Sunday, February 20, 2011

Josiah White’s Kind, Conquering Nature Tames the Lehigh River Valley



It has been said that Josiah White was the “hand that rocked the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.” But few outside the Lehigh Valley and Carbon County know of him or his far-reaching influence.

Josiah White's childhood home at White and Pine Sts,
Mount Holly, NJ.
He was born within months of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown that ended the Revolution: March 4, 1781 in Mount Holly, New Jersey. His father John died when Josiah was four. His mother Rebecca set him up in an apprenticeship when he was fifteen.

In spring of 1810, he purchased the operations at the Falls of the Schuylkill, acquiring the land on each side of the river and the water-power rights of the falls. Part of his agreement with the state to own the rights was to make the falls accessible to boat traffic. This became Josiah’s first experimentation with dam and lock navigation that he would later perfect on the Lehigh.

By Christmas of 1817, George F. A. Hauto (An inquisitive acquaintance at the Falls who became a dubious early business partner.), William Briggs (White’s stonemason at the Falls) and White himself, reached Bethlehem on horseback. They were on their way to survey the coal fields discovered by Philip Ginter (Ginder) in 1791. These fields were the source of two previous attempts to bring anthracite coal to the Philadelphia market which included Revolutionary War colonel and founder of Weissport, Jacob Weiss.

The original mine was more of a quarry.  Coal was quarried many
years before the first tunnel was driven.  This open quarry was
a Victorian spectacle of man conquering nature and became
a major sightseeing destination of those traveling the
Switchback Railroad.  This is in the area of today's
"Ginther Field" in Summit Hill 

They stayed about a week in Lehighton and Lausanne, the closest “settlements” to the mines. Josiah noted that along the river, from Lausanne (which was about 1 mile north of Mauch Chunk) to the Lehigh Gap, about nine miles below, he only saw about eleven or twelve dwellings. Further north from there, the wilderness was untouched. But White saw potential everywhere.

The result of his career was the making of the transportation of millions of tons of coal a reality. He not only had a vision of what was possible but he also had the know how and iron-will to make it work and the energy to see it through.

The first product of his working genius was the building of the “stone turnpike” in 1818. (Over the nine miles from the mine to the river, along the Mauch Chunk Creek, was a descent of over 900 feet) It is said to be the first road surveyed to make a steady declination without “undulation.” It had about a 2- to 3-foot drop per every 100 feet.

According to George Hauto’s report from 1819, the village of Mauch Chunk consisted of, “forty buildings for different purposes, among which is a saw-mill driven by the river for the purpose of sawing stuff for use of the navigation. It has a gang, to which twenty-four saws belong, cutting about 20,000 feet per day, on one side; and a circular saw on the other. One other saw-mill driven by the Mauch Chunk Creek; a grist-mill, a mill for the saving of labor for the construction of wagons, etc., is also driven by the creek, -smitheries, with eight fires, workshops, dwellings, wharves, etc. We have cut about 15,000 saw logs and cleared 400 acres of land.” The clearing of the woodlands had begun.

They bought a horse for $100 and a small Dearbon wagon for $65. They rode to Lausanne on the light carriage that broke down twice before arriving. They began at the mouth of the Nesquehoning Creek with “thirteen hands,” constructing two scows, fourteen feet by thirty-five feet long for lodging and eating rooms.  Soon after, the number of workers reached seventy.

They added two more boats, one for the manager’s counting house, storehouse, and dwelling and the other one for a kitchen and bake house. The four boats were had one, six-foot raised story with planked roofs. They also added three more horses for bringing in timber.

For two years, White, along with his workers, lived on the “scows” sleeping on bunks. White worked seven to eight months in the water, “laying out the walls and channels in the river," and piling stones as marks for the other men to follow. He wore “a red flannel shirt, roundabout coat, cap, strong shoes with a hole cut in the toe to let out water.” They laid upwards of “16,000 perches of stone.” According to White, his now one hundred man workforce was the largest “thus employed in the Pennsylvania wilderness.”

But the following year found the Lehigh much too shallow than they were led to believe and the “bear-trap” locks and dams had were to be employed. And the arks used for shipment would be one-way vessels.

Here White's impact on U.S. industry had begun. Not only could coal be transported along the Lehigh from Mauch Chunk to Parryville to Catasauqua but iron foundries began to spring up all along this route as well.  These early industries led to the emergence of Bethlehem Iron which would become the mighty Bethlehem Steel.

