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Northampton County

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County text and building entries by Bruce Thomas

When Northampton County was created in 1752 it encompassed all of northeastern Pennsylvania, an area one-sixth the size of today's commonwealth, extending north along the western bank of the Delaware River to an indefinite limit over the Appalachian Mountains. By 1843, ever more precise border definitions, including settlement of territorial disputes with Connecticut after the Revolution, and the creation of Wayne, Schuylkill, Lehigh, Monroe, and Carbon counties from within Northampton's original boundaries, had reduced the county to its present size.

Today, Northampton County contains 372 square miles, bounded on the south by Bucks County, on the east by the Delaware River, on the north by the Kittatinny Mountains (the easternmost ridge of the Appalachians), and on the west by the Lehigh River. The land steps southward down from the 1,500-foot-high Kittatinny Ridge (an Indian name meaning “endless hills” known in most of the Piedmont as the Blue Mountain and in Franklin County as Front Mountain) to a range of 600- to 900-foot-high flattened hills, six to nine miles wide, across the northern part of the county known as the Slate Belt. Below the hills is the Lehigh Valley, a seven-mile-wide limestone plain covered with good arable soil stretching down to the Lehigh River and beyond into Lehigh County. The limestone substratum yielded a form of cement that for a few decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries defined yet another belt, the Cement Belt that was an international center for the production of Portland cement. In 1900 its manufacturers funded the Leslie Testing Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, establishing ASTM standards for the material that made the mid-Atlantic region a center for reinforced concrete architecture used by architects from William L. Price to Louis Kahn.

The settlement of Northampton County began with the arrival in Philadelphia of William Penn's sons Thomas and John in 1732 and 1734, respectively, who came to deal with delinquent leaseholders who owed the family years of back rent as well as thousands of squatters who were illegally occupying Penn land. Meeting strong resistance, the brothers instead looked north to outlying territory as a way to make the family's property pay, setting up a lottery and selling chances on one hundred thousand acres of land. Although the lottery failed, ticket holders were given claims to a site at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, the nucleus of present-day Easton. This area was still claimed by the Lenni Lenape Indians, a regional tribe under the control of the Iroquois Nation, who used it as their hunting and fishing grounds. In their negotiations, the Penn brothers cited a 1686 deed, purportedly signed by three Lenape chiefs, which they claimed conveyed to their father land north of the Neshaminy Purchase, the agreement that allowed settlement of Bucks County. The limits of this deed were imprecise, describing only a northern limit “as far as a man can walk in a day and a half,” and thence to the Delaware River. To establish its boundaries, the Penn brothers’ well-chosen “walkers” covered more than sixty miles along a blazed trail through wilderness to a point north of present-day Jim Thorpe in Carbon County. From there the boundary was completed not by drawing a line due east but by running it at a right angle to the path of the walk, terminating at the Delaware River north of a Dutch fort near Milford. This was the infamous “Walking Purchase” of 1737, which added 1,200 square miles, the entirety of Northampton County, to Pennsylvania. Its duplicity put an end to the good will created by William Penn's honorable dealings with the Indians.

Northampton County was settled by two distinct cultural groups that followed in the wake of the Walking Purchase, Scots-Irish and Moravian Germans. The Scots-Irish pattern of settlement was resolutely pragmatic; towns such as Easton, Bath, Stockertown, and Walnutport took shape according to the dictates of governmental needs, local industries, and transport nodes. The Moravian pattern, by contrast, was utopian in conception and shaped by a rigorous emphasis on community. The Moravian communities at Nazareth and Bethlehem were formally conceived and laid out according to wellestablished religious principles, all building requiring the review of church elders and, where possible, approval from the headquarters in the Palatinate. Out of these two strands, with their very different building traditions, economic practices, and conceptions of social order, arose the rich diversity of Northampton County's architecture.

After the Lehigh Canal opened in 1829, Easton became a major shipping point, where coal from the Lehigh Valley was transferred onto larger barges on the Delaware River. Industry grew rapidly; in 1820 more than twice as many residents were engaged in farming as in manufacturing, but by 1840 the proportions were reversed. Growth became even more rapid after the first railroads reached the Lehigh Valley in the 1850s. Bethlehem, situated in close proximity to both coal and iron ore, became the center of a massive steel industry. Close at hand arose the county's substantial Portland cement works, which by the start of World War I were producing more than twentyfour million barrels annually. This industry, along with slate and textiles, made Northampton County one of Pennsylvania's principal industrial centers, a far cry from the religious and social utopia that its Moravian settlers had envisioned.

After World War II the county's traditional industries began to decline, resulting in the closing of textile mills, the diminishment of slate extraction, and the eventual demise of Bethlehem Steel itself. The economic void has been filled in part by tourism. But bus loads visiting Bethlehem's Christmas celebrations and Easton's Crayola factory make for a very different local economy and culture than that shaped by the industrial colossus that once occupied the Lehigh Valley.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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