatrick, and Best brothers.

Mule drivers were not employed by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. They were hired by boatmen and paid one dollar a day, plus room and board. If a boatman traveled with his family, his children and, sometimes, his wife drove the mules.

Why were mules used to pull canal boats?

Although a mule is a lot smaller than a horse, it’s sturdier than a horse and can pull a heavier load. Besides, mules have better sense. A horse would founder and work itself practically to death before it would quit. If a mule is tired, it refuses to go any farther. There was one horse on the canal. It sometimes pulled the carpenter boat or was used by laborer foreman Bill Bickel to go to job sites within his section.

The same team of mules, usually two, started out in Mauch Chunk and pulled a boat to Bristol, Bucks County. There, they had a short spell of rest – maybe two or three days – while a tug took the boat to off-load in Philadelphia. Even though mules worked long hours, they were well treated. 1f a boatman mistreated his mules, he would get less results out of them.

Where did the mules come from?

In my day, they came from Missouri and were bought and sold by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. Talk about a monopoly! The same company mined coal and shipped it via the Central Railroad of New Jersey to the canal company loading docks. They had retail yards and wholesale yards as far as the New England states. And they sold feed and boat gear. They boarded mules in the winter and charged for stabling them. In the boating season, stabling was free.

In addition to boatmen and mule drivers, lock tenders were important. What did they do?

Their duty was to open and close the wickets. Wickets were gates covering the inlet and outlet valves in a lock. The inlet valves were in a horizontal position ahead of the drop gate at the upper end of the lock. The outlet valves were in a vertical position on the miter gates at the lower end of the lock. A lock tender had to open and close the wickets to fill and empty the lock. Although each lock had a number, they were known to canal people by the name of the lock tender. In Weissport, Lock 7 was known as the Shirar Lock, for George A. Shirar, and Lock 8 as the Fisher Lock, for Charles A. Fisher. There was only one exception. That was at Bethlehem. It was called Rice’s Lock even though the lock tender was the widow Mammy Beers.

Lock tenders lived at the locks rent free. They also got free coal. They worked just eight months and were paid bimonthly for a full year. During the off-season, they were allowed to moonlight, just as long as they did not vacate the lock house. Someone had to live there year-round to guard the lock.

Did pleasure boats use the canal?

In my day, there were a lot of pleasure boats – all power boats. They paid a flat fee in tolls from departure point to destination, usually Mauch Chunk. In the early days, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company ran mule-drawn packet and excursion boats from Easton to Mauch Chunk.

Can you explain the purpose of dams?

Darns were built to divert water into the canal. They also provided a navigable section of water, free and clear of locks, called slack water. A boat was navigated through a guard lock at the foot of the dam into the canal level, and from the canal level through an outlet lock into the head of the darn. The longest stretch of slack water between Mauch Chunk and Easton was dam number 4, “Three Mile Dam,” at Treichlers.

Dam building must have been a dangerous occupation. Were there many fatalities on the canal?

Although dam building was heavy work, it was not neces­sarily dangerous. There were only two fatalities that I know of on the canal, and these were unrelated to the building of dams. A boatman drowned on the Delaware Division and a lock tender lost his life by operating mechanical equipment incor­rectly. He was struck on the head with a spinning crank handle in the wicket shanty.

Was canal traffic heavy enough so that boats had to line up at the locks?

Not in my time. Eighteen fifty-five was the peak year for the shipment of coal. That year, there were 12,750 descending loads. That meant 66.4 boats a day passed down the canal during the 192-day boating season. If sixty-six boats went down the canal loaded, approximately sixty-six went north because descending boats were normally replaced by ascending boats. This meant that, during 1855, 132 boats passed a given spot, like Weissport, every single day. Regulated boating hours were 4 A.M. to 10 P.M.

As years went by, tonnage diminished but it was not because railroads were taking traffic away. It was because coal was being replaced in home and industry by petroleum. The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company depended on the railroads to ship coal to the canal for distribution. In many places, the Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad, subsequently the Central Railroad of New Jersey, ran parallel to the canal separated only by the towpath. Both the canal and railroad were owned and operated by the company.

Did the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company boats return cargo after delivering a shipment of coal?

They did, but not so much in my time. Maybe they would carry watermelons and cantaloupes. In the early days, they had back loads. A summary of freight transported over the Lehigh and Delaware Division Canals in 1880 lists such items as iron, limestone, slate, manure, hay, feed, meat, grain, alcoholic beverages, furniture, and hardware.

What changes occurred in the canal and canal operation from the time you were a boy until you ended your employment in 1936?

