New maps are important because they tell us where we are going. But old maps are also important because they tell us where we have been.
A visit to Muhlenberg College’s Ray R. Brennen Map Collection, an outstanding grouping of international, national, state and local maps whose breadth stretches from the 17th to the 20th century and which is housed in special collections area of the college’s Trexler Library, is a trip back in time to the way we were.
In honor of the city of Allentown’s 250th anniversary next year, Muhlenberg is planning to offer a viewing of the collection as an item at the silent auction to be held at the city’s New Year’s Eve Gala on December 31, 2011.
The collection was donated to the college in 1997 and was the passion of Ray Brennen, a prominent figure in Allentown’s legal and political life for a good part of the 20th century.
A native of Allentown and 1935 Muhlenberg graduate, Brennen had a legal career of 54 years, served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and was an active Democrat. For six years he was chairman of the Lehigh County Democratic Committee. In 1948 Brennen was among those local officials pictured welcoming President Harry S. Truman into the city during his famous whistle stop campaign for re-election. Brennen died in 2006.
During his years in the Navy Brennen developed an interest in maps. He got to know many cartographers, map dealers and other collectors who helped inform and educate him in his selection. “Through his collection, Mr. Brennen tried to achieve a sequence of maps illustrating the growth and development of the state and the Lehigh Valley,” says the college’s official guide to the collection. “He also collected historic maps from around the world by notable cartographers.”
It is the pleasant task of Diane Koch, special collections / archives librarian for the college, to have charge of the Brennen collection. On a recent afternoon she had several of the most interesting maps in the collection on display. Most of the time they are kept in vault-like climate-controlled room to protect them from deterioration.
That these maps are also works of art is clear. They were designed not just to show how to get from here to there but also to stimulate the artistic appreciation of the viewer. Among Koch’s favorites is a mid-18th century beauty of delicate hues of pink, green and yellow that depicts the Papal States. These were the temporal domains of the Popes from the Middle Ages until the 1870s when they became part of a united Italy. What particularly impresses Koch is the fact that the map she has on display and a nearby contemporary are mounted on silk. Clearly they were made for a wealthy cleric or nobleman with refined taste.
Nearby is a large bound world atlas from England published in1808. A little research shows that the name “J. Cary” on the cover is for John Cary, an English cartographer who lived from 1754 to 1835. He was trained as an engraver and opened his own business in London in 1783.
Viewers turning to page 56 will see Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee. At the upper right hand corner is the Lehigh Valley with Easton, Bethlehem and Allentown. Cary’s map dated June 1st 1805 shows Allentown as “All town,” apparently for lack of space. The names Allentown, Northampton and Northamptontown were all used interchangeably for the city, sometimes even by Allen family members, until it was officially designated as Allentown in 1839.
To the west of Pennsylvania’s borders is a vast area labeled the “Western Territory.” Several Midwestern states including Ohio, Indiana and Illinois are located there today. At that time the region was still in dispute between the U.S. and Britain, a dispute which would not be resolved until the U.S. victory in the War of 1812.
Another interesting piece is a reproduction of a copy of the original map of Allentown. This copy was based on one, now apparently lost, that was drawn at the direction of city founder William Allen in 1762 and shows the original building lots.
The original of this copy, done in 1824 is in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Its grid street pattern was taken from that of early Philadelphia and later duplicated across the country. In the 1820s a native of the Quaker City, on viewing the newly minted town of Cincinnati, Ohio, exclaimed, “How beautiful this city is, how much like Philadelphia.”
Like any proud real estate developer today, Allen named most of the early streets for his children, family and friends. Hamilton Street was named for his brother-in-law James Hamilton. Walnut Street was John Street after his oldest son.
For the local historian the two most significant Brennen maps hang in the 3rd floor reading room of Trexler Library. Done in 1862 and 1870 they show not only the street grid but illustrations of Allentown homes, churches and industries as the looked roughly 150 years ago.
The creator of both maps was Gustavus Adolphus Aschbach. A German democrat driven out of his country following the suppression of the revolutions of 1848, he fled to Switzerland where he studied civil engineering.
On his immigration voyage to America Aschbach met a young woman from Allentown who later became his wife. He was named the city’s first civil engineer and during the Civil War volunteered to design fortifications for the Union Army in Kentucky. While there Aschbach contracted malaria from which he never fully recovered, dying in the 1870s in his early 40s.
But as his legacy he left these magnificent maps which, thanks to Ray Brennen and Muhlenberg College, still offer clues that help us navigate the past.