Mark Connar ’84 MBA asks the question, launching a years-long effort to preserve a piece of world heritage on Lehigh’s Stabler Pathways property.
In his mind’s eye, Mark Connar ’84 MBA can see it all very clearly.
He can see the imposing 19th-century stone castle-like structure on Lehigh’s Stabler Pathways property—near Center Valley Parkway in Upper Saucon Township, Pennsylvania—come to life as an interpretive museum and industrial heritage park for children, families and students.
He can see the debris cleared, and the thick walls of local stone cleaned, repointed and stabilized so future generations can go inside and learn about its past as the home of The President Pumping Engine—the world’s largest and most powerful single-cylinder stationary rotative steam engine ever, which drew massive amounts of water from the zinc mine so the rich ore could be extracted.
Connar can see a circular viewing stand the size of the engine’s cylinder, over 9 feet in diameter, inside the once three-story building, an architectural achievement itself and the only pumping engine house still standing in the United States built in the style of the Cornish from Great Britain. And as he walks around the perimeter of the mining pit, now a picturesque small lake, Connar can see people strolling on a nature trail, enjoying the present as they contemplate the time when this 20-acre area was teeming with activity.
But the vision sometimes keeps Connar awake at night. He worries the wind or some other force of nature will further erode the Engine House. As he shows a visitor around the site—something he does often and with enthusiasm—he points out a pile of stones that became unmoored and tumbled to the ground. He reflects on the plight of the Pumping Engine itself, demolished and sold for scrap, and how important it is to remember its significance as a mechanical engineering achievement and to save what’s left.
But things are going well. Connar and Lehigh, facilitated by Erin Kintzer, Lehigh’s director of Real Estate Services, have forged a strong partnership with the aim of restoring the structure and creating a heritage park. There’s a deep connection between Lehigh and the local zinc mining story, helping to give the project momentum.
The educational mission is the university’s first priority. But being a community member and a steward of these unique resources is a responsibility and an opportunity that doesn’t come along every day, and that fits into the mission too.
Lehigh has received funding from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Keystone Historic Preservation Grant program and a National Trust grant from the Louis J. Appell Jr. Preservation Fund for Central Pennsylvania to study the feasibility of repairing the building.
The money—matching grants totaling $55,000—has been used to remove overgrown vegetation and generate construction drawings and architectural renderings. Lehigh commissioned Spillman Farmer Architects in Bethlehem and Omnes, an Easton landscape company, to create a plan for the site.
At the end of 2022, Connar and Kintzer succeeded in their campaign to get a historical marker for the site from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission—one of only 36 awarded in the state that year and the first in Upper Saucon. Plans are for the marker to be erected on Old Bethlehem Pike in 2024 with some fanfare. Fundraising should begin in earnest then.
“As a university, we are always trying to weigh our responsibilities and priorities for our students,” says Kintzer. “The educational mission is the university’s first priority. But being a community member and a steward of these unique resources is a responsibility and an opportunity that doesn’t come along every day, and that fits into the mission too.”
The story of the restoration of the Pumping Engine House begins in 2014, when Connar, who grew up on 13th Avenue in Bethlehem, retired after a 40-year career with Air Products.
“I wasn’t ready to sit back and read a book. I wanted to do something that had a purpose, something that would have a lasting impact,” Connar says.
At the time, he recalled his fascination with the seemingly abandoned structure he used to drive by with his mother in the family Studebaker in the mid-1950s. “I liked King Arthur and castles and knights and all of that stuff,” he says. “It looked a lot to me like a castle, and I was really curious about it. But life intervened and I eventually went off to school and got a job.”
In 2016, Connar started to research the site. He was well suited to the task—his career required research skills for various initiatives, and he had a long-standing interest in history and an undergrad degree in anthropology.
“I had a few details but not much had been written about the building and the engine that was in it,” says Connar. He gathered enough information to write a 20-page summary about the site’s historical significance. He learned that the site was owned by Lehigh as part of 755 acres gifted by the Stabler Foundation in 2012.
Connar shared his findings with Kintzer, who helps manage the Stabler property, a mixed-use parcel bordered roughly by Interstate 78 and the picturesque slopes of South Mountain that now include such businesses as the Promenade Shops, Olympus, Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital and Penn State Lehigh Valley.
I wasn’t ready to sit back and read a book. I wanted to do something that had a purpose, something that would have a lasting impact.
