Easton was founded in 1750 by Thomas and Richard Penn, who intended it to be the seat of newly formed Northampton County. Their motives were strictly political: they preferred an English-speaking county seat, not an easy matter when 85 percent of the new county's population was German. They established the town at the confluence of the “Forks” of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, and named it Easton after the ancestral estate of Thomas Penn's wife. A German petition to have Bethlehem declared the county seat was unsuccessful.
Surveyor William Parsons laid out Easton on the model of Lancaster and York with a large courthouse square at the center of a grid. A combined church and schoolhouse were built in 1755 and a courthouse completed in 1765. Easton quickly played an important role in the region's development. In the late 1750s, Easton was the site of several Indian Treaty Councils that resulted in the dissolution of the French and Indian alliance and led to the opening of the western frontier. During the Revolutionary War, it served as a major supply depot for the Continental army. Later, during the canal-building era, Easton became the meeting place of three major canal systems—the Lehigh, Delaware, and Morris canals—a claim that no other town in the nation could make. By the end of the canal era in 1850, Easton had a population of 5,000, living in approximately nine hundred houses. Easton soon progressed from shipping goods to manufacturing them. Gristmills sprang up on the banks of Bushkill Creek and iron furnaces were established, particularly on the south bank of the Lehigh River. Here in 1833 the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company laid out South Easton, which by 1860 counted over 1,500 inhabitants. A few decades later, one South Easton operation alone employed 1,000 men in its mines, quarries, and furnaces. Other settlements followed at Glendon, just upriver on the Lehigh, where there were iron furnaces, and at Wilson borough, just to the west of Easton.
Through the first half of the twentieth century, Easton prospered. Its prominence as a railroad hub made it a desirable base for Pullman porters, many of whom made it their home; by 1940 Easton was more than one-third black. Today it contains the largest African American population in the Lehigh Valley. Italian immigrants also played an important part in the building of Easton—particularly Sicilians, many of whom were in the building trades. In the early twentieth century, Sicilian towns posted lists of families in the United States, one column for New York City, another for Easton.
In recent decades, Easton's industrial prosperity and the commercial downtown struggled to survive. Nonetheless, the strength of the original plan and its subsequent physical definition remain, as does the splendid riverfront location, all awaiting renewal that could come with shifts in economic conditions. On the heights above town, Lafayette College ( NO12) and its surrounding College Hill residential district ( NO13) retain links to the wider world in its lively campus. Easton is also home to the most vibrant arts community in the region, comprising painters, sculptors, and filmmakers. Finally, the town's original raison d’etre, its governmental function, remains important, if expressed architecturally only by the recurring additions to the courthouse jail complex.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.