As Lehigh County celebrates its Bicentennial on March 6, 2012, it is interesting to learn about our history and the naming of our towns and cities. The county was first settled around 1730, and was officially established March 6, 1812 being formed from the western half of Northampton County. It is named after the Lehigh River, whose name is derived from the Delaware Indian term Lechauweki or Lechauwekink, meaning “where there are forks”.
The Lehigh Valley was once considered part of Bucks County, established in 1682, and then became Northampton County in 1752. In 1812, Lehigh County was divided off from Northampton County. The first European settlers, mostly German and Irish, were families that moved from areas around Philadelphia in search of fertile farmland to the north.
Allentown, the county seat is the third largest city in Pennsylvania and the largest of three cities in the area known as the Lehigh Valley. Allentown is a city rich in culture, tradition and history. The city is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year. It was founded in 1762 by William Allen, a successful businessman and a former mayor of Philadelphia. Also, Allen was one of the principal persons involved in the 1737 “Walking Purchase” fraud, where the Lenni Lenape were swindled out of their lands, which helped to alienate the Indians and the white men at that time.
Allentown was originally called Northampton Town by Allen. The town was re-named for him in 1838. Many streets in the original town plan were named for Allen’s children: Margaret (present-day Fifth Street), William (now Sixth), James (now Eighth), Ann (now Ninth) and John (now Walnut). Allen Street (now Seventh) was named for Allen himself, and was the main thoroughfare. Hamilton Street was named for Allen’s brother-in-law James Hamilton. Gordon Street was named for Sir Patrick Gordon, Deputy Governor of Colonial Pennsylvania from 1726–1736. Chew Street was named for Benjamin Chew, a successful lawyer and court official in Pennsylvania, and Turner Street was named for Allen’s business partner, Joseph Turner.
Allentown, grew from a small community of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers into a thriving manufacturing center, with silk and textile mills, breweries and most popularly known as the headquarters for Mack Truck. In recent years the city as well as the surrounding area has shifted its focus away from a manufacturing base with the rise of the many service industries. The city is teeming with cultural attractions with its many museums, historic sites and arts organizations. Annually, big events like the Mayfair Festival for the Arts takes place annually over Memorial Day weekend, The Great Allentown Fair takes place the week leading up to and culminating on Labor Day weekend, and Lights in the Parkway, a spectacular drive-thru light display is held during the Christmas season.
The song ‘Allentown’ by singer Billy Joel in 1982 gave popularity to the city. Allentown is well-known for its extensive award-winning parks system, which boasts the highest acreage of any American city its size. Historically, the city is known as the hiding place of the Liberty Bell from the British during the Revolutionary War from 1777 to 1778, underneath Old Zion Reformed Church. Today a Liberty Bell Shrine is in place at Zion Reformed Church on Hamilton Street. The city was also home of the once-popular former Hess’s Department Store originally opened in 1897 by the Hess brothers and is home to The Allentown Band, the oldest civilian concert band in the country, founded in 1828.
Allentown is home to the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (Triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies); PPL, an energy company which supplies electricity to 1.4 million customers; Cedar Crest College and Muhlenberg College. The city will also be home to the Phantoms ice hockey team (AHL affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers), and play at the soon to be built 8,500-seat arena at 7th and Hamilton Street. The arena is expected to open in late 2013.
Bethlehem was founded by members of the Moravian community (led by Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf) on Christmas Eve in 1741. They named the settlement after the town of Bethlehem in Judea, the birthplace of Jesus. Bethlehem is situated between the cities of Allentown and Easton. Bethlehem is the second largest city in the Lehigh Valley and lies in both Lehigh and Northampton counties.
The city is known for its rich colonial and industrial history. Early industry along with original businesses set up by the Moravians are located in an area known as the Colonial Industrial Quarter and features the original water works, tannery and grain mill structures. In 1762, Bethlehem built the first water works in America to pump water for public usage. Also, while George Washington and his troops stayed in Valley Forge, his personal effects were stored at the farm of James Burnside in Bethlehem. The Burnside Plantation is now a historical museum and a Lehigh County Park.
Bethlehem Steel had its origin in 1857 as the Saucona Iron Company, which would soon become the Bethlehem Iron Company. In 1899, with the organization of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the city became a center for heavy industry and trade. Bethlehem Steel is most famously known as the producer of steel for the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge and for many skyscrapers in New York City. It was also one of the world’s largest shipbuilders. Unfortunately, the company which in its heyday employed over 30,000 employees locally closed its doors at the city’s plant in 1995.
Bethlehem has been known as the ‘Christmas City’ since 1937 for its Christmas holiday activities and attractions. The Star of Bethlehem, a 91-foot lighted star on South Mountain is lit every day of the year and can be seen for many miles. The Moravian Book Shop on Main Street is the world’s oldest continually operated book store and is especially a treat to visit during the Christmas season. The city is home to the world famous Bach Choir, which first performed in 1900. Bethlehem, once known only as a ‘steel’ town has grown into an art and entertainment mecca, led by ArtsQuest, a non-profit arts organization which holds concerts and events throughout the year. ArtsQuest operates Musikfest, a 10-day nationally-known music festival and Christkindlmarkt, a holiday market place.
With the recent addition of the Sands Casino, which is located on former Bethlehem Steel Company property, the city has become quite a tourist destination. Additionally in May, the Sands Bethlehem Event Center is scheduled to open and will hold concerts, sporting events and conventions.
Bethlehem is also home to Lehigh University and Moravian College. Lehigh’s 6,000-seat Stabler Arena, hosts many athletic events and various shows and concerts. And, this summer will be the 17th year the Philadelphia Eagle’s will hold their pre-season training camp at Lehigh University.
Next time we will learn more about the naming of towns and boroughs in Lehigh County.