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History's Headlines: Highway to the past: The 18th Century Road between Easton and Reading was once the pathway of patriots

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Oct 04 2013 04:43:55 PM CDT
Updated On: Oct 07 2013 05:38:01 PM CDT

History's Headlines

Who would have thought that a nearly 200-year-old bridge on Reading Road would become a local political issue at a time when crossing the country, if everything goes well, can take 4 hours?

But that is what has happened as Lehigh County Democrats and Republicans argue over replacing a structure that has been in place since 1824, when John Quincy Adams was entering the White House and the mule powered Eire Canal was being hailed as a transportation marvel.

Actually, the argument aside, Reading Road has a history that is far older than the bridge. In fact it goes back to the days when it was called the King’s Highway, and it has seen more history since it was first cut through by ox teams in the early 1750s than just about any other road in Pennsylvania. So many Founding Fathers traveled this historic route that it deserves to be called the Pathway of Patriots.

It all began in May, 1753, when the French and Indian War was still two years in the future, that the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania took up a petition from “sundry inhabitants of the Counties of Berks and Northampton” for the creation of a road between the newly formed county seats of Reading and Easton.

The council turned the task over to William Parsons, the longtime agent of the ruling Penn family, and founder of Easton. But most of the surveying was in the hands of David Schultze, a German immigrant from Silesia.

Over a period of eight days, starting from Parson’s home in Easton on October 15, 1755, the 50 mile route was laid out. This King’s Highway, as all government mandated roads in British North America were called, was to link up with other roads beyond Reading that took the route to Lancaster and eventually to York.

The road between Easton and Reading had almost no bridges until a bridge across the Lehigh was built at Bethlehem in 1794. Allentown would not have one until 1816.

Although a ferry was available on the Delaware, fording the rivers and creeks on foot or horseback was often the only way to cross.

The labor for clearing and building the road was provided by those who lived along the route and would thus benefit by it. There were strict rules about maintaining the road that the land owners would have to follow.

One required that no tree stump on the right of way could be any higher than 12 inches. History tells us that some of the landowners were very careful about following this rule, but alas a good many others were not, as many a traveler was to testify over the years.

A single rider on a horse in good weather could take the road fairly rapidly. But, into the early 19th century, wagon drivers pulling a heavy load powered by oxen did not think a five day journey from Reading to Easton all that unusual. Such a road needed many stops, like the Dorneyville Inn, which is better known today as the late King George tavern.

It did not take the new King’s Highway long to attract its first important traveler. On December 30, 1755, Benjamin Franklin, and a party of Pennsylvania militia, were headed from Easton to Reading for a conference with the governor over the Indian raids at the start of the French and Indian War. When he returned on the same road he was “General” Franklin, with full powers to establish outposts on the frontier.

Throughout the war the road would be busy with colonial officials, soldiers, Indians and traders going to Easton for the treaty conferences of 1756, 1757 and 1758 that convinced the Native Americans to join the British cause and change the course of American history.

James Allen had his home Trout Hall face the road in 1771, giving him a not-always welcome front row seat to the armies and swarms of travelers that used the road during the American Revolution. “The road in front of my house has become the busiest in North America,” he wrote in his diary.

Among those travelers in 1776 was British Major John Andre, later captured and hanged as a spy for conspiring treason with Benedict Arnold. At that time, Andre was part of a prisoner-of-war exchange.

It was to be the 20th century before a map of the Kings Highway was discovered in the British Foreign Office, along with a plan to seize it in order to cut the New England Colonies from the Middle Colonies. “Upon this plan the middle colonies may ever be kept in subjection with a few troops and frigates properly placed,” he wrote. Fortunately his superiors never took Andre’s advice.

Things particularly picked up when the British occupied Philadelphia from September of 1777 to June of 1778. The U.S. capital relocated to York and Congress went with it. Among its members on the highway that winter were John and Sam Adams, John Hancock, Governor Morris and many others. Another refugee was the Liberty Bell that arrived in Allentown to hide in Zion’s Church.

It was not until July 25, 1782 when the Revolution was drawing to a close that George Washington apparently traveled the King’s Highway, pounding through Allentown and stopping that evening with two aides at the Sun Inn. Here he allowed a “fan” to cut a lock of his hair, which has long been the property of Nazareth’s Moravian Museum.

By the time the 1824 bridge was built it was local traffic that largely used the by-now 75-year-old King’s Highway, but with it were many wagon trains headed west into the Ohio country and beyond, their passengers who no doubt appreciated the “modern” highway improvement provided by the then 12-year-old County of Lehigh.