Many mid-nineteenth century regional rail carriers moved anthracite coal from eastern Pennsylvania and later expanded to passenger lines.  The construction of major highways and the United States’ reliance on the convenience of the automobile saw a decline in passenger lines.  By the 1970s, only freight lines remained in operation.  The items (reports, maps, pamphlets, and photographs) reflect the history of this regional industry from the early nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century. For more information on transportation, see "Ties That Bind and Conduits of Change: Transportation Networks In the Lehigh Valley."

Ties That Bind and Conduits of Change: Transportation Networks In the Lehigh Valley

By Christopher R. Dougherty and John K. Smith

What is the Lehigh Valley? Geographically, it can be defined as the area bounded on the north and south by the Blue Mountain and South Mountain, respectively. On the east there is the Delaware River, while the western boundary is probably not geographical but political—the Berks County line. Beyond just geography, is the Lehigh Valley a political or economic region? Politically the region is divided into two counties, each of which has two urban centers. Northampton County has Easton on the Delaware River and Bethlehem on the western edge of the county. Part of Bethlehem is in Lehigh County, which also the home to centrally-located Allentown. Economically, the region has developed internally and also has been part of the larger New York and Philadelphia spheres of economic influence. These two pathways of development have occurred simultaneously for nearly two centuries. It is still unclear today whether the Lehigh Valley will maintain its own regional identity or will be subsumed into the greater New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. A major factor in both intra- and inter-regional development has been the transportation systems that have facilitated the movement of goods and people. New transportation developments have prompted politicians and citizens of the valley to express their hopes and fears about the future. It has been hoped that bridges would unite communities on opposite sides of waterways, while links to metropolitan regions have generated fears of large-scale migration of outsiders into the community. Overall, transportation networks have been critical to the development of the region's economy and identity ever since Europeans began following Indian trials and waterways into Lehigh Valley.

During the colonial period, overland transportation was slow and expensive, in part because of poor roads. Not until 1795 was Philadelphia served by an improved road, the Lancaster Turnpike, which allowed the growing city to be supplied with food by a fleet of Conestoga wagons. No such road connected the Lehigh Valley to Philadelphia, perhaps because the Delaware River provided a viable alternative. Unfortunately, the Delaware is a rather fast moving river which made upstream travel difficult. As early as 1727, the Durham Iron Company navigated the Delaware to transport its products downstream and to bring back provisions and supplies, using the Durham boat, known to history because it figured so largely in Washington's crossing of the Delaware. The usual Durham boat was flat-bottomed and had vertical sides which ran parallel to each other up to a point 12 or 14 feet from the end, where they began to taper. It measured 60 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 42 inches deep. Its draft was 3 1/2 inches when empty and 28 inches loaded. Downstream it was possible to carry as much as 17 tons, but upstream only 2 tons was the limit. Going downstream the three crewmen used their 12- to 18-foot "setting-poles," for steering. On the upstream journey, the poles were used for propelling the boat, the men walking back and forth on "walking boards" on the sides of the Durham boat.

