History's Headlines: Little Lehigh Parkway: Man and nature working together
On any given weekend, Little Lehigh Park is a busy place. It's a slice of nature’s beauty in the midst of Pennsylvania's third largest city. Runners swiftly jog up its hills, families hold picnics and groups representing good causes can be found striding vigorously on its pathways. And-even after almost 80 years-the park remains more popular than ever. Recently a local member of the Lehigh Valley Runners Club heard a runner from San Diego say, “This is great for running. We have nothing like it in San Diego.”
The Little Lehigh Park didn’t just happen. One hundred years ago the Little Lehigh Creek, the focal point of the park, was a tangle of former hardscrabble farms. And that was the best of it. Some of Allentown’s children of that era remembered it as a place where industrial waste once poured and everything from broken glass to rusting mattress springs could catch an errant toe on a hot summer afternoon's swim. Without the work of some farsighted Allentown citizens, the careful planning of one of America’s leading landscape architects, and the thousands of local men who provided the shovel power, it might have remained as it was.
The early history of the Little Lehigh Park is Native American. The Lenni Lenape were the first ones to hunt and fish along the creek's banks. The first European to see the Little Lehigh Creek is unknown. It could have been a fur trader, since some had penetrated the region by the early 18th century.
But the historical record places Peter Bogert, a Pennsylvania German who arrived in Philadelphia in 1744, as the property’s first owner. Unlike many of the early settlers from the German Holy Roman Empire who came to the Lehigh Valley, Bogert apparently had enough money to purchase outright 304 acres of land along the banks of the Little Lehigh.
According to the "1912 Anniversary History of Lehigh County," most of those living along the creek’s bank in what is now the park were at that time descendants in some way of Bogert. Things did not always run smoothly between the Indians and the early settlers. Attempts by pioneers in the 1760s to build a low bridge over the Little Lehigh Creek blocked the passage of the Native American canoes, which sparked a disagreement. Peter Bogert stepped in and arranged an amicable settlement between them. For this the Lenape gave him the nickname “the peacemaker.”
Today one of the featured attractions of the park is Bogert’s Bridge. Constructed in 1841, it is one of the oldest covered bridges in the country. Its design is called a Burr truss after covered bridge designer Theodore Burr (1771-1822). A native of Torringford, Connecticut, Burr was a distant cousin of Vice President Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in1804. Burr’s bridge design was widely popular in Pennsylvania and all surviving Lehigh County covered bridges are based on it. Even so, Theodore Burr is said to have died penniless. Bogert’s Bridge is now only for foot traffic.
In the 1850s and 70s, attempts to build a railroad on elevated stone trestles over the Little Lehigh failed. But the stone they left behind was later used to build or to enhance many of the stone structures that would be built in the park in the 1930s.
Allentown industrialist/philanthropist General Harry C. Trexler was apparently the first person who envisioned the Little Lehigh Creek bed as a place for a park. The idea may have first come to him in 1907 when he took over the creek’s Trout Hatchery. From 1915 to 1923, Trexler was the head of Allentown’s City Planning Commission. Among those he came into contact with at the time was B. Antrim Haldeman, a noted Philadelphia city planner, advocate of the “City Beautiful” movement of the day, and designer of that city’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Trexler asked him to survey Allentown for potential parks. Haldeman noted a number of sites and he called special attention to the Little Lehigh Creek area for its potential.
Trexler had already gotten to know Philadelphia’s J. Franklin “Frank” Meehan, one of the country’s best known landscape architects. His father Thomas had designed Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Trexler and Meehan had worked together on Allentown’s West Park, which Trexler helped to plan and to partially fund. The two also worked together on Springwood, which was then Trexler’s summer home. Now it's Trexler Memorial Park.
Frank Meehan drew up a design plan for Trexler that took advantage of the creek bed’s topography, creating the paths, walkways, sweeping vistas and shady nooks that impress all that use them today. He also created concepts for “follies,” or imitation ruins, using the stone that had been left behind by the former railroad projects.
Despite his role in the community and the support of Allentown Mayor Malcolm “Mal” Gross, Trexler was not supported by Allentown’s city council. So in the 1920s and 1930s he went ahead and purchased the property himself.
When Trexler died in an automobile accident in 1933 Gross took up the park’s banner. Thanks to having a “shovel ready” project already planned, Allentown was able to get federal money and jobs for local men to help create the Little Lehigh Park and many others in the city.
Critics at the time called it “Gross’s Folly,” thinking it a waste of public money. Gross defended it, saying it was Allentown’s “ace in the hole” of urban planning. Now nearly 80 years later few would disagree as to value. Just ask a runner.
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