Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Robert F. Smith

Machining and Machinists

Hundreds of machine shops, large and small, built and maintained Philadelphia’s position as the “Workshop of the World” through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the city and beyond, especially in Conshohocken, Pottstown, Phoenixville, Chester, and Camden, machining made the Delaware Valley a hub of foundries, craft shops, mills, workshops, and manufactories. During the latter half of the twentieth century, however, rising labor costs and international competition led to the decline of this segment of the region’s economy.

Machining activities in Philadelphia began in the colonial period when craftsmen used hand tools to produce individual items to customer specifications. Furnacemen cast iron, brass, tin, and pewter items that finishers like blacksmiths, tinsmiths, and carpenters turned into consumer goods. One of the first metalworking operations in the city was Johnson Type Foundry, which opened at Seventh and Sansom streets to provide type settings to printers. It operated until 1897, when it became part of the American Type Founders Company, which ceased operations in 1993.

[caption id="attachment_29203" align="alignright" width="300"]Drawing of the interior of an iron forge The labor of a charcoal iron forge from the period 1716-1828 is depicted in this 1928 drawing by George W. Schultz of Bowers, Pennsylvania. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

During the American Revolution a Continental Arsenal employing over one hundred men and women initiated large-scale forging and finishing in the city. Private craftsmen and forges also supplied finished metal products to the army. Numerous regional forges and furnaces produced metal products for Colonial and Revolutionary Philadelphia, including Colebrookdale and Hopewell near Pottstown and Durham near Easton. 

Metalworking and manufacturing in the region grew after the war so that by 1800, 42 percent of Philadelphia’s sixty-eight thousand people worked in industrial activities. Outside the city in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, French Creek Nail Works began operations in 1790. This became Phoenix Iron Works in 1855 and expanded to producing metal consumer products. J. Wood and Son Iron opened in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, in 1832, leading to a blooming of metal working and finishing shops and the town’s nickname, Ironborough. Plate and nail machining mills opened in Pottstown in this period. The Federal Slitting Mill, founded in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, in 1793 laid the foundations that would become Lukens Steel. In this period, only small-scale craft operations developed in Camden, New Jersey, because investors focused more on transportation and trade.

Machining and the Mint

[caption id="attachment_28806" align="alignright" width="300"]The Third incarnation of at Spring Garden Street and Seventeenth Street. Machining work in Philadelphia got a major boost from the U.S. government when the first United States Mint was built in the city in 1792. Four other money-making mints followed, including this building, the third U.S. Mint, on Spring Garden Street at Seventeenth Street. The current U.S. Mint is at 151 N. Independence Mall East. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The national government played a key role in Philadelphia machining after the Revolution. The Federal Mint opened in 1792 on East Seventh Street above Market (later moving to Juniper and Chestnut Streets in 1833, to 1700 Spring Garden Street in 1901, and finally to Fifth and Arch Streets in 1969). The later versions of the mint grew to be the largest such operations in the world and turned out 501 million coins annually. The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, which grew to include numerous machining shops, began operations in 1801 at Delaware Avenue and Federal Street. It moved to League Island in 1871 and produced and repaired naval vessels until decommissioned in 1995. In 1816, the federal government opened Frankford Arsenal, which forged and machined mostly small arms ammunition until its closure in 1977. Its operations, however, also included milling, optical grinding, and electroplating. 

In the nineteenth century the development of machine lathes, milling machines, drill presses, and cutting tools allowed laborers to turn, bore, drill, mill, ream, and shape items faster with more precision. The result in Philadelphia was the rapid expansion of machining operations to match the rise of large manufacturing sites, building construction, and commercialism. Operations like the Baldwin Locomotive Works, the William D. Rogers Carriage Factory, and the Cramp & Son’s Shipyard required support from small item forgers and finishers. For commercial buildings and private housing, machining provided items like pipes, lumber, nails, and other castings. The growing population of the city purchased all types of machined products like irons, kitchen utensils, stove plates, and sewing needles. 

