A TOUCH OF HOLMESBURG HISTORY

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Eleanor P. Birkman, taken from Historical Northeast Philadelphia, ©1994

The year 1697 saw the completion off our essential constructions in the vicinity of the fall-line of Pennypack Creek; the bridge, the grist mill, the dam, and the mill-race

Mill Commons The 1697 grist mill built on the Pennypack was central to Holmesburg's development. The Welsh journeyed from Gwnyned on horseback over the winding Welsh Road with their grain harvest to be ground; the farmers came from New Jersey by boat, rowing up the creek to the mill door to unload their grain, and returning home with flour or meal. Some of the ground grain found its way to Philadelphia via the Delaware. With this impetus for commerce, Robert Lewis, as owner of the mill after Peter Dale and John Holme, added a cooperage to the mill, where barrels and hogsheads were made for shipping the flour and meal to the West Indies or even to England directly from the grist mill, thereby saving a re-loading operation. The Delaware tide on the creek was sufficient to float the shallow bottomed sea going vessels of that period. This exporting was possible because the fertile ground produced grain abundantly -corn, rye and wheat As the making of barrels led to an increased use of wood, a saw mill also was added to the Mill Commons.

A poem written by Judge John Holme in 1696 sang the praise of Pennsylvania's profuse vegetation, providing so much fruit that cider was everywhere. This gives credence to the possibility that a cider mill was a fourth addition to the mill complex. Soon David Lewis, nephew of Robert Lewis, built a textile mill slightly further upstream. This was burned during the War of 1812 but rebuilt, again burned and again rebuilt in the 1880s by a new owner, Dr. Bray, a wealthy chemist who gave up weaving to concentrate on dyeing and finishing. Bray's mill was a steam - operated plant, and each morning at 7 o'clock steam was let off with a shrill whistle by which residents over a wide radius could set their clocks. The mill, operating in its last years under the name of Summerdale, finally ceased operation after World War II.

The King's Highway. The King's Road, the link between the English seat of government at Upland (now Chester, PA) and its counterpart in New York, was not a public road but, as the name indicates, was for the King's business. It grew out of a Lenni-Lenape trail used by the Indians in going to their northern hunting grounds. Paralleling the Delaware River, the trail avoided the tidal waters of the creeks that broke the road and marked the spot where they could more easily wade across. Originally only wide enough for foot or hoof, the path was inadequate for use by carts or "chairs." William Penn begged the court at Upland to widen the road "for easier passage of carts and carriages from the Schuylkill to Neshaminy." With this improvement, it became the King's Highway, still for official business and still a rough road.

The first stagecoach service for public use was established in 1756 between Philadelphia and New York, the trip taking three days each way. This service, requiring rest stops for passengers and horses, eventually gave rise to taverns at convenient distances which, in turn, led to the development of settlements around them. The Washington House, 1796, and the Green Tree, 1799, in Holmesburg are examples. The King's Highway was traveled by the New England Delegates to the Continental Congresses in Philadelphia before the American Revolution. Following the defeat of the English, the road was renamed the Bristol Turnpike and with patriotic fervor the settlement spawned by the Pennypack became Washingtonville in honor of George Washington. In 1802, the Bristol Turnpike became a toll road, the toll being used for road maintenance, instead of taxing the landowners on the route for that purpose. To collect the toll, a toll house for the toll keeper to live in and a toll gate were placed near the bridge over the Pennypack and designated as Gate #3. This arrangement was to last for almost a hundred years.

As more people were discovering the area through stagecoach travel, large tracts of land were being bought for developing and divided into smaller parcels. This marked the first real estate boom since Penn's arrival. At this time, John and George Holme, descendants of justice of the Peace, John Holme, were the "movers and shakers" in the area.

Public transportation over the Bristol Turnpike continued by stagecoach. In 1895, the electric trolley appeared, the "brainchild" of the newly organized Holmesburg, Tacky and Frankford Company (popularly known as the Hop, Toad, and Frog). The Turnpike and the bridge over the Pennypack were widened to accommodate the trolley tracks and the road was macadamized. No longer a toll road, the toll house and gate were removed. The road was renamed Frankford Avenue.

The First Three Arch Stone Bridge in America The Pennypack Creek, so vital to the early settlers for energy, for contact, for transportation, and even survival, was an impediment to land travel by the King's Highway. The Lenni-Lenape, as they visited their northern hunting grounds, had discovered the best place for wading the stream but William Penn found fording the Pennypack both wasteful of time and hazardous; horses slipped and fell, coaches became mired and passengers and riders were soaked. In one of his first official acts in 1683, Penn appealed to the English court at Upland asking that "an order be given for building a bridge over the Pennypack where the King's Highway crossed it." The order was given and the now famous bridge was completed in 1697. Native stone, hand hewn, was used in the construction. Local male residents under the leadership of Edward Duffel and Joseph Ashton supplied the labor. Each male resident was taxed paying either in money or its equivalent in labor. They did their work well, for the 300 year old three arch stone bridge, the first of its kind in America, still carries the daily traffic of a busy highway now called Frankford Avenue.