(Note: This is the second in a series of four articles offers a brief history of Lehigh Whitewater).


TN Correspondent

azagofsk@ptd.net [1]

The Lehigh River, a once wild and scenic river, became stagnant when it was dammed in the early 1800s to allow shipment of anthracite coal on the Lehigh Canal System.

The canal opened in 1827 and by 1855, it was on its way to technologic obsolescence through the introduction of a competitor, the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

The Lehigh Canal persisted until about 1930 with some coal dirt continuing to be hauled to the New Jersey Zinc Company in Palmerton. A 1942 flood permanently closed the Lehigh Canal and subsequent floods began destroying the dams. In 1964, the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company began selling its canal properties to municipalities along the right-of-way. In 1965, Gov. William Scranton revoked the 143-year-old legislation that had given the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company control of the Lehigh River.

Over a near-century and a half of industrialization – whose footprints included damming of the river, dumping of sewerage and mine waste into the river, clear-cut logging of the surrounding mountains, smoke and ash from steam engines – the Lehigh River watershed had become an environmental disaster. Families living along the Lehigh River cautioned their children to stay away from its filth and decay.

Beginning in the 1960s things began to change. The dams were disappearing. Logging and mining had ceased. Steam engines were replaced with diesel engines, and municipal sewerage treatment plants were brought online. America had entered into the Age of Aquarius and the Lehigh River was its beneficiary.

Also, the periodic flooding of the Lehigh River reached a crescendo during the 1954/1955 New Year's period when rains from Hurricane Alice threatened bridges and overflowed its banks into the streets of the Lehigh Valley.

Fears of future flooding were finally put to rest when the Francis E. Walter Dam was completed in 1961. The construction created a 234-foot high by 3,000-foot long earthen dam designed to store 36 billion gallons of water. The FEW Dam was authorized for the single purpose of flood control. Recreation as an alternative purpose was many years in the future.

The FEW Dam was built at the junction of Bear Creek and the Lehigh River. Whitewater boating access upstream of the dam was limited as it required crossing private property either at Stoddartsville or at a private fishing club. River access was possible downstream of the dam, at the Rt. 940 Bridge in White Haven, and at Jim Thorpe.

Rockport was owned by the Jersey Central Railroad and had been rented to a hunting club. Access to Glenn Onoko was limited to an unpaved road and no boat launch had been constructed.

With the improving quality of the Lehigh River and surrounding watershed, the river slowly became inviting to the outdoor adventure types, historians and environmentalists. In the 1960s and 1970s, the most popular boats were aluminum Grumman canoes. They were inexpensive to buy but would tend to collapse like empty beer cans when they wrapped around a rock in whitewater.

The 1972 film, Deliverance, which cast whitewater canoeing as a trip into unknown and potentially dangerous territory, created a demand for whitewater adventuring.

On June 19, 1976, the Carbon County Bicentennial Canoe Expedition, a sojourn of 32 canoes led by Roger Appleton of Palmerton and Phil Rodgers of Jim Thorpe, put in at the Jim Thorpe train station on the Lehigh River and arrived to Washington's Crossing on the Delaware River four days later.

In 1986, the Lehigh Gorge State Park opened. In 1996, the Wildlands Conservancy, which had been a major force in cleaning the Lehigh River, began an annual educational Lehigh River Sojourn. In 2003, they published a Lehigh River Watershed Plan that became the basis for a dam release plan which helped communicate the needs of the fishing and boating communities with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, the DCNR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

River running history

Whitewater rafting became possible after the invention of vulcanized rubber by Charles Goodyear, in 1838. Soon, vulcanized rubber-coated fabric inflatable boats were used for exploration and for life rafts by the military.

The rubber river raft may have been first designed by Lt. John Fremont Horace Day to survey the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. It was reintroduced in the 1950s at a Rockefeller-owned resort but did not attract much interest until the 1960s when whitewater rafting companies began forming in the western states.

The kayak was created from a wooden frame covered in sealskin over 8,000 years ago by the Inuit. The Germans were the first Europeans to experiment with the kayak, with the Faltbot, a folding kayak invented by Alfred Heurich in 1905 and commercialized by Johannes Klepper in 1906, that allowed people to experience wild sections of rivers and canyons never before. In the 1920s, an Austrian, Edi Hans Pawlata, popularized the Eskimo roll. In the 1950s, fiberglass was introduced for kayak construction.

In 1973, California kayaker Tom Johnson introduced the "Hollowform," the first rotomolded plastic kayak, and started the kayak revolution.

Next: Lehigh River Unbridled