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Paying Homage to Lehigh Valley Structural Steel

With all our focus on the future of Allentown’s waterfront, it is easy to forget that which came before.   A cardinal sin of Placemaking is forgetting the things that make the place unique, forgetting its heritage and history.  So let us take the same enthusiasm we have for the Waterfront, and remember Lehigh Structural Steel, the site on which we build.

The story of Allentown’s industrial boom far precedes the steel mills that made the city famous.   We must begin with the founding of Allentown itself.  In 1762, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, former mayor of Philadelphia, and wealthy shipping merchant, William Allen founded what would become Allentown as a rural village along the banks of the Lehigh River.  Naming it Northampton Town, in a bid to usurp nearby Easton as the seat of Northampton County, Allen envisioned a successful commercial town, utilizing the power of the Lehigh River to drive industry and trade.   However, due to the Lehigh’s generally low water levels, this dream would not become a reality until the construction of the Lehigh Canal in the early 1800s, which, though short lived, connected to the Pennsylvania Canal system and allowed for a boom in trade.  Due to Northampton Town’s – or “Allen’s Town” as it was colloquially known – location at the center of the country’s then largest grain producing region, the small village became a local hub for trade and marketing amongst farmers.

Industrialization began modestly, with a few saw, flour, and woolen mills.  But, with the arrival of the canal and later, and more enduringly, the Lehigh Valley Railroad in the mid 1800’s, the Lehigh Valley became the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution and Allentown – officially named such in 1838 – shifted from the rural agricultural center of the 18th century to the urban industrial area it is known as today.  In the 1840’s iron ore was found in the hills surrounding Allentown setting the stage for the steel boom that was to come.  In its heyday, Allentown was a center of not only steel manufacturing, but also brick making, silk industry, and brewing.

In 1919, during the peak of the industrial era, three Allentown residents, Thomas R. Mullen, William H. Mohr, and Les Kift, formed Lehigh Structural Steel, which would become the only major steel manufacturer in Allentown.  LSS imported and exported its products by way of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the Central Railroad of New Jersey, with lines from both railways passing through the site.  Primary imports to LSS were coal and iron ore, main components of the steel that the plant exported.  World Wars I and II, in addition to the demand for steel for the construction of skyscrapers in American cities, only boosted the success of LSS and similar plants.

Occupying 55 acres along the Lehigh River and employing more than 500 workers at its height in the 1960s, LSS was a giant on the Allentown scene.  By the 1980’s Lehigh Structural Steel was raking in $90 million in sales.

Although LSS acquired three more plants in Texas and Eastern Pennsylvania in the late 1960’s, it began to hit its decline in 1973.  As steel prices declined internationally, LSS, along with much of what is today known as the ‘Rust Belt,’ struggled to compete with the availability of cheap imported steel.  Confronted by a series of strikes and losses of large contracts, Lehigh Structural Steel closed doors on its Allentown plant in 1989 after citing having lost over $10 million dollars in the past five years.

And though the loss of this industry was undoubtedly a blow to Allentown and its people, this city has proven, time and again, its ability to compete, transform, and revitalize itself.  Allentown began as an ambitious dream and grew into, first an agrarian commercial center, then industrial boomtown.  Today, it is a vibrant city with a storied past and just as Lehigh Structural Steel built upon decades of success, so too will Allentown build upon the heritage with which that company has left us.   The Waterfront will continue a long tradition of growth and renewal along the Lehigh River.


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Zac Jaindl

Written by Zac Jaindl

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