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Don Cunningham: Some Things Disappear as Quickly as They Come

By Don Cunningham on February 11, 2019

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on February 7, 2019. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

There’s a historic gem hidden on a wooded hillside of South Mountain in the tiny borough of Fountain Hill.

It’s just beyond the southern end of Lechauweki Avenue where the road dead ends at Moravia Street and the mountainside.

The casual visitor won’t notice much.

There’s a small pond with a gazebo, a nature trail, and lots of trees just beyond a borough sign that reads “Lechauweki Springs: a public recreation area.”

Drift in closer to the pond, quietly listen, and let your eyes roam the leaf-covered forest floor. If the weather is right and the rains have been heavy, you’ll hear the babble of crystal clear springs cascading down the mountain.

Some of the water fills the pond. Most of it finds its way back underground, disappearing as quickly as it surfaced.

That often happens.

The hillside looked much different 140 years ago, in the late 1870s.

It was home to the Lechauweki Springs Hotel resort. There were three buildings on the site that could house up to 120 guests. Wealthy travelers from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia came by horse-drawn carriage to rest and relax on this hillside and to drink and bathe in the mineralized natural springs of Lechauweki.

Lechauweki is the Lenape Indian name for Lehigh River, which flows within one mile of the springs.

The combination of the clean mountain air and spring water was thought to restore health. The water was said to have an agreeable taste mainly due to the nitrates in it. It was bottled and served in the hotel.

A leaflet with directions for its use stated: “Take a wine glassful before each meal and on retiring before the night. As a table water to promote digesting, drink it freely with your meals; it is one of the most wonderful therapeutic agents known to science.”

The resort was used primarily in summer by city dwellers looking to escape the heat but its popularity led to a winter season that featured sledding down the mountain.

Lechauweki Springs was known for its exquisite cuisine. Gourmet meals were prepared by a French chef who served all that was fresh and in season from the area countryside.

It’s interesting that Bolete, a farm-to-table restaurant recognized as one of the best in Pennsylvania today, is less than a mile away in Salisbury Township, in a former stagecoach inn on the same mountainside.

Lechauweki Springs Hotel resort lasted about 20 years from 1872 to 1891. The end came when a fire destroyed the main building. Business, however, had declined steadily in the 1880s. It’s my guess that the advent of the Bethlehem Iron Co. along the river on a former Moravian farm may have cut into the clean air attraction.

Today all that remains other than the springs and the rebuilt pond and gazebo are some fascinating stone cisterns dug into the ground around the hill and three former resort cottages on the west side of Lechauweki Avenue that are now six twin homes.

Lechauweki Springs Hotel resort disappeared almost as quickly as it surfaced.

About two miles across the river as the crow flies in west Bethlehem another economic icon of its day is about to meet a similar fate.

Martin Tower, the last corporate office home of the Bethlehem Steel Corp., on Eighth Avenue in the Lehigh County section of the city will be taken down this year. It’s been vacant for 12 years.

Bethlehem Steel built the 21-story tower as a monument to itself, moving its headquarters from Third Street on the South Side to a 50-acre campus built on former Moravian farm lands and a Lenape Indian village. The company chose not to build it in Bethlehem’s downtown but in a residential neighborhood of the west side, complete with its own highway interchange.

Within less than 10 years of occupying the building in 1972, the bottom began to fall out of the American steel industry. The company went bankrupt in 2001.

The construction of Martin Tower for $35 million was just one example of a corporate leadership often more focused on building monuments, golf courses, country clubs, and leasing suites at the Waldorf-Astoria than modernizing steelmaking operations and remaining cost competitive with international steelmakers and American mini-mills.

For those of my generation and younger, however, we’ve grown up looking at this colossal, cruciform tower located not among other office buildings but oddly in our neighborhood.

Five generations of my steelworker family has lived at one time on Seventh Avenue, a short walk from the tower. My father and his grandfather worked in the mills but weren’t raised with Martin Tower; only my children and I came of age seeing it each day.

While familiarity can breed contempt, it can also breed, well, familiarity. We become comfortable with the familiar. It grounds us. It gives us roots in a seemingly ever-changing, chaotic world.

There are some who don’t want to see the tower go. I understand what underlies that sentiment. I was not alive to see the grand hotel of Lechauweki Springs but whenever I hike the site I wish it were still there.

Of course, it can’t be there because its time came and went. Today, it would be antiquated, unsafe, wouldn’t meet modern building codes and couldn’t be cost competitive enough to stay in business. Just like Martin Tower.

All can’t be preserved just to make us feel better.

If something can be saved and repurposed it should be. The first inclination should not be to tear down and start anew.

But, there’s also a difference between something old and something historic. The history of Bethlehem Steel happened on the South Side. It was in those offices that Charles Schwab and Eugene Grace walked, where they built a company that built the steel to win two world wars and to build the skylines and bridges of America.

It was in those blast furnaces that raw materials were cooked into molten iron. And, it was in those mills where tens of thousands toiled to produce those iconic I-beams.

We are fortunate the blast furnaces, former corporate offices, and many of the mills remain there to remind us of our past. None of the shops where my family worked survived. Much work remains to repurpose and reuse those South Side offices and mill buildings to make them productive once again in today’s economy.

Martin Tower is the youngest of all the steel buildings in Bethlehem. The company occupied it for just 30 years.

Some things disappear nearly as quickly as they come.

That often happens.

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