As was the case of most development in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, settlers preceded public infrastructure and later built roads and bridges on an ad hoc basis to move livestock, crops, and information to and from social and market centers. Three three major towns of the Lehigh Valley each contained three waterways that would soon become impediments to land transportation. In Bethlehem, some settlers either squatted or purchased land south of the Moravian-owned property in what would become South Bethlehem. These settlers improved a convenient north-south Indian path known as the Minsi Trail. To cross the river, John Adam Schaus operated a ferry at a site near the present Union Terminal. The ferry was not legally obligated to maintain regular service, thus continual service depended on the determination and mettle of individual ferrymen.1 Southerly traffic of agricultural staples to Philadelphia was increasing over what remained rough rutted Indian paths. Sensing that there was money to be made in the nation's desire for improved transportation, private interest preceded public investment in roads, bridges, and canals. Many joint stock toll road and bridge companies proliferated in the early national period. In 1794, Schaus' ferry was replaced by the first permanent bridge over the Lehigh in Bethlehem. Built by private subscription, the $7,800 uncovered bridge, combined with road improvements, accelerated overland travel and facilitated the interchange of goods, capital and ideas from Philadelphia, Reading, Lancaster, and Allentown. In Allentown, Jacob Blumer constructed a handsome chain-cabled suspension bridge over the Lehigh at Hamilton Street which began collecting tolls in 1814. Yet another private company, the Delaware Bridge Company, received a charter in 1795 to build a bridge across the Delaware from Easton to Phillipsburg. When it opened in 1806, it was the second fully covered bridge in the country after the Permanent Bridge at Market Street in Philadelphia.2 While private companies sought to cross over the Lehigh, Philadelphia entrepreneurs Josiah White and Erskine Hazard decided to use the Lehigh River to transport coal from the Pocono Mountains, 50 miles to the north, to Philadelphia roughly 50 miles to the south. In 1829 they completed a lock canal that ran from the coal depot at Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) to Easton on the Delaware River. Soon thousands of canal boats passed through Bethlehem every year, bringing outsiders and goods through what was still a church-dominated community. The canal led to real estate speculation along its pathway. When Moravian business suffered financial difficulties in the wake of the Panic of 1837 and the Lehigh River flood of 1841, the church had to bail out its members to keep Bethlehem's land in Moravian hands. These financial problems led the Moravian church to privatize the community in 1844. In 1848, the Moravian administrator Philip H. Goepp transferred a large parcel of former Moravian farmland on the southside of the river to Charles A. Luckenbach, who platted the first urban grid south of the Lehigh in 1854. Unlike the stolid stone buildings of the Moravians, the first new homes erected among the cluster of the preexisting farm dwellings near the bridge were simple balloon-frame clapboard structures.3 Almost from the outset, Luckenbach's "Augusta" attracted speculators and industrialists. Philadelphia industrialists Joseph Wharton and Samuel Weatherill acquired several acres along the river and built a zinc smelter.

More importantly for the future of Bethlehem, however, was the decision by Asa Packer to locate the headquarters of his Lehigh Valley Railroad at its southern terminus in Bethlehem rather than in his home community of Mauch Chunk. In 1855, the railroad began service between Mauch Chunk and Easton. A railroad linking Easton to Philadelphia had been operating since 1852. In 1857 the North Pennsylvania Railroad was completed as a link between Bethlehem and Philadelphia. Soon after completing his railroad, Packer became involved in the iron boom. The Lehigh Valley has an abundance of iron ore and limestone, two of the three ingredients needed to make iron. White and Hazard hoped that anthracite coal could be substituted for the charcoal that fueled the furnace. In 1839, with the help of a Welsh ironmaster, David Thomas, they succeeded and initiated an iron boom which would make the Valley the center of the nation's iron industry for decades. His railroad, in addition to hauling coal, also served the many iron furnaces and mills in the region. Asa Packer established the Bethlehem Iron Company to provide rails for his railroad. With this symbiotic arrangement the iron company prospered and soon became the dominant industry in Bethlehem.4 Whereas the Moravians had carefully segregated communal and religious spaces away from the noisome industrial quarter, "Augusta," later "Wetherill" and "Bethlehem South" soon showed itself a typically industrial agglomeration of wooden dwellings, coal and lumber yards, rail facilities, tanneries, zinc, brass, and iron works, and churches. On the Stobridge and Company's 1873 map several locomotives are shown lumbering to and fro across city streets. By this time fifty seven trains per day rumbled through the town. For those residents of the Valley accustomed to rural agricultural life, the failure to adjust to the rhythms and dangers of industrial technology could prove fatal. On June 26, 1869 John Frey was walking east on the Lehigh Valley Railroad tracks when "the five o'clock freight train came along at a rapid rate. As soon as Mr. Frey was discovered on the track, the whistle was sounded but it was too late." Still others were killed on the many grade crossings throughout South Bethlehem. The New Street, Third Street, and Cherry Street crossings were the site of numerous fatalities.5 South Bethlehem was soon becoming a noisy, frenetic place: a place of movement and danger.

