Ties That Bind and Conduits of Change: Transportation Networks In the Lehigh Valley
By Christopher R. Dougherty and John K. Smith
What is the Lehigh Valley? Geographically, it can be defined as the area bounded on the north and south by the Blue Mountain and South Mountain, respectively. On the east there is the Delaware River, while the western boundary is probably not geographical but political—the Berks County line. Beyond just geography, is the Lehigh Valley a political or economic region? Politically the region is divided into two counties, each of which has two urban centers. Northampton County has Easton on the Delaware River and Bethlehem on the western edge of the county. Part of Bethlehem is in Lehigh County, which also the home to centrally-located Allentown. Economically, the region has developed internally and also has been part of the larger New York and Philadelphia spheres of economic influence. These two pathways of development have occurred simultaneously for nearly two centuries. It is still unclear today whether the Lehigh Valley will maintain its own regional identity or will be subsumed into the greater New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. A major factor in both intra- and inter-regional development has been the transportation systems that have facilitated the movement of goods and people. New transportation developments have prompted politicians and citizens of the valley to express their hopes and fears about the future. It has been hoped that bridges would unite communities on opposite sides of waterways, while links to metropolitan regions have generated fears of large-scale migration of outsiders into the community. Overall, transportation networks have been critical to the development of the region's economy and identity ever since Europeans began following Indian trials and waterways into Lehigh Valley.
During the colonial period, overland transportation was slow and expensive, in part because of poor roads. Not until 1795 was Philadelphia served by an improved road, the Lancaster Turnpike, which allowed the growing city to be supplied with food by a fleet of Conestoga wagons. No such road connected the Lehigh Valley to Philadelphia, perhaps because the Delaware River provided a viable alternative. Unfortunately, the Delaware is a rather fast moving river which made upstream travel difficult. As early as 1727, the Durham Iron Company navigated the Delaware to transport its products downstream and to bring back provisions and supplies, using the Durham boat, known to history because it figured so largely in Washington's crossing of the Delaware. The usual Durham boat was flat-bottomed and had vertical sides which ran parallel to each other up to a point 12 or 14 feet from the end, where they began to taper. It measured 60 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 42 inches deep. Its draft was 3 1/2 inches when empty and 28 inches loaded. Downstream it was possible to carry as much as 17 tons, but upstream only 2 tons was the limit. Going downstream the three crewmen used their 12- to 18-foot "setting-poles," for steering. On the upstream journey, the poles were used for propelling the boat, the men walking back and forth on "walking boards" on the sides of the Durham boat.