She didn’t know anything about the structure. “I got a call from Mark, who said, ‘Hey, do you know what you have here?’ He got me out there, and I was like, ‘Wow, what am I looking at?’ You feel like you are seeing ancient ruins. … Mark really has been instrumental in educating me on the significance of the structure and the property and also understanding the full history of what happened on this site.”
The two are now a powerhouse advocacy team. Connar says that with Lehigh and Kintzer, the project is the beneficiary of “an owner who is dedicated to inquiry.” With Connar, Kintzer says she is partnering with “an incredibly kind and generous person who’s extremely knowledgeable and passionate for the work he’s doing and the history. When someone comes to you with that level of excitement, you can’t help but also be excited and want to help.”
Connar’s original 20-page report is now more than 170 pages with updates as new discoveries are made. Connar has pored over theses written by Lehigh students in the 1800s, engineering surveys of the Friedensville mines and other sources in Lehigh University Libraries Special Collections. Much of Lehigh’s trove of documents was obtained as a result of the Stabler gift.
“Mining is a very dangerous business,” says Ilhan Citak, archives and Special Collections librarian. “They needed to record things constantly.”
One important reference was a journal article published in 2001 by the National Canal Museum. It was the product of a state-mandated cultural resource study done to support Stabler’s property developments.
Connar also connected with Damian Nance, a professor of geology emeritus at Ohio University and an expert on Cornish engines, after discovering a 2013 paper he wrote. Nance has since written three comprehensive guides to the engine houses of Cornwall, documenting the history of what has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, much the same as Stonehenge or the Acropolis. In the tiny county of Cornwall, castle-like engine pumping houses are common sights, identified with the area in the same way windmills are with the Netherlands.
The President Pumping Engine House looks exactly like those structures in Cornwall. The Cornish built other engine houses in Pennsylvania and the United States, but none remain.
Friedensville Zinc Mining
What Connar has learned—and what he shares with anyone who will listen—is this story.
Zinc deposits were first discovered in Friedensville in the mid1840s when farmer Jacob Ueberroth sought help in identifying strange rocks in his fields that did not burn normally in his limestone kilns. A local mineralogist, William Theodore Roepper, determined the strange rocks included zinc-rich ore. A few years later, Philadelphia chemist Samuel Wetherill developed a patented process to produce zinc oxide directly from zinc-rich ore. Wetherill led the creation of the first industrial-scale zinc extraction and processing enterprises in the United States.
The zinc ore was carried by mule trains and carts over South Mountain to the plant. The enterprise became known as the Lehigh Zinc Company, which prospered under the guidance of another famous Philadelphia entrepreneur, Joseph Wharton. The zinc ore in Friedensville was very pure. The company had contracts with European governments that were starting to develop their militaries and having problems with brass gun cartridges that would overheat and stick, so the guns would not fire properly.
In the Upper Saucon area, there were five mines, the largest of which was the Ueberroth mine. Mining began there in 1853. But after a decade of surface mining, they needed to go deeper and encountered massive groundwater challenges. The mines were described as the wettest in North America.
The engine house was just sitting there. It was too big to take down. That’s why it’s there. If somebody in the 1960s had decided to develop the property, it probably wouldn’t be there. Hence the opportunity.
John West, an engineer from Cornwall, was retained to determine what type of steam engine could be used to pump out the water. The Cornish were experts in mining, engine design and steam. West determined they had to go big.
The President Pumping Engine was designed and manufactured along the Philadelphia waterfront. A marvel of the industrial revolution, it contained 675 tons of iron and steel. Named after Ulysses S. Grant, it began operating in 1872. It could remove 17,000 gallons of water a minute from a depth of 300 feet and served all five mines.
Of course, a structure had to be built to both support and house the engine. Cornish engineers had that covered as well. Three stories tall, it had a 9-foot-thick back wall and 3-foot-thick side walls. The foundation goes down 110 feet to bedrock. A sturdy structure was needed to support the massive engine. Two brick chimneys were brought down in the 1950s for safety reasons. A third floor made of wood is gone.
The engine’s life was brief. Economic conditions, the high cost of water removal and the development of alternative ore sources caused the mines to close in 1876. They reopened in 1881 under new management and operated again until 1893. When New Jersey Zinc bought the property in 1899, it sold the President Pumping Engine for scrap. The building was so strong, it was left alone.
New Jersey Zinc never mined in the Friedensville area again until 1958. In 1984, after shutting down mining operations, it sold the property to the Stabler Land Company.
