Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

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.

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)

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.

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)

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. 

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)

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. 

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)

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.

Copyright 2017, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Atwood, Craig. Community of the Cross: Moravian Piety in Colonial Bethlehem. State College, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004.

Behum, Frank Jr. 30 Years Under the Beam: Bethlehem Steel Exposed. As Told by Those Who Worked There. Continental Shelf Publishing, 2010.

Hall, Karyl Lee Kibler, and Peter Dobkin. The Lehigh Valley: An Illustrated History. Woodland Hills, Calif.: Windsor Publications, 1982.

Strohmeyer, John. Crisis in Bethlehem: Big Steel’s Struggle to Survive. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Taft, Chloe E. From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City. Harvard University Press, 2016.


American Painting & Sculpture Collection, Allentown Art Museum, 427 N. New Street, Bethlehem, Pa.

Bethlehem Steel Collection, National Museum of Industrial History, 602 E. Second Street, Bethlehem, Pa.

Genealogical Collections, Hess’s Department Store Collection, Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum,  432 Walnut Street, Allentown, Pa.

Local and Genealogical Research Collections, Sigal Museum, 342 Northampton Street, Easton, Pa.

Moravian Mission Artifacts Collection, Moravian Historical Society, 214 E. Center Street, Nazareth, Pa.

Steelworkers Collection, Steelworkers’ Archives, The Outlets at Sands Bethlehem, 77 Sands Blvd #215, Bethlehem, Pa.

Places to Visit

Allentown Art Museum, 31 N. Fifth Street, Allentown, Pa.

Asa Packer Mansion, Packer Hill Avenue, Jim Thorpe, Pa.

Bethlehem Steel Stacks, 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem, Pa.

Coplay Cement Company Kilns at Saylor Park, 245 N. Second Street, Coplay, Pa.

George Whitefield House / Moravian Historical Society,  214 E. Center Street, Nazareth, Pa.

George Taylor House, 35 S. Front Street, Catasauqua, Pa.

Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites, 505 Main Street, Bethlehem, Pa.

Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts, 427 N. New Street, Bethlehem, Pa.

Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum, 432 W. Walnut Street, Allentown, Pa.

National Canal Museum, 2750 Hugh Moore Park Road, Easton, Pa.

National Museum of Industrial History, 602 E. Second Street, Bethlehem, Pa.

Sigal Museum and Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society, 342 Northampton Street, Easton, Pa.

Steelworkers’ Archives, Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, Room 215, 77 Sands Boulevard Bethlehem, Pa.

Trout Hall (home of William Allen), 414 Walnut Street, Allentown, Pa.

One Comment Comments

  1. The southern bypass of Interstate 78, which passes through the Lehigh Valley and on to New Jersey, was actually started in 1984 and opened in 1989. (I’m a Lehigh Valley native and lived through this era of major construction, it complicated commuting for years). Because of this new and easier route into the Valley, the late 1980s through the 90s saw an influx of people working in New Jersey and NYC moving into the Valley for less expensive homes and lower taxes. This influx continues through today – the Valley is also home to people working in the Philadelphia region. Due to a lack of commuter trains (and not enough buses), a car is the main means of transport on vehicle-choked roads in the region, many of which began as Colonial-era paths.

    Darlene Schneck Posted July 8, 2020 at 4:57 pm

Logged in as . Log out? Add a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Comments One Trackback

  1. […] Lehigh Valley […]

Share This Page: