A History of Holmesburg, Frankford Avenue, and the King's Highway Bridge


by Harvey Cantor

The Indian name "Pennicpacka" means " deep, dead water; water without much current". The Swedes, who preceded Penn, named it '9Penichpaska Kill". On some of their maps its called "Pemipacka". On Thomas Holme's 1681 map, he calls it Dublin Creek, no doubt in respect of his Irish roots. Later it's referred to as Dublin River. But in 1701 William Penn adhered to the name Pennypack Creek.

A portion of what later would become the King's Road between Philadelphia and New York went into operation in 1677. In 1681, the Court at Upland, near Chester, Pennsylvania, appointed a board to oversee the building of the road. On November 19, 1686, the Provincial Council, in Philadelphia, ordered the building of the King's Highway to Morrisville. This was the to be the first public road surveyed in Bucks County. In 1692 the Grand Jury recommended that the bridge be built over the Pennypack Creek. The bridge was not built. It was reported to the Grand Jury by Benjamin Acrod that the nine men commissioned to see that the bridge was built did not carry out the order. The bridge was finally erected in 1697 at the decree of William Penn. The male residents of the area were assessed either in labor or money for construction of the bridge.

The bridge has been widened twice - in 1740 and again in 1893 - and is now one hundred and eighty-five feet long and seventy feet wide. It has three arches, two twenty-five feet wide and one twelve and three quarters' feet wide. The under clearance is twelve feet, seven inches. It is thought to be the oldest stone bridge in continuous use in the United States.

The road it carries over the Pennypack has changed from a path, to a toll road, to a city street. The name has changed from King's Path, to the King's Highway, to the Bristol Turnpike, and is currently Frankford Avenue. It was the main route from Philadelphia to Trenton and New York. The bridge was designated a National Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineering in 1970.

Over the bridge have come the Lenni-Lenape, the Continental Army, members of the first Continental Congress, and farmers on their way to the old Pennypack mill which was built in the same year as the bridge and was situated just downstream of the bridge.

There would be no regular transportation over the bridge until 1725. There was a coach that ran from the Three Tuns Tavern at Chestnut Street, between Second and Third Street, to Frankford. The fare was ten shillings. For the next thirty years there were several other ventures. It was not until 1756, after the road was extended to New York, that first stage coach between Philadelphia and New York went into service. The journey was three days. By 1783, the ninety mile trip took one day aboard the coach named the "Flying Machine".

John Adams noted in his diary that the Massachusetts delegation to the Continental Congress, including himself, dined at the Red Lion Inn at the Poquessing on August 29, 1774 and then crossed the Pennypack bridge on their way to the Congress at Philadelphia. On April 24, 1775, at five o'clock in the afternoon, an express rider surprised the people of Frankford by bringing the news of the Battle of Lexington. He had ridden from Boston in five days and left New York at two o'clock that morning.

The road would soon cease to exist as the King's Highway. Washington passed over the bridge and stayed at the inn at the south side of the bridge during the revolution. The inn was later named the Washington Inn. He passed over the bridge again ceremoniously on April 30, 1789, on the way to New York, for his first inauguration.

Travel became easier when the road became a turnpike. On March 24,1803, the Frankford and Bristol Turnpike Company was chartered to the complete the road to the Morrisville Ferry. A bridge was built there in 1806. It was a covered bridge costing $209,300. At the Pennypack bridge, a toll house was placed at the south end of the bridge, north of the mill race. It was designated toll-gate number three.

The tolls on the turnpike and the ferry charge were heavy. The toll on a coach from Philadelphia to New York was $5.00. The company made money and was able to return a 10% dividend to their stockholders. On hot days there would be three changes of horses along the route. The coaches were carts with tops, carrying ten to twelve passengers. By 1813, there were fourteen regular lines in operation between the two cities.

Lafayette made a jubilant trip to America in 1824. On the September 27,1824, he passed over the bridge on his way to Holmesburg where an enthusiastic crowd awaited him. In 1866, General Grant crossed the bridge, with a crowd along his route, on his way to visit his friend, Alfred Bone at Andalusia.

Local historian Mary Blakiston wrote in 1911 that around 1865 there was a great flood on the creek that nearly destroyed the bridge. The water was over the arches. The nearby meadows were flooded. A crack opened down the middle of the road. For several days no teams were allowed on the bridge.

