Southside Bethlehem

Southside Bethlehem

Best known as the home of Lehigh University, the Steel Stacks Campus and the Sands Casino Resort, Southside Bethlehem has a rich history born from diverse immigrant roots.

Located just south of the Lehigh River, the 274-acre tract of land that is today Southside Bethlehem was originally intended to serve as a buffer between the deeply religious Moravians of North Bethlehem, who settled the area in 1741, and the outside world.

By the mid-1800s, however, the Moravian community had become increasingly secular, while at the same time a widespread industrialization movement was starting to sweep through Northeast America. Realizing that industry was coming to the city, Bethlehem’s leaders decided its best location would be the relatively uninhabited Southside. And so, in 1855, the Lehigh Valley Railroad, owned by Asa Packer, established an operation on the banks of the Lehigh River.

The following year, in 1856, the Lehigh Valley Railroad was connected to New York City via the Central New Jersey Railroad. The year after that, it was connected to Philadelphia by way of the North Pennsylvania Railroad. With these critical connections in place, Asa Packer moved his company’s headquarters from Philadelphia to Bethlehem in 1858 – and in the process transformed Southside Bethlehem into one of the most important transportation hubs in the East Coast.

With the Lehigh Valley Railroad able to provide easy transportation, two other major industries – the Pennsylvania and Lehigh Zinc Company and the Bethlehem Iron Company – both blossomed on the Southside. Railcars would transport coal, used in the companies’ smelters to begin production, and then carry the finished zinc and iron products to locations throughout the United States. So impressive was this model of integrated production that within only a few years foreign dignitaries from nations as far away as Japan and Russia began traveling to Southside Bethlehem to tour the operations.

In 1865, ten years after the Lehigh Valley Railroad was established on the Southside, the borough of South Bethlehem was officially incorporated. That same year, Asa Packer founded Lehigh University on a 60-acre parcel of land, naming it after his beloved railroad.

As industry boomed, so did the Southside’s population. In 1899 the Bethlehem Iron Company was reorganized as Bethlehem Steel, whose plentiful jobs attracted immigrants from all over Europe. By 1910, Southside Bethlehem’s population had grown to almost 20,000 – of which nearly 14,000 were immigrants who claimed at least fifty-two different nationalities and ethnic groups, including Hungarians, Czechs, Germans, Slovenians, Italians, Irish, Poles, Greeks, Ukrainians, Russians, Ruthenians, Croatians, Belgians and Turks.

As Bethlehem Steel grew, smaller local businesses also sprang up throughout South Bethlehem. While the majority of men went to work in the mills, the women would often take jobs in Southside’s cigar and hosiery factories. By the mid-1910s, eight cigar factories and ten silk or hosiery manufacturing businesses were operating in Bethlehem. In the 1920s, 3rd Street became home to the Southside Market – an open-air farmer’s market where residents could barter with local and non-local producers for fresh produce and meats. From 1929 to 1934 South Bethlehem was even home to the Bethlehem Municipal Airport – a small non-passenger airport that specialized in air shows and sightseeing tours and was once visited by Amelia Earhart.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s a second wave of immigrants, this time primarily from southern America and Mexico, once again flocked to the Southside, attracted by promises of steady work at the steel mill. By the end of World War II in 1945, Bethlehem Steel employed more than 33,000 people at its Southside operation.

Although Bethlehem Steel closed its doors in 1995, bringing an end to the company that dominated the lives of hundreds of thousands of Southside residents for more than nine decades, the borough’s diverse history is still clearly visible. Today, the nearly forty different churches that dot the Southside’s landscape are a testament to the community’s immigrant past, while each year at Christmas the South Bethlehem Historical Society decorates and displays over a dozen different ethnic trees to showcase the area’s
diverse population.

A Night Out

Steel Ice Center
Located at 320 East 1st Street on the site of the historic Bethlehem Steel complex, Steel Ice Center is the Lehigh Valley’s premiere ice skating facility. In addition to hosting several teams, clubs and leagues, the center also offers group or private lessons and open public skating.

Bookstore Speakeasy
A 1920s style speakeasy featuring prohibition-era cocktails and punch-bowls, a wide selection of wine and craft beers, delicious American cuisine and live jazz music, the Bookstore Speakeasy makes you feel like you just stepped back in time. Located at 336 Adams Street.

ArtsQuest SteelStacks
A ten-acre campus located in the shadow of the blast furnaces at the former Bethlehem Steel plant, SteelStacks offers arts, entertainment and family-friendly events. Sit out on the lawn at the outdoor Levitt Pavilion and enjoy free public concerts from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. Step inside the ArtsQuest Center and watch a comedy show, musical performance or have dinner and catch a movie in the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas. Stop by in October for the annual Oktoberfest and enjoy live music, authentic German foods, and fun, entertaining events such as barrel rolling competitions and dachshund races.

Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University
Located at 420 East Packer Avenue on the Lehigh University Campus, Zoellner Arts Center houses three theatres and is home to Lehigh’s Department of Theatre, Music Department, Art Galleries and Guest Art Series. The Guest Art series presents a wide array of performers, including Tony Bennett, Garrison Keillor, Natalie Cole and the New York Philharmonic.

First Fridays
On the first Friday of every month the Southside comes alive for a celebration of arts and culture.  Come browse the unique shops and restaurants while enjoying music, refreshments and a variety of in-store specials. Festivities also include special events at the Banana Factory, located at 25 West 3rd Street.

Sands Casino Resort
With an assortment of fine and casual dining, high-end outlet shopping, three nightclubs and the world-class Sands Event Center, there’s something for everyone at the Sands Casino Resort.

Homebase Skateshop
On top of selling the highest quality skate products, limited edition footwear and unique streetwear brands, Homebase Skateshop supports the growing skateboard scene in the Lehigh Valley. It helps to get skateparks built, films skate videos, holds demos and hosts local contests. Open seven days a week, it is located at 14 West 4th Street.

3rd Street Shopping District

Martin’s Furniture
Located at 416 East 3rd Street, Martin’s Furniture carries a diverse line of furniture in contemporary, traditional and country styles as well as quality window treatments and mattresses.

Homebase Skateshop
On top of selling the highest quality skate products, limited edition footwear and unique streetwear brands, Homebase Skateshop supports the growing skateboard scene in the Lehigh Valley. It helps to get skateparks built, films skate videos, holds demos and hosts local contests. Open seven days a week, it is located at 14 West 4th Street.

Representing the work of over 100 American craftsmen, Cleo’s offers a wide range of jewelry and gifts including custom silver and gold jewelry. Stop by their studio and gallery at 21 East 3rd Street.

Glen Anthony Design
Providing high quality interior design services for over two decades, Glen Anthony Design specializes in creating unique traditional, transitional and contemporary furnishings.  Stop by the showroom at 24 East 3rd Street, Suite 2.

Photos by Keith Brinker

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