- Backcountry Crucibles: The Lehigh Valley from Settlement to Steel
Backcountry Crucibles comprises fourteen essays about the Lehigh Valley between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Its editors aim to draw more scholarly attention to the Lehigh Valley, which has been neglected largely because the region developed at some distance from a major urban area. To do so, they assembled an impressive group of authors including Marianne S. Wokeck, Beverly Prior Smaby, Ned Landsman, Gregory Evans Dowd, Aaron Spencer Fogleman, Jeffrey L. Paisley, Andrew Shankman, Roger D. Simon, Thomas Dublin, and Walter Licht. Half the essays pay some attention to technology and culture. The content and argument of four of these essays have not appeared elsewhere in print, so I will direct my attention to them.
Two essays address the eighteenth century. In “Perfection in the Mechanical Arts,” Stephen H. Cutliffe and Karen Z. Huetter examine industrial technology in Bethlehem between 1741 and 1814. By the second half of the eighteenth century Bethlehem boasted a complex including some fifty [End Page 223] crafts and industrial trades. Relying mostly on secondary sources, Cutliffe and Huetter focus on enterprises that required waterpower—gristmills, an oil mill, tanneries, and the first pumped municipal water system in colonial North America—all of which drew heavily on central European techniques. While these all thrived for a time, excessive regulation, minimal investment, and an inadequate water supply led to stagnation and decline by the early nineteenth century.
Industrial enterprise and regional development take center stage in Michael V. Kennedy’s “The Wheels of Commerce.” Kennedy pored over account books of iron firms, mills, and general stores in the Lehigh and Musconetcong valleys from 1735 to 1800.He tracked 362 teamsters who hauled goods for those firms in order to determine how far they traveled, how long their journeys took, and what they carried. They knit together a vibrant local network through which farmers’ households made more than 21,000 sales to those firms. This, Kennedy notes, is a world that few historians have seen, largely because their focus on direct connections to urban commercial markets has obscured their view.
The other two essays address industrialization during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In “Fine-Tuning the Forks,” Augustine Nigro examines the efforts of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to make the Lehigh River navigable. The river’s steep drop, especially near coal deposits, and its unpredictable flow required construction of thirty-six miles of canal, ten miles of pools, eight dams, and fifty-five locks. These opened to much fanfare on 4 July 1829. But local critics soon complained that LCNC fees were too expensive, that the company monopolized trade, and that its infrastructure destroyed shad runs. Floods in 1840 and 1862 badly damaged the canal, and the opening of the Lehigh Valley Railroad in the 1850s compelled the LCNC to complete its own track in 1868.
In the fourth essay under consideration here, John K. Smith explains “The Improbable Success of Bethlehem Steel” by charting the company’s ability to adapt. Charles Schwab, president of U.S. Steel, bought Bethlehem in 1901 and made savvy decisions, including the inauguration of a plant to make high-quality alloy steels for the auto industry, investing in a rolling mill to make beams for the construction industry, expanding arms manufacture, and purchasing in 1913 the shipyard that held the patent on the submarine. These positioned Bethlehem to thrive during World War I, when it secured two-thirds of the $450 million in munitions contracts from the Allies, and to remain the biggest supplier of steel to the Northeast and upper South into the 1920s and beyond.
While none of these four essays breaks significant historiographical ground, each is persuasive and solidly researched, particularly Kennedy’s. Together they encourage us to pay more attention to the Lehigh Valley, even as they convey a sense that the valley, located so close to two major Atlantic metropolitan areas, is in fact quite distinctive and may not serve as a model [End...