Machining firms that answered the growing Philadelphia economy varied in size and product. The Point Pleasant Iron and Brass Foundry, founded in 1809, and the Cresswell Ironworks, opened in 1835, supplied custom castings for buildings, bridges, plumbing, and transport. Henry Troemner & Company, founded in 1840, manufactured weights, measures, and scales for doctors, pharmacists, and banks. One of its biggest clients was the Philadelphia Mint. S.S. White Dental Works, founded in 1844, made false teeth and other oral health products. In Camden, Richard Esterbrook’s steel pen factory and the Camden Iron Work became suppliers of various consumables. Likewise, in Chester, Pennsylvania, machinists and craftsmen took advantage of the rail line between Philadelphia and Baltimore to furnish items to both markets.

By the time of the Civil War, manufacturing employed nearly half of Philadelphia’s population (roughly 210,000 people in a city of about 500,000). Frankford Arsenal was critical to the war effort, as were firms like Sharp and Rankin, which machined breech-loading rifles, and Cramp & Son’s, which built the USS New Ironsides. During this period machining operations began in Norristown and Bridgeport and worked metal supplied from Pottstown and Phoenixville. Phoenix Iron cast and worked artillery for the Union and in the process developed the Phoenix cylinder, which revolutionized metal construction. It also spun off the Phoenix Bridge Company, which remained in operation until 1962.

Post-Civil War Growth

[caption id="attachment_28802" align="alignright" width="300"]Employees from Tacony Iron Works pose next to a bronze eagle statue they made for City Hall One of the most recognizable pieces crafted by Tacony Iron Works was the William Penn statue atop City Hall in Philadelphia. Perched underneath Penn’s statue is this bronze eagle, also crafted by Tacony Iron Works employees, posing here with their finished product. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The Delaware Valley machining industry continued to grow in the decades following the Civil War. In Philadelphia, new foundries included Yale & Town, American Machine Works, the Eagle Bolt Works, and Fox Foundry. Tacony Iron Works, founded in 1881, cast the William Penn statue that was placed atop Philadelphia City Hall. Penn Steel Casting and Standard Steel Casting opened in Chester during the period, while in Camden Joseph Campbell opened a canning factory and several railroads built repair yards.

The most well-known of Philadelphia’s new machine and casting shops was Disston & Sons Keystone Saw Works, founded in 1872. Disston became the largest saw producer in the world making large commercial saws, carpentry tools, and household saws. Disston became famous for its company housing for workers and community building projects. It was also the first company in the nation, in 1906, to use an electric furnace to cast crucible steel.

Machining, like Philadelphia manufacturing generally, remained close to its crafts roots throughout the nineteenth century. Sixty-two percent of the city’s 9,100 manufacturing firms employed between one and five people. Skills passed from one generation to another within families, or companies trained workers recommended by employees. Guilds of skilled workers protected their rights to manage apprenticeships and training that limited access to machining. Outwork continued to be done at home, and street peddlers were widespread, offering custom products and finishing.

The small size, specialization, and plethora of machine shops had several implications. Machine workers retained craft skills lost by workers in industries adopting factory production. Workers had little power to organize themselves, either by specialty or business. And the number of African Americans, immigrants, and women in machining remained low. By 1900, 55 percent of the machining workforce was still white, native-born men. 

Schools Promote Diversity

Diversity within the ranks of machining workers was driven by the Philadelphia School District and private schools looking to increase access to skilled jobs. In 1880, the district founded the Industrial Arts School to provide public education in trades. Five years later the Philadelphia Manual Training School was founded, and by the 1890s the city had a dozen manual arts schools. By the 1910s most high schools offered vocational training. Girard College created an industrial school to offer higher levels of training, and Drexel Institute was founded in 1891 for the same reason. Educational opportunities competed with guild and corporate training, allowing women, immigrants and African Americans at last to enter the skilled labor force.

[caption id="attachment_28809" align="alignright" width="300"]A Budd Company employee tends the steel frame of an automobile bodt in 1939. A Budd Company employee works on the newly manufactured steel body of an automobile in this photograph from 1939. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The city’s skilled workforce drove expansion among local firms and investment by regional firms. Max Levy (1857-1926) came to the city from Baltimore and expanded his glass engraving business to photoelectrotyping, acid engraving, grinding, and x-ray plate production. Budd Company started in 1912 to manufacture auto bodies and railroad components. Its most famous product was the original Metroliner car that became the backbone of Amtrak’s passenger train operation. Arthur Atwater Kent (1873-1949) began building telephone components and voltmeters in Massachusetts, but moved into manufacturing radios in Philadelphia in 1923; until 1936 his company machined tubes, receivers, and other radio components. 

