County text and building entries by George E. Thomas and Robert Janosov
The region that is now Carbon County was originally part of Northampton County and because of its relative isolation beyond the Blue Mountain it was settled slowly. Moravians settled in what is now Lehighton in 1746, but townships were not established until 1768 when Towamensing and Penn were created on the Lehigh River. After Schuylkill County was cut from Berks County and Lehigh County from Northampton County in 1811 and 1812, respectively, there was agitation for a new county along the Lehigh River. The first petition was drawn in 1816, but it was only in 1843 that a petition calling for a division along the Blue Mountain was approved. “Thus divided, we conceive will, almost in every respect, be far more convenient and beneficial to the county at large, especially by having the seat of justice north of the Blue Mountain and near the river Lehigh, so as to command the practicable boat and raft navigation thereof, as well as the trade and intercourse of the Susquehannah [ sic] settlements, by means of the lately-made turnpike from the Susquehannah to the Lehigh.” By the time the new county was established the region was fueling the Pennsylvania industrial boom via the Lehigh River, the principal highway of the coal trade. The petitioners for land were primarily German with a few Scots-Irish, and the names of the earliest settlements reflect this ethnic mix. These are found in the valley bisected by Pohopoco and Mahoning creeks that drain from the east and west, respectively, into the Lehigh River.
The principal question that occupied those who shaped each new county was the location of the county seat. Lehighton, on the site of the even earlier Gnadenhuetten of the Moravians, had been settled for nearly a century, but the booming canal-based economy of the new county favored Josiah White's company town, “Mauch Chunk” (Native American for Bear Mountain). The willingness of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to adapt one of their store buildings to serve as the courthouse and jail cemented the deal. Like Pottsville (Schuylkill County), which is wedged into Sharp Mountain, Mauch Chunk's site where the Lehigh River breaks through the Mauch Chunk Ridge has limited its growth. In return, it gave the potential for architectural drama that makes it among the most visually appealing of Pennsylvania's county seats. Alfred Mathews and Austin N. Hungerford in The History of the Counties of Lehigh and Carbon, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1884) recounted some of the difficulties of the site. “While the agitation of the county division and county-seat location was going on, a business man of Mauch Chunk, now living, was in Easton, and one day was asked in the presence of several gentlemen who were opposed to the setting off of Carbon, ‘When you get your own county, and have the seat of justice located at Mauch Chunk, where will you build the addition to your village which the natural growth will require?’ Without a moment's hesitation he replied, ‘Oh, we'll dig down one story and build up two.’” This was precisely the manner in which most of the building since 1843 has been accomplished, and in addition a few houses have been hung on the sides of the mountains.
As the seat of county government and in the center of the nineteenth-century coal boom, Mauch Chunk's citizens were connected by the black gold of coal to New York City and Philadelphia. These connections brought architects from both cities and gave Mauch Chunk's downtown a remarkable sophistication. Historian Robert Janosov links the regional decline to New York tycoon J. P. Morgan's purchase of early settler Asa Packer's Lehigh Valley Railroad in the late 1890s that ended the region's control of its economy, and the millionaires created in the coal transportation boom left Mauch Chunk. The county's population reached a peak of 63,000 in 1930 and then after the 1930s coal strikes began falling. Only now has it returned to its 1930s levels—though its summer population is much higher. The decline of the coal industry led to a variety of schemes to reposition the region, none more unlikely than renaming the town Jim Thorpe to honor the Native American Olympic star whose professional sports career had caused the forfeiture of his medals. Jim Thorpe has become a tourist mecca and the mountain region around the town has made the successful shift from the extractive industry of the nineteenth century to a leisure lifestyle in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries. Unfortunately that model has not been followed in much of the surrounding countryside, which continues to await the revival of the coal industry.
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