History of Fountain Hill

By Edward J. Redding

The current size of the Borough of Fountain Hill is 478 1/2 acres, which is three-quarters of one square mile. When the borough was incorporated in 1893, it was less than half of this size, only 212.342 acres. Two annexations of land from Salisbury Township in the twentieth century grew the borough to its current size. The borough is located in the Lehigh Valley region of eastern Pennsylvania.

Fountain Hill was part of the homeland of the Lenape Indians, who were still occupying it when William Penn came into possession of it in 1681. The land of Fountain Hill was then acquired from Penn or his three sons by settlers. Title to the land passed through several hands before most of it was purchased by the Moravians of Bethlehem over a 32-year period, starting in 1743. By 1775, the Moravians owned all but 40 acres of the land of Fountain Hill. The 40 acres were part of a 156.063-acre tract purchased from the sons of William Penn and settled by Nicholas Doll in 1739, the earliest settlement of Fountain Hill.

For about 100 years, the land purchased by the Moravians was used for farming by them or their tenants. The 147-acre farm was known as the Hoffert Farm; so named because John Hoffert, and later his son, Samuel, were the last tenants to work the farm before the Moravians sold it. The farmhouse on the farm was built by Cornelius Weygandt in 1755; it is the oldest standing house in Fountain Hill.

In 1846, the Moravians sold a little more than two acres to Dr. Francis Henry Oppelt. On the land, Oppelt built a hotel-like building for the purpose of practicing hydropathy, tile treatment of disease by use of water. Oppelt's place was officially known as the Hydropathic Institute, but it was more commonly called the Water Cure. It was opened for 25 years, from 1846 until 1871.

In 1871, Oppelt had financial difficulties, resulting in the sheriff sale of his Water Cure to the mortgage holder. Within a year, it was sold to Tinsley Jeter, who in turn sold it in 1876 to Asa Packer. Packer then made it a free gift to the board of directors of St. Luke's Hospital who moved their hospital to Fountain Hill from South Bethlehem. At this point in time, the Water Cure property consisted of 13 acres of land; Oppelt had made additional purchases of the Hoffert Farm.

The greater portion of the Hoffert Farm (108 acres) was purchased by Charles Tombler in 1848. He built a new farmhouse, replacing the one built by Weygandt. It became famous as the Fontainebleau Mansion and later as the Bishop Thorpe Manor, a boarding school for girls.

After a few years of farming, Tombler sold his 108-acre property to Charles Augustus Fiot in 1850. Not bought adjoining properties, increasing his total acreage to 147 acres. Fiot made improvements to the farmhouse built by Tombler, giving it the appearance of a French manor house. He beautified the grounds with fountains and exotic trees. He named his estate Fontainebleau after the charming village and palace of Fontainebleau, France near where he resided during his boyhood years. He lived on his estate for 15 years before his death in 1866.

In 1866, the Fontainebleau Estate was purchased by Tinsley Jeter, the Father of Fountain Hill. Jeter had been a practicing attorney in Philadelphia. He settled in Fountain Hill in 1860 on 22 1/2 acres, which had been part of the Hoffert Farm that was purchased by Charles Tombler's son, Oliver. When Jeter purchased the Fontainebleau Estate, he sold his iron mines in Lehigh County and gave his full attention to laying out and developing Fontainebleau Estate and the 22 1/2 acres on which he settled, as a town plot.

Because Jeter had also purchased the unsold lots on the Fuhrer Farm, which had been another Moravian Farm, he included that land development in his town plot. The Fuhrer Farm portion of Jeter's town plot is now in the City of Bethlehem. But, it is listed in the National Register as the Fountain Hill Historic District because that is what the area was known as in the nineteenth century. Mansions of relatives and business associates of Asa Packer, who came to the area upon the opening of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, are in this historic district.

Built in 1858, the mansion of Robert H. Sayre, who was appointed chief engineer of the Lehigh Valley Railroad by Packer, is now the beautiful 18-room Sayre Mansion Inn where guests discover the charm, romance, and history of a bygone era in antique-filled rooms. Sayre's son, Francis, married Jessie Woodrow Wilson, daughter of the president of the United States. The Sayre Mansion Inn can be visited online at www.sayremansion.com. Photographs of the Inn are on this Web site.

In 1866, Jeter felt the need for a distinctive name for his town plot. Someone suggested Fountain Hill, and Jeter adopted it. Although the reason for the suggested name has not been documented, there are two explanations. One, Fiot's Fontainebleau Estate could have been the inspiration for it. The French word "Fontaine" is Fountain in English, and the Fontainebleau Mansion occupied a beautiful position on the slope of the Lehigh Hilt. The second interpretation is that it could have been so named because a short distance above the Fontainebleau Mansion, there are springs, fountains of water, flowing from the Lehigh Hill. The Fontainebleau Estate is the birthplace of Fountain Hill.

