The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D&L) follows the Delaware and Lehigh Canals and the old Lehigh Valley Railroad as it stretches through five counties, from the City of Wilkes-Barre, in the mountainous coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, to Historic Bristol Borough, along the Delaware River near Philadelphia.
Established by Congress in 1988 to commemorate the nationally significant and integrated historic transportation route comprising rivers, canals and former rail corridors, the trail is now a showcase of some three centuries of history and the communities that brought anthracite coal from the mines to fuel America’s early 19th-century Industrial Revolution. Historic industries and their mill towns were founded to take advantage of this system.
Today, it’s the D&L Trail that connects residents and visitors to this amazing story as well as the health, economic, environmental and cultural attributes along its path. The D&L Trail and organization are managed by a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that coordinates the collective efforts of public, private and volunteer stakeholders who celebrate and preserve the pathway.
Over the years, their energy and passions have been critical for connecting more than 1 million trail users annually to the scenic rivers, historic canals and towns, mountains, green valleys, natural areas, recreational opportunities and historical industry relics—as well as the distinct social, cultural and religious heritages—which are the essence of the D&L Corridor region.
Developing the D&L Trail: A Brief History
With 86 of the D&L Trail’s 165 miles located within two state parks (Lehigh Gorge and Delaware Canal), the trail community had a jumpstart in completing the path that now connects people of all ages to the region’s story—one of innovation, conservation and industrial might. Having begun three decades ago, the slow and steady process of filling in the gaps continues, and completion is within reach.
In the mid-1980s, the northernmost counties of Pennsylvania were still recovering from the decline of the anthracite coal industry, including the shuttering of Bethlehem Steel in the Lehigh Valley. Luckily, Bucks County had high capacity-partners and a complex network of agencies that were interested in preserving the historical corridor that was so critical to the region’s early industrial development.
For many years, partners were able to leverage grant dollars from the National Park Service with matching funds from the state—and partnerships with municipalities and nonprofits created a decentralized network, with the D&L organization serving as the proverbial wizard behind the curtain.
As trail miles were designed and built, volunteers systematically helped maintain and improve them—and three regional revitalization efforts in particular have helped breathe new life into small downtowns historically connected to the corridor, including: a 2004 move to greener programming; a 2005 Superfund reclamation project at Lehigh Gap Nature Center—later to receive the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Conservation Partnership Award; and Tales of the Towpath, an educational curriculum that now has 80 schools participating. Participants in the Get Your Tail on the Trail wellness program have logged more than 3 million miles!
To date, approximately 92 percent of the D&L Trail (including spine and spurs) is built—with a goal of connecting all 165 miles by 2022! With forward-thinking regional planning partners in place, at least three gaps will be closed in 2018, which include the opening of the $4.1 million Mansion House Bridge across the Lehigh River at Jim Thorpe, a road/railroad crossing at Middleburg Road in Luzerne County and a connector in Delaware Canal State Park at Tyburn Road in Bucks County.
Each and every day, it’s the D&L’s passionate staff and directors who wake up thinking about how we’ll fully connect the D&L Trail from Wilkes Barre to Bristol—boots on the ground, building the bridges (physically and figuratively), engaging partners and raising the funds to make it all a reality.
We are excited to host Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s 2018 Pennsylvania Sojourn, and invite you to dig deep and meander.
To learn how you can help connect the D&L, visit the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor website.
Recommended reading to delve deeper into the path of the D&L Trail:
Delaware & Lehigh Canals: The definitive pictorial history of the Delaware and Lehigh CanalsBy Ann Bartholomew and Lance Metz
Stone Coal Way: A Journey through the history, towns and culture of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage CorridorBy Tom Shealy and edited by Elissa Garofalo
Tales of the Towpath: A children's book about a man's return to his childhood, a journey back to an age when anthracite coal was fueling America's industries and canals were the country's highwaysBy Dennis Scholl