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Local history buffs hope to bring historical marker to Towamensing

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    Roy Christman sits in an armchair on the first floor of his childhood home. Christman, who grew up in Towamensing, is just one member of the township’s historical commission trying to designate Wild Creek Reservoir with a historical marker. DANIELLE DERRICKSON/TIMES NEWS

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    ABOVE: The Bethlehem Water Authority site in Towamensing Township. Local history buffs are trying to obtain a marker for the authority’s Wild Creek Reservoir from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. DANIELLE DERRICKSON/TIMES NEWS

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    Roy Christman is working to get a marker at the Bethlehem Water Authority. DAVID ROWE/TIMES NEWS

Published July 06. 2019 06:35AM

 

Knowing a place has a history is one thing. Being familiar with that history is another.

Because understanding the past takes time, effort, an open mind and a whole lot of digging.

You could say that “knowing” Towamensing Township has been the object of Roy Christman’s attention for decades.

Christman grew up in Towamensing and currently lives in his childhood home. When he was living and working as a political-science professor in San Jose, California, Christman still managed to produce a quarterly newsletter titled Towamensing Times.

“I think the history of an area is important,” Christman said. “Not just in Towamensing, but all of Carbon County.”

Late last year, Christman — alongside fellow Towamensing Historical Commission members — dug his heels into a specific facet of the township’s legacy: the construction of Wild Creek Reservoir.

“Every summer, hundreds of people go down to the Wild Creek Falls,” Christman said. “They see the reservoir up there, and they have no idea what it is, what it does, when it was built.”

 

The reservoir

The Bethlehem Water Authority was established in 1938, under the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Act. A year later, it got to work on Wild Creek.

Two tunnels, one through Weir Ridge and the other through Blue Mountain, were completed in 1939 and 1940, respectively. A former Bethlehem councilman named Fred Kline became Wild Creek’s resident manager in 1941. It was dedicated that October.

The reservoir cost $4.1 million to complete. Public Works Administration — an agency founded as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s anti-Depression era New Deal of 1933 — contributed $1.6 million to the reservoir’s construction.

During World War II, it supplied water to the now-defunct Bethlehem Steel, where bomb casings, armor piercing shells, gun forgings, airplane parts and other materials were made.

Bethlehem Water Authority also owns property in Penn Forest Township, which has been a site of contention over the years as Atlantic Wind fights to erect 28 nearly 600-foot-tall wind turbines on the land, near Hatchery Road.

The township’s zoning hearing board denied Atlantic Wind’s special exception permit application for the project in December. Appeal arguments were given in front of Judge Steven R. Serfass in Carbon County court on June 26.

The marker

Historical markers are designations awarded by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to identify sites significant to Pennsylvania’s past.

According to the program’s website, more than 2,000 cast aluminum signs have been placed throughout the commonwealth.

There are 11 markers in Carbon County. Six stand in the Jim Thorpe area, three in Weissport, one in Summit Hill and one in Lehighton.

Three signs recalling the Walking Purchase — an agreement between the Lenape, the indigenous people of the Delaware Bay, and the Penn family that went south after Thomas Penn defrauded thousands of acres of land from the Lenape — are missing.

In order to receive a marker, nominations must be deemed significant to state or national history, not just the municipalities. Once approved, the person or organization nominating the site has to pay for the sign, which costs about $1,800.

Christman said the historical society spent the past few months collecting documentation about Wild Creek, but has yet to file the application. If approved, he noted, the commission will begin to look for means to pay for the sign, which is slated to stand just outside the authority building on Pohopoco Drive.

“This is not a done deal, by any means,” Christman said.

But if the commission can secure a marker, it will be “a great thing for the community, Towamensing Township” and the region, said Stephen Repasch, executive director at Bethlehem Authority.

“The authority fully supports the submission of the application,” he said.

Wild Creek, which contains roughly 4 billion gallons of water, still serves the city of Bethlehem and 11 other municipalities.

The reservoir’s creation was a feat, Repasch said, especially considering it was built in the 1930s, when construction technology was limited.

“It’s an incredible achievement,” he said.

