Tending the canal
The locktender's house in Walnutport, Lehigh Township, Northampton County, is one of only two original stone locktender's houses along the Lehigh Canal. The other one is in Freemansburg, Northampton County. There are several privately-owned frame locktenders' houses.
The Walnutport Canal Association, which runs the Walnutport Canal Museum at the locktender's house, restored four miles of the Lehigh Navigation Canal Towpath and one-quarter mile of wooded trails in the Earl F. Snyder Canal Park, where an annual canal festival is held.
Several volunteers are guides at the Walnutport Canal Museum, including Marilyn Kahl, second vice president, and her husband, Bud Kahl, president, of the Walnutport Canal Association.
Bud Kahl and a few of his fishing buddies began cleaning out the Lehigh Canal at Walntuport to improve fishing there in 1953. They found everything from car parts to refrigerators that had been dumped in the canal. Their efforts led to the founding of the Walnutport Canal Association.
My wife, Bev, and I are part-time guides at the Walnutport Canal Museum.
I met with Esther "Nanny" Ahner-Groller in the Walnutport locktender's house in late September. The 102-year-old native of Mauch Chunk (the Carbon County borough's name was changed to Jim Thorpe in 1953) visited the locktender's house with family members and reminisced about her days living in the Mauch Chunk locktender's house.
Nanny was born in the locktender's house at Lock No. 3, where her father, Ervin, was locktender. She lived there until she was 13-years-old. The family was a true canal family.
Her uncle, Warren, tended Lock No. 4. Her paternal grandfather, Calvin Ahner, was the locktender at Weissport, Carbon County. Her maternal grandfather, Thomas Strohl, was the locktender at Lock No. 10 in Bowmanstown, Carbon County.
Her father had to look for work when the Mauch Chunk section of the Lehigh Canal closed in 1923. The family relocated to Wescosville, Lower Macungie Township.
At Mauch Chunk, the Lehigh Canal is on the east side of the Lehigh River. Nanny and her two younger sisters, Mamie and Dorothy, walked along the towpath or railroad tracks and then down to the river where Pete Agnes rowed a boat across the river. The three sisters had to cross the river in the rowboat to attend school and participate in activities on the west side of the river in Mauch Chunk. It was faster than walking to the bridge.
"Sometimes, if there was a train parked on the tracks, we crawled under the railroad cars to get to the river. We didn't tell mom about that," Nanny said.
The sisters still had about a two-mile walk through Mauch Chunk to school. "I remember some school trips to Flagstaff Park. There was a merry-go-round there."
Bud Kahl asked Nanny about her first memory of the Lehigh Canal.
"I remember swimming in the lock," she quickly replied. "My father put a rope on us and threw us in the water to learn to swim."
She went on to talk about school plays held at the Mauch Chunk Opera House and playing hopscotch and marbles at school.
When asked what they did for fun at home she said, "We jumped rope, but mostly we cracked coal into smaller pieces to use in our kitchen stove and the pot-bellied stove in the one bedroom. Cracking the coal was our job.
"There wasn't much time to play. My dad made a crate to hold the coal. The railroad men would throw some large pieces of coal from the cars. We collected it after the train left and cracked it into smaller pieces.
"We walked about a mile to a well. My mom dropped a bucket in the well for water. We had a big wooden tub for our baths and we all used the same water. My mom did the wash with a washboard.
"Sometimes, we rode on the canal boats to visit my grandfather, Thomas Strohl [Nanny's mother's father], in Bowmanstown. That was the farthest I ever traveled on the canal.
"I remember a phonograph with a big horn. We used cylinders to play music like 'By the Light of the Silvery Moon' and 'Come Josephine in My Flying Machine.'
"We had coal oil lamps and we [Nanny and her sisters] all slept in the same bed. My dad smoked a pipe and blew smoke rings and we tried to catch the rings.
"We were given whiskey if we were sick. Dad put it in a big spoon, but burned off the alcohol first. He made wine from wild grapes and we picked blueberries on the mountain," Nanny explained.
Navigation and transportation began on the Lehigh River about 1790. Rafts, known as arks, floated coal, grain and other farm products on the Lehigh and Delaware rivers to Philadelphia. Arks only traveled downstream and often split apart in the river. The lumber and cargo from the broken arks was sold to area residents.
Work on the Lehigh Canal to transport anthracite coal began during the summer of 1827. The canal was dug by hand, using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, as well as mule-pulled scoops.
The canal, 60-feet wide at the top, 45-five feet wide at the bottom and five-feet deep, was completed in 1829. The system covered a distance of 46.6 miles, with 36 miles of canal and 10 miles of slack water navigation on the Lehigh River.
The Lehigh Navigation System and its locks spurred the Industrial Revolution in the Lehigh Valley. The canal was completed for $781,303. Construction took less than two years.
The first water entered the canal in Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe) June 20, 1829. Water reached the outlet into the Delaware Canal at Easton eight days later, June 27. The Delaware Canal from Easton to Bristol, Bucks County, was completed in 1832.
There were 48 lift locks and eight guard locks. The drop in elevation between Mauch Chunk and Easton is 353.2 feet. There were nine river dams, four aqueducts and 22 culverts. A towpath was built along the route.
The last mule-drawn canal boat in the United States plied along the Lehigh Canal in 1942. Clifford and Robbie Best carried coal dust dredged from the Lehigh River north of Treichlers to Walnutport.
That's the way I see it!
Walnutport Canal Museum information: 610-767-5817.
Email comments and questions to: bbbcole@ enter.net. To schedule programs, hikes and birthday parties, call 610-767-4043.
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© 2012 Bud Cole