Local markets like Camden, Chester, and Pottstown also saw development in this period. In 1901, Eldridge R. Johnson (1867-1945), a machinist working with the Berliner Gramophone Company in Philadelphia, started his own sound recording company in Camden, the Victor Talking Machine Company. RCA (Radio Corporation of America) acquired Victor in 1929. Ford Motor Company built an integrated steel mill and machining plant along the Delaware River in Chester in 1927. Bethlehem Steel entered the regional market by taking over sites in Pottstown and expanding them to supply Philadelphia machinists.

[caption id="attachment_28817" align="alignright" width="245"]A Woman works to drill a metal filling within the aircraft factory of the Philadelphia Naval Yard A woman drills a metal fitting in the aircraft factory of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in a 1918 photograph. The outbreak of World War I, as with World War II, led to the hiring of many women into the machining workforce. Female operators became an integral part of the war effort, producing munitions and building the parts for and assembling U.S military aircraft. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Philadelphia machining reached its pinnacle during the two world wars. Providing a vast array of items for the military ensured a change in the composition of the machining workforce. Atwater Kent produced artillery fire control equipment, while Fayette R. Plumb machined entrenching tools in World War I. Nice Ball Bearing machined ball bearings for trucks, gun mounts, and aircraft pulleys for both wars. World War II spurred creation of the Tacony Ordnance Company and the Tacony Army Plating Plant from companies decimated by the Great Depression. Frankford Arsenal was called on for ammunition, and most firms, like O.P. Schumann, refitted their works to manufacture military goods like tanks, tank guns, artillery, and weapon parts.  Cramp shipyard built several cruisers and destroyers, while Philadelphia Naval Shipyard built the battleships West Virginia, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. And the U.S. Naval Aircraft Factory was charged with producing a remote control turbojet air-to-air missile. Another innovation from the period came from Dodge Steel, which replaced Tacony Iron. Foreman John Williams developed a casting process using an apparatus that maintained the pressure of molten metals during a cast. The level of production necessary to support the war effort required the hiring and training of unskilled labor.  As a result, women, immigrants, and African Americans became a significant part of the machining workforce.

War and Shipbuilding

Other segments of the Delaware Valley also contributed to American efforts in both world wars. Chester’s Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock went into operation in 1917 just in time to build seven cargo ships for the military. Having grown substantially by 1940, Sun produced 318 various types of cargo vessels during World War II. During that war New York Shipbuilding in Camden built, among other ships, nine light aircraft carriers and the battleship South Dakota, while Bethlehem Steel used its Pottstown plant to cast and machine both naval and field artillery.

The rise of larger firms, increasing diversity, and economic collapse during the Depression led to greater organization among machine workers. Skilled workers demonstrated and struck in 1893 and 1903 for better pay and against child labor, but generally, the familial nature of craftwork made unionizing difficult. By the 1910s local guilds became more formalized in organizations like the Iron Molders Union, Amalgamated Steel Metal Workers, and Philadelphia Engravers Union, but they did not have much political influence. The Great Depression, however, challenged the labor status quo and took advantage of changing worker demographics brought on by education. Closures and consolidations cut the number of firms in Philadelphia to 5,760, each with an average of fifty-three workers. This fostered organization and activism among workers. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and American Federation of Labor (AFL) molded local groups into larger unions such as United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers Union with the power to press for better conditions and pay. They succeeded, securing wage increases totaling 500 percent between 1950 and 1980.

The city’s casting, machining, and finishing workforce of 900,000 in 1950 dropped precipitously by century’s end. Rising wages and foreign competition undermined machining in Philadelphia following World War II. As Europe and Japan recovered from the war, they became producers of custom made consumer goods, and inexpensive machined products. Asia also became a hub for steel production, as first Japan and then China dominated its manufacture. Lower Asian labor rates and access to inexpensive resources led large domestic manufacturers in shipbuilding, electronics, and automobiles to relocate overseas. Machining concurrently declined as fewer large operations remained and labor rates made foreign products more attractive. By 1980, the number of Philadelphians engaged in manufacturing fell to 24 percent, or roughly 380,000. The majority of these lost jobs were skilled finishers and machinists. 

