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​Northampton County’s rich past and historic settings have enhanced the quality of life we enjoy today. It’s a tradition that continues to shape our vibrant present and create our dynamic future.

Like most of the eastern half of Pennsylvania, Northampton County’s history is directly tied to William Penn. Penn received his famous land grant from King Charles II – named Pennsylvania (Penn’s Woods) by the king himself – as the settlement of a debt owed his late Father, Admiral Penn, in March 1681. History has recorded that King Charles II had absolutely no concept of North American geography, so the grant provided to the “godfather” of Pennsylvania is a rough document and difficult to comprehend, but the grant clearly states that the lands “west of the Delaware River” were included as part of the grant, encompassing the rich area of Pennsylvania that eventually became known as Northampton County.


Canal Boat

During the few times that William Penn actually visited Pennsylvania, he spent almost all of that time in and around Philadelphia. It was not until much after Penn’s death that his sons took more than a passing interest in the lands to the west and northwest of Philadelphia. Frankly, Pennsylvania was a huge and inhospitable place; rivers, primeval forests and daunting mountains created obstacles that took settlers close to a century to slowly overcome.


Although the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers provided direct access into Indian country, few settlers ventured very far north. This was mostly because there were not that many settlers early in the 18th century, and there was such an abundance of fine agricultural land near Philadelphia that there was little reason to go out into the wilderness of Penn’s Woods.

Although historians do speculate that white adventurers explored the Delaware River even before Penn’s grant of 1681, including significant speculation that a rather substantial settlement of Dutch (Hollanders) immigrants settled above the confluence with the Lehigh, it was not until 1728 that a small settlement, headed by Thomas Craig, was established in what is now Allen Township. This first settlement has been called the “Irish Settlement.” It was followed in 1730 by as many as thirty families of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who settled along the Delaware and the Lehigh.

Some of these settlements were occurring with the knowledge of William Penn’s sons; some were not. Some settlers were dealing directly with the natives to purchase land even though all the land in Penn’s Woods was owned by the Penn family. Other settlers were simply moving up-river, finding a likely spot to clear the forest and not worrying too much about land ownership.

Starting around 1735 and continuing for the next decade, German settlers moved into Northampton and Lehigh Counties in significant numbers; the first mill in the area was constructed on Saucon Creek in 1739. As these immigrants came into the territory, they felled the forests, built cabins, and organized religious worship.

As more and more settlers arrived, the natives slowly moved out to the west and north to lands that had not yet been discovered by European immigrants. As they moved into this part of Pennsylvania, the settlers found a land of abundance – shad by the millions in the rivers, tremendous quantities of trout in the smaller streams, and grouse, squirrels, rabbits and deer by the thousands in the forests.

Historians record that this land we now call Northampton County was settled primarily by immigrants who brought their religions with them, and that the observance of these various religions was first and foremost in their lives.

“The Lutherans upon the Lower Lehigh, the Mennonites, the Dunkers, Schwenckfelders, and Reformers, who entered the southwestern townships; the Presbyterians; the refugee Huguenots and Armenians who re-occupied the abandoned lands and orchards of the Hollanders; and last, but not least, the Moravians, who settled at Nazareth and Bethlehem, in 1740 and 1742; each and all set up God's altar in their wilderness homes, and made His worship their first duty and their chief delight.”

As the territory slowly became populated, Easton was the most important settlement, due to its strategic location at the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Allentown was a small hamlet; Bethlehem was even smaller. George Taylor, a prominent resident of Easton, was one of the Pennsylvania delegates and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, when the Declaration of Independence was formally read aloud at three locations scattered about the Colonies, the town square in Easton was chosen as one of the locations where citizens would hear, first-hand, about what had transpired during that hot and humid summer in Philadelphia.


