Historys Headlines

History's Headlines: Colonial Industrial Quarter

It’s Musikfest time once again. Along Bethlehem’s Monocacy Creek large tents are rising from the landscape. But Ted Moyer, a docent for the Historic Bethlehem Partnership, has another time on his mind. Dressed in garb similar to that worn by the founding Moravians, the 66 year-old Bethlehem native, (“I graduated from Liberty High School in 1969”) is guiding a party of visitors to the Christmas City’s past. Here, he explains, 270 odd years ago, after centuries of persecution and turmoil, they finally found a home.

Following the plan of their leader Count von Zinzendorf, a pious nobleman of the Holy Roman Empire, they would be a missionary community to bring the Native Americans and non-churched German speaking colonists and others into the Moravian faith. But this would require not just religious zeal but a strong united community. “The leaders of early Bethlehem,” note historians Carter Litchfield, Hans-Joachim Finke, Stephen G. Young and Karen Zerbe Huetter in their 1984 book, The Bethlehem Oil-Mill 1745-1934: German Technology in Early Pennsylvania, ”strove for economic self-sufficiency, believing that they could better support their missionary activities and also be less affected by outside secular influences if they provided for their own material needs.”

It was for this reason that the Moravians created a series of industries, most water powered, that has come to be called today the Colonial Industrial Quarter. Recently by popular demand Historic Bethlehem has increased the number of tours of the quarter, which houses the first municipal water system in America, created in 1755. Moyer notes that recently he conducted a tour of the industrial area for a group of tourists from Britain. “I grew up on the west side of Bethlehem and would take a bus downtown here to visit my grandmother and was always fascinated by the history,” Moyer recalls. Moyer became a guide in 2013. “When I retired I decided I wanted to both learn more and share that knowledge with others. I thought this was a good way to do that.”  Currently tours are being held Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 pm. For more information or to arrange a private tour, which can be done by giving 48 hours’ notice, call 1-800-360-8687 or go to the Visitors Center on Main Street.

The Moravian industrial quarter was based on the type of people who were drawn to the Moravians. Many in the German states were skilled tradesmen. “The Moravians were practical as well as pious; many were experienced in specific crafts and trades,” note historians. Among them was millwright Hans Christoph Christensen (1716-1776). Born in Hammelev, Schleswig-Holstein then part of southern Denmark, he joined the Moravians in 1744. In 1751 after spending some time in Moravian communities in Europe he came to Bethlehem. He was best known for designing and building the Bethlehem water works. “He did not invent the concept,” says Moyer, “but he had seen them in operation in Europe and brought the ideas here.”

Christensen played a major role in the construction of grist mills and an oilseed flax mill building that also included a snuff, hemp and grain mill. He did work for the Moravian community at Lititz, where he died of tuberculosis while rebuilding a burned grist mill in 1776.  Christensen did not confine himself to just Moravian projects. His millwright services were in such demand that he built grist mills in Allentown, Easton, Reading and the Oley Valley. Along with a hemp mill in Macungie, Christensen built a saw mill in 1774 at an unknown location. One contemporary gave this account of his personality here translated from German:

“By nature he held somewhat rough and authoritative manner, which sometimes made it difficult for those who had contact with him or worked under his supervision. Half-heartedness and apparent unfaithfulness angered him very much. However everyone will have to agree that he acted out of faithful mind and heart.”

In June, 1742 Bethlehem’s population was formerly divided into two groups. Members of the Pilgrim Congregation were assigned to the mission field while residents in the Home Congregation remained in Bethlehem to support missionary work. By 1751 the Moravian population consisted of 744 individuals eighty - eight of them, approximately, one sixth of the of the population, preached the Gospel at far flung missions. As early as 1747 visitors were commenting on the number of trades that were in operation. At least forty, noted Thomas Pownall, a colonial administrator, were at work that year. He listed some of them as follows: Saddle tree maker, Sadler, Glover, Shoemaker, Stocking weaver, Button Maker, Taylor and Women’s Taylor, Linen-weavers six looms going…. Brick Maker, Stonecutter, Stovemaker….Clockmaker,  Gunsmith, Silver smith….boat builder Surgeon Apothecary….These Artificers & Manufacturers  had each separate apartments & shops to themselves.”

A grist mill was built first in 1743. But perhaps the most complex was the linseed oil mill. Linseed oil came from flax seed. It was used in making paint and the preservation of wood. Its oil was also used in lamps, printing inks and medicines. By the 1760s the Moravians were selling their oil in both the New York and Philadelphia markets. Several small mills were founded but the largest was built in 1765.

Moyer points out that waterpower was used by a variety of these industries. The tannery, used for tanning leather, often including sheep and deer skins, used a sluice on a mill race that sent in water to turn the waterwheels. During the American Revolution when British leather could not be imported the Moravians made leather for boots and other items for George Washington’s Continental Army.

The waterworks used wooden pipes to get its spring water uphill to a large tank on the site of the current Central Moravian Church from which it flowed. Moyer flicks a switch, a modern device, which puts the water works in operation to give an idea out it worked. Amazingly this spring was the source of Bethlehem’s water from 1755 until 1912. “By then it had become polluted with too much industrial waste,” says Moyer.

They heyday of the industrial quarter was from the 1760s to the 1790s. The creation of the United States led to many industries that could do things faster and cheaper than the old colonial industries. And the creation of the Lehigh Canal and the Lehigh Valley Railroad made the spread of those goods even more possible.

Moyer points out  that the decline of the industrial quarter was not a gentle one. By the start of the 20th century one of the buildings that had been a part of the leather tanning industry was a house of ill repute. In 1902 when its owner was murdered there the city closed it down and had it demolished. As recently as the 1950s the area was an automobile junkyard nicknamed The Hole.

Today however the Colonial Industrial Quarter is a quiet, carefully tended park-like area that, despite an occasional flood, is a pleasant place to contemplate the industrial history of a Bethlehem that was.   


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