While some urban firms moved to the suburbs, most left the region entirely or went out of business. Henry Troemner moved to West Deptford, New Jersey, in the 1960s at the same time that O.P. Schumann moved to Warminster, Pennsylvania. Baldwin Locomotive, which had left Philadelphia starting in 1928, went out of business in 1972, as did Sun Shipbuilding in 1982 and Budd Company in 2002. Ford left Chester in 1961, relocating its regional manufacturing to Mahwah, New Jersey. Likewise, in 1992 RCA (owned by General Electric) left the Victor plant, consolidating its manufacturing operations elsewhere in New Jersey. In 1997, Lukens Steel was purchased by Bethlehem Steel, which immediately thereafter closed its Pottstown operations and sold Lukens to Mittal Steel. By 2000, an additional 200,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in Philadelphia, and by 2007 the total number of manufacturing jobs left was just over twenty-eight thousand. The majority of the remaining jobs were small shop machine production and finishing for local construction and fabrication firms.

The Philadelphia region was home to numerous machining and custom manufacturing and finishing operations that contributed greatly to the development of the United States and shaped the region as a home for high quality goods. Factors including high wage costs, consolidation, and foreign competition undermined urban operations and the number of regional machining employees. However, machining continued to be an element of the regional economy in suburban locales into the twenty-first century.

Lehigh Valley

Over the centuries, strong ties of transport, investment, and culture grew between the Greater Philadelphia region and the Lehigh Valley.  The valley was carved by retreating glaciers twenty thousand years ago and maintained by its namesake river running from the Pocono Mountains, through Blue Mountain, south and east into the Delaware River.  Only in recent memory was the region defined as the three counties of Carbon, Lehigh, and Northampton, and the metropolitan areas of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton.

[caption id="attachment_27352" align="alignright" width="300"] The Lehigh Valley is named for the Lehigh River, a tributary of the Delaware River. The 109-mile river made possible the settlement of the region. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Minsi Trail pathway linked elements of the Lenni Lenape tribe of Native Americans living in the Delaware, Lehigh, and Lackawanna river valleys. This trail, used for trade, communication, and tribal war, led the first Europeans to the valley in the early eighteenth century. The Lenape were forced from the valley after it was granted to the colony of Pennsylvania by the 1737 Walking Purchase. Evangelist George Whitefield (1714-70), Chief Justice William Allen (1704-80), and several wealthy Philadelphia investors purchased large tracts of the land in order to build country estates. Whitefield and Allen eventually sold their lands to settlers who developed communities in the region. Moravian missionaries settled Nazareth in 1740, and sect leader Count Nicolaus Zinzendorf (1700-60) founded Bethlehem in 1741. Allen, himself, planned Allentown (originally Northampton Town) in 1762.

Minsi Trail became known as the King’s Road and was maintained at the colony’s insistence by local communities. It spurred trade, making the valley a major supplier of furs, timber, iron, and agricultural products to Philadelphia. Pennsylvania recognized the region’s importance in 1752 by organizing it as Northampton County and naming Easton as the county seat. German immigrants followed the Moravian and Pennsylvania settlement efforts and filled out much of the valley’s land by the time of the American Revolution.

In the War for Independence the valley was the site of a Continental Army hospital and a state armory, and provided foodstuffs and supplies to the war effort. Durham Iron Furnace, owned by Irishman George Taylor (c. 1716-81), produced artillery and ammunition, and Taylor served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. When the British occupied Philadelphia in the winter of 1777-78, the state moved several manufacturing operations to Bethlehem, and Allentown was used to warehouse Philadelphia’s many church bells. Most famously, the Pennsylvania State House bell, later known as the Liberty Bell, was stored in Allentown’s Zion German Reformed Church.

Stagecoach Service

After the war, the valley’s connections to Philadelphia increased. The beginning of regular stagecoach service in 1796 and the chartering of a turnpike company to manage the route in 1804 transformed the King’s Road into Bethlehem Pike. The 1791 discovery of coal in the region drew investment from Philadelphia, whose entrepreneurs Josiah White (1781-1850) and Erskine Hazard (1790-1865) chartered the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to develop the coal field and built the Lehigh Canal between 1818 and 1829. The canal remained in operation until the 1940s, moving coal and iron to Philadelphia’s extensive factories and workshops. 

