Alfred Mathews and Austin Hungerford's (1884) account of Mauch Chunk captured the picturesque setting that gave the city its nickname of “the Switzerland of America.”
Immediately in front [of Bear Mountain] flows the Lehigh, its channel forming a crescent-shaped curve.… It is only by the strictest economy of space and the utmost skill of the engineer that a canal and two great railroads can follow the river in its winding course through this narrow passage in the mountains. Beyond the river and following the curving course of its bank is a street, upon which a long line of buildings front.… So far the town has appeared to consist of a single street along the river, but we see a deep and narrow valley, or rather ravine, opening to the Lehigh, between South Mountain and Mount Pisgah. Down through this gorge rushes a small mountain stream, and upward through it, in a zigzag and erratic way, rising constantly but by easy degrees, leads the main street of Mauch Chunk. The houses are built without dooryards upon the street, and impinge upon the base of the mountains on either side. Almost every foot of available building ground is occupied. Except for a few rods near the mouth of the ravine, where a narrow street with a single row of houses runs parallel with the main street, on a higher level, there is no room for a second thoroughfare or scarcely for an alley.
The original fifty-four acres that became Mauch Chunk were purchased by Philadelphia industrialist and inveterate inventor Josiah White when the owner of a more favorable site a mile upriver at the junction of Nesquehoning Creek and the Lehigh River held out for too high a price. In the meantime, White had perfected his system of bear-trap locks that made the upper Lehigh navigable, and by 1823 was shipping more than two thousand tons of coal to Philadelphia in a one-way navigation. The guarantee of a fair price led to an expanding market and three years later the volume had increased tenfold. Mauch Chunk, where the Lehigh River became wide enough for two-way navigation, boomed and drew adventurers from around the nation. Within a year, there were saw and grist mills, smiths, shops, and wharves. That pattern continued until 1844 when, after only two years of operation, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad shipped four hundred thousand tons of coal, exceeding the canal business and heralding the future.
In 1831, the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company permitted outsiders to own property in the town. Connecticut Yankee Asa Packer was an early settler whose energy brought a second wave of growth to the town, culminating with its selection as the county seat of the new Carbon County. It was Packer who saw the value of converting the river navigation to the more dependable and ultimately more economical railroad; from his railroad-based fortune he built the town's institutions and ultimately funded Lehigh College (now Lehigh University; NO41) in nearby Bethlehem. The Victorian town is in many ways a monument to him, beginning with his large but simple villa ( CA9) that overlooks the town.
Crucial to the town's survival was the awareness of its picturesque site and its architectural character. The city commissioned a 1977 planning study by Denise Scott Brown of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, assisted by David Marohn. They recommended “the careful conversion of nineteenth-century buildings to new commercial and cultural uses” with the emphasis on adaptive reuse rather than preservation. This has led to the transformation of the town into a recreational center with a leisure-oriented main street.
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