Lost Stories of Lehigh: Holy water

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Elliott Nasby

The Moravian sect founded Bethlehem over 250 years ago along the Monocacy Creek, and its dependence on water, not Jesus, was what made the town what is it today.

The creek was unwavering in its copious, steadfast flow and quenched the thirst of its people through thick, thin and drought for over 200 years. It was once so pure Moravians could simply dip a pail in and bring it home. Later it became the site of the first municipal water pumping system in the 13 colonies.

The story soon became one of drinking water turned economic asset. The industrial revolution in the 1850s shifted Bethlehem’s vision of itself and increased its dependence on the Lehigh River to hydrate a thirsty steel industry.

During a recent outing with some friends to Bethlehem’s historical district, I felt compelled by my inner Survivorman to drink that same water once downed by the early Moravians. Clear enough to drink, I thought, so I knelt to take a swig.

About 10 minutes later a flash downpour had me seriously regretting that decision. Surging out the nearest storm drain, and into the creek I had just tasted, was a steamy onslaught of murky, litter laden sludge. Seriously.

Down it went: Dr. Pepper can, water bottle, Rice Krispies wrapper, mystery plastic rod — past two dexterous ducks sifting their way through. Down the stream the heap went as we looked on, feeling a bit disappointed in our fellow humans.

It was clear the coming and going of Bethlehem Steel, despite being the foundation for much of America’s industrial prowess, had made a lasting negative impact on Lehigh’s nearby waterways. Even more so, it encouraged a disregard for the waterways that has continued to this day.

As much as I’d like to think otherwise, it is because Bethlehem’s local streams have been seen as somewhat of a natural purgative for generations, somehow impervious to whatever we think to throw in it.

Runoff, coal mining and the steel mill ultimately deemed the town’s local water supply undrinkable long ago. During a particularly low point in 1904, when the river was still a source of drinking water, Lehigh students were advised to boil their water for at least 10 minutes before drinking it for fear of typhoid fever.

But finally, enough paranoia surrounding Bethlehem’s water supply sent the city looking for cleaner water elsewhere, eventually landing on a joint system with both the Wild Creek and Penn Forest reservoirs.

Today, the reservoirs collectively hold over 10 billion gallons of water, occupying 22 square miles of the watershed, rationed by the Bethlehem Water Authority through a 29-mile pipeline connected to the city.

It is at this point I will impart upon you the words from an essay titled “Holy Water” by writer and California native, Joan Didion: “As it happens my own reverence for water has always taken the form of this constant meditation upon where the water is, of an obsessive interest not in the politics of water but in the waterworks themselves, in the movement of water through aqueducts and siphons and pumps and forebays and afterbays and weirs and drains, in plumbing on the grand scale.”

Reverence for water. Something we’ve historically fallen short of.

The water you’re drinking has made quite the journey to get here. Almost 30 miles of intricate regulation is what flows from our spouts, while the local supply pools into the river and gets carried off, undrinkable.

It’s not hard to see we play a role in something much larger: the Lehigh Valley watershed.

It is why such a flash downpour can usher a city’s filth into local streams within seconds. It is also why most of our local water has been considerably undrinkable for decades. Whenever it rains, most of it will drain into the nearest bodies of flowing water, taking with it our negligence — be it chemicals, garbage or sewage.

As residents of a watershed, we’re given the assumed responsibility of maintaining it. By definition most water — including its passenger debris — will find its way into what’s called the drainage basin.

We can be its filter, mindful of what gets through and what doesn’t, even if Bethlehem’s historically abundant water supply might never warranted a second thought.

Elliott Nasby, ’20, is an assistant sports editor for The Brown and White. He can be reached at ebn220@lehigh.edu.

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1 Comment

  1. I appreciate the article. However, it is somewhat one sided in perspective. While it is true that the Monocacy turns brown during a downpour, most other streams do as well with the exception of freestone streams which have a rock bottom and are typically located in less populated areas. The Monocacy is a gem of a limestone stream flowing through a highly populated area. The water is surprisingly cold and clean for such a stream. As for the Lehigh River, it has come a long way from the days of the steel mills and industry that had once polluted it. Many people and organizations are working hard to restore and protect these waters like; Trout Unlimited, The Lehigh Cold Water Conservancy, the Lehigh River Stocking Association and many others. It would be nice to see an article on how far the river has come from the days that it had coal silt on the bottom. It would also be nice to see an article on some of the organizations that are working to protect it.

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