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In the summer of 1741 Peter Boehler and his party of Moravian colonists, who had been working for the Reverend George Whitefield at Nazareth, moved nine miles south to their recently purchased five-hundred-acre tract on the north bank of the Lehigh River. Shortly before Christmas 1741, they were joined by Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf, then making his missionary journey to America. Mindful of the season, which they were celebrating in a simple log cabin, he led them in singing the Moravian hymn “Jerusalem, sondern Bethlehem, aus dir kommet was mir frommet” (Not from Jerusalem, but rather from Bethlehem, comes that which refreshes me); from this arose the name for the new community, which was meant as an exhortation to humility and meekness, and against pride. In the ensuing decades, a rich and complex array of Moravian buildings arose along Church Street near the foot of Main Street, many of which survive in a superb state of preservation.

Despite its humble name, Bethlehem swiftly achieved prosperity. Here were built an early silk cocoonery that led to the region's silk industry (1752), a waterworks (1754), and by the end of the century, buildings for thirty-two specialized trades and industries. At the same time, the Moravian Brethren made Bethlehem a center of education, emphasizing the civilizing qualities of music and science in addition to Christian faith. Thus, from the start the Brethren initiated a dual approach to development at Bethlehem. When religious governance and the monopoly on landholding came to an end in 1844, Bethlehem began a period of aggressive commercial and industrial expansion. This culminated in the rise of Bethlehem Steel, steel from which built the modern United States, from the Empire State Building to the Golden Gate Bridge. Simultaneously, an emphasis on cultural refinement and respect for higher education continued. Today the Lehigh Valley is home to a half-dozen universities and colleges.

The divided nature of Bethlehem is evident in its spatial organization. Although the earliest industries were located just downhill from town along Monocacy Creek, they were soon exiled across the Lehigh River to South Bethlehem where the iron industry was centered. In addition to its heavy industry and polyglot population, South Bethlehem was also once known for less refined attractions, such as the regionally famous brothels frequented by New York City and Philadelphia mobsters during the 1920s. Although the settlement was absorbed into Bethlehem in 1917, the contrasting character of settlements on the opposite banks of the Lehigh remained.

Steel production ended in Bethlehem a decade ago, and in the first years of this century the once mighty Bethlehem Steel Corporation itself ceased to exist. Now a principal source of revenue is tourism, particularly the crowds drawn at Christmas (in 1937 the city presciently adopted the official designation “Christmas City U.S.A.”). Four miles north, along the county's primary east–west artery, U.S. 22, a variety of light industries reside in huge, sprawling boxes, clustered in anonymous shipping transfer stations and office parks. This most recent industrial landscape is more polite and less polluting than its forebears, but also less inspiring. The last barge floated down the Lehigh Canal in 1931, but the waterway remains, its towpath a pleasant passage favored by walkers, runners, and bicyclists. Across the river from Bethlehem stand the now derelict and silent blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel (but for how long?). On the opposite bank the lantern of the old Central Moravian Church ( NO22.6) similarly remembers the area's other, complementary cultural heritage.

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas

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