Welsh in Pennsylvania

March 1970

After emigrating from Nefyn, Wales to America and starting to work for Bell Telephone Laboratories in Allentown, Pennsylvania in March 1968, I was very surprised how many people I met in the area who had Welsh ancestry. By chance, I had landed in that part of America, and in that part of Pennsylvania, which had experienced the greatest influx of Welsh immigrants over the years. The Welsh influx was associated originally with Quakers who settled to the south in Montgomery, Delaware, and Lancaster counties in the area just north and west of Philadelphia some 200 years earlier. More recent arrivals were associated with the anthracite coal region near Scranton to the north, with the slate belt region near Slatington and Bangor (named after Bangor, Wales) to the immediate north, and with the iron and steel industry in the Lehigh Valley where Allentown is located. Perhaps more surprising were the small number of people I met who were born in Wales and who spoke Welsh fluently. The following are some of the stories I heard from those Welsh descendants and those Welsh-born people.

For the first week or so after arriving in Allentown, I stayed in a local motel courtesy of Bell Labs, and then moved into the Ross Tourist Home on Union Boulevard for a few weeks until I got myself established. Mrs. Ross was a nice elderly lady from North Carolina who had moved to the Lehigh Valley to be close to her son. She rented a few rooms in her large house for extra income. When I told Mrs. Ross I was Welsh, she immediately said that I had to meet Mr. and Mrs. Roberts who were a retired elderly couple from Wales. Mr. Roberts was a deacon at her church, the First Presbyterian Church at Tilghman Street and Cedar Crest Boulevard, on the west side of Allentown. So on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Ross drove me down to a row home (terraced house) on a small side street in Allentown to meet Mr. and Mrs. Roberts. They were both elderly, and originally from Dolgellau. Mr. Roberts appeared to be blind in one eye, and walked with a cane. Mrs. Roberts on the other hand was sprightly and sharp, just like my grandmother, with dark eyes that were bright and alert. They both spoke Welsh fluently, and were very inquisitive about how things were back in the “hen wlad” (old country). Mrs. Roberts was a little emotional when she told me that she had been back to Wales only once since coming to America, and that was to visit her sick mother in Blaenau Ffestiniog. That was before WWII, and her mother had died when Mrs Roberts was on the ship returning to the United States. I felt somewhat sorry for them since they did not appear to be very affluent. America is a land of great opportunity for the young, the talented, and the healthy, but it is not the best place if you are old, in poor health, and not very wealthy. I felt even sorrier when Mrs Ross told me on the return trip that the Roberts’ had experienced a shattering experience years earlier. One of their children a teenage son had drowned in an accident on the nearby Lehigh River. I left the Ross Tourist home for an apartment shortly thereafter, and lost all contact with Mrs Ross and the Roberts.

Two men whom I got to know quite well through work at Bell Labs were also of Welsh extraction. They were both born in Slatington, a town approximately 15 miles northwest of Allentown in the slate belt region. The first had a grandfather with a Davies surname who had emigrated from South Wales to the coal regions in the late 1800’s. The family then moved to the Slatington area in the early 1900’s. His grandfather apparently loved to listen to Welsh records on an old Victor phonograph. He inherited those records, and since he did not understand them, gave them to me. I still have them in my possession. The second was a descendant of David and Henry Williams, two brothers originally from Bethesda, who immigrated together into the United States in 1842, and became leaders of the slate industry in the area. The Williams Quarry Company of Slatington manufactured a wealth of slate products, and in the 1870’s was manufacturing and distributing in excess of a million school slates annually throughout the United States. He gave me a Welsh inscription off the Henry Williams gravestone in the village of Williamstown (named after the brothers) near Slatington to translate. The gravestone was very worn, and the inscription was not very clear. After correcting some words, the inscription read as follows,

Er Cof Am Henry Williams
Ganwyd ef Rhagfyr 21, 1818
Bu Farw Mawrth 28, 1878
Yma yn gorwedd mae enwog wron
Yn dre uchel ddaeth drwy ei ymdrechion
A hiraethus ydyw’r lluniawr weithion
Am roi Williams ym mro y marwolion
Ar y deg garreg hon – er ei farw
Fesai ei enw yn llawn o swynion

The English translation I gave him was as follows.

