Bethlehem was founded by a Protestant sect know as Moravians in 1741. Unlike other immigrants to Pennsylvania the Moravians were not seeking religious freedom, because they were free to practice their religion in their home town of Herrnhut, Germany. Their mission was to bring the word of God to natives of the new world. Bethlehem served as their base to support missionaries who went as far away as Greenland and the Caribbean. By the time of the American Revolution this industrious community sustained over 70 crafts and industries from the manufacture of linseed oil and calf skin gloves to making barrels and iron wares. In 1800 the town had 500 residents, but was supporting 500 missionaries. Central Moravian Church completed in 1806 seats over 900. Today Bethlehem maintains the largest collection of Eighteenth Century Germanic style building in the United States thanks to our Moravian founders. Many of these preserved buildings are accessible to visitors.
While the Moravians exhibited early American industrial outlets, including the first municipal water system in the United States, Bethlehem became a center of the Industrial Revolution. As first the Lehigh Canal, then the railroad came through the town. The manufacture of metals, first zinc, then iron, then steel, became the backbone of the City’s economy from the 1840’s through the 1990’s. Bethlehem Steel (1902-2001) helped America become the technology leader of the Twentieth Century and the arsenal of democracy with its prowess in steel manufacture, building and bridge construction and naval engineering and construction. At its height in 1944, Bethlehem Steel employed over 30,000 people in the Bethlehem Plant alone. In November, 1995 the home plant closed and in 2001 the company filed for bankruptcy. The city lost a major source of employment and 20% of its real estate tax base. The city has not only recovered but thrived in the new economy, attracting new innovators who utilize the resources of its higher education institutions like Lehigh University, the state supported Ben Franklin Partnership and private investment capital from successful local entrepreneurs. Bethlehem is a city that respects and celebrates its past. Visitors have access to many of the former Bethlehem Steel buildings when visiting SteelStacks, the cultural campus the city has created in the former steel plant.
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