Bethlehem was well served by several railroads, connecting the city to the nation's centers of capital and culture. Philadelphia Quaker capitalist and founding partner of the Bethlehem Iron Company, Joseph Wharton routinely traveled the North Penn Railroad to attend board meetings during the 1870s and 1880s.6 By the 1890s, healthy brinksmanship had developed between the two New York-oriented railroads in town, the Lehigh Valley and the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Maintaining ornate stations on either side of the Lehigh, the two railroads competed for both New York and the growing tourist trade. Both railroads served the upper Lehigh and Pocono regions and, unlike most eastern railroads serving commuter and long-haul passengers, these railroads produced elaborate tourist guides to induce patronage. The Lehigh Valley Railroad encouraged middle-class families to visit Mauch Chunk's famed Mount Pisgah, where an inclined railroad allowed unparalleled views from the summit. The Lehigh Valley further embraced advertising and engaged the services of Philadelphia photographer William H. Rau to popularize its well-maintained trackage, its innovative engineering feats, and its stable of modern locomotiveslike the "Asa Packer" and "John Wilkes"employed in New York to Buffalo service.7 One technology, the electric trolley car, introduced about 1890, created an efficient interregional and interurban transportation network that enabled easy mobility throughout the Lehigh Valley and beyond. On any given night in the late 1920s an Allentown couple could hop a streetcar to the Pergola theater at 9th and Hamilton to take in a film. Walking one block up to 8th and Hamilton, one would suddenly be at the hub of city, rural, and interurban trolley lines. During the warmer months passengers could ride the Allentown and Reading Traction Company's exclusive line to Dorney Park. Via advertisements, posters, and films the Lehigh Valley Transit Company urged residents to use its service to enjoy the isolated beauty of the Delaware Water Gap. Also heavily utilized in the decades before the opening of the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike was the Lehigh Valley Transit Company's "Liberty Bell" trolley route to Philadelphia. For $2.10 round trip during the week Allentowners could travel to Block's Department Store in Norristown or continue on the tracks of the Philadelphia & Western Railroad to 69th Street Terminal in Upper Darby, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. In 1940, this trip took roughly an hour and fifty minutesfar faster than any other mode of transportation. And much like the private bridge builders of the early 18th century, the Lehigh Valley Transit Company constructed its own elegant reinforced concrete spanthe Eighth Street Bridge at a cost of a half million dollars to carry its trolleys over the Little Lehigh River. Much like its ancestors, the bridge charged a fee to cross. Interregional trolley transit was reasonably well developed and extensions of Lehigh Valley Transit Company's system spidered out northwest to Slatington, northeast to Nazareth, east to Bethlehem, south and west to Macungie and Emmaus, and farther east to Easton via connections.8 In the first quarter of the 20th century the differences in city services between the boroughs of Bethlehem and South Bethlehem prompted business elites and government officials to commission a major report from the nationally-respected Municipal Research Bureau that pointed out the inefficiencies of having two municipal governments. In 1917 Bethlehem Steel head, Charles M. Schwab, led a well-organized campaign to secure support for merging the two boroughs. When the south side wards voted, the south side voted for the merger, 2527 to 92. On the heels of consolidation, local leaders rekindled interest in a "free bridge" and pushed for the construction of a new modern concrete span bridge connecting the two Bethlehems. Just as consolidation had been organized on the grassroots level, organizers solicited donations for the "Hill to Hill Bridge Fund." Though fundraising began during World War I, the project was completed in 1924. When finished, the combined concrete and steel trussed Hill to Hill Bridge was a distinctive specimen of urban infrastructure with ramps that created nine approaches at neighborhoods on either end of the bridge. The forty-eight piers and fifty-eight spans skirted automobile traffic over the river and the canals, and railroad tracks, into the heart of each Bethlehem.

Just as a bridge had helped to bring the Bethlehems together, some politicians hoped that improved transportation would lead to regional consolidation, overcoming a long history of ethno-religious factionalism between the residents of the valley's major citiesAllentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. At the 1913 dedication of the reinforced-concrete Tilghman Street Bridge, one Lehigh County judge waxed that "this bridge is another link uniting Allentown and Bethlehem and eventually bringing about one great city under a single name.9 By 1920 the automobile had begun to alter the urban form of both Allentown and Bethlehem. At first, the inconspicuous filling stations in the Spanish Colonial style were wedged into corner lots and suggested that the car and city could mutually coexist. Planners, too, viewed the car empathetically and Frank Koester's City Planning Report of 1918 shows a Bethlehem of the 1920s and 1930s surrounded by developments resembling spider webs. Wide boulevards link the new developments together and ring the entire metropolitan area. Though Koester's vision never materialized, the automobile and the freeway soon replaced the interurban trolley and the railroad as the premier mode of travel in the Lehigh Valley, changing patterns of work, play, and consumption.

