Jim S. McKay


The Lehigh had a very different history than the peaceful waters of the Catskills.  The Lehigh was a working river by every meaning of the word.  The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company owned the river at the heights of the coal exploration period.  Today the upper half is a watershed of contrast.  On one side it is a play ground, the other side it is a world where the land has been turn inside-out.  The east side of the upper river has private clean lakes summer homes surrounded summer homes.  On the west side, are old mining towns with names like Macado and Hazelton, which neighbor deep brown pits.  The mountains on the east side are rich with green vegetations and ski runs while the west side has brown slag piles and bare rock cliffs.  Even the streams are different.  East side streams are generally clean and full of life while the west sides creek are clear with a sulfur colored bottoms and little else.  The upper river also divides a culture of people as well.  The people on the east side talk with a northeastern accent, while the west side, the southern Allegany twinge is heard often and a coal county brogue heard occasionally.  This diversity continues to the southern half in the river where the river enters an urban industrial world.

Much has been written about trout fishing the Upper Delaware, but many writers forget about this diverse character of the Lehigh system.  Whereas the Catskill and Upper Pocono’s Wallenpaupack streams are exclusive tannin-stain, freestone mountain creeks, the Lehigh also has a good section of limestone creeks.  Trout anglers who live in this watershed are doubly blest.  Within its 130 mile trip to Easton the river starts at an elevation of 2,100 feet and drops to 200 feet above sea level, making it one of the fasting moving rivers in the northeast.  Because of the rapid discharge of water, the Lehigh River at its upper limits, has been able to fight off the toxic material of the early coal, steel, lumber and tannery industries.  Unfortunately, it now has very recent water born pollution element for us fishermen to deal with, “recreational white water rafting”.

The river originates from the same glacial created ponds and swamps of Allegheny plateau.  It is the second largest tributary of the Delaware.  Its main source of water comes from a series of man made reservoirs in the heart of the Pennsylvania Pocono resort region.  The river starts as a small tannin-stained creek in lower Wayne County and flows southeast toward White Haven.  Before it gets to White Haven, it flows into the valley of the Francis E. Walter reservoir.  It is here, that it connects to the Tobyhana Creek.  The Tobyhana Creek is found in every local fisherman conversation as a good place to fish.  The creek connects the Gouldboro, Tobyhana, and the Pocono Lakes and is known to be the primer watershed for all types of regional fish.  All of these lakes can be found on the State stocking list and most of the ones that I have visited have small marinas with boat rentals.  The Lehigh’s western tributaries, the Quakake and the Nesquehoning Creeks have had to deal with the history of the early coal explorations [83][4].

One of the biggest bodies on the upper Lehigh is the Francis E. Walter Reservoir, F. E. W.  Like the Cannonville reservoir in New York the FEW has enhanced the downstream coldwater fisher of this section.  Unlike the Cannonville dam, that was built for a water supply, the REW was built for flood control.  A flood control lake is normally kept at low levels, but through careful regulations, it has been able to permit cool water discharge [4].  The fast moving water and deep gorges below the dam help to retain lower temperatures all the way to Palmerton.  Trout can be caught the entire length of the Lehigh to Palmerton in the fall and spring, but the best location is believed to be between the FEW and Sandy Run near White Haven.  Just south of the F EW survey request forms are sometimes posted for anglers to report successes.  According to some fly-fishing guides, it has the same general hatches and seasons similar to the Catskills but with a heavier dependence on the Caddis aquatic insect family.  In May, one should have some green body Caddis, March Browns, Grey fox and a collection of yellow sulfurs flies.  In April, bring some black green and tan body Caddis, along with some Hendricksons and  Grannoms flies.  Over the years, fishing clubs have tried to restricted people from fishing the river but the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court ruled that the Lehigh is a navigable river and people have a right to be within the river.

