Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lehigh Canal


As the sun was setting on Bethlehem, on August 9, 1814, a crudely built ship, called an ark, was floating by on the Lehigh River. Its cargo would bring Bethlehem into the industrial age. The ark contained twenty-four tons of “black diamonds” or anthracite coal from the Room Run Mine. The ark was sixty-five feet in length and fourteen feet in width and built with hemlock wood. It began its journey at the landings at Lausanne with a crew of six men. Within a quarter mile the ark collided with a slate ledge which caused a gash its side. The crew ripped off their clothing and successfully plugged the hole. The ark stayed afloat all the way to its destination of Philadelphia, five days later.
The Lenni Lenape were the first to discover the coal and spoke of it to the early settlers. Philip Ginter may have heard these rumors so when he stumbled upon some black rocks, in 1791, while hunting on the summit of the Sharp Mountain, he took them home for further examination. Ginter had migrated to the Mahoning region in the 1770s. He was a miller, farmer and landowner of 300 acres. It is believed that Ginter took a piece of this coal to the local blacksmith, Joe Neyer, who was able to ignite the rock, confirming it was coal. Next, Ginter gave samples of the coal to Colonel Jacob Weis who was living in the area of Weissport, formally New Gnaddenhuetten or Fort Allen.
Weiss had served as the assistant deputy quartermaster-general at Easton (1780-1783.) Upon retirement in 1783, Weis purchased 700 acres, which included the former Fort Allen, from the Moravian Brethrens and moved his family to that location. He started a lumber business and farm. Weis took the coal to Philadelphia to seek the advice of his cousin, Michael Hillegas, United States Treasurer during the Revolutionary War, Charles Cist, a printer and his brother-in-law, John Nicholson, the Comptroller General of Pennsylvania. Cist was able to verify that the stone was anthracite coal. With this discovery they decided to form the Lehigh Coal Mine Company, in 1792. Weiss offered Ginter assistance in securing a land warrant in exchange for pointing out the spot where he found the coal.
At first the company’s plan seemed easily accomplished. They needed to find coal deposits, purchase the property containing the deposits, improve the Lehigh River so transportation of the coal by boat would be unimpeded and develop a market for the coal. Every part of this plan proved difficult. Weiss took charge of purchasing 10,000 acres of coal rich land. As he attempted to buy land, counter claims would surface. Weiss eventually sorted out ownership with the company purchasing the land between Mauch Chunk and Tamaqua, along the Lehigh River. The idea of mining coal from shallow pits was abandoned for digging mine shafts at the Room Run Mine near Nesquehoning. This mine was closer to the river therefore reducing the cost of transporting it. Several attempts to clear the Lehigh River for transportation of the coal failed. In 1798, a separate company was organized to deal specifically with this task, the Lehigh Navigation Company.
The War of 1812 raised the cost of coal and limited its availability through the British blockade of Chesapeake and Delaware bays. This inspired a new attempt of transporting coal from the Lehigh Coal Mine Company down the Lehigh River to the Philadelphia market. The Lehigh Coal Mine Company began leasing their mines to other enterprising men hoping to increase the value of their mines. Some of the original investors, Hillegas, Cist and Nicholson, had passed away. The next generation (Jacob Weiss, Isaac Abel Chapman, Jacob Cist, Charles Miner, and John Robinson) took their chances with the mining and selling of anthracite. Arks were produced at Jacob Weiss’ sawmill at Lausanne. They were sixty-five feet long by fourteen to sixteen feet wide. Each ark could carry from twenty to thirty tons of coal. The ark was controlled by a pilot who navigated with a pole.
Josiah White and Erskine Hazard purchased a cart load of the coal that was piled on the ark that passed through Bethlehem in 1814. They wanted to investigate its usefulness for heating the furnace at their mill, the Fairmount Nail and Wire Works, at the Falls of the Schuylkill (northwest of Philadelphia). They experimented with lighting the coal for several hours but soon gave up. They shut the furnace door and left the mill, greatly discouraged. One of the mill workers realized that he had left his jacket. He returned to the mill thirty minutes later to find the furnace to be red hot. The closed furnace door increased the flow of oxygen and facilitated the combustion. White and Hazard saw the great potential of anthracite. Their involvement in the anthracite mining industry solved many of the problems encountered by the Lehigh Coal Mine Company.

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