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History of Allentown

Written by Frank Whelan, edited by Lenora Dannelke.

This article appears in the 2012 INside Allentown Guide and is reprinted with permission of The Allentown Chamber. All Rights Reserved. To receive a copy of the 2012 INside Allentown guide, contact Miriam Huertas at [email protected] or call The Chamber office at (610) 841-5800.

Dipping a sharpened quill in ink, the diary keeper for the community council of the Moravian village of Emmaus wrote the following passage on October 24, 1764: “The Weisers were in Bethlehem on business, but on the way home she was fetched in her capacity as midwife to Mr. Allen’s little town.”


With this simple transcription, penned in German, Christopher and Maria Weiser, a couple who ran the communal village store, became part of Allentown history. The recording of this birth created the first written link between William Allen, the richest man in British North America, and the three-year-old village of twelve cabins founded in 1762 he called Northampton Towne.



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When founding father John Adams passed through the small farming village in 1777, he noted the name “Allen’s town” in his pocket travel diary. By April 16,1838, that informal usage was officially codified and the growing community legally became Allentown.


In the nineteenth century canals and railroads opened the town to development of the iron and silk industries. By the 1920s Allentown was well known for making everything from furniture to pretzels. Mack Trucks and other local industries powered American victory in both World War I and World War II and brought prosperity to the city.


Descendants of the baby Maria Weiser helped into the world in 1764 could have been among the First Defenders, the earliest Allentown soldiers to heed the call for volunteers and march off to the Civil War. Following generations might have hopped aboard a trolley or taken a ride in a horseless carriage down Hamilton Street and watched the PPL skyscraper completed in 1928. Still later progeny may have counted among shoppers dazzled by the opulent crystal chandeliers and big city style of Hess Brothers department store in the 1950s.


Today “Mr. Allen’s little town” boasts a population of 118,032 and ranks as the third largest city in Pennsylvania. City demographics have undergone dramatic changes over the years, from an early population of Northern European origin – including a
sizable contingent of Germans – to a growing Hispanic community from numerous countries – plus emerging populations from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Immigrants from India and Pakistan have also arrived in large numbers, and it’s not unusual on warm summer days to spot women in saris speaking Hindi or Urdu when walking in Trexler Memorial Park.


This tradition of diversity has long been a hallmark of the city. “Allentown was multi-lingual and multi-national even before it was created,” says Malcolm “Mal” Gross, a local attorney with Pennsylvania Dutch roots in the community. He notes that when the words “all men are created equal” – from the newly minted Declaration of Independence – were announced publicly for the first time in Allentown on July 8, 1776, they were read in both English and German. In fact, German language publishing still flourished here 100 years ago, as did numerous German newspapers.


During the American Revolution there were no more patriotic people than the Pennsylvania Germans. From 1777 to 1778, eleven bells from Philadelphia – including the famous Liberty Bell – were hidden under the floorboards of Zion’s United Church of Christ on Hamilton Street to prevent them from being melted down for cannon. This year’s fiftieth anniversary of the Liberty Bell Museum, housed at the historic church, features a Colonial Ball with re-enactors among its jubilee celebrations.


Of course, many of Allentown’s most notable landmarks are steeped in history. Traffic still rolls across the Albertus L. Meyers Bridge (a.k.a. the Eighth Street Bridge), the longest and highest concrete bridge in the world when it opened in 1913. An extensive park system envisioned and planned by industrialist and philanthropist General Harry Clay Trexler in the early twentieth century provides current residents with recreational – and cultural – opportunities. West Park, with its beautiful 104-yearold band shell, continues to host summer concerts by The Allentown Band, the oldest civilian concert band in the country. Just a few blocks away was the Allentown Hospital, founded in 1899, which has evolved into Lehigh Valley Health Network, the largest employer in the Lehigh Valley. In that same neighborhood, the Great Allentown Fair – among the nation’s oldest – now presents concerts where horses and cars once raced. The site is also home to the Allentown Fairgrounds Farmers Market, where more than sixty-five merchants offer some of the area’s tastiest wares each Thursday, Friday and Saturday – except, of course, when the market goes on “vacation” during the fair.


Allentown is currently undergoing another major exciting transformation, a new hockey arena and office project designed to revitalize center city. With the whir of construction, anticipation is in the air. “Not many cities get to be 250,” says Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. “We are reshaping and rebuilding our city’s heart to keep Allentown growing and strong for 250 more years.”


During his address at the “Bells Will Be Ringing Gala” on New Year’s Eve, the upbeat mayor vowed that Allentown would “forge a new future and create a new destiny.” Pawlowski then asked guests to rise for a champagne toast, saying, “We commit to make Allentown a beacon of prosperity.” Proud residents look forward to that light shining across their city as Allentown continues to grow and evolve in the decades to come.

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