Lehigh County was founded in 1811 and Carbon in 1843 as development in the region strained communications with Easton. Many local residents, however, considered federal, state, and Philadelphia city involvement in the valley detrimental to local morality and culture. The Fries Rebellion erupted in 1799 after a federal house tax was zealously enforced. Arrests for non-payment provoked John Fries (c. 1750-1818) to lead his fellow Lehigh Valley citizens in an armed attack on the Bethlehem jail holding the tax dodgers. Fries and others were tried and sentenced to death but pardoned by President John Adams (1735-1826). Political conflict replaced armed uprisings in the nineteenth century as the valley fought against state laws mandating public schools, missionary Methodist expansion, and outside investment in natural resources. But the valley could not stop Philadelphians’ investment and interest in the region.

[caption id="attachment_27353" align="alignright" width="300"] Railroads played a vital role in the development of the Lehigh Valley. The Black Diamond Express became one of the most famous trains in the region. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In 1852, the North Pennsylvania Railroad further linked the valley with Philadelphia. The Reading Railroad then leased that line and built the Perkiomen Railroad and East Penn Railroad to connect various segments of the valley to the greater Philadelphia region. Asa Packer (1805-79), however, controlled valley rail traffic by creating the Lehigh Valley Railroad in 1852 from rights-of-way he purchased from Philadelphia investor Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844). These rail routes served to develop various valley industries including cement making, slate mining, and iron and zinc smelting. Crayola, founded in 1885, and Just Born Quality Confections, founded in 1923, used the valley’s rail networks and access to resources to provide creative color toys and candies, respectively, to the Philadelphia region and outward to national markets. In 1857, Philadelphian Joseph Wharton (1826-1909) founded the Saucon Iron Company, which became Bethlehem Iron in 1861 and Bethlehem Steel in 1899. The steel company, until its 1995 closure, provided for Philadelphia’s manufacturing enterprises and for the Delaware River (later Benjamin Franklin) Bridge, built in 1926. 

[caption id="attachment_27356" align="alignright" width="300"] Coal Mining is interwoven into the economic and cultural character of the Lehigh Valley. After coal deposits were discovered in 1791 near Mauch Chunk (later known as Jim Thorpe), dozens of coal-mining operations sprung up across the region. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Philadelphia, however, was not the valley’s only customer. Bethlehem Steel provided beams and cable for buildings and bridges around the country, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Chrysler Building, and Hoover Dam. Crayola Crayons were marketed around the world and were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998. Similarly, Just Born, started in New York, was given the key to the city of San Francisco for the innovativeness of its products. Passenger transport in the valley was developed by numerous trolley companies, one of which, the Lehigh Valley Traction Company, began service to Philadelphia, known as the Liberty Bell Line, in 1903. Two years later the company purchased and united all local routes as the Lehigh Valley Transit Company, making it possible to travel from Philadelphia to any part of the valley.  Trolley service lasted until 1956 when post-World War II developments in bus service and personal cars made the rails unprofitable. Many of the Transit Company’s rights-of-way in the Valley were transferred in 1970 to Philadelphia’s transport company, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). In 1926, Bethlehem Pike was redesignated as Pa. Route 309 and upgrades began, with segments transformed into highways. Some parts were left to local use and named Old Bethlehem Pike. In 1955, an extension was added to the Pennsylvania Turnpike providing a second road link between the Philadelphia region and the valley. 

Becoming a Bedroom Community

The construction of Pa. Routes 22 and 78 from the 1950s to the 1970s remade the valley into a New York City bedroom community. Commuters followed the highways west to avoid high costs of living, and bus service developed to transport workers into New York. Likewise, by the 1990s numerous New York firms relocated to the valley or built transport hubs to make use of the workforce and road network. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau recognized the importance of this economic and cultural connection by including the valley as part of the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area. Built in 1929, the Lehigh Valley International Airport connected the region to further non-Philadelphia markets and investors. The airport’s location and local intermodal service attracted Amazon, FedEx, and Air Transport International to make the valley a shipping hub for their enterprises.

Nevertheless, the valley retained strong cultural and economic ties to Philadelphia as well. Pennsylvania Power and Light (PPL), founded in 1920, provided electricity to several communities in the outlying Philadelphia region and was a major founding sponsor of the city’s professional soccer team, the Philadelphia Union, which played in Talen Energy Stadium, named after a PPL subsidiary. The Lehigh Valley Phantoms minor league hockey team, farm team to the Philadelphia Flyers, began playing in Philadelphia before moving to Allentown in 2014.  Minor league baseball’s Ironpigs arrived in the valley in 2008 after becoming a farm team for the Philadelphia Phillies.

