Debra Mellish gives Ironmen presentation in Whitehall
Debra Mellish has become the go-to expert on Catasauqua’s early Iron Age. She conducts a walking tour of the borough, pointing out historical structures and where some landmarks once stood. Self-conducted tours are available at the Historical Catasauqua Preservation Association. She presented a detailed genealogy of the first families of the Iron Age and how their legacy persisted well into the 1900s at the Helfrich Springs Grist Mill Nov. 28. The grist mill is preserved by the Whitehall Historical Preservation Society.
The Catasauqua ironmen’s genealogy is tied in the historical structures, primarily family homes in Catasauqua’s historical district. Mellish traced through the intricate marriages in Catasauqua and the forward-thinking iron-related businesses each of the industrial giants created.
Mellish balanced out the intrigue of these powerful families and the roles they played in developing the iron/steel industry in the Lehigh Valley.
The influence of the original Thomas family and his progeny spread to Alabama, Mellish said. The gigantic steel mill complexes in Birmingham had their origins in Catasauqua. Most of the families were originally Welsh, but as businesses grew, other nationalities joined the companies.
As the iron and steel companies grew from the original Crane Iron Works, local businesses organized to create vertically integrated firms. With plants producing steel, fabricating shops sprang up — not miles away, but on the next block. Railroad rails were popular along with horseshoes. Catasauqua horseshoes were uniquely designed and highly prized.
It is hard to imagine that activity in Catasauqua with Front Street covered with mills and shops that extended to the Lehigh River. Mills occupied the banks of the Lehigh as far downstream as the eye could see to take advantage of water transportation that brought anthracite coal to feed the hungry furnaces. Trains moved material from one mill to the next. Nearly 2,000 people came to work every day.
As the times change, the allure of the past brings back those questions of how these industrial barons had the foresight to advance the technology of the time.