Mauch Chunk: Wealth and prosperity in the Victorian age

By Jack Sterling © 2009-2016

Mauch Chunk, founded in 1818 as a company town, went through a boom period that lasted through the rest of the century as the importance of anthracite became central to the American Industrial Revolution and the American way of life. Men of modest means and men of no means at all came to the town and got swept up in the success and opportunity the boom town afforded to them. A few became millionaires several times over. Even those who did not become millionaires did well for themselves – the tide of prosperity raised nearly all the boats of Mauch Chunk.

Industry in Mauch Chunk bustled and there was plenty of employment in various enterprises. These included the coal business, three railroads (Switchback Gravity Railroad, Lehigh Valley Railroad, and the Central Railroad of New Jersey) and their attendant shops and yards, the Lehigh Canal and the related boat building enterprises, breweries, construction companies, two iron foundries plus a wire rope mill, two newspapers, a tannery and a tallow plant. Besides these businesses, Mauch Chunk was also the county seat and there was a wealth of lawyers along with the clerks and secretaries needed in the various offices.

During this era there was an exceptional set of individuals who were the leaders of the town and industry. Nearly all had made their fortune and fame in the coal and rail industries and nearly all were millionaires. And in the late 19th century, being a millionaire truly meant something. They included (in order of when they passed from the scene):

1. John Lentz 1793-1875
2. Daniel Bertsch 1801-1877
3. Asa Packer 1805-1879
4. Charles Albright 1830-1880
5. John Leisenring 1819-1884
6. Harry E. Packer 1850-1884
7. Fisher Hazard 1829-1888
8. Alexander W. Butler 1823-1889
9. Andrew A. Douglas 1818-1890
10. Albert G. Brodhead 1815-1891
11. William Lilly 1821-1893
12. Robert Klotz 1819-1895
13. Charles O. Skeer 1818-1898
14. James I. Blakslee 1815-1901
15. Allen Craig 1835-1902
16. Nathan D. Cortright 1817-1902
17. Francis R. Sayre 1821-1908
18. John C. Dolon 1832-1914
19. Leonard Yaeger 1824-1919
20. John S. Wentz 1838-1919
21. Mahlon Kemmerer 1843-1925

These were the men who built the great mansions on Front Hill overlooking the Lehigh. These were the men who built the townhouses of Millionaire’s Row on Broadway. These were the “royalty” of old Mauch Chunk.

As time progressed, these town fathers began to die out and in many cases the next generation moved on to the bigger cities of Bethlehem, Philadelphia and New York. The coal and rail industries would soon start shifting their main offices to the bigger cities, too. Still, the momentum of prosperity continued to carry the town along and there was a wave of construction during this final quarter of the 19th century that reshaped the town. It was high times in old Mauch Chunk while it lasted.

This dynamic era reached its peak in the last quarter of the 19th century. The new century brought many changes that began the long decline of the once booming coal regions.

Even as business shifted elsewhere and the old families faded from the scene, another industry had been growing, that of tourism. Mauch Chunk had been a tourism town since the early 1820s when visitors came to see the taming of the wilderness. By the late years of the century tourism had grown until, for a time, Mauch Chunk was the 2nd most popular attraction in the United States – 2nd only to Niagara Falls.

One comment

  1. My paternal grandfather was an employee of the Jersey Central Railroad for 50 years from the 1880s to the 1930s. His name was William “Big Bill” Sweeney. He lived in Mauch Chunk and raised his family there.

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