Along the Delaware Day 3: An interview with with Claire Sadler, Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, and Lehigh Valley Greenways Partnership
This interview is part of the American Rivers’ Along the Delaware tour. Day three of the tour was in Bethelem, PA.
American Rivers: Bethlehem was settled on the banks of the Lehigh River at the mouth of Monocacy Creek. In what ways were the rivers, or the water from the two rivers, important to the settlement of Bethlehem, its growth and its vitality today?
Claire Sadler: This area was the region of the Lenni Lenape, and the rivers were central to their lives and culture for food, water and transportation. In the 1740’s, the Moravian community settled here and founded Bethlehem, and the reason they chose this place is because of the confluence of the river and the creek. The waterways powered the original industries, including a tannery, gristmill and sawmill. Shad from the river was a major source of food. Today, waterways are still threads connecting our community — if you look on a map they are like spokes on a wheel.
AR: We know steel manufacturing was boon to Bethlehem and perhaps it’s identity for many years. In what ways did the manufacturing and industrial growth mar the river and the river front?
CS: All of the local waterways were damaged by industrialization and associated pollution. Much of the industry of the region ran on steam engines, which required a lot of water withdrawals from the river. In addition, the Lehigh River ran black with anthracite silt from all of the coal mining upstream and transportation of coal on the river. What some people might not realize is that the Lehigh was actually privately owned by Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company from 1818 to 1965. It’s a major reason why Bethlehem and nearby towns have less residential views of and access to the Lehigh River than many areas of the Delaware River. The railroad tracks and levee running along the river on Bethlehem’s southside prevented public access too.
AR: The city has made amazing strides at recovery since Bethlehem Steel closed. How have green stormwater infrastructure projects contributed to the river and the city’s revitalization?
CS: The City of Bethlehem has done many projects but I’m most familiar with projects in collaboration with Lehigh Valley Greenways Partnership, the local conservation landscape led by Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, along with my organization. We supported Bethlehem’s urban forestry program, which has led to getting the city recertified as a Tree City USA. They have added more street trees, as well as native riparian buffers along tributary streams working with Wildlands Conservancy and Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley. Other projects include native pollinator meadows and gardens along trails, and increasing educational outreach to residents. When we increased environmental protections, stopped dumping pollution into the river, planted trees and invested in green stormwater infrastructure, the water has become cleaner and more attractive for wildlife habitat and recreation again.
AR: Today Bethlehem boasts a plethora of outdoor recreation and cultural opportunities. How has the river enhanced those offerings for residents and visitors?
CS: We have a great regional trail network called THE LINK that often parallels local waterways, including the river and canal. Bethlehem owns and maintains Monocacy Way along Monocacy Creek and a section of the D&L Trail along the Lehigh River and canal. This allows people to find viewpoints and access for activities like fishing and birdwatching. Having these trails along the river draws more people in — and even if they only come for the trail and not the river they can’t help learning about and experiencing the river. It’s increasing the environmental ethic and exposing the next generation to these values. Bethlehem also hosts many large festivals like Musikfest and Celtic Classic, as well as running and bike races. The river helps enhance all of that.
I’d like to point out that central to all of our discussion, the story of transportation weaves through the Lehigh River, from the Indigenous people, to industrial development, to today where we have this wonderful network of multi-use trails bringing people closer to our waterways. On the D&L Trail alone, you can travel 120 miles along waterways throughout the Delaware watershed.