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Explore evolution of Pa. land transportation in National Canal Museum exhibit set for debut


Spanning millennia, the story of the evolution of land transportation in what is now eastern Pennsylvania is being told in a new exhibit at the National Canal Museum.

Visitors need only glance down from 15 custom-made information panels at the floor to see where it’s all been headed: Bare footprints give way to shoe prints, then horseshoe prints and carriage wheel tracks, then the treads of the Model T, modern tires and finally a bicycle.

The panels and prints were fashioned by Wendi Blewett, museum collections manager for the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor that runs the museum in Easton’s Hugh Moore Park and oversees its signature D&L Trail spanning five counties from Bucks through Lehigh, Northampton, Carbon and into Luzerne.

“We’re so excited that we’ve been able to bring together a topic that spans the whole corridor,” the corridor’s executive director, Claire Sadler, said at a preview night Thursday. “It highlights multiple areas across the five counties. So this exhibit … really gives the breadth of the five-county corridor in talking about all the different transportation pieces.”

Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Coordinator Executive Director Claire Sadler, from right, introduces the “Putting Down Routes: From Native Trails to Interstate Highways” exhibit during a preview Thursday, April 4, 2024, alongside corridor Historian Martha Capwell Fox, Museum Collections Manager Wendi Blewett, and Director of Museum and Archives Salena Fehnel.

“Putting Down Routes: From Native Trails to Interstate Highways” opens with the start of the museum’s season on Saturday, April 6 and is set for display through Dec. 22. The National Canal Museum, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, is open Saturdays and Sundays, 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., during April and May. Beginning in June, the museum will be open Wednesday through Sunday with rides offered on the mule-drawn Josiah White II canal boat. Visit canals.org for admission pricing and other details.

The idea for “Putting Down Routes” came to the heritage corridor’s historian, Martha Capwell Fox, during a ride down Route 115, known as Sullivan Trail for the path taken by General John Sullivan and troops during the Revolutionary War.

But the exhibit’s journey back into the evolution of land transportation goes back way further.

“We started with the fact that there were people living here 10,000 years ago,” Capwell Fox said. “And they had an incredible network of trails all over what’s now Pennsylvania.”

Stickers affixed to the floor of exhibit space Thursday, April 4, 2024, at the National Canal Museum in Easton visualize the story of the evolution of land travel, represented here by shoe prints then horseshoe prints then horse-drawn carriage tracks.

Building off the research of historian Paul A. Wallace for his 1961 books “Indians in Pennsylvania,” the exhibit begins by celebrating Pennsylvania’s indigenous people that were clustered among the three main river valleys — the Monongahelas along the Ohio and its tributaries; the Susquehannocks along the Susquehanna; and the Lenape and Munsees along the Delaware and its tributaries the Lehigh and Schuylkill.

Semi-nomadic based on where food was most plentiful, these Native Americans established footpath trails that avoided floodplains, swamps and high windy ridges, Capwell Fox said. As Europeans settled the area, those trails gave rise to passages like the Old York Road. Created around 1710, the road led from Philadelphia up through Bucks County, crossing the Delaware River into New Jersey en route to New York. Moravian settlers walked what became known as the Minsi Trail to Bethlehem.

These native trails became bridle roads, auto roads and occasionally interstates. The exhibit touches on the bygone Lausanne-Nescopeck tolled turnpike north of what is now Jim Thorpe that opened up the Susquehanna River Valley for shipping goods downstream for sale. It explores William Penn Highway, which was expanded off a link from Easton to Bethlehem and created as an east-route connector to Harrisburg, reaching more of the state than the Lincoln Highway south of the Lehigh Valley.

“We’re so used to just roads (that) go everywhere now,” Capwell Fox said. “You used to have really think about it, about how they went.”

Guests at the National Canal Museum in Easton attend a preview Thursday, April 4, 2024, of the new exhibit “Putting Down Routes: From Native Trails to Interstate Highways.”

Visitors can also explore how ferries gave rise to bridges and industrial routes became recreational trails and more. The graphic arts panels created by Blewett delve into five selected routes traversing the five-county corridor, with maps and information and five extra “pit stop” panels featuring different modes of transportation, as well as the effects of transportation over time.

There are historical artifacts like an early Dixie Cup dispenser for the automobile; East Second and Carbon street markers, saved from Bethlehem’s Northampton Heights neighborhood by Capwell Fox’s predecessor, the late Lance Metz; shares purchased by turnpike investors; and postcards.

Guests at the National Canal Museum in Easton enter for a preview Thursday, April 4, 2024, of the new “Putting Down Routes: From Native Trails to Interstate Highways” exhibit.

Mid-century drive-in speakers tout the region’s rich drive-in heritage that still survives at Shankweiler’s, Becky’s and Mahoning Valley across the National Heritage Corridor’s territory. There’s an ad for a Howard Johnson’s roadside stop and dreams of future transportation powered entirely by electricity — aboard the trolley cars of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Hopefully this is going to attract some of the trolley buffs, of which there are still quite a few, and the trolley stories are really interesting,” Capwell Fox said.

This exhibition was made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Northampton County hotel taxes, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

IF YOU GO

Access to Hugh Moore Park is limited due to a Lehigh Drive closure caused by road damage west of the park’s Lehigh River bridge, and which was exacerbated this past week by flooding to the east toward Downtown Easton. The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor offers the following routes to access the park, home to the National Canal Museum:

  • Accessing the park from 25th Street: Take Freemansburg Avenue toward Easton. Turn right on Avona Avenue. From there turn right onto Iron Street, which will turn into Glendon Hill Road. Continue down the hill. This will bring you out opposite the Glendon Hill Road bridge to Hugh Moore Park.
  • Leaving Hugh Moore Park: Cross the Glendon Hill Road bridge. At the stop sign go straight. Continue up Glendon Hill Road. This will turn into Iron Street. Take Iron Street until it intersects with Avona Avenue. Turn left onto Avona Avenue and continue until it intersects with Freemansburg Avenue. Turn left toward 25th Street, or turn right to go into Downtown Easton.
Guests at the National Canal Museum in Easton attend a preview Thursday, April 4, 2024, of the new exhibit “Putting Down Routes: From Native Trails to Interstate Highways.”

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Kurt Bresswein may be reached at kbresswein@lehighvalleylive.com.



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