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Lehigh County

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County text and building entries by Bruce Thomas

Lehigh County was formed out of Northampton County in 1812. Comprising 350 square miles, it is defined on the north by the Lehigh River, on the east by South Mountain below Bethlehem, and on the west by the Blue Mountain ridge. These features shape the Saucon Valley, through which Little Lehigh and Jordan creeks flow into the Lehigh River. This limestone-floored valley covered with fertile farmland encompasses most of the county and is itself a part of the Great Valley, the geographic feature that marks the eastern edge of the Appalachians. Settlement began in the early decades of the eighteenth century when a few farmers began drifting north from Bucks County. The first significant attempt at creating a town took place at what is now Emmaus, when German farmers endeavored to establish a Lutheran church in 1740, calling the community Maguntsche. But it did not take and in 1747 Moravians took it over, changing its name to the biblical Emmaus in 1761. But as with Northampton County, William Penn's descendants would permit no German community to become a county seat, and that honor was given to Allentown.

Growing steadily, Lehigh County reached a population of nearly 100,000 by the end of the nineteenth century. The 1830s and 1840s were transformative decades. With the opening of the Lehigh Canal in 1829 and the subsequent arrival of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, the county's agrarian economy was soon supplanted by industry. Ironworks lined the banks of the Lehigh River and Little Lehigh and Jordan creeks. But the Panic of 1873 shook the region's confidence in an economy so focused on a single industry. Local business diversified into cement, textiles, and cigar making. With these industries, the population changed, and the German and Scots-Irish culture was increasingly augmented by central European immigrants.

Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, Lehigh County continued to prosper. A still profitable farm economy was supplemented by local industry and the county's market town, Allentown, grew larger than the neighboring towns of Bethlehem and Easton, topping 100,000 after World War II. In recent decades the county's industries diminished sharply. Slatington no longer produces slate, and the county's iron and textile works are gone, though many of their buildings remain as empty shells. Farmland disappears as residential development spreads northward toward the Blue Mountain. Similar suburban sprawl covers the southern tier of the county, as Macungie and Milford townships absorb development seeping up from Bucks and Montgomery counties. Once, modern industry traced the lines of Lehigh County's river and creeks. Now a new commerce fills the corridors through the county shaped by U.S. 22, I-78, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-476).

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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