The Lehigh Tannery

“I’ll tan your hide!” Have you ever been threatened with that from your mom or dad? When it’s yelled at you, you know what’s going to happen… you’re going to get a good spanking. In this context, it originates from the 1731 ballad opera The Devil to Pay. However, no one is actually going to tan your hide. The literal curing of hides was a big business at one time. Let the quick local history lesson begin!

The Lehigh Tannery stood along the Lehigh River on the Carbon and Luzerne county border. Thomas Smull built the plant and it operated from 1860-1885. The tannery and by association the lumber business, which included sawmills and logging camps, strengthened the community around it; so much so they named themselves after it. The village of Lehigh Tannery surrounded the area functioning as a full fledged little town. The tannery itself was once the largest of its kind in the United States.

The ruins of the tannery are located in Kidder Township on Tannery Road just off route 534. This historic site is only four miles from Hickory Run State Park. It makes a great side trip if you’re in the White Haven area. There’s not much to look at anymore, but history is important.

“Well, heck, how do you tan a hide?” Tanning is the process of treating skins and hides of animals to produce leather and a tannery is the place where the skins are processed. At the Lehigh Tannery they specifically used the bark of hemlock and white oak trees, which were abundant in the area prior to the mid 19th century. These trees were felled and “peelers” would peel off the bark often leaving the trunk and branches behind. Seems like a fire waiting to happen, right? Oops. Spoiler.

Naturalist John J. Audubon spent a month in 1829 painting birds in the area. He foresaw the future deforestation that would become an eventuality. He noted, “Trees one after another were… constantly heard falling. In a century, the noble forests around should exist no more.” In addition to excessive logging, the area suffered other natural disasters – the flood of 1862 halted shipping for a time, but it was a devastating fire in 1875 that burned the tannery to the ground. The village deteriorated along with the industry from which it derived its name.

Below right is an image of the tracks that sits close to the historic site and was once a thriving stop along the railroad.

Inscription on the signpost at the site (as seen in the photo above):

In the woods next to the river are the ruins of the Lehigh Tannery and a village named Lehigh Tannery. Over 100 families lived here. Two railroads ran through town. An ice house, steam saw mill, hotel and school clung to the river’s edge.

Bark from the valley’s giant hemlocks was the ingredient essential to the town’s success. Hemlock bark provided the tannic acid used to cure as many as 50,000 hides a year, making this the second largest tannery in America during this era.

The river and the forest paid an enormous price for the Tannery’s good fortune. Wastes dumped into the river turned it black. Logging created a landscape littered with the debris of abandoned trees cut only for their bark. In 1875, an uncontrollable fire ignited and swept across the forest floor, engulfing and forever destroying the Tannery.

Only decades before, naturalist and artist John James Audubon visited here and sketched a variety. He sadly noted the deforestation in his journal.

Today, industry is largely gone. Instead, rejuvenated forests again shelter native birds and welcome modern-day Audubons.

Happy trails and happy hunting… hunting history!


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