It was a time when nature was subdued without seduction. The “miles of boats” constructed each year rapidly depleted the primal timber. The hills were denuded of their soil sustaining foliage. The dams, along with the choking coal silt introduced to the water, changed the habitat and breeding habits for generations of aquatic life in the Lehigh.  Progress meant conquering nature.

By 1819 White patented his “bear-trap” lock and one-way river navigation was established. The “bear-trap” was a dam on the river with a sluice gate in the middle. The locks were so named by the workmen who while perfecting the prototype along the Mauch Chunk Creek applied this name “to elude the curiosity of persons who teased them with inquiries as to what we were making.”

This is a sketch from Richard Richardson's 1873 book
showing White's Bear Trap Lock.  Richardson was White's
son in law.



Water entered a chamber that applied hydraulic pressure to keep the gate up to hold water behind the dam, thus holding enough water to cause an “artificial freshet,” as White referred to it, when released. The twelve dams with locks between Mauch Chunk and the Lehigh Gap provided enough water to get the sixteen foot wide, 140 to 150 foot long boats, built in 16 to 25 foot sections, over the shallow river. These “arks” required 14-16 inches of water to float through the center gate of the dam and descend with their cargo of 70 to 120 tons of coal.

Crews consisted of a front and rear oarsman plus three more “hands.” With anywhere from six to nine of these section boats lined up and ready, the first ark carried one extra man on the prow who was the lock-tender. At each lock, he would jump onto the dam and open the wickets to allow the man-made flood to begin. This he did at each of the twelve successive locks over the nine miles to the Lehigh Gap.



This replica of White's "Bear Trap Lock"
can only be viewed at the Mauch Chunk Museum
and Cultural Center on West Broadway, Jim Thorpe. 
(Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center)
It took about thirty seconds to a minute to activate each lock and each time, the lock-tender would jump back aboard until reaching the last of the twelve locks. The crews and the arks proceeded all the way to Philadelphia, riding high on the fresh, artificial current. Once the surge of the compounded twelve mini-floods left the Lehigh, four inches of “freshet” was added to the Delaware River allowing the boats enough water to reach Philadelphia.

Once the lock-tender reached the last lock at the Lehigh Gap, he disembarked and retraced his route on foot. He returned to each lock and closed the wickets to once again re-charge the dam with slack-water for the next day’s shipment and release.

The crews arriving in Philadelphia returned to Mauch Chunk on foot, but eventually were able to work out a return ride with a wagon. The iron fasteners from each section boat were ‘recycled’ and returned back to be re-used while the wood was sold as lumber.

According to White, during each of the last three years before the Lehigh Canal was completed in 1829, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company built “10 to 12 consecutive miles of boats yearly, entirely from the tree.” This led to the clearing of all the previously untouched adjacent river timber from Mauch Chunk on up to White Haven.

Boat construction at Mauch Chunk was impressively efficient. White said that one “set of workmen could make a single section in forty five minutes” and “seven to eight boats of five to seven sections” in one day. The planks were planed using river power at Laurel Run, a creek below Rockport. For each of these three years mentioned above, through White’s efforts, the Old Company was able to ship 40,000 tons of coal to Philadelphia.

Naturalist John James Audubon came to paint birds in the Lehigh Gorge for six weeks back in 1829. He was said to note how concerned he was at the rate of timbering. The Lehigh Tannery had many mills and the largest leather tannery in the United States that relied on the water power from largest dam on the river. Besides changing the natural flow of the river, the tannic acids from the thousands of hemlock trees necessary for tanning deforested the mountainside.
Here is a view after the electric mule experiment was attempted.  The
Packerton Yard buildings are on the left, ahead is "Mauch Chunk" or
the "Sleeping Bear" Mountain.

The Lehigh Canal was completed according to exacting specifications of White and was completed by the 1829 season. White said of it, “There has been no money expended for ornament, though no money has been spared to render the work sound and permanent.” Two-way navigation meant that the boats could now be reused and pressure on the woodlands of Carbon County could ease.

White’s description of his new canal: “Notwithstanding the size of the locks, everything being new and the gatekeepers inexperienced, the average time of passing the locks was about five-minutes. There are forty-five lift-locks in number, of six, seven, eight, and nine feet fall, all of twenty-two feet by 100 feet, except the four upper ones near Mauch Chunk, which are thirty feet by 130 feet, overcoming a fall of 360 and 87/100 feet, in a distance of forty six and ¾ miles, and there are six guard-locks. The dams are eight in number; they are built of timber and stone in a very substantial manner, with stone abutments, and of the following heights: five, thirteen, eight, sixteen, twelve, six, seven and a half, and ten feet from surface to surface.”
Tablets of these "Detention Slips" were found
among the paperwork of Hirim Rickert who
was a mercantile trader in Weissport.  It
measures about 2"x3" and evidently
used as an excuse for boat captains
who were unexpectantly detained.

