Hugh Moore Canal

Hugh Moore Canal

“All history is local,” historian Joseph Amato once wrote.

Few Lehigh Valley sites better illustrate the truth of those words than Hugh Moore Park and the National Canal Museum, where visitors can learn not only about local history but also about the region’s ties to America’s Industrial Revolution. The 520-acre park, situated between the Lehigh Canal and Lehigh River in Easton, was once home to the first industrial park in the United States. Now a recreational site, the city-owned park is also a historical gem, featuring more than two miles of restored canal, a lock, a locktender’s house, a museum, and Pennsylvania’s only mule-drawn canal
boat attraction.

The Lehigh Canal is the heart of the park. Constructed by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. to transport anthracite coal from Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) to Easton, the 46-mile canal opened in 1829. By 1834, the Easton terminus was connected to the Delaware and Morris canals, enabling the transport of anthracite and other products to both the Philadelphia and New York markets. At its peak in 1855, the Delaware and Lehigh canals transported 1.3 million tons of anthracite, helping to power the iron industry and the Industrial Revolution. Although railroads eventually replaced canals as the primary mode of transport, the two canals continued to operate full-time until 1932, when the Delaware Canal was sold to the state and turned into a park. The Lehigh Canal continued part-time operations until spring 1942; later that year, a flood destroyed much of the canal.

The National Canal Museum, operated by the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, documents the history of the country’s canals and navigable rivers, as well as canal-related industries in the Lehigh Valley. Its holdings include 3,753 artifacts; 3,890 reels of film, video cassettes, and audio (oral history) tapes; 52,782 slides, photographs, and negative images; 31,824 engineering drawings; and a library of more than 13,483 volumes.

“It’s really a family museum,” says Dennis Scholl, D&L education manager. “It’s not heavy on priceless artifacts, but we have quite a few hands-on activities for the kids to introduce them to simple machines and the things used to build the canals.” But, he says, the experience really begins with the canal boat.

Each visit to the Canal Museum includes a 45-minute ride on the Josiah White II, a 110-passenger boat that travels along the canal drawn between the museum and the locktender’s house. On weekends, volunteer interpreters explain the role locktenders and their families played in the daily operation of the canal. During the boat trip, trained and authentically dressed crew members tell the story about the canals and the people who worked and lived on them. Josiah White II is a modern tourist boat—not an old-fashioned barge that was once used to carry heavy cargo—but, like its historic predecessors, it’s powered by mules. Their names are Hank and George.

Although the D&L staff must be trained to steer the 50-foot-long canal boat, be willing to walk the towpath four times a day—despite the weather—and be familiar with equestrian animals, the mules themselves don’t need to undergo special training. “They catch on real quick,” Dennis says. “For them, it’s just a matter of walking a straight line on a path and turning around and then going back to their corral and eating their hay.”

Mules have been a part of the canal boat tradition since the late 1820s, when the canal opened, he notes. “Mules in those days were as valuable as anything. They were necessary for the canal captains to operate their boats. Regardless of whether they were independent or company employees, they had to buy their own mules. They took good care of their animals, and we take good care
of ours.”

For the adults, the canal boat hosts two dinner cruises a month during the summer, each with its own theme—and each powered by Hank and George. The season opens on July 8, with a cruise featuring music of the 1940s, and ends with a blues cruise on October 14. In between, there are cruises featuring the history of Bethlehem Steel, canal music, stories and songs, the history of beer making in the Lehigh Valley, wine tasting, an Italian themed cruise, and music of the Roaring Twenties.

“We try to mix it up,” Dennis says, adding that regardless of the theme, there’s always live music and a brief introduction to the Lehigh Canal, as well as dinner. Many of the dinner cruises also a feature a trip into Lock 47, a working lock lift, which gives the riders the experience of what it was liked to be raised and lowered in the old canal lock. “It’s a very nice way to spend an evening. It’s fun. You learn a lot, and it’s something to remember,” he says.

About 8,500 people, mostly families, took the canal boat ride in 2016, Dennis says. An additional 2,500 students rode the boat as part of Immersion Days, seven weeks of field trips that cap off the D&L’s “Tales of the Towpath” program, which is now being offered by about 20 area public school districts.

“About 95 percent of the kids are studying the towpath for a quarter in their classroom,” he says. “The first thing they do when they come here is the canal boat ride. Then they split up into four groups and get various lessons. We introduce them to the science and technology behind the building and maintenance of the canals, the cultural aspects, and things kids would have been doing in those days, like harnessing mules, helping mom with the wash, or blowing a conch shell at the locktender’s house when boats come.”

National Canal Museum
2750 Hugh Moore Park Rd, Easton

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