Tales of the Towpath

By J.F. Pirro

Coming up with ways to spark interest and infuse fun in teaching history to fourth graders isn’t always easy. But, when it comes to one particular subject, Nikki Giannaras, a fourth grade teacher at Hanover Elementary School, Bethlehem. knows just where to turn for help.

Through a curriculum offered free-of-charge by the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D&L), Giannaras, takes her class back to an age when America was using anthracite coal to fuel it’s industries and canals to transport it.

At the heart of the curriculum is Tales of the Towpath, the book by Hellertown. author, Dennis Scholl. Tales of the Towpath chronicles the adventures of Finn Gorman, whose family of Irish laborers makes its living transporting coal on the Lehigh Canal during the mid-19th century. Finn’s father becomes a canal boat captain. But it’s Finn’s adventures that lead young readers on a journey into the past, when anthracite coal was fueling unbridled industrial and economic growth along the Lehigh and Delaware canals.

Finn Gorman and his family members are fictitious characters. But many of the people Finn meets were real and lived in towns that Finn visited. Locales and industries mentioned in the book were extensively researched by the author and are presented as realistically as possible.

“My students are intrigued by Finn’s many adventures and good work ethic,” Giannaras says. “The novel is an excellent way to introduce the students to canal life, hard work and an example of a good, strong family who care for and respect one another.”

The students compare their lives to Finn’s, make clay necklaces depicting the magical “stone” that Finn finds in the story and box-out the dimensions of his father’s canal boat on the school playground. As a culminating activity, the school’s PTA pays for students to participate in Canal Immersion Days. The event – offered each spring by the National Canal Museum – takes place at Hugh Moore Park in Easton and offers the students ride on the mule-drawn Josiah White II canal boat.

The curriculum arrives at participating schools in reproduction 19th-century ship trunks. Teachers implementing the curriculum are trained by the D&L.

“The students enjoy exploring and learning about the items that are in the traveling trunk,” Giannaras says. “Our district bought each fourth grade teacher a trunk to use while teaching the lesson.”

Recently, the book and its associated curriculum has added an interactive website: delawareandlehigh.org/talesofthetowpath. Now, the D&L is focusing the next step of the curriculum on developing field trips along canal towns.

Freemansburg. still has its historic locktender’s canal house, a mule barn and the ruins of a large gristmill operation, plus the railroad bed, the river – plenty of teaching points to explain how transportation changed through the ages. The site is currently being cleaned and dressed up to create a
park-like setting.

It’s the locktender’s house where children once played a key role in getting the mules ready, rising at 3 a.m. to feed and groom them so they were ready to pull boats when the canals opened at 4 a.m. It gives teachers a way to compare life then and get their students to ponder the question: “What are you doing at 3 a.m.?”

Among the many related educational tie-ins, every locktender’s house had a huge garden of flowers, herbs and vegetables. The harvest was used to barter and sell to boat captains. One project is set on restoring the garden at what will be called the Freemansburg Canal Education Center (FCEC).

The number of participating school districts has climbed to 14, teaching 70 elementary schools and 5,000 fourth graders about the canal age and the rise of the industrial revolution in eastern Pennsylvania. Swain School in Allentown. also uses it as part of its fifth grade curriculum.

“I’d hoped (for success), but have been pleasantly surprised by the interest,” Scholl says. “A lot of local districts wanted to teach local history, but didn’t have a vehicle. This provides a vehicle. It’s working.”

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