History's Headlines: The lost zinc mines of Friedensville

 

In 1845, roughly when a part-time surveyor of Concord, Mass. named Thoreau was writing a book that would make him immortal, another surveyor was making a discovery that would change the course of the Lehigh Valley's industrial history. Andrew K. Wittman, age 33, an Upper Saucon Township native, was a natural choice for township farmer Jacob Ueberroth to call on to measure the exact boundary between his farm and that of a neighbor. Wittman had already served three one-year terms as the county's official surveyor. Wittman almost certainly had heard the stories that Ueberroth would tell about the strange piece of land on the west side of the road leading from Friedensville to Bethlehem. Located in the middle of a field, it was a large depression resembling a bowl, 300 feet in diameter and twelve feet in depth. Nothing but weeds would grow in it.

Ueberroth thought it looked like limestone and that he could make fertilizer out of by melting it down in a kiln. All he got for his trouble, he told Wittman and others, was a gray, white-ish lump. Now the field was used as a trash pile, about the only use Ueberroth could think of for it. A state geologist had passed through the area a couple of years before but apparently didn't think enough of the hole to include it in his report. But Wittman had an amateur interest in geology; he had a collection of minerals in his home, and took some pieces of the boulders with him. Using a crucible, Wittman melted part of the minerals down and managed to produce two ounces of what he recognized from his studying of metals as zinc.

Early the next day Wittman returned to Ueberroth's stone farmhouse, told him what he had found and gave him some of the zinc. That afternoon the farmer went to Bethlehem and to friends at a local hotel, perhaps the Sun Inn, told them what Wittman had discovered. By chance a William Theodore Roepper was staying at the inn. A Moravian from the German state of Lower Silesia, he had been in America since 1840 helping Bethlehem Moravians to administer the church's property. Roepper, as it happened, was also a trained chemist and metallurgist. Overhearing Ueberroth talking at the hotel, he took a piece of the ore to a local brass works and combined the ore with copper to make brass.

Roepper had many connections in Bethlehem and Philadelphia to which he may have claimed to be the zinc ore's discoverer. But it is not known if he did or just became so associated with it that people assumed he had discovered it. As early as 1860 he was being credited with it. Even the late W. Ross Yates in his 1987 biography of Joseph Wharton continued to credit Roepper with the discovery. Andrew K. Wittman was apparently never consulted or asked about his role, but it was widely known in Lehigh County. He later moved to Allentown, became a justice of the peace (thereafter referred to as Squire Wittman) and an alderman. During the Civil War Wittman managed to save a local man from being beaten by a mob after he expressed anti-Lincoln settlements in an Allentown saloon. He died in 1898.

Wittman's role in discovering zinc was first detailed in Matthews and Hungerford's history of Lehigh County of 1888 and in Charles Rhoads Roberts' 1914 Anniversary of Lehigh County. The late Helen Wittman Kohl, his descendent, included some other background history in her family research in "Wittman and Allied Lines" at the Lehigh County Historical Society.

It took a while before the discovery of the zinc could become commercially successful. The man who would do that was Samuel Wetherill. From a prominent Philadelphia family of Quaker ancestry, for years he had been working with zinc ore, trying to find a substitute for white lead in paint. In 1850 while working for the New Jersey Zinc Company, according to one Bethlehem historian he "invented a furnace for making white oxide of zinc directly from the ore using anthracite coal in the process." A Samuel T. Jones created a process for collecting the oxide. This made the Ueberroth property commercially useful for mining.

In 1853 Wetherill and Charles T. Gilbert built their first furnaces less than 100 yards to the east of the current location of the Fahy Memorial Bridge. In 1855 the Pennsylvania and Lehigh Zinc Company rose. "Its solid masonry buildings became part of the landscape grouped around a tower, imposing for the times (and) became part of the familiar landscape," says an author in "Bethlehem: The Golden Years."

The ore was taken from the Ueberroth property to the furnaces by mule trains, twenty to thirty mules long presided over, as Bethlehem historian/ geologist Richmond E Myers put it, "a rather rough set of men, unskilled laborers, imported from Philadelphia for that purpose." According to Myers there were three taverns along the route, the last being outside Bethlehem. Here, he adds, when "the average mule train reached Bethlehem, its drivers were in a mood which easily led to trouble, and often resulted in street brawls in which at time considerable damage was done." Wetherill added to this atmosphere when he and Gilbert built a racetrack and showed up regularly to bet on their favorites. Wetherill also had a home on Market Street and became something of a local personality.

In that same period the zinc works attracted the attention of Philadelphia investors headed by Joseph Wharton, later a co-founder of Swarthmore College, and founder of the Wharton School of Finance and Political Economy at the University of Pennsylvania. Soon the Philadelphians purchased a controlling interest in the company. Although both were Quakers from Philadelphia, Wharton was a strict follower of his faith and Wetherill was not. They also clashed over business methods. Wetherill was an inventor and the creative type. Wharton, a by-the-book businessman who fought desperately to keep the company afloat through the Panic of 1857 and had no interest in horse racing or being a public figure in Bethlehem social life.

According to some, Wharton lived in hotels when he came to town. "After he left the Bethlemites scarcely missed him because they had never previously really noted his presence," notes one Bethlehem historian. This is contradicted by Yates who claimed that though he lived in hotels, Wharton had friends in the business side of the community and was well-known to them. Wharton imported skilled zinc workers from Belgium, who helped create an orderly atmosphere. Eventually by 1860 Wharton forced Wetherill out of the business and when he left the company and Bethlehem for good in 1863, he left a thriving industry. But more importantly Wharton and the zinc industry were responsible for the creation of the industrial suburb of South Bethlehem, which changed the nature of the community and led to the modern Bethlehem of today. First railroads and other industries were attracted to the area-one of them Bethlehem Iron Company, later Bethlehem Steel. Wharton later became a director of that company and by the start of the 20th century he was the principal stockholder in Bethlehem Steel and played an important role in its sale to Charles Schwab.

Despite Wharton's best efforts there were troubles at the Friedensville mines that he could do nothing about. Water kept flooding the mines over the years despite the best efforts to pump it out. In 1872 at the direction of company engineer James West, a huge pumping engine was created. Called "The President," it was built to handle the task. Inaugurated with champagne and sandwiches by company officials (there is apparently no truth to the rumor that then- President U.S. Grant was supposedly drunk at a reception in Mauch Chunk the day before and missed the chance to start it), it was hailed as the largest of its kind up to that time. It worked well for three years till the Panic of 1873 brought the economy to a standstill and the costs of running "The President" became too great. It fell silent and water flooded in.

By the early 20th century Lehigh County historian Charles Rhoads Roberts could write of the Friedensville mines as an abandoned site, "even the mighty President, that giant of energy had been reduced to common junk by a still mightier giant, dynamite."

Throughout the 20th century the Friedensville mines were revived using underground mining by the New Jersey Zinc Company and produced zinc in large quantities. But water and the fluctuating price of zinc remained a problem.

Finally, by the 1980s the property was sold to the Stabler Land Company, and zinc mining ceased. A lake is said to partially cover the area today. Along with suburban homes and shopping malls, at least as recently as 2016, the stone farmhouse where Jacob Ueberroth and Andrew K. Wittman once talked was still standing.

Editor's Note: This story originally aired Feb. 26, 2019