Eight thousand years before European settlers crossed the Atlantic, ancestors of the Delaware tribe were thriving in the Lehigh Valley. The city now known as Allentown stands on a tract of land purchased in 1735 by William Allen from a friend of the family of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. William Allen, who served for several years as chief justice of Pennsylvania, built a hunting and fishing lodge on the geographically isolated site, which was first known as "Allen's little town." Allen and his son had hoped to turn the lodge into a trading center but the river was too shallow for boat traffic and the American Revolution of 1776 intervened. When the British captured Philadelphia in 1777, the Liberty Bell was carried to Allentown where it was concealed in a local church and later returned to Philadelphia upon British evacuation of that city.
By the early 1800s Allentown was little more than a sleepy marketing town for local farmers. However, when the Lehigh Canal was opened in 1829 to carry coal from the area north to the Delaware Canal and east to New York, and south to Philadelphia, Allentown for the first time had access to outside markets. Even more important was the availability of water power, and a growing number of businesses began to settle in the Lehigh Valley, including the country's first commercially successful iron furnace powered by anthracite coal. The resulting boom in the production of pig iron began to fade by the turn of the century when English advances in steel technology lessened the demand for iron. Nearby Bethlehem Iron was the only Lehigh Valley metals industry to successfully make the transition from iron to steel. Allentown, earlier than other northeastern industrial areas, was forced to diversify its economic base. With the arrival of the silk industry in the 1880s Allentown came to be known as "silk city." Other light industries followed and Allentown leaders determined to never again depend on one business for the city's survival. In the early 1900s Mack Trucks, Inc., moved to the city and remained one of the city's largest employers for most of the century.
World War II gave a boost to the Lehigh Valley's economy, but thereafter synthetics began to replace silk in the manufacture of clothing, the cement works phased out many operations, and the steel companies began to lay off workers. As has been the case with many industrial cities, improved highways, large tracts of available, affordable land, and the demand for larger homes encouraged development outside the city. The 1980s saw expansion in suburban shopping centers, industrial parks, and office buildings. Allentown and the surrounding region have benefitted from the completion of an interstate highway in 1989, which has promoted economic development, and from an influx of persons fleeing high prices and overcrowding in New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.
Today the Lehigh Valley supports a diversity of businesses and industries, having moved from what was once a primarily manufacturing base. The city has also begun an intensive revitalization of its downtown area, which includes plans for a multi-purpose complex on what was once industrial property along the Lehigh River. Numerous industrial facilities will be renovated at the same time, providing the area with a much-needed facelift and tying into Mayor Afflerbach's plan to create a "safer, cleaner, more prosperous city in which to live, work, play, and invest."
Historical Information: Lehigh County Historical Society and Museum, Old Courthouse, PO Box 1548, Allentown, PA 18105; telephone (610)435-1074
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