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History's headlines: Borough of Alburtis to celebrate its 100th birthday this year

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 26 2013 04:11:26 PM CDT
ALBURTIS, Pa. -

In the 1850s it was common for railroads to reward their most valued employees by naming towns along the route for them.

Perhaps the most famous instance of this was in 1853 when the board of the just built Illinois Central Railroad named a town for their attorney, a gangly, former one-term congressman who warned them at the time that “nothing named for a Lincoln ever amounted to much.”

So it is quite probable, as the long-held local tradition has it, that the town of Alburtis which, since 1913 has been the Borough of Alburtis, was indeed named in 1859 for Edward K. Alburtis, the civil engineer who was in charge of the East Penn branch of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, more commonly known as the Reading Co.

To celebrate that 100th anniversary, the Alburtis Historical Society is planning a special celebration on the weekend of May 10 to May 12th. “Normally we have our usual May Day event but this year we will have it a little later in the month,” says society president Kevin Shoemaker.

Over 100 years before the railroad, following in the footsteps of Native Americans, industrious Pennsylvania German farmers had made the region an agricultural resource. In 1745 Jacob Koller started to farm in what one early local historian called the “beautiful and fertile Macungie Valley.”

He was followed in 1754 by Matthias Hindley, aka Heinly, Christian Ruth in 1764 and Peter Keyser in 1766. Among other pioneer farmers were John Meckley, Adam Gaumer and Jacob Meitzler. They lived a simple life and carried on the folk traditions and distinctive dialect of German that their ancestors had known.

But it was the arrival of the railroads that sparked Alburtis’s first transformation. The East Penn began its life as the Reading and Lehigh Railroad on May 26, 1856. On April 21, 1857 it was reorganized as the East Pennsylvania Railroad Company. The first train traveled from Reading to Allentown on May 11, 1859. The East Penn operated as an independent line for 10 years before May 1, 1869, when it signed a 999 year lease with the Philadelphia and Reading.

The building of the railroad, largely by Irish American laborers, caused some friction with the local inhabitants, but most of the recorded disagreements were apparently among the workers and their bosses. One story in particular talks of the confrontation between a boss- a big bully of a man- and a worker who took exception to the way his friend- a much smaller man- was being treated. An outdoor bare-knuckle boxing match was held in downtown Emmaus that, after several hours, left the bully beaten to a bloody pulp.      

“While the railroads aided the farmer by providing an easier route to the Philadelphia market…,” write Craig and Ann Bartholomew in their History of Lower Macungie Township, “its more important effect was to allow the full exploitation of the area’s mineral resources.”

Chief among those to take advantage of this new railroad was the Thomas Iron Company. In 1840 Welsh ironmaster David Thomas and his sons had created the first commercially successful anthracite coal-powered iron furnace in America at Catasauqua. They had a railroad presence in the form of the Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railroad that arrived in the vicinity of Alburtis in 1864. By 1867 the Thomas family had begun construction of the Lockridge Iron Company.

Along with the furnace, a company town known as Lockridge grew, which was virtually a part of Alburtis.

“The rural location of this furnace plant provided a far more tranquil atmosphere than at the larger furnaces near Allentown and the burgeoning steel mills of cities like Bethlehem and Pittsburgh,” write Craig Bartholomew and Lance Metz in “The Anthracite Iron Industry of the Lehigh Valley.”

"The Thomas Iron Company, at least during those years when the Thomas family played an active role in the management, was a benevolent, even paternalistic, employer. Its managers cared for the welfare of their workers and in turn earned their respect.” This policy toward employees helped to cushion at Lockridge the general slowdown in the iron industry that followed the Panic of 1873. Although it would not make its last iron until 1921, by the late 1890s it was clear the Lockridge Iron Company was slowly dying.     

Hoping to revive itself as early as the late 1880s, Alburtis turned to other industries. Perhaps thinking of Allentown’s revival as a silk-making center after its iron industry collapsed, it began to develop a shirt making industry. This turned out to be a difficult transition, heavily impacted by the recession that followed the Panic of 1893.

But by the early 20th century one local writer noted that the shirt makers appeared to have helped stabilize the local economy. “The factory affords employment to many men and women, girls and boys of the town and of the immediate vicinity,” noted one local resident. The shirt factories “have been a great source of help to the town, especially in times of panic and financial depression…the value of these factories for the industrial development of the town cannot be overestimated.”

The shirt factories were to hang on until the 1930s when the Great Depression hit and put them out of business. With them went the last attempts for Alburtis to continue to survive as an industrial center. In the post World War II era people who wanted to continue to live in Alburtis tended to have to work someplace else.

Today it is largely a quiet residential community of a little over 2,000 within Lower Macungie Township. And Lockridge Furnace, whose smokestacks once dotted the air with soot, is a bucolic county park run by the Lehigh County Historical Society. Here children play and families picnic on the grass under the half-broken stone arches of a different time.