By Dr. Tom Stoneback, National Canal Museum
Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, founders of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, played a key role in bringing the Industrial Revolution to America. Following an act of the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1818 to “improve the Lehigh River,” the two Quakers constructed a series of locks that enhanced the one-way passage of coal arks along the Lehigh River, allowing the anthracite deposits of Mauch Chunk to be delivered downstream to market in Philadelphia.
White and Hazard were able to build upon a series of slack water pools, constructing canal sections to connect them. The new canal, which coursed through the heart of Bethlehem, allowed for the transportation of coal, lumber, iron, steel, cement, textiles and mill products not just to the Philadelphia area, but to
This simple canal, built by immigrants paid $1 per day for their labor, brought dramatic changes in Bethlehem and across the country. Asa Packer, founder of Lehigh University, was inspired to build the Lehigh Valley Railroad as he transported coal in his canal boats. When coal was combined with other unique geological resources of the region, including iron ore and limestone, the canal became even more crucial, helping to support the iron and steel works that first built America and later provided the essential materials the country needed to win wars.
Additionally, the canal helped solve the energy crisis of the day by replacing depleted timber resources with coal and providing a new source of cheap power – water. New industries, including the country’s only zinc oxide paint company in South Bethlehem and specialty makers of barrels and woolens, found it more efficient to purchase water power than make steam, and so were attracted to the area.
While the canal is certainly steeped in history, it continues to serve a vital role in Bethlehem today, hosting beautiful parks along the river and creeks. It was the Lehigh Canal that made coal king, steel the backbone of America, and helped to transform the world. The rest, as they say, is history.