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 1812 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 1853 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 1988, 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 fifty-eight 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 1742, 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. Among the largest educational institutions in the Valley, however, were Northampton Community College (NCC) and Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC), with roughly ten thousand and six thousand students respectively as of 2022. 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 4 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. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2017, Rutgers University


The Lehigh Valley Canal

Library of Congress

Anthracite mining operations led to the growth of various transportation networks throughout the Lehigh Valley. Initially, coal was floated on barges to Philadelphia on the natural river system, but contending with flooding, obstructions, and rapid currents proved too difficult. In 1829, the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company opened the Lehigh Canal, designed to link Mauch Chunk to Easton, Pennsylvania.

The canal system rapidly expanded to meet the demands of industrial America. In 1839, almost seven thousand tons of coal was shipped through the canal system to the Delaware River. The Lehigh Canal eventual ran almost fifty miles and included numerous dams and lock systems to control the currents. Numerous communities sprung up on the banks as the waterway wound toward Philadelphia.

However, railroads became the dominant way to ship coal in the late nineteenth century and the canal system slowly fell out of favor. By the onset of the Great Depression, the canals had ceased operating.

The Lehigh River

Library of Congress

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.

For centuries, the Lenni Lenapi relied on the “Lechewuekink” river for sustenance and transportation. During the colonial period, European settlements hugged the riverbanks. With the coming of industrialization in the nineteenth century, the energy of the Lehigh River was recruited to provide power for mills and transport goods and raw materials to Philadelphia.

As the coal mining industry grew, a network of canals splintered from the river, and as coal was pulled from the area many pollutants were released into the Lehigh. Later efforts improved the water quality, and in the twenty-first century the Lehigh River was the center of natural recreation for many Pennsylvanians and visitors from outside the state.

This photograph shows a section of Lehigh Gorge State Park.

The Lehigh Valley Railroad

Library of Congress

Railroads played a vital role in the development of the Lehigh Valley. After anthracite coal was discovered in the valley in 1791, mining quickly became the most prominent industry in the region. During the mid-nineteenth century, the railroads grew alongside coal-mining operations, linking the coal fields of Pennsylvania with Philadelphia.

As industrialization and transportation grew, railroad conglomerates battled for control of the Lehigh Valley. In 1852, Asa Packer gained control of rail transportation in the region by creating the Lehigh Valley Railroad. New communities and industries popped up along the rail network, bringing population and economic growth.

In addition to rails transporting raw materials and products, passenger service grew rapidly in the region. In 1896, the Black Diamond Express train (seen here) became one of most luxurious way to travel, boasting lavishly appointed passenger cars with plush velvet chairs, smoking rooms, and observation platforms.

Mauch Chunk

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Mauch Chunk, known since 1953 as Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, was at the center of the coal industry of the Lehigh Valley. Founded in 1818 by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, Mauch Chunk was the head of the canal and railroad network that shipped coal from the mines of the region to Philadelphia by way of the Delaware River and rapidly expanded as the demand for coal increased. The town’s proximity to the Summit Hill mine and the Lehigh River made it a suitable base of operations for transporting coal, first by canal, then by rail. The Lehigh Valley Railroad linked Mauch Chunk to much larger communities and cities, including Philadelphia, Buffalo, and New York.

The town’s fortunes declined with the sagging demand for coal in the postwar period and a curious scheme was devised to bring attention back to the struggling community. The city was renamed Jim Thorpe, in honor of the famous Olympic athlete who had attended Carlisle Indian Industrial School, one hundred miles to the southwest.

Allentown circa 1901

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Allentown, which officially adopted the name in 1838, became one of the largest cities in the Lehigh Valley. Acting as the central railway hub for the growing regional coal mining industry, Allentown rapidly expanded during the 1860s.

The boom was checked by the Panic of 1873, but the city steadily recovered by the beginning of the twentieth century. With the aid of the rail network, Allentown hosted a wealth of industries, including steel foundries, mills, boiler works, breweries, carriage shops, brickworks, machines shops, lumber yards, oil refineries, printing shops, and various manufacturers of consumer goods.

After the Second World War, Allentown was given the nickname “Queen City of the Lehigh Valley” and enjoyed a second period of major growth in the immediate postwar period. However, by the 1950s major industries in the city began to founder. By the 1970s, deindustrialization had a profoundly negative effect on Allentown as manufacturers such as Mack Trucks and Bethlehem Steel closed their doors.

Lehigh Coal Miners

Library of Congress

Coal Mining is interwoven into the economic and cultural character of the Lehigh Valley. After coal deposits were discovered in the 1791 near Mauch Chunk (later known as Jim Thorpe), dozens of coal-mining operations sprung up across the region. As an integral part of steel production, demand for coal skyrocketed during the industrialization of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. As a result, the Lehigh Valley rapidly expanded to meet the demand and the population exploded, drawing immigrants from the British Isles and Central and Eastern Europe. By the turn of the century, the region was producing over sixty million tons of coal annually.

After descending hundreds of feet below the surface on freight elevators, coal miners worked long hours in very dangerous conditions. In addition to the hazards of working underground near heavy machinery, miners also fell victim to the invisible danger of carcinogenic coal dust. Thousands of miners died from “black lung.” Despite the dangers of the profession, entire generations of men and women lived in coal towns, which were mining communities centered on mining operations. In many of the communities in the Lehigh Valley, family fortunes were fixed on the mines. After the Second World War, oil quickly began to replace coal as the dominant fuel source in the United States and the coal towns of Lehigh Valley suffered greatly as a result.

The Lenni Lenape

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The Lenni Lenape are the earlies known human inhabitants of the Lehigh Valley, occupying the region for over ten thousand years before the arrival of Europeans. According to native tradition, “Lenni Lenape” translates to “men of men” or original people.

They flourished in the Lehigh Valley by using the Minsi Trail and established trade with other tribes in the Delaware and Lackawanna river valleys. Primarily relying on hunting, foraging, and small-scale agriculture, Lenape life revolved around small villages scattered throughout the region.

The influx of European settlers in the seventeenth century devastated the natives as disease swept through the vulnerable population. Weakened by depopulation, the Lenape were eventually pushed out of their ancestral homeland of the Lehigh Valley by the Walking Purchase of 1737.

Bethlehem Musikfest

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. The music acts and other entertainment unfold on the broad floodplain along Monocacy Creek and on and near historic Main Street, where this crowd was gathered in 2010. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Related Topics


Time Periods



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.

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Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy