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Remember: Canal Park: The Complete Park Log

Monday, October 19, 2009

Canal Park: The Complete Park Log

1. The Lehigh Canal

Yesterday, I visited Canal Park. Before I get to the journey, I feel that it is appropriate to provide a little history. No other park in Allentown is so steeped in the story of our city. There are wonderful online resources that provide detailed historical facts and pictures. I recommend Everette Carr’s website; he journeyed the entire length of the old canal and documented its current state with pictures. His site is available here.

There are some wonderful period pictures posted on this website.

This is a concise history of the canal, published on the National Canal Museum website:

"The Lehigh Navigation (referred to as the Lehigh Canal) was constructed to carry anthracite coal from the upper Lehigh Valley to Easton. Its creation was the direct result of Phillip Ginder's discovery of large deposits of anthracite (hard coal) near Summit Hill, Pa. in 1791. Ginder's discovery led to the formation of the Lehigh Coal Mine Company which successfully transported anthracite down the turbulent Lehigh and Delaware Rivers to Philadelphia. By 1820 a downstream navigation system was completed which would allow arks loaded with coal to navigate from the present site of Jim Thorpe, (Mauch Chunk) Pa. to Easton. This navigation system was made possible by Josiah White's invention of a system of "bear trap" or hydrostatic locks. These "bear trap" locks increased the depth of the Lehigh by creating small artificial floods which carried the loaded arks downstream.
To obtain additional investment capital the Lehigh Navigation and the Lehigh Coal Company were merged to form the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company in 1821. By 1825 this new company was shipping over 30,000 tons of anthracite to Philadelphia annually. Increased competition from the newly completed Schuylkill Navigation System and a desire to establish both ascending and descending navigation on the Lehigh led the company to rebuild its waterway into a conventional canal with lift locks. Designed by Canvass White, formerly engineer of New York's Erie Canal, the Lehigh Navigation combined slackwater pools and canal sections. It was constructed between 1827 and 1829. The enlarged Lehigh Navigation was over 46 miles in length between its terminal points of Mauch Chunk (present Jim Thorpe) and Easton. It had a total of 52 locks, 8 guard locks, 8 dams and 6 aqueducts. These engineering features enabled the waterway to overcome a difference in elevation of almost 355 feet. The Lehigh Navigation also had the largest carrying capacity of any of the anthracite canals at the time of its completion since the locks were large enough to allow the passage of vessels which could carry over 200 tons of coal. However, the smaller sizes of the connecting Morris and Delaware canals limited the Lehigh Canal boats to 95 ton loads.

Within five years of its completion the enlarged Lehigh Navigation had been linked to both Philadelphia and New York by means of the Delaware Division Canal and Morris Canal respectively. As a result the lower Lehigh Valley was the only region in America to have efficient transportation connections with New York and Philadelphia, America's two largest metropolitan areas during this period. This factor combined with water power available from the Lehigh Navigation helped to make this region a birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.
Seeking to tap the rapidly developing Beaver Meadow coal fields near the site of present Hazelton, and also to connect with the Susquehanna River and the great Wyoming coal fields at Wilkes-Barre, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company constructed a northward extension of its navigation system between 1835 and 1838. Designed by the brilliant engineer E.A. Douglas, this 26 mile northern extension to White Haven, which was called the Upper Grand Section of the Lehigh Navigation, was one the greatest engineering feats of the Nineteenth Century. Utilizing 20 dams and 29 Locks, this waterway overcame a difference in elevation of over 600 feet between White Haven and Mauch Chunk. The locks of the Upper Grand Section were particularly impressive. Lock 27, which was also named the Pennsylvania, was located near Lehigh Tannery, and was able to raise or lower boats over 30 feet to the next level. Northward out of White Haven the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company constructed the Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad with its innovative Ashley Planes (inclined planes) to reach the Susquehanna at Wilkes-Barre.
The Lehigh Navigation System reached its peak in 1855. In that year it carried more than one million tons of cargo. However, 1855 also marked the completion of the Lehigh Valley Railroad between Mauch Chunk and Easton. Competition from this new anthracite carrier began to reduce the navigation system's cargo. Of even greater importance was the devastation inflicted on this waterway by the great flood of June 4, 1862. Both the main canal and the Upper Grand Section were almost totally destroyed. Although the portion of the Lehigh Navigation between Mauch Chunk and Easton was rebuilt, the Upper Grand Section was replaced by an extension of the Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad. Between 1865 and 1867 this line was further extended to Easton were it connected with the Central Railroad of New Jersey. In 1871 the Lehigh and Susquehanna was leased to the Central Railroad of New Jersey.
During the 1870's and 1880's the decline in tonnage carried by the Lehigh Navigation continued. By 1880 the tonnage carried had fallen by over 50% and by 1900 it had fallen to less than 1/4 of its 1855 peak total. The Lehigh Navigation continued to function as a transportation artery until 1932, making it the last fully functioning towpath canal in North America. Portions of the Lehigh Navigation were utilized to carry reclaimed coal silt until 1942 when a flood ended towpath navigation. In 1962 most of it was sold to private and public organizations for recreational use.

2. Canal Park

Getting into Canal Park is a little tricky. The sign indicates a right turn off of Hamilton but I have always taken a left. After crossing the train tracks, all the way to the right is the big dam on the Lehigh. Straight ahead is a bridge and to the left a road that follows the canal. If you go down this road, you will eventually pass under this railroad bridge:

You will then cross the canal and if you take a left you will enter Canal Park proper at this sign:

If you go right, there are a series of parking lots that lead to a boat launch on the Lehigh.
Canal Park is surrounded by a highly urbanized area. It is also surrounded by an immense amount of the history of Allentown. The canal itself and subsequent railroad tracks were central to the development of the industrial period of our city. There is still an active railroad line here:

Getting out of the car, my footsteps on the towpath were weighted by that history. The idea that at one time this watery artery was so important to Allentown and to the coal industry on a whole was a heavy consideration. Now, we come here for recreation. The muddy boat prints on the towpath have been replaced with bicycle treads and imprinted running shoes.

Canal Park is Allentown’s park of contrasts; not only the constant contrast of our present and our history but of natural beauty and urban blight and of recreation and appreciation. The Lehigh River rolls towards its end in Easton to your right as you walk the towpath with the canal to your left. The towpath rolls on to Sand Island in the city of Bethlehem. Along our side of the towpath many invasive species remain. I hope as Allentown moves forward with park renovation, a project to renew Canal Park includes removal of many of these non native plants.

This area is rife with wildlife. Dragonflies are in abundance in the canal. There are so many visible insects here it is hard to find one sitting still long enough to catch a picture. I got this guy:

Walking along a trail past the parking area, the boat launch on the Lehigh is reached. On this muddy afternoon, I took a rather comedic fall and ended up covered in mud. Across from the Boat Launch, the combined waters of the Jordan and Little Lehigh creeks meet their ends in the Lehigh River:

Further along, there is a derelict picnic area and some amazing views of the Lehigh River:

Turning back, under the railroad bridge, is a spillway on the canal where a wall once stood to serve a lock. You can see Sacred Heart Hospital and parts of downtown in the distance:

Heading back into main Canal Park there is a boathouse on the left, which is advertised as a place to access canoes for a spin in the canal. On this afternoon it was shuttered and truthfully, it looks as if it has been shuttered for some time:

On the right, a set of stairs leads to a pavilion:

The pavilion is in disrepair. Another set of stairs from the pavilion leads back down to the Boat Launch. It became a more frequent observation, the longer I walked through Canal Park that many of the picnic tables, benches, and other recreational devices were in disrepair. I would have loved to be able to ride a canoe in the canal that afternoon. I hope Allentown sees the potential in the development of this park after the success both Bethlehem and Easton have had revitalizing their parts of the canal.
I managed to capture a picture of a young bird sitting on a bench by the shuttered boat house:

Driving back towards the railroad tracks, a few families of Canadian Geese were roadside. While I attempted a few pictures from my car, one of the parents hissed, bobbed its head and attacked my car.

Crossing the bridge in the middle of Canal Park leads to some trails on the side of the Lehigh River. The trails are not well maintained and the lone picnic bench to be found here as been recaptured by nature:

After crawling under a few tree branches and sliding on my butt a bit, I was given an awe inspiring view of the Lehigh River at the exit of an old canal flume.

