By Edward Bavaria

The iron industry is a major reason why Allentown grew to become  a city. Before the industrial boom of the Lehigh Valley, cities like Allentown and Bethlehem were much smaller than the cities that are around today. The early tycoons who tried to extract the iron from the ore were unsuccessful at getting the heat high enough to maintain combustion. (Bartholomew 1988). The people who wanted to set up the iron dynasty here had to look to outside sources to be able to get the temperature hot enough to melt the iron out of the ore. And they found that in anthracite coal (Bartholomew 1988).

Figure 1. British Isles and Ireland Google Maps
Figure 1. British Isles and Ireland Google Maps

The iron industry relied heavily upon immigrant knowledge and labor. A great number of people who worked in the metal industry were from the British Isles, Ireland (Figure 1), the United States and Germany. I was able to filter the data using the pivot table function in Excel to produce a table that gave the occupation in the iron industry and compare that with how many workers from each country filled those positions as seen in Figure 2.  This graph echoes the filtered map in Figure 3 of the First and Sixth Wards.

Clearly, the Irish worked in less-skilled jobs and those from the UK (including Wales) were more likely to occupy higher skilled occupations. The main reason why the Irish left their homeland during the time of the 1880s was because of the potato famine which ravaged the Ireland. The potato famine started in 1840 and lasted till 1849, (Kenny 2000). Given the data records that a great number of Irish who fled Ireland ended up in the iron industry of Allentown. The English and Welsh immigration reasons, I found, by interviewing native Lehigh valley residents. Both interviewees, Barbra Evans and Clayton Bavaria, told me similar things. A group of individuals came over in a large contingency from important iron making countries such as Great Britain (including England and Wales). Largely because resources were getting depleted in their home countries.

Figure 2.
Figure 2. Chart showing proportion of iron workers by level of occupation (management, clerks, skilled and laborer) and by birthplace.

Given the information that I gathered from the interviews, the book on the Irish diaspora, the conditions of work in Wales and England it is clear that there was not just one reason why immigrants came over but rather a complex set of reasons tailored to each nation. The Irish came over here because they were desperate to get away from famine and economic turmoil. The people from Great Britain and Germany came over to the Allentown area because they found an area in which they would prosper, given their skill set and were placed at the more skilled jobs. On the other hand, since the Irish did not have a developed iron industry at the time of the potato famine they provided most of the muscle for the industry.

Figure 2. Map showing mother’s birthplace. Note that the pattern is similar if father’s birthplace is shown.

Works Cited

Bartholomew, Craig L., Lance E. Metz, and Ann Bartholomew. 1988. The Anthracite Iron Industry of the Lehigh Valley. 1st edition. Easton, Pa: Center for Canal History &.

Interview with Evans, Barbra J. and Bavaria, Tommy. Interviewed by Bavaria, Edward C.

1880 United States Census, Microfilm strip archives., Allentown, Bethlehem areas

Kenny, Kevin. The American Irish. Studies in Modern History; Studies in Modern History (Longman (Firm). Harlow, Essex, U.K.: New York :, 2000.

Wilkins, Charles. 1903. The History of the Iron, Steel, Tinplate and … Other Trades of Wales : With Descriptive Sketches of the Land and the People during the Great Industrial Era under Review. Merthyr Tydfil, [Wales] : Joseph Williams.