The valley was also served by Philadelphia’s major media outlets, and numerous health insurance, banking, and engineering firms had shared offices between the valley and Philadelphia.  St. Luke’s Health Network of Bethlehem and Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital of Allentown both invested in serving the Philadelphia region. The federal government stressed the connection between the two regions by creating the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor in 2011, building a park and bike trail system over the unused canal and rail paths that previously linked the areas. 

[caption id="attachment_27448" align="alignright" width="300"] Each August, Bethlehem is the setting for Musikfest, a ten-day musical extravaganza with a wide range of free and ticketed concerts and street entertainment. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Investors saw the valley as a location to build hubs of transport, communication, and entertainment. In 2007, Sands Casino Resort purchased a large portion of the former Bethlehem Steel site and developed it into a $400 million gaming, live entertainment, hotel, and shopping destination. Opening in 2009, the site drew visitors to the Valley from both Philadelphia and New York. Sands became a major sponsor of Musikfest, an annual ten-day summer celebration of all music types. Started in 1984, in 2016 it hosted over nine hundred thousand people. It was created by ArtsQuest, a valley creative arts nonprofit that worked with Sands to develop the Steel Stacks Event Center on the old Bethlehem Steel site for both Musikfest and year-round programming. Remaining Bethlehem Steel properties as well as former industrial sites around the valley were purchased by the Lehigh Valley Industrial Park, an organization created in 1959 to revitalize the valley’s economic prospects as traditional enterprises declined. LVIP developed its section of the Bethlehem Steel site into office space, intermodal service, and storage. This investment drew companies like Norfolk Southern, Cigars International, WHEMCO (Lehigh Heavy Forge), and United States Cold Storage to the Valley. Philadelphia shoppers were further drawn to the region by the opening in 2006 of the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley, which featured seventy-three premium outlet stores. 

Higher Education and Health Care

Much of the valley’s redevelopment was also due to its institutions of higher learning and health care.  Moravian College, founded as a women’s seminary in 1741, played a major role in strengthening Bethlehem’s historic core. Lafayette College was founded in 1826 and in 1832 Easton’s town fathers convinced Reverend George Junkin (1790-1868) to relocate his Manual Labor Academy from Germantown to become part of the college. Lafayette subsequently became the city’s cultural heart. Muhlenberg College, founded 1848, and Cedar Crest, founded 1867, promoted Allentown as an undergraduate destination. Asa Packer (1805-1879) joined the development of education in the valley by opening Lehigh University in 1865 to provide engineers for his railroad. 

Lehigh picked up the research mantle left by Bethlehem Steel, taking over its innovation center and promoting cultural events on Bethlehem’s South Side. The largest educational institutions in the Valley, however, were Northampton Community College (NCC) and Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC), with roughly ten thousand students each. They took leading roles in redeveloping the downtowns of Bethlehem and Allentown, respectively.  NCC rehabbed an old Bethlehem Steel structure into an educational and community space. What began as Allentown Hospital in 1899 and a small St. Luke’s Hospital for Bethlehem’s South Side community in 1872 had by 2014 become the two largest employers in the valley. Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) and St. Luke’s Health Network built dozens of facilities throughout the valley and beyond, expanding opportunity and infrastructure. Together they employed 3 percent of the valley’s population.

Throughout its development, the valley was an immigrant community. Following settlement by Moravians and Germans in the colonial period, Irish came to the region to work in the canals, railroads, and mines. Irish mine workers famously became known as the Molly Maguires, namesake of labor agitators whose leaders were hanged at the Carbon County Prison in Jim Thorpe. Irish immigration was quickly overwhelmed, however, by large numbers of Eastern Europeans, who came to work in the coal mines, iron furnaces, and steel mills. Churches and fraternal organizations located throughout the valley signaled the presence of two dozen different nationalities. Although African American workers were recruited to the valley during the world wars, more recently Latino immigration from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic primarily surged, giving the region one of the largest Latino populations in Pennsylvania.