“The property, which includes the engine house, is really kind of a 19th-century time capsule,” says Connar. “When they ceased to mine there in the 1890s, nothing else happened. The property was unused.”
Connar says this is one instance where “neglect” was a good thing. “The engine house was just sitting there. It was too big to take down. That’s why it’s there. If somebody in the 1960s had decided to develop the property, it probably wouldn’t be there. Hence the opportunity.”
In one fortuitous development, a boiler, one of 20 required to operate the President Pumping Engine, was found in the basement of a shuttered furniture factory in Allentown, where it had been for more than 100 years.
When the engine was scrapped in 1900, Gottlieb Buehler had acquired the boiler, using it as a water tank for his new furniture factory. The factory eventually closed, but the boiler remained. When the factory was scheduled to be demolished, the boiler was acquired for the project.
In January, it was removed from the building via a tricky process that required specialized lifting and moving equipment. Lehigh contractors did the work, moving the boiler to a storage location the university owns at the former New Jersey Zinc mine headquarters. The plan is to have the tank restored and on display in front of the engine house where it was once located.
Lehigh’s history with the Ueberroth Mine goes back to even before Lehigh was established in 1865. In 1845, Roepper, the local mineralogist, combined the zinc-rich ore with copper to make brass and attempted to commercialize the find. In 1866, he became Lehigh’s first professor of mineralogy and geology. Miles Rock, one of Lehigh’s first graduates, was employed part-time in surveying the mines. The maps and Rock’s graduation thesis—“The Lehigh Zinc Mines. Their Geology, Mineralogy and Mining”—are now a part of Lehigh Libraries Special Collections, after Rock’s descendants donated his records.
That the land would end up in the hands of Lehigh makes this story almost too good to be true.
In 2012, Lehigh was the recipient of one of the most generous gifts in its history, the 755-acre donation from the Donald B. and Dorothy L. Stabler Foundation. Donald Stabler received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1930 from Lehigh, then a master of science in 1932. As chairman and CEO of Stabler Companies, Inc., he developed the Stabler Corporate Center on the site, now Stabler Pathways. Stabler, who also served on Lehigh’s Board of Trustees and as president of the Alumni Association, has been one of Lehigh’s major benefactors.
All of this presents an extraordinary opportunity that Connar has embraced. He was interviewed by BBC radio after being named a Bard by Gorsedh Kernow, an organization founded in 1928 to preserve the culture of Cornwall, at a ceremony in Hayle, Cornwall, in 2022. The award was in recognition of his work to spread knowledge of The President Engine and his advocacy to repair the Engine House.
Connar created a website dedicated to preserving the history of zinc mining in Friendensville that includes a section inviting readers to donate to a preservation fund established by Lehigh.
Another collaborator, the National Museum of Industrial History in South Bethlehem, has on display a working scale model of the President Pumping Engine built and donated to the museum by Anthony Mount of Devon, England.
Kintzer says Lehigh supports the preservation mission for many reasons: As the largest landowner in Upper Saucon Township, Lehigh has a responsibility to the community, both in terms of being good stewards of the land and meeting its obligation to preserve history. She says a park fits in with Stabler’s vision for the larger property, which is to enhance economic development of the region and promote good planning that benefits the community.
“The site is significant to the township,” says Kintzer, “and we have a responsibility to be a good neighbor.”
From an educational perspective, the opportunities are significant. Some students already explored the site as part of a Capstone Project, sponsored by Jerry Lennon, a Lehigh civil engineering professor emeritus, to create a plan for a heritage park. “As time goes on and we have more resources, other things will be identified that will continue to create educational benefits,” says Kintzer.
Lehigh has been a great partner in this whole thing in terms of trying to get us to a place to turn this property into a heritage park that can be broadly enjoyed.
While Lehigh is doing some fundraising to help preserve the site, Kintzer cautions “the university is not in the business of owning parks” and is unlikely to independently fund the project, which she envisions will cost “well into the seven figures.”
As for a timeline, she says, “My idea of a realistic goal is within the next five years have the funds raised and the structure itself rehabbed.”
Connar likes what he hears.
“Lehigh has been a great partner in this whole thing in terms of trying to get us to a place to turn this property into a heritage park that can be broadly enjoyed,” he says. “As I see it, it’s a part of local and world heritage. We have an obligation to preserve it and people have a right to visit it because of that.
Story by Jodi Duckett