2022 MEMORIES OF TONY IMHOF HISTORY OF THE LEHIGH CANAL
A small Irish settlement began along the banks of the Lehigh River in Catasauqua, originally part of William Penn’s land grant known as Chawton Manor. The first Grist Mill was built on the site of Race and Lehigh Streets in 1752. George Taylor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, built his summer home here in 1760. While arks transported grain and coal down the Lehigh River to Philadelphia beginning about 1790, the story of Catasauqua and the canal commenced with the discovery of coal in Summit Hill in 1791.
The Lehigh Coal Mine Company was founded in 1792 by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to exploit this anthracite coal site. Through difficulties of financing, convincing people of the value of coal and transportation, coal use was very slow. Wood was plentiful and charcoal, the main heat source for iron making, was easier to use than coal. Finally in 1820 Josiah White, Erskine Hazard and George Hauto founded the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and began transporting coal on the Lehigh River with a series of wing and crib dams, destination Philadelphia with its large population and interested manufacturing community. They floated 365 tons of coal to Philadelphia the first year, and by 1825, 28.393 tons were shipped creating the first company profit.
The wing and crib dams did not permit return trips and the Company petitioned the state legislature for permission to build a system of locks and slack water pools on the Lehigh. Completed in 1829, the canal was 60 feet wide at water level and five feet deep and contained 52 locks. Its primary purpose was to transport anthracite coal.
During the years 1827-1839 the canal affected Catasauqua, known as Biery’s Port, very little. A small cluster of houses and farms dotted its banks, a grist mill and saw mill used water from the Catasauqua Creek.
The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company saw a need to provide incentives to industry experimenting with this anthracite coal. Representatives of the company visited Wales and approached David Thomas. Mr. Thomas and his employer, George Crane, had successfully used anthracite coal to make iron. They enticed Mr. Thomas to relocate to Biery’s Port. Together they built the first successful technological and commercial furnace, operating under the name, Lehigh Crane Iron Company and located at Lock 36.
David Thomas also brought with him the English concept of the company town. He laid out a series of streets and built company homes along Wood and Church Streets. He also developed and provided many municipal structures, service and functions. Thomas’s first home was on the southeast corner of Front and Church Streets. His second home, although greatly altered, was located on the southeast corner of Second and Pine Streets. This home, as well as the company homes, remain today. Catasauqua was known as Craneville and the Iron Borough until its incorporation as the Borough of Catasauqua in 1853.
Several industries also used the canal for manufacturing. The Wahneta Silk Mill and the Mauser-Cressman Grist Mill drew water for power. The Catasauqua Electric Light and Power Company used water from the canal to generate steam to produce electricity for the Borough. Thomas Edison was instrumental in the establishment of electricity in Catasauqua.
At least two other enterprises depended on the canal. These were the George B. F. Deily and Daniel Milson coal yards. Deily’s yard was at the foot of Union Street and Milson’s on Canal Road (Lehigh Street) across from the George Taylor home. The residences of both men remain today: Deily’s at 2 Race Street and Milson’s at 533 Third Street.
In 1855 the Lehigh Valley Railroad lines between Mauch Chunk in the coal regions and Easton were completed. The canal suffered great competition from the new transportation mode. Damage to the canal in a severe 1861 storm prompted the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to complete its own rail line to the coal regions. By 1868 the rail lines were completed from Mauch Chunk to Easton. Cut throat competition caused the new line to be leased to the Central Railroad of New Jersey which ran the lines on the off through 1962. The canal continued to operate on a diminished scale until 1939. It was the last towpath canal operating in the United States.
In 1934 the last locktender in Catasauqua died. He had tended Guard Lock 6 at the Hokendauqua Dam for 45 years, retiring in 1924. The structure from which he operated was a single-story stone building. Over the years two stories were added and the building is now a residence – 1344 Third Street, North Catasauqua.
The canal fell into disrepair. Neglect affected the entire region as attention moved away from waterways to highways for means of travel and transport. Locks deteriorated and were vandalized. By the 1960’s most of the Catasauqua section of the canal was a dry bed, overgrown and virtually forgotten. The small amount of water in the Catasauqua section was run-off and drain water only.
2022 MEMORIES OF TONY IMHOF – CANAL AT CATASAUQUA
The canal was 40 feet wide. The canal bank at the coal yard was lined with timber to provide a docking area for boats. Also used for easy access for fire apparatus to draw water. The canal was a ready source of water for the entire length of the community in case of fire and should be maintained as such. Trees should be planted along the road and not in the canal.
The coal yard was covered with stone for easy driving, not mud. Access should be maintained to the towpath under the bridge at Race Steet for easy walking. A committee should meet with the county and plans made for further modifications. The proper way to drudge the canal is with a crane and drag line.