At one point of time, Pennsylvania had over 1,300 miles of canals, more than any other state in the country. This mode of transportation was popular during the 18th and 19th century before railroads could transport goods from one region of the state to another.
Canals declined in popularity as the railroad expanded, and by the turn of the 20th century, the age of the canal was nearly over. However, their importance to both Pennsylvania industry and westward expansion can’t be understated. Pennsylvania’s canals allowed coal and lumber from northern Pennsylvania to make its way to market. It also allowed for goods and people to travel more easily to Pittsburgh and beyond, spurring the city’s development.
While there are various spots around Pennsylvania where the remnants of these canals can be seen, there is nowhere better for those wanting to learn about the history of this important mode of transportation than at the National Canal Museum in the Lehigh Valley city of Easton.
The National Canal Museum is located along a 2.5-mile restored portion of the Lehigh Canal. At one time, this canal ran from Mauch Chunk (present-day Jim Thorpe) to Easton, with connecting points both to the north and south. It was built between 1827 and 1829 to replace a more basic canal along the same route. The 46-mile-long canal was built primarily to haul anthracite coal from the mines in the mountains towards the large east-coast cities.
Over the coming decades, the Lehigh Canal would be replaced by the railroad, but the canal actually survived as a mode of transportation until 1942, making it the last fully-functioning towpath canal in North America.
Thanks to this extended period of use, the Lehigh Canal has been incredibly well-preserved throughout Easton’s Hugh Moore Park. The National Canal Museum opened in this park in 1970 and began offering canal boat rides in 1978. The museum expanded and moved their exhibits to downtown Easton in 1996, but returned to the park in 2012, allowing visitors to once again see the museum and ride the canal in the same area.
Canal boat rides are offered four times a day on every museum operating day. Visitors climb aboard the Josiah White II for a 45-minute ride that takes visitors along this historic canal. The Josiah White II was built by Bethlehem Steel in 1993. The boat is roughly twice as wide and half as long as an authentic Lehigh Canal boat would have been.
The boat is powered entirely by a pair of mules that are led along the canal’s towpath by guides in period clothing. On board the boat, the captain steers the boat while a guide offers narration about the history of the canal, how it was built, and what it was like for the families that worked here.
The canal boat ride is both relaxing and educational and is worth the price of admission by itself. However, that doesn’t in anyway discount the quality of the museum at the National Canal Museum.
The museum is located in a large, white building just a few steps from the canal boat boarding area. Inside, the museum offers a great look at the history of both the Lehigh Canal and the many other canals that ran throughout both Pennsylvania and beyond.
The museum is a mixture of historical displays and interactive elements that teach how canals work and what life was like for those working on them.
It’s rare to find a history museum that dedicates such a large percentage of space to interactive elements, and the kids that I saw visiting the museum seemed to be really enjoying them. It’s worth noting, however, that the exhibits aren’t so basic that adults wouldn’t enjoy them. The few that I got to try were very cool and taught me something as well.
The museum’s static displays were equally interesting. My favorite was the four canal boat models that did a great job showing what the boats were like and how they differed on the various canals in the region. (Kids can also play with an interactive model of a canal system at the nearby Crayola Experience in Easton.)
Visitors to the museum are welcome to walk along the three-mile towpath and, on weekends, can visit the Locktender’s House. The locktender was responsible for running the lock and had a crucial job along the canal. If the home is closed or if you don’t have time to walk down to see it, it can still be seen during the canal boat ride.
Overall, the National Canal Museum does an excellent job telling the story of what life was like on 19th-century canals. The museum is incredibly well done, and the authentic mule-driven canal boat ride offers a unique experience that I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying. This should be on the list for any summertime visit to the Leigh Valley.
Note: My visit to the National Canal Museum was hosted by the site. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
Looking for other places to visit in the area? Explore Lost River Caverns, New Hope and Ivyland Railroad, the National Museum of Industrial History, and Weyerbacher Brewing.
National Canal Museum
Tours: Wednesday-Sunday: 11:30am-4:30pm
Cost: Adults: $8, Children: $6
Address: 2750 Hugh Moore Park Rd