The most scenic and visited part of the river is the Lehigh Gorge State Park, which sets between Jim Thorpe and White Haven.  I was involved in a minor role with the transfer of some of the abandoned Railroad property within the gorge to the park.  Prior to transfer, only outdoorsman with four-wheel drive vehicles, Railroad workers and early white water canoeist had the ability and knowledge to access the river between Jim Thorpe and White Haven.  Because of the rapids and easy access to the general public, it has become a mecca for local kayakers.  Numerous rafting companies ferry people in big yellow school buses back and forth through the gorge in this section.  Even in the colder seasons, the section between Drakes Creek and the Town of Jim Thorpe will be filled with kayakers.  The upper section of the park discourages kayaking for us fisherman and is heavy stocked just below the R. E. W.  When the F. E. W. sets high discharge rates this section of the river is better fitted for white water raffling than fishing, so plan your visit with that in mind.

Just below the Lehigh gorge is the town of Jim Thorpe.  During the early 1800’s, the town of Jim Thorpe, first known as Coalville and later East and West Manch Chunk, was noted as one of the wealthiest towns in the United States.  Its fortune came from the removal of the hard black energy that lay in the vertical seams to the west and the transportation network to remove it.  This was the closest energy source for New York and Philadelphia.  By the early 1950’s, the town was on the list of the poorest communities in the Commonwealth.  When the famous Indian athlete Jim Thorpe, died in Philadelphia penniless, the now impoverished towns of East and West Manch Chunk, feeling akin to the once great athlete, offered him a free burial site in exchange for his name.  The name of both towns were incorporated into one.  To get a picture of the history of the area, visit the home of Asa Packer, it is an interesting place.  After he died, his descendents never improved the place and for many years, the house was boarded up.  It was only recently that it was open to the public.  This is truly a time capsule.  The career of Asa Packer flowed with the history of the Lehigh.  He started his life as a canal boat captain, canal boat maker, coal mine owner and operator, Railroad President for the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Board Member for the early Bethlehem Steel and Lehigh University, US Congressman, and later the Democratic Presidential candidate of 1868.  His impact on the regions industries and waterways cannot begin to be measured [84]. At the top of the town is an old dance with a view of the river that match any vista in Pennsylvania.  After Jim Thorpe, the Lehigh along with the canal, low dams and railroads, continues its meandering through its mountain valley and small towns that reminded me of the Asa Packer house.

Our early transportation impact has yet to disappear from the landscape and banks of this river. Eleven low canal dams are still visibility on the Lehigh River south of Manch Chunk.  The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company under the direction of Josiah White & Erskine Hazard, started by building a system of wing dams and “bear trap lock” to assist with the navigation of one-way wooden barges or “Ark like rafts” full of coal from the coal fields to Easton and then onto Philadelphia.  Once the coal reached Philadelphia, the rafts were sold and dismantled for the wood [92].  A “bear trap lock” patented by Josiah White, was a lock built in the river that lowered the raft or boat across the rapids.  It was an ingenious system using trap doors and water pressure to permit crafts to descend the rapids.  This temporary one-way system of moving coal gained time until the two way canal was built.  This system could only operate during a particular flow rate, causing many periods of no delivery.  By 1829, a two way canal system, which is still visible today and open to the general public, was finally completed between Easton and Manch Chunk with plans to construct two more canals: (The Delaware Division Canal to Philadelphia) and the (Morris Canal to New York City).  Because the Lehigh used 100-ton barges and the other two canals used smaller boats, all loads had to be transferred at Easton making for a very inefficient operation [92].  .  The Lehigh Canal later expanded up to White Haven, and then to an incline plan system.  This later stretch was an  engineering marvel with 29 dam and 29 locks but was quickly destroyed by a flood in the 1860’s and later sold to the Railroads who filled in what was left of the canal and placed rails over the canal bed [92].  Before the steam engine arrived in the Lehigh Valley, the coal was originally brought down from the mines by a early gravity and mule power rail car system to Manch Chunk [86].  The original loading point for the coal was the parking lot in the lower section of the town filled in by the railroads.  Today, the mining company that still operates here, operates under the “old name” of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company “LCN”[85]

