(Note: This is the first in a series of four articles on the history of Lehigh Whitewater.)
A long time ago, geologic forces created the Blue Mountain, the Pocono Plateau, and the coal-rich mineral deposits that over eons formed the watershed whose drainage became the Lehigh River, a wild and scenic waterway before its exploitation by European-American industrialists.
Today, the wild and scenic river is a mecca for whitewater rafters and kayakers.
Until the Walking Purchase of 1737, the Lehigh Valley was the territory of the Lenni Lenape. Soon afterward, Moravian farmers moved into the Mahoning Valley. In 1754, they floated a boatload of linseed oil on the Lehigh River to Philadelphia.
Rafts, wooden logs lashed together with ropes or vines, have paddled rivers, lakes and oceans since the Stone age. They evolved to boats of various types, including arks, a box-like boat for carrying cargo.
After anthracite coal was discovered in this area, it wasn't long before an attempt was made to transport the coal by raft or ark to the Philadelphia market. Beginning in 1794, the Lehigh Coal Mine Company had planned, attempted, and perhaps succeeded in rafting coal to Philadelphia, although no documented details are available.
In 1803, five arks – each 90 feet long, 16 feet wide, and 4 feet deep with a capacity of 60 tons – were launched from Lausanne, about a mile north of present Jim Thorpe. Two arks successfully plied the waters of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers to Philadelphia. Although the coal could not be made to burn, it was used to gravel foot walks.
Here is an early description of an voyage by ark:
"The descent of the river for the first fifteen miles from Mauch Chunk was exceedingly rapid, the fall being some 300 feet. It was a bright and cheerful morning. After the stream had attained the usual high-water mark, that the arks were cut loose, and, each equipped with six men, began at once the descent of the rapids.
"Now the torrent roars; the waves whirl and dash madly around the boats; the men at the oars, with faces wild with animation and excitement, and with muscles full distended, run to and fro upon their narrow platforms; the pilot, with energetic motion and speech addresses the steersman; the steersman, with like gesticulation and vehemence of manner, responds to the pilot, and then all hands make desperate plunges at the oars!
"Now the boat, shaking and cracking, swings its cumbersome form around a submerged rock; now it sheers off in a counter current towards the shore, and then bending around, again dashes forward into the rolling waves, when-cr-a-sh! je-boom! It rises securely upon a ledge of rocks half-concealed beneath the surface of the water. A moment serves to complete the wreck, and then the men, seizing oars and planks, make good their escape to the shore, leaving the broken and dismembered ark to its fate, and the cargo to the curious speculation of the catfish and eels."
Some 10,000 feet of lumber were used in the construction of the arks. It took four men seven days to navigate it to tidewater. Although they were not able to profit from the sale of the coal, they sold the ark for lumber to cover their costs.
Eventually Josiah White and Erskine Hazard started two companies, the Lehigh Coal Company and the Lehigh Navigation Company. In 1818, the Lehigh Navigation Company received monopoly control of the Lehigh River, making it the only privately owned river in the United States.
White and Hazard began work on the first improvement of the Lehigh River, a series of wing dams to funnel the water to the center of the river to provide a sufficient water level during the summer months. Insufficient flow during the summer months proved the wing dams to be ineffective.
White then turned to constructing 12 dams with hydraulic "Bear Trap Locks." These locks would store water, then allow a boatman to open the lock and release a freshet of water to carry the coal boats to the next lock. In 1819, the dams with Bear Trap Locks were constructed, and in 1827, the lower division of the Lehigh Canal was opened.
The Bear Trap Lock dams were permanently set in their closed position, and the flow of the Lehigh River was redirected to the newly-opened Lehigh Canal/Navigation System.
For the next century and a half, there was no whitewater on the Lehigh River.
Next: Lehigh Whitewater Beckons