A Report on a short tour of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley

By Nancy Spannaus

May 24, 2023—Little did I realize when I booked tickets for this year’s Bach Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that my husband and I would be visiting what was once America’s heartland of music and industry. I had known, of course, that the Bach Choir of Bethlehem had been holding annual festivals since 1898, all of which culminate in the performance of the master’s glorious B-Minor Mass. I also knew that Bethlehem had once been the location for the now-defunct industrial giant, the Bethlehem Steel company. My family had seen the ruins of that company on a trip back in 1999.

America's Heartland of Music and Industry
A portion of the Bach Choir during this year’s festival.

But as the Bach Festival came to an end at the Luckenbach Mill, a new dimension of the region’s history came to light. The scheduled event was the Festival’s replica of the weekly events which Johann Sebastian Bach used to preside over at Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig, Germany. (more on that later) The Mill sits in the middle of the old industrial quarter of the city, an area originally settled on the banks of the Monocacy River by Moravians in the 1740s. As signage in the area indicated, we were in the midst of an industrial complex that featured as many as 35 different crafts, trades, and industries set up by the same Protestant sect that championed Bach’s music in the Americas.

Note: That’s in the middle of the 18th century.

That’s not all, however. For after the Festival was over, my husband and I traveled a ways east to visit the National Canal Museum. There, on the banks of a preserved section of the Lehigh Navigation Canal (built between 1827 and 1829), we were treated to another lesson on the history of American economic development. We met Martha Capwell-Fox, the historian and archives coordinator of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, who has designed many of the exhibits at the museum. Her central point was this: The Lehigh Valley was the “cradle of the American Industrial Revolution.”

To say that we were thrilled is an understatement. On top of the wonderful series of concerts which we had heard the two days before, we now had found a treasure trove of historical material on the building of our nation’s culture and economy. In the rest of this post, I will share a bit more of what we learned about this often-overlooked aspect of our nation’s past.

The Moravian Contribution

Under prosecution in Europe, and seeking fertile fields for missionary work, the Moravian Christian sect sought refuge in the British American colonies in the early 18th century. They purchased land in the Bethlehem area in 1741 and went to work.  By 1747, they had developed an extensive industrial complex, which the website on Historic Bethlehem describes as follows:

By 1747, thirty-five (35) crafts, trades and industries were established including a butchery, tannery, clockmaker, tinsmith, nailor, pewterer, hatter, spinning, weaving, cooper, dye house, community bakery, candlemaker, linen bleachery, fulling mill, saddlery, tailor, cobbler, flax processing, wheelwright, carpenter, mason. As the community developed and needed greater output, they replaced the log buildings with larger limestone buildings. The pottery, tannery, butchery, dye house, smith complex, oil mill, and waterworks were built of tone [sic] in the period from the late 1740s through the early 1770s.

While most of the buildings lie in ruins, some remain at the site of the Luckenbach Mill, where the final event of the Bach Festival occurred.

America's Heartland of Music and Industry
This picture of the park featuring the Moravian industrial site, includes the Luckenbach Mill, the big building on the left.

During the first decades of the settlement, the Moravians pretty much stayed to themselves, living communally and dedicated to building for their community. They also carried out missions to the native American tribes as one of their major objectives. Their philosophy emphasized the common humanity of all human beings, regardless of sex, ethnicity, or race; education was made available to all.

Another distinctive characteristic of Moravian culture was its emphasis on polyphonic music, which they had brought with them from central Europe. Like the Lutherans, from whom they had split off, the Moravians highly valued music, and devoted considerable energy to its practice. Thus it was apt that, by at least the early 19th century, their musical repertoire began to include the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. By the end of the century, 1898, John Frederick Wolle, the organist at the Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, founded the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, which has put on a festival every year since.  The choir is made up of unpaid amateur musicians, singing for the love of the music. They are excellent.

While Bethlehem began as an almost exclusively Moravian community, it didn’t stay that way for more than a couple decades, and it certainly isn’t that today. But our experience with the music offerings at the festival certainly supports the idea that their legacy in classical music has had a profound positive impact on subsequent generations.

