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History of Lehigh Gorge State Park

Geological History

The Gorge cut by the Lehigh River and artificial cuts along two former railway lines have combined to expose various sedimentary rocks.

The park is near the eastern end of the Appalachian Mountain Section of the Ridge and Valley Physiographic Province. The rocks within the area are folded in a series of anticlines and synclines.

The highest elevation in the vicinity of the gorge is 1785 feet at the top of Scrub Mountain (southeast of Penn Haven Junction), and the lowest elevation in the park is about 520 feet at river level at the south end of the park at Jim Thorpe. 

The rocks are between 365 and 320 million years old.

Glen Onoko Geology (PDF)

Lehigh Gorge Geology (PDF)

Cultural History

Settlement was sparse during the 19th century until loggers arrived and began felling trees and building sawmills.

The discovery of anthracite coal at Summit Hill in 1791 caused intensive development and settlement of the upper Lehigh Valley.

During the early 1800s, the need to transport increasingly large quantities of coal to markets down river led to the intensive development of canals.

Famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon visited the area in 1829 and spent six weeks painting birds. He was distressed at how quickly trees were cut and shipped down river. The industrial revolution was just beginning in the area.

Between 1835 and 1838, a series of dams, locks, and canals was constructed by Josiah White and the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company.

White constructed 20 dams and 29 locks over the 26 miles between Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) and White Haven. Five and one-half miles of canal were also built.

It was called the Upper Grand Section of the Lehigh Canal because the locks and dams were larger and far more impressive than the locks of other canals.

When severe flooding in 1862 destroyed the canal system, it was replaced with the new technology of railroads. Remains of locks, dams, and towpath are still evident in the Lehigh River Gorge.

Loggers continued to clearcut the huge white pine and hemlock trees for lumber and for the bark, which was used to tan hides.

During the 1860s, the second largest tannery in the United States sat on the banks of the Lehigh River at the small town of Lehigh Tannery.

A terrible forest fire swept through the Lehigh Gorge area in 1875, burning the remaining standing timber, many sawmills, and stockpiles of lumber. The sawmills closed and the loggers departed.

At the turn of the 20th century, railroads popularized the southern end of the park at a resort called Glen Onoko.

Hotel Wahnetah boasted 47 rooms, a dance pavilion, tennis courts, fresh air, and hikes to the scenic Glen Onoko Falls. A fire in 1911 closed the hotel and a fire in 1917 ended the resort era.

During the 1970s, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania began purchasing park lands; and during 1980, the land was turned over to DCNR’s Bureau of State Parks.