In Memory of Henry Williams
He was Born December 21, 1818
He Died March 28, 1878
Here lies a famous hero
Who reached a high status through his endeavors
The creator is eventually distraught
To have put Williams in the land of the dead
On this fair stone – despite his death
His name would be full of joys.

During my early years in Allentown, I also met a very interesting lady named Mrs Williams also from Slatington. She lost her parents when she was very young, and was raised by her grandparents. Both grandparents came originally from Caernarfon. Since the grandparents spoke only Welsh at home, Mrs. Williams became fluent in both Welsh and English, and the Welsh was clearly the North Wales version. She had taken a trip over to Wales in the late 1940’s to visit cousins, and to photograph various sites for her grandparents who were then too old to travel. When my parents came over to visit us in America, my mother thoroughly enjoyed being with Mrs. Williams. They went quite a few times to a Gymanfa Ganu, which in the 1970’s, was still being held annually in the Slatington area. They also enjoyed going shopping together, chatting away in Welsh, at the Hess Brothers Department Store in downtown Allentown

Perhaps the most interesting character I met was a Welshman by the name of Evan M Jones. He lived in a small community called Wind Gap just north of Allentown in the slate belt region. Evan Jones was born about 20 miles from Nefyn, in Talysarn near Caernarfon. His house on Liberty Street in Wind Gap was appropriately named Tal-y-Sarn, and that was certainly different, since houses in America are not usually named. He came to the United States when he was a teenager just after WWI by jumping ship after docking in New York City. He was working at the time as a deck boy in the Merchant Navy. Arrangements had been made by mail for him to meet his uncle, a person whom he had never met, on a street corner near the dockside in New York on a specific date and at a specific time. He told me how he stealthily got off the ship with his belongings that evening, and made his way to the planned meeting place. His uncle’s train from Pennsylvania to New York was apparently delayed unexpectedly, and Evan stood in a doorway on that street corner for six long hours. Standing around in a doorway at night in the docklands of New York and in a foreign country took a lot of courage. It was very late, and he was on the verge of giving up and returning to the ship, when his uncle called out his name from the darkness across the street. He was never so relieved in all his life. His uncle lived in Bangor, Pennsylvania, and had immigrated to the slate belt region from Bethesda in the early 1900’s. Evan went to live with his uncle in Bangor, married a local girl, moved to live in Wind Gap, and spent his whole career as a steelworker at the Bethlehem Steel Company in the Lehigh Valley. Unfortunately, because he had entered America illegally, he was unable to visit his relatives back in Wales. As an illegal immigrant, he could not get a US passport, and without a passport he could not re-enter the United States if he ever left. With a family to support, he was stuck in that situation for over 25 years until a general amnesty was issued in 1946. He was then able to visit his family back in Talysarn.

I visited with Evan Jones and his wife in Wind Gap quite a few times, and I thoroughly enjoyed those visits. His Welsh was impeccable. I asked him how he was still so fluent in Welsh after all those years of only occasionally speaking the language. You would be surprised he said how many people you would meet in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s on the streets of Bangor, Slatington, and Wind Gap who were from the old country and who would still be conversing in Welsh. He was emphatically negative on those who so easily lose their mother tongue – you’ll never lose it only if you are of low intelligence, he added!!! He was so proud of Bethlehem Steel and the roots the company had with another Welsh industry leader, ironmaster David Thomas, who established the Lehigh Valley as America’s premier iron-making region in the 1840’s. And he was especially proud of the key role Bethlehem Steel played in the manufacture of armaments during WWII, and the small role he had played in the production of big guns for the destroyers and battleships of the US Navy. He was a most interesting individual, and as proud a Welshman as you could ever meet.

Dr. Brian Owen
Emmaus, PA, USA

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