Located at the center of the Lehigh Valley, Catasauqua is one of the smallest, but most densely populated municipalities in the Valley. Now a quiet residential community, the borough once was home to the Crane Iron Works, the first technically and commercially successful anthracite iron furnace. Its first blast in 1840 marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America.
The iron and allied industries brought much wealth to the town; such that by the early 1900s, Catasauqua had the highest concentration of millionaires per capita of any community in the nation. Industry waned after WWI, and commerce declined with the introduction of malls in neighboring Whitehall in the 1960s. With the purchase of the old Crane Iron site, the borough is targeting development of the canal front and revitalization of downtown areas. A new municipal services building opened on the site in 2017.
The borough is fortunate to have a well documented history due to its rich heritage, with many early histories of Lehigh County including detailed sections on Catasauqua and its residents dating back to1860. In 1914 there were three histories of the borough published. A centennial history of Catasauqua was published in 1953 (the green book). In 1992, HCPA published a History of the Boroughs of Catasauqua and North Catasauqua (the blue book). Since then, Martha Capwell Fox, a local historian, has published two pictorial histories on the boroughs through Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series.
In addition to this website’s pages, a descendant of one of the industrialists has created a website documenting the life of Hopkin Thomas, and indoing so, compiled a comprehensive history of Catasauqua early industries and residents. A Welshman, Hopkin Thomas, was active in the early development of coal-fired locomotives in this country in the 1830s-40s and in the 1850s joined the Crane Iron. Feel free to visit The Hopkin Thomas Project for more information on Catasauqua’s history. Mr. McVey has amassed much biographical information on the early industrialists and provides references for researching original documents. This has been an ongoing project since 1995.
Another local historian, the late Dale Wint, descendant of the Wint family/Wint Lumber Co, researched many local industrialists, compiling A History of The Iron Borough and Allied Businesses of the Iron Borough, Catasauqua, PA in 1993. This unpulblished book was recently scanned and can be accessed. on The Hopkin Thomas Project page. Several other compilations by Dale Wint are available in the Catasauqua Library History Room, but have not been published.
To help understand the Crane Iron Works critical place in history, there is an excellent overview of the Pennsylvania iron industry from the early 1700s into the mid 1900s, see the National Register of Historic Places documentation.
Along the banks of the Lehigh River and the Lehigh Coal and Navigation’s canal was built the Lehigh Crane Iron Works. This first hot blast furnace using anthracite coal spawned dozens of similar furnaces, foundrys, and mills up and down the Lehigh, Schylkill and Susquehana Rivers and into New Jersay and Maryland. Dozens of businesses clusered around the Crane Iron Works; businesses making something new, useful and profitable from iron. Small businesses, trades and service establishment contributed to the needs and general welfare of the community. All these companies brought jobs and wealth to the community resulting in Catasauqua having 16 hotels and 15 churches of different denominations, and by 1900 more than 5,000 inhabitants. This included a large percentage of self made millionaires: proud, self confident, hard working and energetic men devoted to building their businesses and their community. Schools and churches, playgrounds and fire companies, mansions and row houses were built as Catasauquans became more successful. We were fortunate that our industrialists lived here, and invested, in the community, though money was also invested from outside the area, particularly Philadelphia.
The father of this community was David Thomas, iron master from Wales, who came here in 1839 at the invitation of the builders of the canal and owners of the anthracite mines in Mauch Chunk. He built the furnace works, laid out the town, built workers homes, developed other businesses, and invited others form Wales, the center of iron making in Great Britain, to bring their families here, and help build America’s iron industry. The Crane started as a Welsh enclave in the midst of German farmland: the farms of the Bierys, the Deilys, the Fausts, Brenig, Breisch, Peters, Kurtz and others across the river. The river crossing area of Biery’s Port, part of Hanover Township (Lehigh County), along with the community around the Crane, grew into the borough of Catasauqua, which incorporated in 1853. A business district grew up between Biery’s Port and the iron works along what would become Front St. Biery’s Port’s earlier businesses lined Race St, which connected the river crossing to the early Craig Settlement, centered around today’s Weaversville.
The first churches were Presbyterian, with Welsh and Scots Irish congregations, Protestant Congregational (Welsh), Evangelical Lutheran (German & English), Reformed Lutheran (German), Lutheran Evangelical (English), followed by Catholic (German, Irish, Slovak), Methodist & Episcopal (English), and Greek Orthodox (Russian, Hungarian).
Schools circa 1800 were private, such as the one built on the Deily property (previously owned by George Taylor) to educate the Deily and Biery children. When the Crane Iron came, the company and town leaders built schools until the state set up districts in 1859. A subscription academy was built in 1849, which became part of the public system in 1856. As the town grew, schools buildings were added but remained congested. It took until 1911 for the Lincoln School on Howertown and Peach, dedicated in 1897, to be redesigned and sufficiently enlarged to serve as a full high school. The Catasauqua Area School District currently has three sites, housing an elementary, middle, and high school respectively, serving the boroughs of Catasauqua, North Catasauqua and the Township of Hanover.
One of the legacies of Catasauqua’s illustrious past are the elegant mansions once owned by the leaders of industry in the iron, silk, brewing and cement industries. The architectural styles of the mansions of Catasauqua vary from Queen Anne, Italianate, Romanesque, Tudor, Gothic, Greek and Colonial Revival among others, sometimes in combination. It centers around Bridge and Pine Sts between Second St and Howerrtown Rd. These homes were built beween 1860 and 1910.
Though the mansions from the late 1800s get most of the attention, Catasauqua homes and buildings cover a wide range of architecture, with the earliest houses in Catasauqua being of the Federal style, examples being the three Biery Houses on Race St below Front. House and buildings constructed c 1830. The earliest homes, including the country home of George Taylor which is Georgian in style, date to the late 1700s. The river crossing at Race St forms the nucleus of the Biery’s Port Historic District. This area probably started as a river crossing site for the native Americans, early trappers and explorers, followed by the Craig Settlement. The latter group of Scots Irish settled the area in the late 1720s, early 1730s, just before the Moravians settled Nazareth.
Follow the links to learn more about the history of the Iron Borough.
Also check out the Walking Tours, Using your smart phone to access these webpages – or from the comfort of your home – you can discover, block by block, information on the homes, business, industries and people who made Catasauqua such an interesting community and contributer to the history of our region and country.
These pages on Catasauqua history are provided and maintained by the Historic Catasauqua Preservation Association