Don Cunningham: How to Time-Travel in Lehigh Valley Without a DeLorean

By Colin McEvoy on September 19, 2019

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on Sept. 18, 2019. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

The fictional Marty McFly needed a tricked-out DeLorean and an odd scientist friend named Doc to travel back in time in the 1985 movie Back to the Future.

It’s much easier to time travel today in the Lehigh Valley. Nearly 3 million people do it each year and don’t need a flux capacitor or a well-placed lightning strike. I’m one of them.

We find our way onto the trails of the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor — 165 miles of American industrial history, nature and recreation that wind through five counties from Wilkes-Barre in Luzerne County to Bristol in Bucks County.

The Lehigh Valley section is at its core. It runs for 36 miles along the Lehigh River from Lehigh Gap Nature Center at the Carbon-Lehigh County border to Easton.

Long before spandex, lululemons and fluorescent bicycle shorts, these trails were the towpath of the Lehigh Canal and the rails of the Lehigh Valley and New Jersey Central railroads. They carried coal and iron from the mines to the market and made the Lehigh Valley a world leader in the production of iron, steel, cement and slate.

The canal was dug by hand by immigrant labor less than 200 years ago.

Much of it remains today. Its history is told very well at the Hugh Moore Park & National Canal Museum in Easton, where visitors can ride the Josiah White II, one of the last mule-drawn canal boats in the country.

Back when life was a lot tougher, families lived on those boats hauling anthracite coal from Carbon County to Bethlehem, to fire furnaces that melted ore into iron.

Dad may have walked alongside the mule that pulled the flat boat while mom and kids floated atop a pile of anthracite. There were no coolers of bottled water, outhouses along the way, or a Wawa nearby to grab a cup of French vanilla coffee.

These may have been your great-great-grandparents.

Thanks to the amazing people involved in the D&L Heritage Corridor and a lot of funding-help from community-minded legislators at all levels of government, that path still exists, and we can walk, bicycle, canoe or hike it in a beautiful natural setting.

It’s taken a lot of hard work, funding and railway acquisition to turn these paths into trails.

There’s one catch. It’s not complete.

There’s a 7-mile gap between Cementon and Allentown, including along the Lehigh River near the planned Riverfront development between the Hamilton and Tilghman Street bridges in the city. No matter the sophistication of your NorthFace Ultra 109 GTX hiking shoes you can’t walk straight from Palmerton to Easton.

Elissa Garofalo, executive director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, is spearheading a massive effort to close the gap.

Total cost estimate is $56 million.

With the same tenacity and hard work that it took to dig a 36-mile ditch through the wilderness in the 1840s, Garofalo and her team are lining up support from planners, elected officials and business leaders across the region.

The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission is behind a request for a U.S. Department of Transportation Build Grant to help. That request was endorsed last week by the Lehigh Valley Partnership, a coalition of CEOs of the region’s largest employers and institutions.

Transportation corridors have always been the core asset of the Lehigh Valley economy. They still are today.

The Lehigh River is the main reason why Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton and other towns were settled. The confluence of the Lehigh with the Delaware River gave the region access to Philadelphia and the Delaware Bay. When the river wouldn’t suffice, a canal was dug without currents to more safely move raw materials and products like iron to market.

Railroads quickly replaced the usefulness of the canal and made the Lehigh Valley a center of the American Industrial Revolution and a manufacturing hub. The region remains so today.

Despite economic downturns and transitions, the Lehigh Valley has 700 manufacturers and one of the fastest growing economies in the Northeast. The region is the country’s 50th largest center of manufacturing, producing everything from high-tech parts to medical devices to guitars and pet food.

Highways and their ability to reach everywhere are today’s canals.

The Lehigh Valley has a $40 billion economy in large part because the products made here and moved from here can reach 40% of U.S. consumers in less than eight hours. This growth makes quality of life even more important.

Reusing the backbone of yesterday’s economy to balance growth and make the region more attractive is pure genius. It allows people to hike, bike and enjoy the river while learning economic history. Who knows, maybe in 170 years, our great-great-grandchildren will be doing that on Route 22?

Today, time travel in the Lehigh Valley doesn’t require a DeLorean, just strap on some walking shoes, maybe a little spandex, and walk back to the past.

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