Illick's Mill

The area now known as Northampton County was originally part of an enormous county that the Penns had named Bucks County. Northampton County was partitioned from Bucks County in 1752. Easton, the largest settlement, was named the County Seat. In 1754, the French and Indian War started in western Pennsylvania. Although Northampton County was protected by a string of forts, hostilities were a real threat until about 1763.

During the American Revolution, Bethlehem housed two Continental Army hospitals. General Lafayette recuperated here from wounds received during the famous Battle of Brandywine at Brandywine Creek. Lafayette College in Easton bears his name.

Things would have stayed pretty much the same in the 19th century if tremendous deposits of anthracite coal had not been discovered in northeastern Pennsylvania in the latter decades of the 18th century. These deposits of anthracite, or black diamonds as they came to be known in coal country, eventually became the largest deposits of anthracite yet discovered on earth, and changed the economic climate of northeastern Pennsylvania, including Northampton County, forever.

At first, the discovery of huge quantities of readily recoverable anthracite did not make much of a difference in the economic fortunes of the residents of Northampton County, for two reasons; no one had figured out a way to make this impressively hard coal burn satisfactorily, and the coal was inconveniently located a long way from the marketplace. Although great quantities of coal were located immediately adjacent to the Susquehanna, the Lehigh and the Delaware, none of these rivers was sufficiently navigable to allow large scale operations to move coal to Philadelphia.

Some small scale coal mining operations were occurring, with primitive methods being used to burn anthracite. At about the same time, significant quantities of recoverable iron ore were discovered in the mountains and valleys of the Lehigh region. Small forging operations were developed throughout the region, with charcoal as the furnace heat source. But charcoal, which is created by the slow and careful burning of hardwoods, is a very limited resource. Historians note that it took the charcoal from an acre of oak or maple trees to sufficiently melt just one furnace full of iron ore. As the iron mining and forging business grew in the Lehigh Valley, the forests disappeared at a rapid rate.

It was obvious to everyone involved in this fledgling new business that a better way to move anthracite was needed. Canals were the obvious answer. First came the Lehigh Canal – 47 miles from Mauch Chunck to Easton along the rapidly flowing Lehigh River – and then hundreds of miles of other canals, including the Delaware Canal to Philadelphia and the Morris Canal through New Jersey to New York, both of which intersected with the Lehigh Canal at Easton.

But without a reliable system to burn anthracite in the iron furnaces that were quickly being constructed along the Lehigh, the future of the industry was always in doubt.

In 1838, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, the owners of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, traveled to South Wales to meet the man who would eventually help them solve the puzzle of how to efficiently burn anthracite – David Thomas. White and Hazard convinced Thomas to bring his ideas and his family to the Lehigh Valley, and then invested in a new furnace of Thomas’ design that transformed the iron making industry in America, and ultimately changed the economic fortune of Northampton County and the Lehigh Valley.

Thomas’ invention was the refinement of a previous idea – a hot blast oven. Blowing engines blasted hot air onto the anthracite, which then burned fiercely, efficiently smelting the iron ore in a way that had never been seen with anthracite. The first blast, on a site in Catasauqua on the east bank of the Lehigh, within walking distance of today’s Lehigh Valley International Airport, occurred on July 3, 1840. The results were stunning; 4 tons of quality iron. It was the first furnace in North America to use a fuel other than charcoal to make iron profitably. The company that was founded by Josiah White and Erskine Hazard, Lehigh Crane Iron Company, continued in operation for 81 years.

Thomas’ invention, burning anthracite in an iron furnace, sparked a revolution in American industry. That industry made Northampton County the iron making capital of North America. The success of Lehigh Crane provided the impetus for the owners of the Lehigh Valley Railroad to build an ironworks in South Bethlehem to make iron rails for tracks.

The founders of what eventually became Bethlehem Steel – Asa Packer, Robert Sayre and John Fritz – started their first iron foundry (The Bethlehem Iron Company) at a railroad junction on the south bank of the Lehigh a few miles downstream from Catasauqua.

