An island in the middle of Tamaqua?
DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Tamaqua Historical Society volunteers Dale Freudenberger, left, Bill Harleman and Julian Huegel, kneeling, display what is titled '1858 Official Plan Map of Tamaqua,' by Civil Engineer D.H. Goodwin.
According to early maps, there was once an island in the middle of Tamaqua.
The presence of the island corresponds to early written accounts about moving the river.
An 1858 map of Tamaqua clearly illustrates that the Little Schuylkill River - then called the Tamaqua River - split in the center of town and created an island. But town fathers didn't like the topography and did something about it.
As the town grew, a new river channel was excavated and the river diverted.
It was traditionally believed that the diversion point was the upper end of town, and that theory still might be true. But early maps also reveal that the river was diverted just below the East Mauch Chunk Street bridge, which was, at the time, a covered bridge.
The 1858 map and other early maps held by the Tamaqua Historical Society show that the main river split into two smaller streams, called distributaries. A distributary is created when a river splits, the opposite of a tributary.
One distributary crossed diagonally through what is now the unit block of Pine Street, across from American Hose Fire Company. The stream then crossed beneath the location of today's Moose building, flowing across Broad Street in the area of the IOOF Building, then crossing Center Street just below today's M&T Bank building at the Five Points. It then turned south at the rear of today's QA Office, or Comfort Station.
The other distributary flowed beneath the area of the Amandus Lutz house, 221-223 Cedar Street, a Victorian home located directly across from Boyer's Market. That stream then flowed toward Center Street, crossing at today's Burger King before reaching confluence with the other branch. It must be emphasized that the buildings mentioned did not exist when the river diversion took place.
Interestingly, both distributaries would have bisected the Wabash Creek in the area to the rear of today's Fegley's Mini Market.
The two distributaries created an island in the center of Tamaqua, clearly marked on the maps.
The area of today's Tamaqua Diner and the old Milt Ziff Motors building would've been part of this island, same as the TIMES NEWS Tamaqua Bureau and the entire block from the Majestic House to Bethany Church.
The streams would've required use of two bridges on Center Street below the Five Points.
The two distributaries were done away with very early, likely a move by the Little Schuylkill Coal and Navigation Railroad in order to claim valuable land for construction of the rail line. A new, larger channel was dug in order to combine both distributaries and remove the flow of water from the heart of the downtown.
Through a monumental feat, men dug a new river channel that today carries the Little Schuylkill River through town.
Nobody is quite sure about the timeframe of the project, but some believe the river was moved in the late 1820s or by 1830-31.
On April 23, 1829, a charter was granted to develop a 20-mile railroad between Tamaqua and Port Clinton. The horse-drawn railroad opened on November 18, 1831, with two coaches built by Richard Imlay, Baltimore, Maryland.
Was the diversion of the river done as part of this new railroad? Some think so. Or perhaps it was accomplished as early as 1826 when a lock canal was attempted.
The scope of the work boggles the mind.
"It's amazing to think of them moving that amount of dirt back in those days," said Scott Herring, Tamaqua native and railroad-mining historian.
Civil Engineer Timothy M. Stahl, Tamaqua, said ramps and mules were likely used in the big project. He also notes, however, that if the project actually had been done some years later, steam power would have figured into the mix, since the steam shovel was patented in 1839.
Stahl has studied the river from a point at the north end of town. Stahl believes the entire channel from the northern bridge and continuing south through town is man-made.
"The railroad maintains a pretty level gradient, around 800 feet above sea level," he explained. "The idea that the river cut up to 15 feet below the surrounding land elevation at Mauch Chunk Street, while a bed exists at a constant 800+ or - elevation is pretty suspicious. I believe from Thorn's (Cycle Shop) down to be all man-made, a purposely made deviation to clear land for the rail lines."
Stahl's observations support the theory that the river was moved specifically for the railroad. This idea also has been the consensus among local historians. Additionally, the February 26, 1826, charter to build a canal in Tamaqua may also have sparked the river-moving project. The canal never materialized due to winding terrain. The railroad was built instead.
Whatever the case, today's railroad tracks south of Broad Street are located very near the original river bed as indicated on maps.
As for the river ... well, you can't fool Mother Nature. The waterway has roared out of its man-made banks and returned to the original channel many times.
"Water follows the path of least resistance," Stahl said.
When it happened on September 1, 1850, the river rose 60 feet and wiped out the downtown, drowning 62 people.
The tracks of the Little Schuylkill Railroad were obliterated and the town was isolated from the outside world for six days.
On September 2 and 3, townspeople turned out to retrieve the dead. One procession brought in 11 bodies at one time. Mourners simply wandered the streets in disbelief, as it seemed that death had claimed a life in every home, according to written accounts.
The Great Flood of 1850 remains Tamaqua's most historic single event and most noted tragedy.
And the moving of the Tamaqua River in the early days before heavy equipment is a marvel that continues to challenge the imagination.