For Christman, the marker, like all of his preservation efforts, is a chance to remind people about treasures too often buried in the past.

“I would like to preserve that (history), and show people what they had — or have,” he said.

Want to see the markers?

There are a total of 11 markers in Carbon County. Here are the locations, and what each sign reads, according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission website:

Carbon County Courthouse

Marker location: Broadway and Susquehanna Streets in Jim Thorpe

Marker text: “Formed March 13, 1843 from Northampton and Monroe counties. Carbon is the basic element of this area’s rich deposits of anthracite coal. The county seat, incorporated in 1850 as Mauch Chunk, was renamed in 1954 for Jim Thorpe, Indian athlete.”

Fort Allen

Marker location: Franklin Township, off Route 209 near Weissport

Marker text: “Built in 1756 by the Province of Pennsylvania. One of a series of frontier defenses erected during the French and Indian War. The site was within present Weissport.”

Fort Allen Well

Marker location: Park opposite 112-116 Franklin Streets in Weissport

Marker text: “Only remaining part of Fort Allen, which was built by the Province of Pennsylvania, 1756, under the supervision of Benjamin Franklin. The well, now restored, is located directly behind houses opposite.”

Gnadenhutten Massacre

Marker location: E Penn Street in Lehighton

Marker text: “The Moravian mission of this name was built in 1746 to accommodate the growing number of Mohican and Delaware Indian converts. It was the first white settlement in present-day Carbon County. It was burned on November 24, 1755, during a raid by Indians stirred to violence by the French. Victims of the attack are buried in the Lehighton Cemetery near here.”

Execution of the Molly Maguires

Marker location: Old Carbon County Jail in Jim Thorpe

Marker text: “On June 21, 1877, four ‘Molly Maguires,’ an alleged secret society of Irish mine- workers, were hanged here. Pinkerton detective James McParlan’s testimony led to convictions for violent crimes against the coal industry, yet the facts of the labor, class, and ethnic conflicts, even the existence of the organization, remain contested. Six others were hanged on this day at the county jail in Pottsville; ten more were executed in Pa. through 1879.”

Packer Mansion

Marker location: Susquehanna Street in Jim Thorpe

Marker text: “Standing on the nearby hill is the home of Asa Packer, industrialist, philanthropist, congressman and founder of Lehigh University. The ornate mansion, built in 1860, has been carefully preserved with its original furnishings and is maintained as a memorial.”

Philip Ginter

Marker location: Ludlow Park in Summit Hill

Marker text: “While hunting, Ginter discovered anthracite on Sharp Mountain here in 1791. He showed it to Col. Jacob Weiss, a prominent area settler. In 1792 Weiss and others formed the Lehigh Coal Mine Co., the first Anthracite company and a forerunner of Lehigh Coal & Navigation.”

Switchback Railroad

Marker location: State Route 3012, near Jim Thorpe

Marker text: “A gravity railroad was built along this mountain in 1827 to carry coal from the mines near Summit Hill to the Lehigh Canal at Mauch Chunk. A back-track and two planes were added in 1844 for the return trip by gravity. Railroad crossed the highway here.”

Walking Purchase sign, near Weissport

Marker location: Interchange Road

Marker text: “On Sept. 20, 1737, the two surviving walkers used an Indian path from present-day Northampton to “Pokopoghcunk” Indian Town (now Parryville), then continued by compass. Late in the morning, Yeates became exhausted, leaving Marshall to go on alone.”

Walking Purchase sign, near Jim Thorpe

Marker location: Pennsylvania Route 903 near Maury Road

Marker text: “In the early afternoon of Sept. 20, Edward Marshall, with an official timer, ended the “Indian Walk,” having covered some 65 miles in 18 hours travel. His stopping place is supposed to have been in this general area.”

Walking Purchase sign, near Jim Thorpe

Marker location: Pennsylvania Route 903

Marker text: “Measured 1737, according to a supposed Indian deed of 1686, granting lands extending a day-and-a-half walk. Using picked men to force this measure to its limit, Thomas Penn reversed his father’s Indian policy, losing Indian friendship.”

 

 

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