Of particular note was the participation of youth from the area in two of the events.  The first was a concert by the Choir’s youth group, known as the Bel Canto Youth Chorus Concert Choir. They sang a Bach chorale (from memory) and two more contemporary pieces, the second composed by a 9th grader in the chorus. While the more modern pieces did not live up to Bach standards, they were in the classical style, and a far cry from the cacophony or romantic monody that often characterizes modern fare.

America's Heartland of Music and Industry
The Bel Canto youth choir

The second was the set of performances at the ersatz “Zimmermann Coffee House.” There we were treated to an extraordinary array of talent, with students as young as 9th graders singing arias and playing pieces by composers like Vivaldi and Bach on the keyboard or a stringed instrument. All had auditioned to be part of this delightful program, so they were clearly only a sampling of the talent in the region.

We had to ask ourselves: What was responsible for such a blossoming of young virtuosi in this area?  It certainly seemed to contrast with the music culture we had experienced in Northern Virginia. Was there something unique about this area?

Interestingly, when my husband asked the historian at the National Canal Museum about the performance of the youth at the Bethlehem events, she confirmed that the schools in the entire region had a strong emphasis on serious musical performance, and a reputation for excellence.

The Cradle of American Industry

Our visit to the National Canal Museum was equally exciting. The exhibits did not actually live up to its name by providing a picture of the full national scope of the Mathew Carey-led fight for government support for canals in the 1810s and 20s. But the story it did tell was of pivotal importance if one is to understand the growth of the industrial power of the United States.

Those who have read Anton Chaitkin’s comprehensive book on early U.S. economic development, Who We Are: America’s Fight for Universal Progress, from Franklin to Kennedy, will find the Museum’s message a familiar one.  Chaitkin discusses the industrial development of this same region from the standpoint of the role played by a grouping of Philadelphians, many of whom were lodged in the Franklin Institute, the American Philosophical Society, and the Bank of the United States. Both the Museum and Chaitkin emphasize that it was not the New England textile mills, but the growth of heavy industry and modernized infrastructure in this Pennsylvania region, that spurred U.S. industrial progress.

America's Heartland of Music and Industry
A sign at the site of the National Canal Museum.

I sought out the Museum’s on-site historian, Martha Fox, and she directed me to her comprehensive write-up of the Lehigh Valley’s pioneering role in the nation’s economic growth. Her book is entitled Geography, Geology, and Genius: How Coal and Canals Ignited the American Industrial Revolution. “Pennsylvania was the driving force of American industry in the 19th century,” she begins her introduction. The 200-page beautifully illustrated narrative that follows fully substantiates her thesis.[1]

The broad utilization of anthracite coal by Lehigh valley entrepreneurs represented the first critical advance. The shift to this hot-burning, high-energy coal was critical to advancing the iron industry, a central component of industrialization. Pennsylvania’s nature-given supply of anthracite gave it the potential, but it required a determined effort to develop both the technology and the transportation system to utilize that potential. Fox tells the story of how this was done.

By the time she finishes, the reader has learned about how many of the nation’s critical industries were either born or developed to new heights in the Lehigh-Delaware valley. In addition to iron and steel, we learn about Portland Cement, railroad ties, zinc, armor plate, and even silk. Fox supplements her discussion of the building of these industries with full-page biographies of the key players.

America's Heartland of Music and Industry
A commemorative plaque for industrialist John Fritz in Bethlehem.

Of course, none of these innovations could be fully realized without the development of the system of canals and railroads which also were centered in this eastern Pennsylvania region. Their development also gets significant attention in Fox’s narrative.

An Additional Dimension

But to get the full picture, I believe that you have to read Chaitkin’s account[2] as well. I’ll give you an example.

Fox’s chapter four, entitled Revolutionary Anthracite Iron, tells the story of the collaboration of Josiah White and Erskine Hazard in developing their groundbreaking anthracite operations (the Lehigh Crane Iron Company). The enterprise required a trip to Wales, where they recruited the ironmaster David Thomas to join them in setting up the operations. On July 3, 1840 (Chaitkin says July 4), the first cast of iron came out of the furnace.