A 1950 state Highway Planning Commission survey reported that over 17,000 cars per day traveled the 36-foot-wide Tilghman St. during 1949, and the situation was similar on other local roads. Perhaps hyperbolically, the Highway Planning Commision lamented that "Free traffic movements are virtually impossible during the day." To remedy the snarl, the Highway Planning Commission recommended that "a limited access four-lane bypass should be provided as soon as possible for U.S. 22 around Allentown and Bethlehem and a new approach to the toll bridge over the Delaware River constructed through Easton." Following the Commission's direction, the older William Penn Highway or U.S. 22 was upgraded into the Lehigh Valley Throughway in 1952. Skirting the northern fringes of the cities, the highway became a new locus for commercial and residential development. The Throughway directly spurred the explosive commercial growth of the Seventh Street-MacArthur Road corridor in Allentown and Whitehall Townships and the Schoenersville Road corridor north of Bethlehem.10 The Throughway combined with increased automobile ownership to decimate rider ship on the bus lines of the Lehigh Valley Transit Company. By 1971, the Lehigh Valley Transit Company filed for bankruptcy, by then carrying only 5 percent of its 1950 annual rider ship of 50 million.11 The Lehigh Valley also became a node in the evolving interstate highway program in the mid-1950s. Even before the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, the east-west Pennsylvania Turnpike was building the Northeast Extension to link Philadelphia with Scranton. When the first stretch of the road opened in November 1955, its northern terminus was the Lehigh Valley Interchange located a few milts northwest of Allentown. While some suggested the Extension had minimal impact on the valley, for the struggling coal communities of northeastern Pennsylvania, the completed highway offered new job opportunities in the Lehigh Valley's booming postwar industries.12 The construction of the larger interstate system further created economic linkages, expanded the region's labor pool, and reconfigured the spatial patterns of industry and commerce. Businesses such as the F. & M. Shaeffer Brewing Company, Kraft Foods, and General Electric relocated to greenfield sites at interchanges and highway intersections to take full advantage of freight transportation by truck.13 As much of the nation's freight shifted from rail to truck, the Lehigh Valley Throughway became overcrowded and outmoded. To separate local from through traffic, a southern by-pass highway, Interstate 78, was planned to carry through traffic around the metropolitan area. Political disputes over the actual route of the highway delayed its construction for over a decade. When it was completed in 1990, I-78 created a new regional network, especially with New Jersey's I-287, that prompted thousands of people in the New York metropolitan area to move into the Lehigh Valley, to take advantage of the lower cost of living. Many of these people now commute two hours or more by bus or car.

Just as earlier residents had imagined covered bridges, trolley systems, massive concrete viaducts, and throughways tying together the disparate communities of the Lehigh Valley, for postwar boosters a modern airport seemed to be both an economic boon and the ultimate regional unifier. As early as the 1920s, Allentown's businessmen were captivated by the prospect of a new municipal airport connected to an improved surface transportation network. John Cutshall, an Allentown attorney opined in February of 1929 that a modern airport was needed "in order that Allentown may reap its share of the new business that will accrue from this new form of shipping and travel.14 Although the valley was peppered with small airfields and strips catering to amateur aviators and small propeller-driven cargo planes, the region lacked an airport of sufficient size to draw major freight and passenger carriers. By the summer of 1948 leaders from both Bethlehem and Allentown, organized as the Lehigh Airport Authority, broke ground on a million dollar improvement to the preexisting Allentown-Bethlehem Airport by the end of the summer Easton had joined the Authority. The airport, opined the Allentown Morning Call, was becoming a truly regional institution and the cooperative process "an encouragement to those who would have general understanding in other matters.15 The Easton Express made the realization that "the Lehigh Valley section is in effect actually one large metropolitan area. As far as the airport is concerned, any progress and added business is bound to have good effect on the whole area.16 With the construction of the Throughway, I-78, and the Northeast Extension passenger rail and trolley systems withered as the Lehigh Valley became almost totally wedded to the convenience of the automobile. By the late 1950s, nearly every major railroad serving the region was curtailing its service, abandoning track, and dispensing with station property. In 1959 the Central Railroad of New Jersey ceased its service to Bethlehem and two years later the Lehigh Valley Railroad ended its passenger service altogether. In a grim demonstration of the failing fortunes of Asa Packer's road, the Lehigh Valley Railroad station in Allentown was demolished in 1962. Until its bankruptcy in 1976, the Reading Railroad continued to offeralbeit infrequentconnections from Allentown and Bethlehem to Philadelphia. Even then, Conrail continued to operate service to Allentown under contract from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) until 1979. Two years later, however, SEPTA abandoned its service to Bethlehem and a region once tied to steel rails and railroading was without passenger service.17 With the automobile and express highways Lehigh Valley residents may have found transportation convenience, but its road networks have spurred unprecedented residential and commercial development and reawakened interest in new modes of transportation and growth control. Just as 18th century settlers' distance and self-interestedness prevented connectivity, political fragmentation of the Lehigh Valley has prevented the region from coherently responding to challenges brought by changing modes of transport. It remains to be seen whether automobile fatigue or frustration with new growth will counter unrestricted development: development made possible by the construction of throughways, divided highways, and interstates.