I can remember two changes. One was the use of trucks instead of the railroad to transport men to job sites. The other was the use of mechanized equipment to repair the canal. In order to get the canal back in shape after the destructive flood of 1936, the company used two bulldozers, one rented from the Denberger Company. They also rented a crane with a clamshell bucket from the C. Reibe Company and purchased three Ford dump trucks and a Ford flatbed semitrailer.

When did the Lehigh Canal close?

The Lehigh Canal ceased operating in three sections and time periods. In 1922, shipment of sized coal out of Coalport to Laurys Station ceased. To reduce costs and speed up delivery, coal was transported from the mines by the Lehigh and Susquehanna or Central Railroad of New Jersey to Laurys Station, then shipped by boat to Bristol and coal yards in between, such as George B. F. Deilly at Cata­sauqua, Fritch at Bethlehem, C. K. Williams and Hiliard Dinkey at Easton, and Leedom at Yardley and Tattersall at Morrisville on the Delaware Division.

In 1932, shipment of sized coal out of Laurys Station to Bristol ceased. Although many people think the canal finally dosed in 1932, industries in towns along its banks still used it as a water power source until 1942. Electricity was generated at Easton and Raubsville until 1955.

After 1932, the retrieval of coal fines – small waste coal, dumped at the mines into tributaries of the Lehigh River­ – continued. Coal fines were pumped hydraulically from the river between Parryville and Laurys Station into coal boats on the canal and shipped to the New Jersey Zinc Company in Palmerton until 1942. Floods destroyed the canal that year, but this operation on the river continued until 1959 with coal fines being shipped by truck.

Did workers foresee the dosing of the canal?

There were fewer and fewer boats each year as people changed to other fuels. When the canal finally dosed, there was considerable sadness among workers and former workers. My brother Frank and I were upset that the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, a company that had taken profits for all those years, did nothing to preserve the canal.

What is being done to preserve the remains of the Lehigh Canal?

I’ll answer that question by telling you to visit Hugh Moore Historical Park at Easton to see the section of the canal that has been restored. It’s the only nearly perfect section on the canal. The restoration at Walnutport is incomplete. At Weissport, they took many cubic yards or loads of dirt fill to restore a lock. I would like to see a working lock, a visitors center, and museum at Weissport. Since the locks are in derelict condition, my idea is to restore Lock 8, known as Fisher’s Lock, to operable condition and leave Lock 7, Shirar Lock, half a mile distant via the towpath, as a monument to neglect. Then people could see the difference between an operable restored lock and a neglected lock. The Lehigh Canal is a vital link to this country’s industrial past. It is important that we preserve what is left of it.

 

Established by the Hugh Moore Historical Park and Museums in 1996, the National Canal Museum in center-city Easton is a seventy thousand square foot historical center that examines virtually every aspect of life and work on the canal. Exhibits explore the work or early survey teams and examine everyday family life on a canal boat. Exhibits also explain the ways in which the construction and operation of canals in Pennsylvania contributed to the development of the anthracite and iron industries in the nineteenth century. For additional information, write: National Canal Museum, 30 Cen­tre Sq., Easton, PA 18044-0877; or telephone (610) 250-6700. Admission is charged.

 

For Further Reading

Bartholomew, Ann, comp. Delaware and Lehigh Canals. Easton, Pa.: Center for Canal History and Technology, 1989.

Jones, Chester Lloyd. Economic History of the Anthracite Tide­water Canals. Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania Press, 1904.

Miller, Donald L., and Richard E. Sharpless. The Kingdom of Coal: Work, Enterprise, and Ethnic Communities in the Mine Fields. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Miller, J. P. The Lehigh Canal. Allentown Pa.: Jiffy Press, 1979.

Morton, Eleanor. Josiah White, Prince of Pioneers. New York: Stephen Daye Press, 1946.

Parton, W. Julian. The Death of a Great Company: Reflections on the Decline and Fall of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. Easton, Pa.: Center for Canal History and Technology, 1986.

Shank, William H. The Amazing Pennsylvania Canals. York, Pa.: American Canal and Transportation Center, 1981.

White, Josiah. Josiah White’s History, Given by Himself. Philadelphia: G. H. Buchanan Company, 1909.

 

Joan Gilbert of Lehighton is a freelance writer and editor who has worked extensively on local history projects at the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center in Jim Thorpe, Carbon County, where she served as historical researcher and for which she pro­duced film and video scripts. In addition she has written and edited for various projects on the Lehigh Canal. Site holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from City University of New York, has owned and operated a literary agency in New York, and served as director and play doctor at the Frances Adler Reading Theatre and Playwrights Theatre in New York. She is a member of the Modern Language Asso­ciation.