For a true map lover, particularly one interested in local history, a visit to Muhlenberg College’s Trexler Library is a must. There on level three on the wall are two huge, framed and under glass maps of the city of Allentown and Lehigh County. They are a gift of the Ray R. Brennen Collection. Brennan was a 1935 graduate of the College. Both maps were created in the mid-19th century and have detailed information about the city. They offer a view of a time when Allentown’s real estate market was hot. The map from 1862 shows the homes of wealthy lawyers and iron furnace owners. The other was done in 1870 and offered lots that stretched out to almost the vicinity of 15th Street, although at the time the city went only a little way beyond 11th Street. It showed the empty tracts of land with their owner’s name so potential buyers would know who to contact.
These are just two of the many historical maps that offer a snapshot of the Lehigh Valley at a particular point in time. But not everyone has the time to get to the many repositories, colleges, historical societies or other institutions that house them. To remedy this problem, in 2019 the Lehigh Valley Historical Maps Consortium, made up of a number of local institutions, including the Muhlenberg College Archives, the Moravian Historical Society and Lafayette College, launched a new website, “Historical Maps of the Lehigh Valley.”
It was designed to give researchers, historians, geographers, students and anyone just interested in the past the ability to find quickly and easily the kind of map they were looking for. “And while it currently contains a limited selection from a few partner institutions,“ the Consortium noted in a recent press release, “it will grow substantially as maps are inventoried and digitized in the coming year.”
No one knows who the first map makers in the Lehigh Valley were. The Native Americans, whose tribes used this land for hunting, fishing and living, almost certainly had ways of knowing where they were in this vast tract of land and what they needed to do to get around. When the Europeans bumped into this continent on their way to what they thought was Asia they had been engaged in making maps for thousands of years. The Romans learned from the Greeks and gloried in maps set up in the center of Rome, showing distances one could travel from their imperial city.
During the so-called Age of Exploration in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, maps used by sea-faring peoples- the Spanish, French, Dutch and English- could be found, usually heavily decorated with mermaids and sea monsters, in the palaces of Europe. Far more practical navigation charts would be housed in the counting houses of merchants and the tables of ships captains. The Spanish were particularly careful, keeping their charts in locked boxes that could be thrown overboard to keep them from the enemy.
What we now know as Pennsylvania was already on the minds of royalty. In the late 1600s England’s King Charles II had enough knowledge of the place to name it Penn’s Woods, as there were a lot of trees there. Penn got the land from the king in lieu of a debt he owed to his father, Admiral Sir William Penn. By Penn’s own account he was so concerned (he wanted the colony named New Wales) that he, a pious Quaker would be known for wanting to glorify himself that he rushed to the king to stop him. Charles, known for his wit, said, “Don’t flatter yourself, we are naming it for your father.” In fact, Charles had no real way of knowing when he drew his lines on the map how far west to go. Other English monarchs drew border lines for other colonies that conflicted with each other. If was not until after the Revolution that they were finally settled.
Long before the arrival of Penn, Dutch and Swedish trappers and fur traders were close to and may have actually been in the Lehigh Valley or at least in the forks of the Delaware. It was in apparently 1700 that the Lehigh Valley came to Penn’s attention that Jan Hans Steelman, a Swedish American fur trader, was trading rum with the Native Americans in exchange for furs. Either because he did not want the Indians to have rum for moral reasons or he did not like the fact that Steelman was trading rum without getting his permission first is unknown. But Penn did warn Steelman in a letter to cease and desist of carrying on his trade on “the Lecha at the Forks of ye Delaware." This is clearly a reference to the future site of Easton.
In the 1730s, 40s and 50s Penn’s sons, Thomas and Richard Penn, were busily engaged in selling land to the German language settlers coming in large numbers from Europe. To do this they had official surveys made by colonial surveyors. Nicholas Scull is the best known of these surveyors for his early maps of the region. It was widely known that William Allen was among the wealthy men who offered bribes to surveyors to give them knowledge first of the best parcels of land that they had surveyed so they could acquire them before they went on the public market.
Settlement patterns in Pennsylvania went west along the southern border. The best land for farming was to the south. As a result, there was not nearly as much map making in the Lehigh Valley. The Moravians were among the few in the area doing accurate surveys in the 18th century Lehigh Valley. One of the oldest maps of the Lehigh Valley is in the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia. It is a map of a street grid as designed by William Allen in 1762. It is a square street plan copied itself by the one William Penn drew up for Philadelphia that was duplicated across the country primarily because it was the best way to sell real estate. “Northhampton Town, Surveyed by Order of William Allen,” it reads. “Northhampton town” was what he originally called Allentown. A small illustration of a house at the bottom right is labelled “Freeman’s,” a very early colonial family. Above is a geographical feature labeled Great Spring.
Allen’s map covered the section of the future city from what today is Fourth to Tenth streets between Union and Liberty Streets. There are 756 neatly drawn building lots, almost all of them from 60 feet width and 230 feet in depth. Hamilton was then the main street. The name had nothing to do with Alexander Hamilton, who was about 6 or so at the time, but was named for Allen’s brother-in-law James Hamilton, a former colonial governor.
It was not until 1862 that Lehigh County and Allentown got a map by a trained civil engineer, Gustavus Adolph Aschbach. Born in 1826 to a prominent family in the Grand Duchy of Baden, the concept of a liberal, liberated and united Germany was instilled in him. In 1848 he was taking law courses at the University of Heidelberg when a revolutionary wave swept over Europe and into the German states. Like a lot of his fellow students, Aschbach plunged in, full of idealistic zeal. But when the King of Prussia turned his back on them saying, “I will not accept a crown offered from the gutter,” and sent in the troops, Aschbach fled for his life across the border into Switzerland. Now he knew he could never return to Germany and so he had to make his way in the world. Aschbach took up civil engineering at a Swiss school and found out he was good at it. In 1850 he boarded at La Harve in France the three masted sailing ship “Robert Kelly “ for what turned out to be a 42 day journey to America. Also on board was Emilie Fredricka Mayer, who on April 11, 1854 became his wife. After spending some time in New York, Aschbach travelled to Allentown and hung out his shingle as a civil engineer and surveyor. Everyone was impressed and officials eventually offered him the post of city engineer.
The 1862 map is huge and offers a wealth of information. Pictures of the homes of the city’s best- known citizens were included as well as chugging trains and smoking factories. Distances between town could be figured out by using a small chart on the side. Wanting to make his contribution to the Civil War effort, Aschbach built fortifications for the Union Army in Ohio and Kentucky. It is believed it was here he contracted a complication of diseases that was to plague Aschbach until his death on April 17, 1875.
But he left behind works of historical value that can now be seen and admired by historians and the general public alike.