Naturalist and painter John James Audubon visited the Lehigh Gorge in 1829 and spent more than one month painting the birds of the area. At this time the gorge was largely untouched by human hands, but Audubon could see that this was not to last.

This remote area, rich in white pine and hemlock trees, was clear-cut by lumber companies, beginning not long after Audubon’s visit. The Eastern hemlock, which later became Pennsylvania’s state tree, was cut for the tannin in its bark. Tanneries, such as the Lehigh Tannery built in the mid-1850s, used the tannin to tan animal hides.

The original tannery building, built around 1855, was 453 feet in length. In 1860, the building was enlarged to 680 feet in length and became the second largest tannery in the United States, processing about 80,000 hides a year.

The hamlet known as Lehigh Tannery that grew up around the tannery included a store and hotel and several dwellings.  The tannery was operated by its original builders, Thomas Smull & Co., for several years. It was sold to a Mr. Blakeslee, who in turn sold it to C. P. Holcomb & Co. in 1865. C.P. Holcomb was in possession only a short time when the buildings were partially destroyed by fire. Repairs were made and work carried on under the same company name until C. P. Holcomb’s death in 1866. At that point, I. M. Holcomb took over and the company name changed to I.M. Holcomb & Co. A post office was established in Lehigh Tannery in 1866.

By 1875 most of the saleable timber in the area had been clear-cut, with thousands of acres of dried treetops and other wooden debris left on the ground. On May 14 of that year a spark from a passing coal-fired steam locomotive ignited a massive forest fire that burned for eight days. The fire quickly consumed the dry trees and debris and then claimed the remaining standing timber, local sawmills, and their lumber stockpiles. The fire also claimed the tannery, which was never rebuilt. Today visitors to the site can still see stone tanning vats that were part of the 19th century tanning operation.