Before this country had railroads and a reliable road network, commerce moved by water. The original Atlantic Coast population centers developed primarily on the numerous rivers and estuaries that dissect the coastal plain. As people began moving west, they needed to create waterways to carry goods to and from those established cities. That need sparked construction of myriad canals.
The National Canal Museum in Hugh Moore Park in Easton, Pa., opens a window onto a time when mules pulling canal boats was a common sight east of the Mississippi River. The NCM offers intriguing, hands-on exhibits highlighting 19th-century canal life and technology. The collections document the material culture and history of America’s canals and navigable rivers, using the Lehigh Valley’s canal-related industries as a showcase.
NCM maintains and interprets all of the historic structures and sites within Hugh Moore Park, a National Register Historic District. As one of the country’ largest canal heritage museums and a signature program of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, the 520-acre park features 2 miles of restored Lehigh Canal, three operating locks, a restored locktender’s house, ruins from three 19th-century industrial areas and a working, mule-powered canal boat.
It was all about motion, moving people and cargoes: raw materials and farm produce from the west moving downriver to the cities and ports in the east; finished goods and people moving back upriver to the growing settlements along the western frontier. The NCM’s exhibits engage visitors and viscerally explain the challenges and mechanics of the canal boatman’s life. More than just reading a signboard or description, the exhibits offer an opportunity to physically understand this important period in American history.
Understanding life’s pace
Actually riding in a canal boat, pulled by a pair of mules, is perhaps the best way to understand the pace of life during the canal era. Hank and George, the NCM’s canal boat mules, pull the 50-foot, twin-level Josiah White II, a passenger canal boat, along the restored Lehigh Canal to the locktender's house and back to the museum. The speed may be slow, but it is steady, while an authentically dressed crew handles the boat and tells stories of the days when hard coal from Pennsylvania’s western highlands floated to the expanding eastern factories.
The Josiah White II will host its 2019 dinner cruise season with eight cruises that feature history, music and food. The season opener on July 6 will celebrate our nation’s 243rd birthday with The Swing Time Dolls on this patriotic-themed dinner cruise. Hear rousing songs from this all-female vocal group specializing in the hits of the 1940s and beyond, while enjoying a 4th of July style picnic.
Visit NCM’s Website at canals.org for a complete cruise schedule. All cruises include a lift lock experience in Lock 47. Culinary Experts of Allentown cater each cruise with a dinner made from selections relevant to the theme of the cruise.
Exploring the D&L Trail
As a part of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, the NCM sits alongside a section of the Delaware & Lehigh Trail. The D&L preserves the historic pathway that once carried coal and iron from Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia and tidewater beyond. Today, the 165-mile network runs south from Wilkes-Barre, through the mountains of northeast Pennsylvania in Carbon and Luzerne counties, along the Lehigh River through the Lehigh Valley, and along the Delaware Canal and Delaware River through Bucks County to Bristol.
Ideal for walkers, bicyclists and runners, the D&L Trail offers a gamut of eastern Pennsylvania scenery. From urban and industrial centers, to mountain wilderness to kayaks floating the waterways, the trail’s spectacle is never ending. Some sections overlay old railroad rights of way; others follow the canal’s towpath. The section north of Jim Thorpe is particularly scenic, as the trail parallels the Lehigh River and crosses on the towering Nesquehoning Trestle.
The NCM is key to understanding the canal boat era of America’s economic development. Through the museum’s exhibits and archives, both children and adults can learn about some of the challenges faced by our nation’s early industries and the techniques used to meet those challenges.
For More Information:
National Canal Museum, 610 923-3548,
Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, 610-923-3548, delawareandlehigh.org
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Maryland. Visit his Website at , or email your questions and comments to RHWay2Go@yahoo.com.