  1. Archer B. Hulbert, The Paths of Inland Commerce: A Chronicle of Trail, Road, and Waterway (Worcester, Mass.: 1919), 46. ↩
  2. Frank T. Dale, Bridges over the Delaware River: A History of Crossings ( New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 69-72; Semi-Centennial: The Borough of South Bethlehem, Souvenir History (Bethlehem, PA: Quinlin Printing Company, 1915) ↩
  3. Ibid., 10. ↩
  4. Felix R. Gerard, The Lehigh Valley Railroad, 1846-1946: A Centenary Address (New York: The Newcomen Society of England American Branch, 1946) ↩
  5. http://asksam.bapl.org/scripts/as_web7.exe?Command=Search&File=beth1800.ask&Request=killed+street↩
  6. W. Ross Yates, Joseph Wharton: Quaker Industrial Pioneer (Bethlehem, Lehigh University Press, 1987) ↩
  7. “William Herman Rau: Lehigh Valley Railroad Photographs, 1899,” curated by Ricardo Viera, essays by Stephen Perloff, Gerald Bastoni (Bethlehem, Pa. : Lehigh University Art Galleries/Museum Operation, 1989); Guide-Book of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Its several Branches and Connections; with an account, descriptive and historical, of the places along their route (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippencott, 1873), 76-77; Railroads in the Lehigh Valley, R.L. Kulp, ed. (Allentown: National Railway Historical Society, 1962) ↩
  8. William McKelvey, Lehigh Valley Transit Company’s Liberty Bell Route: A Photographic History with Chronology, Historical Recollections, and Bibliography (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Canal Captain’s Press, 1989); Frank Whelan. “A History of Allentown: 1901-1916,” Allentown, 1762-1987: A 225-Year History Vol.1 (Allentown: Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987), 404. ↩
  9. Frank Whelan, “A History of Allentown, 1921-1929,” Allentown, 1762-1987: A 225-Year History (Allentown: Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987), 39. ↩
  10. “A History of Allentown: 1953-1965,” Richard D. Krohn, Allentown 1762-1987: A 225-Year History, Mahlon H. Hellerich, editor (Allentown: Pennsylvania: Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987). ↩
  11. Pennsylvania Highways: Today and Tomorrow, 73; Robert H. Wittman, Jr., “A History of Allentown 1966-1975,” Allentown 1762-1987: A 225-Year History Vol. 2, Mahlon H. Hellerich, editor (Allentown: Pennsylvania: Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987). ↩
  12. Thomas Dublin and Walter Licht, The Face of Decline: The Pennsylvania Anthracite Region in the Twentieth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 205), 170; 142-144. ↩
  13. Robert H. Wittman, Jr., “A History of Allentown 1966-1975,” Allentown 1762-1987: A 225-Year History Vol. 2, Mahlon H. Hellerich, editor (Allentown: Pennsylvania: Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987). ↩
  14. Frank Whelan, “A History of Allentown: 1921-1929,” Allentown, 1762-1987: A 225-Year History (Allentown: Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987), 75. ↩
  15. “Tie That Binds L.V.”, Allentown Morning Call, 24 July 1948; “Million Dollar Expansion Program Gets Under Way At Allentown-Bethlehem ‘Port,” Easton Express, 30 August 1948. ↩
  16. “Easton Joins Airport,” Easton Express, 30 August 1948. ↩
  17. Janet Greenstein Potter, Great American Railroad Stations (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996), 187-188. ↩