Origins of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co.

Excerpts from the Switchback Railroad web site

The first few decades following the American Revolution was a volatile, but exciting era -- an era filled with potential. Josiah White, a young Philadelphia Quaker who would come of age on March 4, 1802, would taste the excitement and potential and leave his mark on the Pennsylvania valley known as the Lehigh. Others would participate as well. Ebenezer Hazard, the nation's first postmaster, would found, for example, the Insurance Company of North America. Coincidentally, his son, Erskine Hazard, would become Josiah White's friend and partner. German immigrant, George Frederick August Hauto, joined the team as well. The Industrial Revolution stood poised to spread through these new United States of America, and many recognized the great potential that lay in the unexploited states west of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. President Jefferson recognized the potential and sponsored the development of a superhighway to the West -- the Lancaster turnpike. Transportation was key because, without development, moving goods to market cost more than the goods themselves. Farmers in the West, for example, distilled grain alcohol to convert corn into a more economical form for transport to market. Besides, it was undoubtedly more in demand in that form anyway!

 Josiah White has a burning in his belly. Filled with an urge to innovate, which he would later demonstrate again and again, he becomes an ironmonger -- a dealer in hardware -- on his twenty-first birthday, and he resolves to make himself independent by the age of 30 so he can follow his innovative desires. At about this time, a boatman by the name of Turnbull delivers 200 bushels of "stone coal" to Philadelphia. The coal was picked from the ground at a site about ten miles from the Moravian mission of Gnaddenhutten on the Lehigh River. Potentially competitive with costly British coal, there were two problems -- it was difficult to burn and the primitive transportation was too unreliable and costly.

President Jefferson declares an embargo on foreign goods and that motivates the development of American alternatives to British iron goods. In response, White turns to manufacturing wire and nails and, in 1810, patents a machine for "rolling and moulding" iron. Now teamed with Hazard, White experiments successfully with dams and locks on the Schuylkill River.

Another delivery of stone coal -- this time nine wagonloads -- arrives in Philadelphia, and White and Hazard try some at a price of $40 per ton. Of this, $28 is the cost of transportation alone. Understanding the significance of a local source of fuel, White and Hazard think they can tame the Schuylkill River and open sources of fuel in that river's valley. Petitioning the state legislature for a charter to improve navigation on the Schuylkill, they are denied -- with the reminder, "It don't burn!"

In 1814, two scows full of coal survive a trip on the Lehigh River. Five started the trip at Lausanne near Mauch Chunk. The scows relied on freshets, strong local surges of water, to overcome the shallows and rapids on the river -- except for the three that didn't make it. White and Hazard buy both boatloads. And, accidentally, they discover how to burn it. The cost was higher than British or Virginia coal. But with improved transportation, it promises to be competitive and perhaps even superior! They negotiate a deal with Jacob Weiss to open and exploit these coal lands of the Lehigh Valley. The success of the deal depends on a three-part plan --

They reconnoiter the Lehigh Valley at Christmas 1817. The two partners are joined by Hauto, who (in German) convinces the legislature to support their plan. It approves the plan with, "Gentlemen, you have our permission -- to ruin yourselves." The team of three leaves for the Lehigh Valley in 1818, and work starts in Spring at the planned loading place on the river, Mauch Chunk. By the end of the year, they employ 500 workers at 75 cents a day.

On Mauch Chunk creek, which feeds the Lehigh, they develop a unique "bear trap lock," which is patented in 1819. "Immense stones were dragged from the mountains for lock-walls. A trough was constructed on the riverbed. The walls were completed, the trough done. Water was let in from a reservoir under a construction which seemed like overlapping cellar doors. A pool gathered. The lock-tender opened a sluice beneath a gabled platform -- and water pressure in the pool, against the dam created by the gable, pushed the platform flat. The down-coming boat could swoop forward on a long wooden chute thus made. On the high breast of water, the craft floated safely and smoothly over the rapids."

Initially, the navigation achieved on the river is descending only, since, as yet, there is no practical way of returning the boats up river. Hence, the arks are broken up in Philadelphia, where the wood is sold as lumber, and the metal fittings are returned by horse and mule to Mauch Chunk for reuse. Hauto describes the new town of Mauch Chunk "with forty buildings now, gristmill, etc. ... ," and the road between the mine and the loading dock: "The road is on ground between M. Chunk and our principal mine, ground that can hardly be compared to any other more unfavorable, for production of a good road. But, we have constructed a good road in three months. And most of it in winter. On it, a horse can draw four tons with ease. And on this road we have sufficient number of teams to haul several thousands of bushels dailey."

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Revised December 2009