Before leaving its mountain beginning, the river picks up more water from the Pohopoco Creek, which is a tail waters of  the Beltzville and Penn Forest Reservoirs.  The Beltville Reservoir is another flood controlled lake built by the Army Corp of Engineers in the 1970’s. It comprises 949 acres with approximately 20 miles of shoreline that sits in the middle of a 2,972 acre State Park.  The special attraction to this lake is that it permits large powered boats.  Like Lake Wallenpaupack, this lake is busy and noisy on the weekends.  Because of the loose motor restrictions, this is another popular place for bass fishing tournaments.  Both lakes also supply a coldwater discharge to the tail water trout below.  Above the Beltville lake is the smaller Penn Forest Reservoir that is connected by Wild Creek.

At the town of Walnutport, the river loses its time capsule atmosphere and cold water fishery and begins its trip through the Allentown metropolis.  In this 20 miles urbanized run, the Lehigh still retains its fast moving grade but finds itself in an urban environment until it meets the Delaware main branch at Easton.  In this section, it picks up water from many limestone creeks.  The most popular creeks in this region are the Buskill, Little Lehigh, Saucon and the Coplay.  The special treat in this area is the overall quality of these streams for trout in a fast growing urban and suburban environment.  Even isolated pockets of brooks trout can found in some of the limestone streams that are not on the state stocking list but are generally on private property.

By the 1860’s, the Lehigh Valley rivaled Pittsburgh in iron and steel production.  The stretch of the Lehigh River, beginning at the Town of Catasaugus through Easton, was a collection of small iron and steel mills that were scatter throughout the length of this river valley.  In between the two Lehigh River towns was a transportation network of roads, railroads, and canals that tied it all together.  Other industries quickly sprang up supplying services or receiving services from the iron mills.  Well-known large manufacturing companies such as Mack Truck, Bethlehem Steel, and Air Products sprang up in the Allentown area at the heights of the industrial phase of the Lehigh Valley.  A local graphite source supplied a growing market in pencil manufacturing which still operates today.  Other industries that flourished were textile businesses, tanneries, and lumber mills.

By the end of the 1800’s one foundry would emerge as a giant in the world of steel production.  The credit for Bethlehem Steel greatness was the steel tycoon Charles M. Schwab.  He was the president of US steel but because of his aggressive business practice and gambling habits, he fell out of grace with banker J.P. Morgan.  He took a step back in pay and prestige to become President of the small Bethlehem Steel Company.  His motivation and drive led to innovations in the open-hearth furnace process and I-Beam fabrication, which revolutionized construction of high raise building.  His aggressive business practices magically landed lucrative contracts in the automobile and railroad industries.  When World War I broke out, he openly bypassed the US custom laws forbidding selling war goods overseas by shipping slightly unfinished war products to Canada.  By the 1920s, Bethlehem Steel became the biggest employer in the valley, and would remain that way into the 1950s.  Mr. Schwab’s questionable business techniques and gambling habit (both stock and cards) forced him to die penniless in 1939.  By the mid 1950’s, Bethlehem Steel, like most steel companies, started to deteriorate.  Today, the site is slowly being dismantled to make room for luxurious condominiums units, office parks, malls, and maybe a casino, which all would overlook the Lehigh River.  A casino would be a good tribute to Mr. Schwab [89].


At Easton, a fish ladder permits the movement of migratory fish to the Lehigh.  Shad and other migratory fish are using it and making it past the second dam (Chain dam) further upstream [5].  Plans are underway to make the river accessible to all fish from Easton to White Haven.  The Easton Fish ladder has had problem in recent years with heavy silt on the up-streamside forcing it closed on occasions.

Lehigh River map by Jim S. McKay

The Lehigh River

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