White's conception for improving the Delaware's navigation
from Richardson's book.
The Company paid a total of $1,558,000 on “the river since the commencement, including the amount paid White, Hazard & Hauto, for their property rights and privileges.” And even though the Delaware Canal was begun a year sooner, it was still fraught with deficiencies for two years after the Lehigh Canal was complete. The Commission retained the services of White to oversee these corrections and true to White’s nature, he had the problems on the Delaware worked out.

The Upper Grand was started in 1835. The rate of descent and the rapids made a dam and lock system necessary on this section. The most significant lock of all on the Lehigh Canal was Lock #27 near Tannery, just south of White Haven. Lock #27 had 27 feet thick of solid walls at the bottom and 10 at the top. It had 30 feet of lift and was 100 feet long. When built, it took 9,922 cubic yards of masonry and 242,419 board feet of timber-work. It was the largest dam at 58 feet high and 306 feet wide.)

It was the logs and these dams proved to be the unraveling of the Upper Grand section of the canal. The June 6, 1862 flood ended canal navigation above Mauch Chunk when in addition to the rapid rise of the river, a number of the dams were breached by floating logs that had become battering rams. The resulting tidal forces of the unleashed dams and the resulting damages caused the state legislature to prohibit lock and dam navigation on the Lehigh forevermore.

A look from inside one of Lock #21 of the upper Grand Division.
Seen here is a channel on the West Bank side near the front
of the interior of the lock.



These pictures are from Lance Metz's "Delaware and Lehigh
Canals" 1989 book.  (The National Canal Museum - Easton, Pa.)




"The Pennsylvania Lock" - Lock #20 near Tannery.


This flood was also devastating to the lower division and no coal was able to be shipped on the canal for two years after until repairs could be made. The town of Burlington (on the flat along the river in today’s Packerton was wiped out, to be replaced by the Packerton rail yards. See Post )

White’s successes in business were not hollow. He remained true to his faith in his creator and to his family. Once the settlement of Mauch Chunk had taken form, it was his mother who made the first move to White’s wilderness home referred to as “The Park” and later “Parkhurst.” She died in 1826 at the age of 82 and is buried in the Upper Mauch Chunk Cemetery.  (At some point, this home was disassembled in sections and relocated near the base of the steep hill of Center Street on the East Side.  One section is maintained by John Drury as a Bed and Breakfast called "Whitehurst" - Follow this link to the Whitehurst with history and pictures.)


This photo of repair work allows us to see how the dams
were built.  The sheeting removed here to refill with rock
on the inside.

His wife and young children arrived in 1821. He made provisions for their amusement by installing a deer and elf preserve on what is today “Front Hill.” By 1831, his major work now completed here, his family moved back to 7th and Arch Streets Philadelphia. Shortly after, they lost their last remaining son, in the nineteenth year of his age as previously two sons had died in childhood.

Always mindful and devoted to his Quaker faith and approaching his seventieth year, Josiah made a pilgrimage to Richmond Indiana in 1750 to attend the yearly meeting of the Society of Friends.  His early fatherless life in addition to his strong faith led him to work toward the establishment of a manual training school in the west where "poor children, white, colored and Indian" might receive a religious education in accordance with the teachings of the Friends. The school became a reality and continues today, though it has lived through many permutations. White provided its impetus with his vision and finances, though he didn’t live to see its fruition.

He began his circuitous return from the Yearly Meeting of Friends by way of the Great Lakes, through Cincinnati, onto the Ohio River to Pittsburgh, where he finally got onto the Pennsylvania Canal to the Portage Railroad to Harrisburg to Lancaster and then home. He was not well on his arrival. On November 6th doctors felt it was a case of “’remittent fever’, contracted during his absence.” By the 14th it took on “a typhoid character affecting the head” and became the day he was “released from its earthly tabernacle.”


Photo of White's Iowa school.


Only the stairs remain of White's original orphanage.
The coal industry continued to dominate into the 20th century. Even though Asa Packer’s Lehigh Valley Railroad killed Josiah’s beloved river navigation, it was White’s vision and careful persistence that made it all a reality. And he did it respectably in the egalitarian manner of his Quaker upbringing and his well-formed faith. He didn’t just pay men to stand waist-deep in frigid water, he showed them through his example, working and sleeping among the working men he made it happen. He left with the wheels of the industrial machine running as smoothly as a river stone.



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