By the time Packer, Sayre and Fritz created the Bethlehem Iron Company, railroads were quickly being engineered and built in the mid-Atlantic region. By 1855, the Lehigh Valley Railroad was hauling passengers and coal along the same route as the Lehigh Canal. By 1857, two railroads, the North Penn that went south from South Bethlehem through Montgomery County to Philadelphia, and the Lehigh Valley Railroad converged in South Bethlehem.


Bethlehem Steel Main Factory Containing Ovens

One of the many success stories in the long and brilliant string of success stories that created the giant American company that became Bethlehem Steel had to do with iron rails. The iron rails that were forged in American foundries were of extremely poor quality; indeed, they were dangerous. John Fritz took another invention from Wales, the three-high mill, and improved it. This invention made it possible for Bethlehem Iron to produce the best iron rails in America. They dominated the market – until steel rails from England were imported. These British steel rails were clearly superior. Successfully finding an efficient way to produce steel in Bethlehem became the next challenge for Packer, Sayre and Fritz. By 1868, the partners had committed the resources of Bethlehem Iron to the manufacture of steel, the only company in the Lehigh Valley that made the investment, primarily because the Bessemer process was extraordinarily costly. The future, of course, was in steel, and one company, Bethlehem Steel, dominated from that point forward. In the fall of 1873, the plant rolled its first steel rails and began filling orders for the Lehigh Valley and Jersey Central railroads.


The steel plant the partners constructed over the next five years still stands today in South Lebanon. The plant combined rolling mills and Bessemer converters into one production unit. It wasn't America's first steel mill, but it was clearly the most significant. Seen from the outside today in its dilapidated state, the building is still massive; the main stem is 931 feet long and 111 feet wide. Each of the two sections that cross the stem is 111 feet wide and 386 feet long. The impression it  left on visitors, customers, and employees in 1873 must have been overwhelming.

Even though railroading, and iron and steel making were rapidly growing in Northampton County, there was a great deal more industry in the Lehigh Valley than just iron and steel. In 1873, when Bethlehem’s massive steel mill was opened, it was not the largest industry in the Lehigh Valley. That distinction fell to the Lehigh Zinc Company, which mined zinc in Friedensville in the Saucon Valley and converted it into oxides and metallic zinc at a mill in South Bethlehem. Prosperity was a fact of life throughout Northampton County. The county was home to factories that made pianos, carriages, barrels and farm implements. There were also several flour mills, a sawmill, a woolen mill, a brass foundry, a tannery, a distillery, and, of course, a brewery.

With the advance of steel making in the county, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Easton and all of Northampton County entered into a period of prosperity. The small iron making business that started on the bank of the Lehigh River in 1840 rapidly transformed the county and all of the Lehigh Valley into the steel making capital of the world.

Shortly after the steel industry was developed along the banks of the Lehigh in South Bethlehem, another impressive industry developed in Northampton County – the manufacture of Portland cement. The process of making Portland cement -- mixing limestone, clay, shale, magnesium, and other chemical additives -- was discovered in England in 1890. When the contractors in this country heard of this new Portland cement which would harden in only 24 hours, they all wanted it. Entrepreneurs discovered that there is something inherent in the limestone in the Lehigh Valley which is conducive to making Portland cement, where other, similar limestone fails at the job. One of the six founders of the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, (founded in 1897) was Charles Schwab, who, at the age of 39 became president of Bethlehem Steel, after serving as president of United States Steel, prior to that.

The industrial success stories that made Bethlehem, Easton and Northampton County world leaders in steel and cement, and many other products, go on and on. If you are interested in the history of Bethlehem Steel, we recommend the 120 page, 90,000 word “Forging America: The story of Bethlehem Steel" that was published on December 14, 2003 by The Morning Call. Copies, at just $7.00, are available by calling the Morning Call at 610-820-6724.

Source: Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society

Historical Sites That Recall Our Traditions

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