Emmaus, Its History

Origin and spelling of the name, Emmaus

The borough was named for the biblical village of Emmaus (now within modern Israel), where, according to the New Testament, Jesus was seen by disciples following his crucifixion and resurrection.Emaus PA

From its founding in 1759 until 1830, the settlement's name was spelled Emmaus. From 1830 until 1938, however, the community used the Pennsylvania Dutch spelling of the name, Emaus, to reflect local language and the significant presence of Pennsylvania Dutch. In German into the early twentieth century, the name had been spelled with a line above the m, which indicated a doubling of the letter, which had also been the usage in English into the sixteenth century. Since this tradition had died out in English, the line was often omitted in spellings of the name, which became confusing to the now more prevalent English speakers. In 1938, after petitions circulated by the local Rotary Club, the borough formally changed the name's spelling to Emmaus, reflecting the spelling in the Gospel of Luke in the English New Testament.

Early German Culture in the Emmaus Area

German immigrants settled the area surrounding Emmaus as early as the 1730s. The small one and two-room log houses that were once scattered throughout the area are represented by the surviving 1734/1748 Shelter House log house on the outskirts of Emmaus. By 1740, a small contingent of Moravian builders under the supervision of master builder Henry Antes was employed by the English evangelist George Whitefield to construct a "school in the wilderness" in present day Nazareth (Henry Antes House NHL Nomination). This early settlement began with the erection of the so-called Grey Cottage log house to shelter the workers as they began construction on the large stone Whitefield House in 1740. Within the year, the Moravian Church established the town of Bethlehem as their first settlement in Pennsylvania.

Emmaus was founded in 1758 on land donated by Jacob Ehrenhardt Sr. and Sebastian Knauss, German immigrants who had settled the area in the 1730s. In 1742, Ehrenhardt and Knauss, who had acquired substantial tracts of land in the area, each gave small parcels of land located in the area of present day Emmaus to the newly established Moravian Church in neighboring Bethlehem. The settlers immediately erected a small log church so that they did not have to travel to Bethlehem for religious services. By 1747, the newly established congregation of thirty-four members had erected a schoolhouse and a rural mission called Maguntsche, closed to all but Moravians (Barba, 44). A formal village plan containing thirty-two house lots and seventeen field lots was designated in 1757, with the site surveyed and adopted the following year. The area was considered a congregational region until 1761 when the biblical name Emaus was formally adopted (Barba, 65). Records indicate the community included 144 persons by 1797 with a Gemienhaus (community house) and thirteen family houses within the village proper and several farmsteads lying just outside the village boundaries (Barba, 147).

By the early 19th century, a modest stone church and parsonage replaced the original log church along with an influx of brick and frame buildings constructed along Main Street and other important roadways. Around this time, a substantial number of stone farmhouses and barns began dotting the countryside of Emmaus. A majority of these buildings remained modest, but began to mix English and German vernacular building traditions as evidenced by the Federal style National Register-listed 1803 House. The village remained a small exclusive Moravian community into the 1830s when non-Moravians were allowed to own land within the town limits (Barba, 181). 

19th century

Iron ore was discovered nearby in the 19th century and served as a source of industrial growth for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1859, the East Pennsylvania Railroad (later part of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad) brought trains to Emmaus. That same year, the town was incorporated as a borough. In 1869, the town's first blast furnace opened. The largest iron company was Donaldson Iron Company, which made cast iron pipes and other products until the company closed in 1943. During the 19th century, Emmaus was also a center of silk and cigar manufacturing.

Population trends

In 1940, public census statistics showed that 6,731 people lived in Emmaus. The population of the borough has since nearly doubled to 11,313, as of the 2000 census. Housing construction has reached the borough line in all directions, so significant continued population growth in the borough is unlikely. Outside the borough line, however, the local population continues to grow, particularly in neighboring Lower Macungie Township.

Historic sites

Emmaus is home to several residences and other properties that were constructed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and have been labeled historic sites by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Under historical preservation Commonwealth laws, the sites are protected from commercial and other development expansion in the borough.