Canal Park is my favorite park in the city of Allentown. To see it sit in its current state is sad and frustrating. This area, in my opinion, could be the new jewel in Allentown’s park system. (Sorry Lehigh Parkway) As the plans move forward for park revitalization, I hope the city sees the same potential I do down there. Heck, I volunteer to help. What a place Canal Park could be. It is still, as is, a gorgeous spot that provides the ever more rare opportunity to steep yourself not only into nature for an afternoon, but into the long history of Allentown. Check it out.

3. Desolation Towpath

I made a discovery this weekend at Canal Park. Before I get to that though I must describe the west end of the park; I neglected it when I wrote my park log. When driving to Canal Park if you make a right after crossing the train tracks you will drive over a ridiculously pothole riddled gravel road and reach a small parking lot just past the Hamilton Street Bridge.
Here you will be treated to a marvelous view full of both the history of Allentown and her future.
In the distance, on the site of the former A+B slaughterhouse sits the America on Wheels museum. It is here that the beginnings of the long awaited and almost storied “Lehigh Landing” project may one day begin to take shape. The last remnants of the old Hamilton Street Bridge that was wiped out in a flood during the fifties are visible at the edge of the dam, in front of the museum.

On this side of the river, there are ruins and edifices to industries past aplenty. Here is where at one time the Lehigh Canal powered Allentown into an industrial and manufacturing future.
My discovery however, is further past the dam, down river. There is a trail here.

This trail bears no resemblance to the D+L towpath that lies feet to the east. This trail is much more emblematic of the current state of Canal Park than the D+L. It is a sad wasteland. The railroad has killed the vegetation on the right bank and there is more garbage on the left than plant life.

Here, under the garbage, could be another great addition to our parks system.

I hope that in the upcoming trails plan that this area is addressed. It is unique in its closeness to the Lehigh; there is no other park in Allentown that could offer the views and closeness this area can. As it is now, it would be hard for me to even recommend you visit it.
As I left the park in the beginnings of a thunderstorm, I took the time to think about the limitless possibilities this area and the still undeveloped “Lehigh Landing” project has and I watched the reflection of our city in the waters of the river. I pray that more people see what I see here at Canal Park and realize what can be. If you aren’t sure what I am sure of; please take a walk further down and journey on the towpath. They got it right there.

4. Wasteland

For years, driving across the Hamilton Street Bridge I have been curious as to what exactly was riverside across from Canal Park. It appears to be a walkable area and it would also seem to offer some very unique views of the Lehigh River. Over the weekend I found access to this area and finally got to take a stroll there. This area is not considered part of the Allentown park system.

On parts of this nearly lunar landscape, I half expected Mad Max to join me as I walked on the large smooth rocks.

There is a major ruin here and I have absolutely no idea what it was. The ruin certainly adds to the post apocalyptic vibe.

Farther down, the wasteland grows greener and views of Canal Park across the river are outstanding.

The stroll ended at the railroad tracks. It appeared as if a trail was at one time accessible on the other side but being as late as it is in summer and given how wet this summer has been, the path was entirely overgrown.
Standing there I couldn't help but think of how fantastic it would be to see a foot bridge connecting this small river access area to Canal Park. The access area could serve as a wonderful gateway to nearby Fountain Park and could connect with any waterfront development on the other side of Hamilton if it ever happened. I have a million and one ideas about how to improve Canal Park and this area could really play into it. Spending time by the Lehigh I am also amazed just how little we use the area despite the fact that Allentown is in fact a river city. Hopefully future development of the long awaited Lehigh Landing comes in tandem with a sorely needed redevelopment of Canal Park and perhaps a development of this "river access area".

Walking back, looking down river past the dam it is easy to become awestruck at the vast amount of history in one glance. The steeple of the Immaculate Conception Church stands as a neighbor to the increasingly poor looking Neuweiler Beer Factory; the old iron trestle bridge looms in the distance and always the city itself sits watching, just as I did, there walking in the wasteland down by the river.

See Also:
Lehigh Parkway: Complete Park Log

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Blogger Sara said...

That industrial ruin is Insane.

Looks like it belongs in the Weird PA book. I'm intrigued and a little frightened...

October 25, 2009 at 6:12 AM  

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