Local History

Ever since Asa Packer’s decision to found his university on fifty-seven acres of land adjacent to the Lehigh Valley Railroad, Lehigh has been closely tied to the Bethlehem community. Preserving material culture and historical documents related to the Lehigh Valley help us understand the development of an urban center and how Lehigh fits into its surroundings. By keeping these records, and continually collecting new material, we help ensure that Lehigh and the city of Bethlehem continue to work cooperatively in the best interests of their communities.

The intertwined history of the University and the Lehigh Valley begins with the early Moravian settlers, who built what became the first building on campus, Christmas Hall. As Bethlehem Steel rose to prominence in the area, so too did Lehigh and it’s graduates. When South Bethlehem celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1915, shortly before its merger with North Bethlehem, Bethlehem Steel President and Lehigh University Board of Trustees member Charles Schwab organized the celebrations. On display is a diary from Dr. William L. Estes Jr. ’05, son of the first superintendent, director, and chief surgeon of St. Luke's Hospital, discussing his service as an Army surgeon during WWI. Estes and St. Luke’s are representative of the rise of the the healthcare industry in the Lehigh Valley’s. The records of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority show that, starting in the 1950s, the city was determined to tear down older areas in favor of newer, modern buildings. This includes the City Center development, which built the Bethlehem Area Public Library and government offices over a former residential neighborhood. This complex also houses to the Bethlehem Police Department, whose recently transferred early logbooks are on display.

In addition to the physical landscape of the city, Lehigh has also helped shape the city’s culture. Lehigh and its alumni hosted a folk music festival in the 60s, brought in major musical acts like The Kinks, and established an internationally acclaimed folk music venue, Godfrey Daniels.