In Chaitkin’s write-up of the same accomplishment, some interesting context is added. He reports a special initiative by Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, which “from 1824 on, offered gold medals to the manufacturer of the greatest amount of iron made with anthracite. A $5000 prize for anthracite iron was offered by Nicholas Biddle [President of the Bank of the United States-ed.], Thomas Biddle, and Mathew Carey’s son-in-law and publishing partner, Isaac Lea.”

Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second National Bank of the United States

This incentive by leading Philadelphians was clearly well-known among those attempting to perfect the anthracite-burning process.  In fact, at the end of 1839, the prize was awarded to the Pioneer Furnace in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, which is located in the Schuykill Valley. According to Chaitkin, David Thomas had aided that firm’s owner, Bostonian William Lyman.

Both authors report that the special large cylinder which the Lehigh Crane Iron Company needed for its successful operation was crafted by the Southwark Foundry in Philadelphia. But Chaitkin adds that this foundry was owned by a founder of the Franklin Institute, Samuel Vaughan Merrick.

Perhaps the crucial technological advances would have been made in the industry without these incentives – but very likely not.

And a Relevant Philosophical Point

The crucial point here is one that is relevant all the way to today.  Creative entrepreneurs and engineers exist in all periods of history and countries. But whether their innovations and inventions are encouraged, taken up, and spread to the benefit of society as a whole depends upon the nature of the political and cultural environment.

My favorite philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, made this point in his Memorandum on the Establishment of a Society in Germany for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences (1671). Leibniz notes that there had been “not a few” real and useful discoveries made in his era that would benefit human life. But they had been rendered “worthless” by the fact that society was being dominated by those who were greedy for money, rather than motivated to improve people’s lot.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosopher and scientific polymath

It is for that reason, Leibniz argued, that the highest service to God (and humanity) is carried out by those who serve as political leaders. I quote:

These are the ones who apply the discovered wonders of nature and art to medicine, to mechanics, to the comfort of life, to materials for work and sustenance of the poor, to keeping people from idleness and vice, to the operation of justice, and to reward and punishment, to preservation of the common peace, to the increase and welfare of the fatherland, to the elimination of times of shortage, disease, and war (insofar as it is in our power and is our responsibility), to the propagation of true religion and fear of God, indeed, to the happiness of the human race: and who endeavor to imitate in their domain what God has done in the world.

The German-American economist Friedrich List, who lived and worked in Pennsylvania from 1824 to 1832 promoting the American System of Political Economy, made a similar, if more pedestrian point. He argued that economic progress depended crucially on what he called the “capital of mind,” by which he referred to the state of culture (including education) and government in the nation. That raises the question as to what kind of culture and government is most conducive to human progress.

I believe that the history of the Lehigh Valley gives us a clue.

With an Eye to the Future

There were lots of depressing sights to be seen on our trip to the Lehigh Valley. The huge hulk of the abandoned Bethlehem steel furnaces, shabby neighborhoods inhabited by former factory workers, and deserted farm buildings come to mind. Census reports indicate that the population is growing, thanks to flight from the larger cities, but that there are pockets of extreme poverty (40%) dotted throughout the Lehigh Valley.

And there is something a little sad about how many U.S. towns and cities now rely on historical tourism, basically highlighting their accomplishments in the past, to attract visitors and income. What are we building today for our posterity?

America's Heartland of Music and Industry
Part of Bethlehem Steel, once a premier American producer, now demolished for a gambling casino. (Wikicommons)

Yet this trip filled us with optimism. Although the average age of those attending the Bach concerts was probably well above 60, there is an active younger generation committed to mastering the most advanced musical culture mankind has produced. There are young families, some of whom we saw at the Canal Museum, who bring their children to learn about the inventions which built our industry, and who may be stimulated to create new such breakthroughs. There’s a history of arduous work which finally “paid off,” not just in riches for the factory owners, but an improved standard of living for Americans, and others around the globe.

The link between a beautiful Classical music culture, and industrial progress, cannot and should not be denied.  And if it could happen before, it can happen again.








[1] Fox’s book is not available on Amazon. To get a copy, you can go to the online store of the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. and order it here.

[2] Who We Are can be found on Amazon here.


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