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A Company Town is Settled – The Founding of Mauch Chunk

 

In 1818, the place where the Mauch Chunk Creek met the Lehigh River was an unpopulated wilderness.  The Lehigh & Susquehanna Turnpike, a rough road that connected Easton to Berwick, was the only sign of human habitation in the wilds.  There was no house or settlement and the nearest outpost of civilization was a mile up river at Lausanne Landing, a tavern built to take advantage of the travel along the turnpike.  The wilderness seemed unchangeable, but changes were surly coming to the upper Lehigh valley, and those changes would have a profound effect on the young American nation as the coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania would come to fuel the Industrial Revolution. 

 

Just before the Christmas of 1817, business partners Josiah White, Erskine Hazard and George Hauto, rode north on horseback to survey the lands they had leased along the upper reaches of the Lehigh River.  Setting out from Philadelphia on horseback, they rode north into the wild Pennsylvania countryside.  Philadelphia was the largest city in the country at the time, boasting a population around thirty-five thousand citizens.  But beyond the city, the Pennsylvania interior was mostly wild and unsettled.  The riders crossed a snowy and quiet countryside, finding shelter where they could.  In Bethlehem they had the luxury of staying at the town’s sole tavern before moving onward to the northlands. 

 

Eventually they reached their destination, Lausanne Landing.  In years prior, an earlier organization, the Lehigh Coal Mining Co., had used this site as the launching point for coal boats heading for market at Philadelphia.  Few of these coal arks actually reached the city, most ending up smashed and their loads lost along the river.  White and Hazard learned of the coal deposits to the north through one of the shipments that did reach the Philadelphia market, spurring their interest in investing in the coal lands.  Upon reaching Lausanne the partners met someone they knew from that earlier encounter, the fellow who had guided one of the coal arks, a man by the name of Abiel Abbott.  Abbott and his young family were living the frontier life in the upper Lehigh.  Abbott took the partners on a tour of the area, including the mountain top coal quarry near present day Summit Hill.  White liked the honest and resourceful Mr. Abbott and in later years would entrust him with much of the business of his company in the coal regions.

 

After their tour, White and his partners returned to Philadelphia.  In March of 1818 the state legislature granted the partners the privileges pertaining to the Lehigh River and adjacent coal lands.  A month later, White and Hazard returned to the Lehigh, this time coming with borrowed surveying tools, and commenced surveying the valley of the river, starting from the village of Stoddardsville (several miles upriver from present day White Haven), working their way southward to Easton, Pa.  The river waters ran icy and it was a feat of great endurance to survey the entire 80 miles of river.  Between Lausanne and Stoddardsville no road, tavern or human habitation served the river (White Haven wasn’t settled yet).  Josiah wrote to his wife “We sleep in the fields, working in the icy waters, wading from the source of the river down towards the mouth…” 

 

The survey was needed in order to begin improvements to the river navigation, and the improvements were needed to get the coal to market.  And in order to reach the Lehigh, it was necessary to survey a road from the mountain top coal quarry to the port on the Lehigh River.  This road, the forerunner of the Switchback Gravity Railroad, would be the first surveyed and graded roadway of length (about nine miles) in America. 

 

White, Hazard and Hauto organized the Lehigh Navigation Company on August 10, 1818, in order to proceed with improvements to facilitate the transport of coal to market.  On October 10, they organized the Lehigh Coal Co. for the mining operations.  In the spring of 1820 the two companies were merged and on February 13, 1822 they were incorporated as the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. (LC&N).

 

White and Hazard brought a work crew of eighteen men from Philadelphia to begin improvements on the river during the summer of 1818.  At first, they ate and slept on a riverboat that could be moved along the river to the different work sites.  It was dubbed “Whitestown on the Lehigh”.  Work began on widening the river channel and removing rocks, and as their center of operations, they chose a point about a mile below Lausanne Landing.  The site consisted of a mountain creek flowing through a narrow ravine, entering the Lehigh at a sharp bend in the river.  Stones and boulders were scattered through the place and the steep hillsides were choked with rhododendrons.  The mountains towered near 1000 feet above the river and descended to the waters almost vertically.  It hardly seemed a good place to build a village, but it was at the site where the coal road from the mountaintop quarry would meet the river, and so it was that Mauch Chunk was founded in the early fall of 1818. 

 

Along with White, Hazard and their partner George Hauto, the first citizens of Mauch Chunk, who were the work crew brought from Philadelphia, were as follows:

John Wilson, Coppersmith
James Lamon, laborer
Thomas Ward, laborer
Thomas Taylor, machinist
John Fulton, laborer
John Jenkins, , carpenter
James Spear, laborer
William Spear, laborer
Robert Spear, laborer
Hezekiah Mitchell, saddler
James McCrea, wheelwright
William Briggs, mason
Francis Nowlan, white washer
William Zane, carpenter
James Cameron, laborer
John Flood, teacher
James Watt, laborer
Samuel Buzby, blacksmith

Out of this group of charter citizens of Mauch Chunk, only James McCrea remained, operating a wheelwright shop approximately where the Marion Hose Co. is today.  He lived a long life, dying in 1882 at the age of 93 years, a phenomenal achievement in the 19th Century.