The Lehigh River Valley witnessed a great deal of development and change through the centuries.  Lenni Lenape, Germans, Slavs, and Latinos each added distinctive marks to the land in terms of transport routes, educational institutions, industrial concerns, and entertainment options. The majority of this development tied the region to Philadelphia, but that did not keep the valley from becoming an economic and cultural hub in its own right.

Robert F. Smith, Ph.D., is Assistant Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Northampton Community College and author of the book Manufacturing Independence: Industrial Innovation in the American Revolution.

Bank of North America

[caption id="attachment_17027" align="alignright" width="217"]A Portrait of Robert Morris, the founder of the Bank of North America. Robert Morris was the founder of the Bank of North America. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Chartered May 26, 1781, by the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation, this enterprise was the first national and truly commercial bank in the United States. Officially titled The President, Directors, and Company of the Bank of North America (BNA) until 1825, the bank was the first created by the national government to do business with and for the government. Though Pennsylvania Bank was founded in 1780, it did little business apart from subscribers who in 1782 sold their shares to BNA, which expanded its financial connections.

Robert Morris (1734-1806), congressional superintendent of finance, crafted the charter and used the bank to stabilize the national currency and save the Confederation from bankruptcy. Ninety-nine Philadelphians, along with congressmen, subscribed to bank shares and the bank opened on January 7, 1782. Morris, famous for furtive dealings, used a $450,000 French silver shipment to Congress to fund the bank, which then lent the money back to Congress. Later, when the bank feared congressional loan default, Morris sold the government’s shares to repay the bank, which then re-lent the money to Congress. Through maneuvers like this, the bank kept Congress funded through the Revolution and built itself a secure reputation. 

[caption id="attachment_17026" align="alignright" width="230"]A 1789 One Penny Specie Note issued by the Bank of North America on August 6, 1789. This 1789 One Penny Specie Note was issued by the Bank of North America during an era when banks acted as a middleman between citizens and the government treasury. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

BNA faced political controversy early on. Opponents argued it was an overreach of congressional power and a bastion for moneyed interests. Fears eased when bank directors chartered the bank in Pennsylvania giving BNA the unique distinction of holding two charters simultaneously. State politicians briefly revoked the charter in 1786. When the Confederation ceased, the national charter vanished and the bank operated under its state charter until 1864.  Out of the national spotlight, the bank increasingly became a tool of the Pennsylvania government, which protected it in exchange for favorable loan conditions. BNA was a model for the federal Bank of the United States, chartered in 1791 by Congress at the behest of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), a protégé of Morris. BNA, however, did little business with the federal government, aside from relatively small loans to the government during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.

[caption id="attachment_17340" align="alignright" width="300"]Image of 1860 Stock Certificate for the Bank of North America. Stock certificate for the Bank of North America, indicating that the shareholder owns $100 worth of stock in the Bank. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In 1863, seeking security, BNA applied to become “national” under the National Banking Act.  Participating banks received national charters but were required to purchase government bonds with fixed interest rates as well as accept minimum reserve requirements. Banks benefited from consistent interest income and a federal guarantee that if the bank failed, bank depositors would be reimbursed by the sale of bank-held government bonds. Granted national status in 1864, BNA was the only bank exempted from the requirement to add the word “national” to its title. 

[caption id="attachment_17025" align="alignright" width="195"]Vintage photograph of The Bank of North America building, taken in 1900. The Bank of North America building, built in 1893, in a photograph from 1900. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

BNA became part of the Federal Reserve System in 1914. It joined with Commercial Trust Company in 1923 to become The Bank of North America and Trust Company. In 1929, it merged into The Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives and Granting Annuities, eventually renamed the Pennsylvania Company for Banking and Trust. BNA’s legacy became the First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Company in 1955 after another merger, this time with the First National Bank of Philadelphia. In 1990, Core States acquired “First Pennsy,” which then First Union in turn acquired in 1998.  In 2001, First Union merged with Wachovia, which was then purchased by Wells Fargo in 2008.

The first building BNA occupied was at 307 Chestnut Street in the home of Tench Francis (1730-1800), the first cashier. That building and its opulent nineteenth-century replacement were later demolished, however, next door at 315 Chestnut Street the original main office of First National Bank survived (later becoming home to the Chemical Heritage Foundation). BNA lived on, though its identity did not.

Robert F. Smith is Assistant Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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