Sunday, December 19, 2010

Soothing, Yet Deadly: The Lehigh River's Waters by Ronald Rabenold

Marsha Felegy
~ 1967-1985 ~

“Lehigh, I dream that in thy voice

I catch a tone of gladness,

That yearning love is in thy touch,

That thou wouldst sooth my sadness.”

~Augusta Moore

Saw Mill Creek, upstream from the Pohopoco, which is upstream from the Lehigh River.
Though untied, our lives seem to flow like our river: rising in freshets of elation as easily as we are cast down into murky deep pools. We owe our existence here to the mighty Lehigh and the many mountain springs that feed her. I have my favorite one that I use to cool my feet in the summer. I carve out moments there, to find my nothingness, to indeed soothe myself. It is the balm that soothes my many fragmentations.

Spring above Penn Haven along the Lehigh River Gorge.
We are drawn to the water perhaps to catch a measure of gladness.  She is cleaner now.  The trout are back, and so are the osprey and bald eagles. So many lives depend on her. So many use her to float on, or as a backdrop, to whittle away our Sunday hours of leisure.

And yet the Sunday river can take a life as easily as any.

In 1858, a peddler, passing through our area was found dead in the Weigh Lock, remnants of which can be found about a quarter mile below Jim Thorpe’s sewage treatment plant. Though hard to know by looking at it today, it was a viable community then. There exists there still, evidence of an old iron works, foundations of lock tenders’ houses, as well as the house of the Sayre’s, friends and business partners of Asa Packer. In fact, the wire-mill-iron-foundry used hydraulic power of overflowing water from the Lehigh Canal as it poured back into the river. These baffles can still be seen there today.

Looking out onto the Lehigh from the Wire Mill Foundry foundation
in the Narrows below Flagstaff and Sleeping Bear Mountains

The murkey waters below the baffles from the Wire Mill Foundry.

It was the first of June when Mr. Geissler was found. We know he was a of German descent and nothing more. His age, his hometown, or if he left a grief stricken widow and children is not known. His grave no doubt is one of hundreds of undocumented burial sites in the Upper Mauch Chunk cemetery.

In Schuylkill County, one pond became the site of a family’s grief. In 1867, James Finn drowned in a pond in the area of “Westwood”, Pottsville. Six years later, one Saturday afternoon in December, five young boys fell through the ice on the very same pond. At about 4 o'clock, a brakeman on a passing train was somehow alerted to this scene and was able to save two of the boys. Three however drown. Samuel Simmons and Francois Roppert, ages 6 and 12, were lost along with the son of James Finn, James Finn Jr.  He was eleven, and no doubt, his death compounded his widowed mother’s sorrow.
The symmetry of the Lehigh Canal just north of where Heath drown. 
(Note that this picture is flipped: The top is the water's reflection.)
In my last post on the subject, I mentioned the deaths of Marsha Felegy and the men who crashed their car into the river from the Lehigh Railroad Trestle back in August of 1985. I also mentioned the death of Jay Kershner who was lost in the river back in October of this year (See Post “Marking Unseen, Silent Burdens,” ).

The Lehigh River below the Francis Walter Dam and above the "Devil's Elbow."

Last year, Linda Weaver went missing on November 4th, last seen at the Boatyard Bar near Lock #8. According to her daughter, she was “deathly” afraid of water. Her friend Arlene Kugler said, “She was drinking…but God knows how she ended up in the Lehigh.” Her body was recovered below the Lehigh Gap in Slatington on January 5, 2010. She belonged to the Middlecreek Christian Church of Kresgeville.

The Lehighton skyline at sunset.  The Lehigh River and the Lehigh Valley Railroad trestle to the left.  The area of demise for Marsha Felegy, Jay Kershner, Linda Weaver, and too many others.
I remember my summer going to eighth grade when Heath McGlaughin died in the canal. He’d been swimming with Mikey Strohl on a home-made raft of logs, even though he couldn’t swim. I remember hearing the news, the neighborhood gang getting to the firehouse as the emergency vehicles were coming back. I asked one of the men standing around if Heath was ok, was he going to be alright, though I already knew the answer. He didn’t know how to say it I guess, only telling me, “Well, he sure wasn’t smiling when we found him.”

My depth of compassion was even thinner in those years. I didn’t attend the funeral nor did I feel a compulsion to do so. Looking back on it now, I have sadness for the pain his parents must have had. But the person I feel most for these days is Mikey.

I know in recent years, he’s had back problems as well as other issues. I don’t think he had much along the lines of emotionally healthy support let alone the “grief counseling” that is so quickly offered in schools today. I know my friends and I avoided all that with Mikey like nothing ever happened.  We never discussed it, as if Heath never had been part of our circle, the repression of youth.

These are the memories that flow from the dusty days of the Augusts of my life. Heath’s Junior High school picture shows the smile of a kid who couldn’t hold it in (despite his cleft palate).

Today, in moments along her edge, I am indeed soothed by her flow, I am thankful to her for bringing me here, for sustaining me here, though I know the secrets she carries within her dark waters.  And sometimes, in my mind, I see Heath and he still bears the smile of a boy in the midst of a summer day.

Heath McLaughlin
~ 1968-1981 ~

And so that is how we spent our summers, my friends and I, traveling along her, lost in our fishing in those days of countless casts, the many bluegills, and all those hours slipping through dust filled August sunlight.

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