When the City bought the Frankford Bristol Turnpike in 1892, they planned for its widening to allow trolley service on the highway. On March 22, 1893, $15,000 was allotted for the widening by City Council. It also called for the re-grading of Frankford Avenue. Proposals were received July 26,1893. The contract was awarded to Charles A. Porter for $13,978.50, with the work completed on December 11, 1893. The first trolley went into service over the bridge from Cedar Hill (Frankford & Bridge St) to the Poquessing in 1895. Trackless trolleys replaced them in the 1950's.

Lower Dublin Township, Holmesburg and Environs

The village of Holmesburg is situated in what was, shortly prior to the 1854 Consolidation of the City of Philadelphia, Lower Dublin Township, Philadelphia County. Prior to that time the City of Philadelphia consisted of the land between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, from South Street to Vine Street. The City was a part of the County of Philadelphia, which today is completely one and the same. There were many boroughs, townships, and district. In what is now Northeast Philadelphia, there was the Borough of Frankford, Oxford Township, Lower Moreland Township, and Byberry Township. Lower Dublin Township was north of Township Line Road - now Cottman Avenue - from the River to the County Line, and north to Byberry and Moreland Townships. A year prior to the consolidation the township spilt in two. The eastern portion of Lower Dublin Township, including Holmesburg, became Delaware Township.

At the time Holmesburg was a country village. The land that the bridge is built upon was originally part of Thomas Holme's "Well Springs Estate". Thomas Holme was Surveyor-General of Pennsylvania. He planned William Penn's "Greene Country Towne", Philadelphia. Penn had initially appointed his cousin William Crispin, and Holme's friend, Surveyor General. Crispin set sail for the Province in the fall of 1681. After a month's voyage of severe storms his boat went off course and landed at Barbados. Crispin was very ill from the voyage and died shortly after landing. Penn then appointed Thomas Holme to replace him. Holme, along with his family, sailed to the province in April 1682. William Crispin's son, Silas, was married to Thomas Holme's daughter, Hestor.

Holme's first duty was to select a site for Penn's Greene Country Towne, a site where navigation was good and the land high and dry. He laid out 10,000 acres for the site of a great city. His first choice was to locate the city between "Dublin" Creek (Pennypack Creek) and the Neshaminy Creek. However, there was a site located at the mouth of Dock Creek and when Penn arrived at his colony he approved that site for the town. Holme then had the assignment to map out the three counties of Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks.

Holme died in 1695, two years before the bridge was built. He is buried west of Holmesburg near where what is thought to have been his home. His grave is preserved and is a part of the Pennypack Park, at Holme Avenue.

When Holme died, his son-in-law, Silas Crispin, became executor of his estate. Because Crispin's cousin, William Penn, had given Hestor and him 500 acres at the Lower Dublin and Abington township line, most of his Wells Spring Estate was sold off. This land later became Holmesburg and other villages in the Lower Dublin Township. Notably, his daughter, Hestor, was to sell the land east of where the bridge is now to Charles Saunders. Saunders contracted Peter Deal to build him a mill in 1697.

The mill was built of the same stone as the bridge using bricks imported from England. This grist mill would be known as the Pennypack Mill and would operate until 1880, when it was destroyed by fire. The ruins would stand until 1911.

Even though the Continental Army passed over the bridge, there were no main battles between them and the British "Regulars" in this vicinity. However, the Queen's Rangers led an expedition against the Bucks County Militia on April 30,1778. The Queen's Rangers were Tory's under Major John Simcoe. His troops moved up Frankford Avenue and turned left along Welsh Road. They were on a raiding -expedition. They proceeded west to the Verree Mills where they caused considerable damage. It was thought that the mill was supplying flour to the troops at Valley Forge.

Just south of the bridge is the trestle of the Conrail freight lines. The line was begun in 1868 and was known as the Frankford and Bustleton Railroad. The line ran from the main line of the once mighty Pennsylvania Railroad from Holmesburg Junction and from there to Bustleton, near Bustleton Avenue and Welsh Road. There was passenger service well into the current century with stops at the Rowland Shovel works, Ashton Road and Bustleton. The line was an individual subsidiary of the P R & R along what was known as the Connecting Railroad of the Pennsy system. The line was discontinued west of Blue Grass Road, and extended north to the Northeast Philadelphia Industrial Park in the early 1960's. In 1964, when the Roosevelt Boulevard was widened, I remember the trestle over the highway being demolished. After the demise of the Penn Central and the merger of the PRR and New York Central, it was a acquired by Conrail. With the impending division of Conrail between the CSX and Norfolk & Southern Railroads, it will soon be part of a local spur run by Norfolk & Southern.