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History's Headlines: The hidden chamber mystery: Work crew renovating downtown Allentown home brings a surprise from the past

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 22 2013 01:41:23 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 25 2013 04:37:33 PM CST

Neil Beehrle and his Allentown Housing Association and Development Corporation work crew did not plan on discovering history when they went to work on a recent morning.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Neil Beehrle and his Allentown Housing Association and Development Corporation work crew did not plan on discovering history when they went to work on a recent morning.

But that is exactly what this 21-year-old employee of the affordable housing non-profit did recently at 427 N. 6th Street, in the Old Fairgrounds Neighborhood, a property HADC is currently renovating.

The history was in a basement, deep below street level. Beehrle and his fellow crew members broke through a stone wall and found another brick wall behind it that opened into a domed chamber.

At first it just seemed piled with sandy soil. Later as he and his fellow crew members began to dig they pulled out old bottles covered with dust- some still full of a murky, brown-black liquid. One empty was from the long defunct Kostenbader Brewery in Catasauqua. Another bore an antique label for a type of wood alcohol.

The others, more opaque than clear, lacked all trace of a label telling what they might have contained. They rested amidst the remains of old china plates and various pieces of ironwork, one whose use mystified the workers. “Do you think there is buried treasure here somewhere?” asked one crew member, kidding Beehrle.

Although chances of their duplicating the plot of a Hardy Boys mystery are less than slim, the HADC workers have indeed found treasure, even if it is not the kind of  “riches and glory” promised by Indiana Jones. These relics of Allentown’s past offer a chance to step back in time and touch the past. And short of finding a time portal a la Stephen King or inventing H.G. Wells' Time Machine, it is as close as it is possible to get to doing that.

All cities have an urban ecology. Each has something in common and each has something unique. At 251 years old, Allentown has gone through many phases.

The Old Fairgrounds Neighborhood takes its name from the Allentown Fair which was held there from the late 1850s to the late 1880s. Fair Street, a narrow lane nearby, is said to take its slightly slanted right of way from the path that ran beside that early Allentown Fair’s horse race track off of Liberty St.

Although Old Fairgrounds is on land that was a part of the original plan of the city drawn up by William Allen in 1762, it was on its far northern edge. So it was not until the 1840s and 50s, with the arrival of the iron industry and the fair, that its urbanization began.

The 1862 street map of Allentown shows a scattered house or two north of Gordon St. at 6th. It is impossible to say for sure if one of them is 427 N. 6th (Allentown had no street numbering system at that time and the city directory merely notes the homes there as at “6th n (near) Gordon St.”).

But the 1860 city directory, Allentown’s first, lists a Henry Storch, a stone mason on that block. And an 1870 map of the city, done after street addresses had been adopted, lists Storch as the owner of 427.    

Storch was an immigrant from Germany. Why he came to settle in Allentown is unknown but at least in part it must have had to do with the borough’s rip roaring economy. Between 1850 and 1860 the city’s population grew from 3,703 to 8,025-an increase of 116.7% percent, and the greatest rate of increase in the city’s history.

By 1859 railroads had arrived in Allentown, putting the stage lines and canals in the shade. “Instead of consuming twelve and fifteen hours in traveling to Philadelphia,” noted a newspaper editor, “we now go there, spend about three hours, and return to our homes, all between the rising and the setting of the sun.”  The same trains that carried local residents to the big city carried European immigrants like Storch the other way from Philadelphia to the Lehigh Valley.   

By decades end the Allentown Democrat newspaper could boast this way of the city’s development: “In building operations,” it noted, “we have progressed remarkably; in 1855, 108 buildings were erected; in 1856, 138; in 1857, 169 in 1858, 52; making a total of 467 buildings in four years.” The Democrat makes no distinction between commercial buildings and homes but it is surely possible that the Storch home on N. 6th Street was among them.

Was Henry Storch the builder of the hidden chamber? As a mason he had the skills but it is impossible to know. What is known is that he died on April 15, 1873. His wife Elizabeth and son Valentine lived there one more year. By 1876 the property, a double lot, is listed as “H. Storch Est.” on the plate maps. In 1880 William Esser, a tavern owner, moved in with his wife, Mary. He died in 1894. Mary Esser, as was the custom among the Pennsylvania Germans, went to live with her daughters while her house was rented out.

But by 1900 she is back living, for unknown reasons, at 427. Anything from just wanting a little privacy to having words with her children can be imagined as reasons. Among Esser’s neighbors in that era were Max and Charles Hess and their families. From 1897- the year they opened Hess Brothers- until about 1906 they shared a twin home nearby at the corner of Liberty and N. 6th Street. It was the first home the Hess family occupied in the city. 

With Esser’s passing around 1903, 427 had a host of owners. Did one of them use that wood alcohol from the found bottle to make bootleg liquor in the basement during Prohibition in the 1920s? Unfortunately that little part of history remains unknown.

But thanks to HADC, 427 N. 6th St., as it has for over 150 years, will offer shelter to Allentown residents of the future. And the chamber will remain a mystery.