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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

The Delaware and Lehigh Trail: Day 1

Starting Point: Black Diamond Trailhead, Mile Marker 140 (12:45 p.m.)

End Point: Glen Onoko, Pennsylvania, Mile Marker 109 (4:00 p.m.)

Total Distance Traveled: 31 miles (9.5 mph average)

The Delaware and Lehigh (D&L) is a 165-mile recreational trail that runs from Wilkes-Barre to Bristol, Pennsylvania, and follows three early American transportation and trade routes—the Lehigh Navigation Canal, Lehigh Valley Railroad, and Delaware Canal. These railways and canals delivered coveted raw materials from rural communities to urban markets, stimulated regional commerce, and revolutionized prosperous American industries.

Waterfall in Lehigh Gorge State Park

The land surrounding the Delaware and Lehigh rivers was initially inhabited by the Lenni Lenape, a hunter-gatherer society whose name translates to “Original People.” Scandinavian settlers were the first Europeans to arrive in the region during the early 17th Century and established the Colony of New Sweden in 1638. At the onset of the Second Northern War in 1655, New Sweden was captured by the Dutch and incorporated into New Netherland. In 1674, the Dutch ceded control of their North American landholdings to the English following the Third Anglo-Dutch War and Treaty of Westminster. Seven years later, William Penn established the colony of Pennsylvania.

In 1791, large anthracite coal deposits were discovered in present-day Carbon County, Pennsylvania. Anthracite is the highly-carbonated, denser counterpart of bituminous coal, which means it can burn at higher temperatures for longer periods of time and provide cheap, plentiful fuel for homes and businesses. Miners and prospectors flocked to the region hoping to strike it rich. A group of investors led by Revolutionary War veteran Jacob Weiss formed the Lehigh Coal Mine Company in 1792. While the company was successful in their mining operations, the coal itself was extremely heavy and difficult to transport from the remote mines. These logistical complications are ultimately what caused Weiss’s enterprise to fail.

In 1818, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard established the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (LC&N) and engineered an intricate network of dams and canals that significantly increased the efficiency of coal transportation along the Lehigh and Delaware rivers. The 46-mile Lehigh Navigation Canal was opened in 1829 and connected Mauch Chunk (present-day Jim Thorpe) to Easton, Pennsylvania. The 60-mile Delaware Division Canal opened from Easton to Bristol the following year. In 1837, the Upper Grand Section of the Lehigh Navigation Canal was completed, extending the canal 26 miles north to White Haven. The LC&N’s 132-mile canal system was one of America’s first commercial transportation networks and integral to the success of the First Industrial Revolution.

On June 6, 1862, after a series of heavy rainstorms, the Upper Grand Division’s dams were breached and a devastating flood ensued. The rushing waters swept away all locks, canal boats, and buildings in its path from White Haven to Lehighton. An estimated two hundred people lost their lives. The Pennsylvania State Legislature prohibited the LC&N from rebuilding its waterways, which hastened the shift from canals to railroads as the preferred method of transportation.

Trade and commerce on the Delaware and Lehigh rivers continued to be prosperous throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, with the onset of the Great Depression, the mighty industries that once dominated the landscape began to crumble. Hundreds of businesses succumbed to financial ruin while thousands of people lost their jobs and livelihoods. Once-bustling towns were quickly abandoned, left in a sad state of desolation and decay for decades.

Lock 24

In 1988, the United States Congress established the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor to commemorate and preserve the region’s natural, cultural, and historic contributions to American society. Today, many of the Delaware and Lehigh’s communities have been revitalized due to the efforts of this project and attract a countless number of visitors annually with their recreational activities and historical charm.

I’ve been anticipating my trip on the Delaware and Lehigh since last fall and was eager to get on the trail as soon as possible. However, after enduring a six-hour, traffic-filled excursion on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I reached the D&L’s northern terminus, Black Diamond Trailhead, at 12:30 p.m. While the maps say the trail starts in Wilkes-Barre, the D&L is still a work-in-progress. Only 140 of its 165 miles have been developed and the 11-mile connector trail from Black Diamond to Wilkes-Barre has not been completed yet.

I started pedaling at 12:45 and reached White Haven (Mile Marker 130) at 1:30 p.m. The town is named after Josiah White, one of the founders of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, and was an important coal and lumber depot during the 19th century. White Haven was also the terminus for the twenty-mile Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad (L&S). The company was chartered in 1837 by LC&N and connected the Upper Grand Division of the Lehigh Canal to Wilkes-Barre. After passing through White Haven, I entered Lehigh Gorge State Park—a 6,107-acre natural conservation area that surrounds more than twenty miles of the Delaware and Lehigh Trail.

At Mile 124, I reached a Mud Run, a small creek with an incredibly tragic past. On October 10 1888, seven passenger trains were transporting members of the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America from a Temperance rally in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The first five trains passed by Mud Run with no issue but the sixth train stopped at the station since it was too close to the fifth. The train was positioned on a curve which obstructed the brake light signals, so the flagman walked back along the tracks to warn the seventh train with his lantern. The lookouts on the seventh train did not see the signal in time and the seventh train telescoped into the sixth at 7:45 p.m. While the impact speed was determined to be fifteen miles per hour, the passenger cars were packed with an average of seventy people in each car. There was no room to run nor any time to react. Splintered wood, mangled metal, and scorching steam blasted through the cars, killing 64 and injuring 50 others. This gruesome accident is remembered today as the Mud Run Disaster.

Turn Hole Tunnel

I reached Rockport (Mile Marker 121) at 2:30 p.m. This now-nonexistent town was once a bustling wharf for lumber and coal shipments along the canal. It was destroyed during the devastating flood of 1862. Seven miles down the trail is Penn Haven Junction, a three-way railroad intersection that has been called “one of the most desolate places in Carbon County.”

I arrived at Glen Onoko (Mile 109) shortly before 4:00 p.m. At this point in my ride, I was not feeling well at all. I was dizzy, slightly nauseous, and both my legs were cramping up—hallmark signs of heat exhaustion. I knew I had to get out of the sun, so I locked up my bike and staggered into the Turn Hole Tunnel—an abandoned train tunnel in the side of a cliff—to get some shade. After thirty minutes, I was only feeling worse. My head was spinning and I couldn’t keep any fluids down. Pretty soon I stopped sweating. Not wanting to have my heat exhaustion turn into heat stroke, I called EMS and was rushed to the hospital where I received ice packs and an IV.

I was out on the trail for only three hours before I started to feel ill, despite taking the necessary measures to prevent such a medical event from occurring. I drank my fluids regularly, replenished my electrolytes, wore sunscreen, and took short rest breaks every 15-20 minutes. What’s even more peculiar is that I’ve gone on summer bike trips before—such as my Great Allegheny Passage trip last August where I biked at least seventy miles each day—without any adverse effects. I can’t really explain this one…just chalk it up to heat intolerance, I guess. It just goes to show that you always have to be careful on trips like this because even the most experienced cyclists aren’t immune to these things. However, I am happy to say that I’ve been discharged from the hospital and feel well enough to continue my trek along the Delaware and Lehigh Trail!

Will I survive Day 2? Come back tomorrow to find out!

For more information on the Delaware and Lehigh Trail, visit their Homepage, check out their Trail Map, or read this Rails to Trails review!


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