Jeter was an astute business man: he saw the need for houses for people being attracted to the area by employment opportunities made available by the blossoming Industrial Revolution occurring in nearby South Bethlehem. In 1886, the Lipps & Sutton Silk Mill was built in Fountain Hill, providing more employment opportunities. In the early 1990's, the silk mill was completely renovated for multiple uses: apartments, municipal offices, and police headquarters. Because it was one of the first silk mills that was built in the area during the Industrial Revolution, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

With desirable locations for building houses and nearby employment opportunities, the village of Fountain Hill experienced rapid growth during the second half of the nineteenth century. From few farmhouses and a negligible population in 1843, the village had about 200 houses and a population approaching 1,000 by the year 1893. Up until then, the village was part of Salisbury Township.

In September, 1893, the citizens of the village of Fountain Hill petitioned the Lehigh County Court to allow them to organize as a separate municipality. The Court handed down a favorable opinion; and, on November 13, 1893, the village was incorporated as the Borough of Fountain Hill.

While houses were being built in the portion of Fountain Hill which was originally incorporated as a borough, two recreational facilities were built in the portion of present-day Fountain Hill which had been annexed from Salisbury Township in 1919. A nine-hole golf course was built by Dr. Garrett B. Linderman on a 20-acre tract of land. It was known as The Linderman Golf Grounds. The clubhouse for the course is now a private residence. The other recreational facility was the Lechauweki Springs Summer Resort which was built by John Smylie, Jr. This famous mountain resort had three hotel buildings that were situated on a 63-acre tract. Today, 5 acres are owned by the borough as a passive-activity park.

When the Borough of Fountain Hill annexed 255.185 acres from Salisbury Township in 1919, there was one house in the annexation that was built in the eighteenth century. This house, located at 821 Dodson Street, was built by Nicholas Ueberroth in 1788; it had been built on the 156.063-acre tract settled by Nicholas Doll in 1739. It is the second oldest house in Fountain Hill. The oldest is the Weygandt house built in 1755, which is located at 916 North Bishopthorpe Street. These houses are among 260 buildings in Fountain Hill which have been identified as being built before 1894 and still standing in 1996.

In terms of recognition, the most notable person ever born in Fountain Hill was the poet; playwright and historian Stephen Vincent Benet. At the peak of his career, he was perhaps America's best-known writer. Even today he has a large following; there are more than twenty-two thousand references to him on the Internet. He first won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929 for his epic poem, John Brown's Body, which chronicles Civil War events from the raid on Harpers Ferry to General Lee's surrender at Appomattox. In 1944, he posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize for his poem, Western Star.

In front of a two-and-a-half story, yellow-brick, Colonial Revival house where Benet was born in Fountain Hill, there is a historical marker placed by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. The marker reads. “STEPHEN VINCENT BENET - This talented author was born here July 22, 1898, died in New York March 13, 1943. 'John Brown's Body' and his other poems and stories give vivid expression to the best in American spirit and Tradition. "

This nationally acclaimed literary genius, who has been referred to as a latter-day Walt Whitman, was honored by a commemorative USA postage stamp issued on July 22, 1998, which was the 100th anniversary of Benet's birth. Because of the historical connection of the American abolitionist John Brown to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the first day of issue ceremony took place at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The US Postal Service also had a ceremony for the stamp's issuance in Fountain Hill on July 24, 1998.

As noted earlier, St. Luke's Hospital opened for business at Oppelt's Water Cure building in 1876. On the hospital's campus today is the historic Coxe Pavilion, which was built in 1914. Within this pavilion is the Fowler Family Museum; it contains photos and artifacts, depicting the hospital's history from when chartered in 1872 to the modern-day era. Museum hours are 1 to 3 PM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Other times by appointment, call 610-954-4650. The museum is across the street from Benet's birthplace.

Once part of the homeland of the Lenape Indians; once Moravian farmland; once a tiny village; Fountain Hill has been a small borough since 1893. Today, it is home for about 4,600 persons whose quality of life flows from their dedication to church, education, and family life. The people of Fountain Hill love their little community and take pride in proclaiming its motto - It's a thrill to live on the Hill!

For more information on the history of Fountain Hill, readers are referred to the following scholarly work: Redding, Edward J. The History of Fountain Hill, Pennsylvania Bethlehem: Oaks Printing Company, 1996.


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