The settlement was named for the steep mountain on the east bank of the Lehigh, which the Leni Lenape Indians had named “Machk-tschunk” meaning “Bear Mountain”.  The name became anglicized as “Mauch Chunk”.

 

The first buildings were constructed during that fall of 1818, with work slowing slightly for the winter months.  But the spring of 1819 brought a burst of growth that would continue for many decades. Though the money wasn’t easy to come by, investments in the operations were secured by White, Hazard, Hauto and their partners and soon they were bringing coal to market.  The earlier organization, the Lehigh Coal Mining Co., had constructed a rough road from the coal quarry to the Lehigh, but it hadn’t worked out very well.  The improved road was surveyed by Isaac Abel Chapman and built later that year.  Unlike the earlier road, this road descended the mountain at a steady grade and was paved with stone to give it good drainage.  Mules were used to pull the wagons down to the river, where they were emptied and loaded into the river boats.  The next part of the trip, by river, had its own difficulties.  Though the river channel had been cleared and widened, the flow of the river still wasn’t consistent enough for dependable travel, slowing to a trickle in the dry summer months, and raging like a flood during the spring thaw run off.  To better facilitate travel down to market, an ingenious method was employed.  Dams were built in the river with sluice gates in the center.  Water built up behind the dams and closed gates, and when it reached the proper level, the sluice gate was opened and the coal boats were swept down the river in the flood of water to the next dam.  And so on it went down the river.  These gates, designed and patented for the company by Josiah White, became known as the “Bear Trap Locks” of the descending navigation system.  The name came from when he was experimenting at a smaller scale along Mauch Chunk Creek in the village.  Fearing his plans would be stolen, when he was asked what he was building White jested “bear traps."  The name stuck.  Trap Alley, just below the Mauch Chunk Opera House and running parallel to Broadway, got its name from that time.

 

For the first several months the citizens of Mauch Chunk were the men laboring for the LC&N.  There were no homes or houses; the laborers lived in barracks style quarters.  Whiskey was rationed to the workers, with William “Billy” Butler being in charge of the supply.  At the end of each day, the workers would line up for their “Billy cup” of whiskey.  It was strictly a male environment, until April of 1819, when Nicholas Brink arrived with his wife Margaret and their children, becoming the first family in the village. Shortly after their arrival, their newly built home became the first home.  It included a large kitchen, with a bakery and dining hall for the laborers. 

 

On April 21st the Brinks provided another event that was a historic occasion for the new village.  Margaret Brink gave birth to the first white child in the village.  His name, probably the longest name ever bestowed on a citizen of Mauch Chunk, was given in honor the founders of the village where he was born:

Josiah White Erskine Hazard George Frederick Augustus Otto Brink

 

Any reason to celebrate was greatly appreciated in the frontier village.  Records of the period told that “The forest was illuminated with pine torches, plenty of pure old rye whiskey was drunk and the noise and dancing were so great that it seemed as if the very tops of the pines had caught the infection and kept time swaying to and fro.”

 

Mauch Chunk experienced a great rate of growth in the following years.  The home of Josiah White, the town’s founder, watched over the downtown area from the adjacent hillside.  “Mt. Pleasant”, as White dubbed it, was located behind where the courthouse annex building now stands.  Today there is a small county parking lot at the site.  From his home, White could see the coal wagons as they lumbered down the valley to the boats on the Lehigh.  The original coal road was soon moved from the downtown to the hillside above the town.  In 1827 the Mauch Chunk Gravity Railroad (better known as the Switchback) replaced the coal road, and shortly after that the Lower Division (Mauch Chunk to Easton) of the Lehigh Canal (both ascending and descending navigation) opened for business. 

 

In early 1832 Solomon White, the only surviving son of Josiah White took ill with tuberculosis and died at the age of 19 years.  The loss devastated White – he had been hoping Solomon would follow him in the business and a White family dynasty would guide the LC&N.  This was not to be.  Not long after Solomon’s death, Josiah sold all his personal holdings in the upper Lehigh area, including his home in Mauch Chunk.  He continued to lead the LC&N, but he never again called Mauch Chunk, the village he founded, home.  During those later years he did return often and oversaw the construction of the Upper Grand Division of the Lehigh Canal (Mauch Chunk to White Haven and Stoddardsville) and the “back track” of the Mauch Chunk Gravity Railroad, which included the planes on Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Jefferson.

 

Following White’s death in 1850, his partner Erskine Hazard continued to oversee the operations of the LC&N, until his death in 1865.  Although Hazard had also returned to Philadelphia, his son, Fisher Hazard, returned to Mauch Chunk and made it his home, operating the Hazard Wire Rope factory, first located along the Lehigh, later along upper West Broadway.

 

 

All text by Jack Sterling

©2009-2015

Pictures courtesy of the Mauch Chunk Museum & Cultural Center

 

 

 

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