THIS IS THE PLACE! HISTORY AT PENNYPACK CREEK'S FALL-LINE
by Roland Williams
Holmesburg is one of the older communities of Philadelphia and home to the nations oldest stone-arch bridge still carrying the traffic of a major highway. But how did Holmesburg come to be here? Why in the late 1600's did a village begin to grow at this particular spot along Pennypack Creek? Is there some special feature of the creek at this spot, which made the early settlers say "This is the place!"? Yes indeed there is. What made this an important location for development along the creek is a geological feature known as the fall-line.
The Pennypack's fall-line is the point where the creek flows over the last sets of rapids and drops almost to the level of the Delaware River. From the fall-line on out to the Delaware, the Pennypack is a tidal creek and changes from shallow to deep and back again in a cycle repeated twice daily as the tide rises and falls on the Delaware.
You can see the fall-line for yourself as you walk across the old bridge on its downstream side. The fall-line is the set of rapids immediately downstream from the bridge. It is not a dramatic feature of the landscape but it has shaped our local history by the way it effects the flow of the creek. Upstream from the fall-line the creek is normally shallow enough to wade safely. Downstream from the fall-line the creek is too deep to wade at high tide but provides water deep enough to float boats. In fact on a good high tide the Pennypack could be used as part of a water-highway from the heart of Holmesburg all the way to the Atlantic Ocean!
From the earliest days, people in this area noticed the fall-line and took advantage of it. Sometime deep in prehistory Indians established a trail through here which crossed the creek at the fall-line. When Europeans arrived they continued to use this trail, making it their "King's Highway", and William Penn had his bridge built here in 1697.
In addition to being the best crossing-point, the fall line provided early colonial industrialists with two things they needed: water-power and transportation. A natural water-fall upstream from the bridge became the foundation for a mill-dam. (The old "Holmesburg Dam", now "Rocky Falls".) The mills themselves were built not at the dam but about a quarter of a mile downstream, below the fall-line, on a stretch of the creek where the high tide provided water deep enough to float small cargo boats. Water to turn the mill-wheels came from the dam to the mills through a long mill-race.
The mill owners took full advantage of their location: water-power ran a saw-mill turning logs into lumber and a grist-mill grinding grain into flour and meal. High-tide water on the creek allowed raw materials and finished products to come and go by boat, an unusual advantage which made the old "Pennypack" mills especially important in early Pennsylvania history. Farmers came by boat from New Jersey, rowing up the creek to bring their grain to be ground at the mill which had a kind of dock or wharf right on the creek. Barrels of flour and meal were shipped down the creek to the Port of Philadelphia and beyond; to the West Indies and Europe. So important was this mill that Welsh farmers who had settled in Montgomery county built a road to bring their grain to the mill. (We still know it today a Welsh Road. Follow Welsh Road to its end and you will find Mill Street which leads directly to where the old mills once stood.)
Being situated at the fall-line area, the Pennypack mills prospered and the mills helped make early Holmesburg. With the mills came the need for workers and housing for them. Merchants set up shops to supply their needs. The local population increased and flourished. Schools were established. Congregations formed and built their churches. The intersection of the Welsh Road and the King's Highway became a convenient place for travelers to pause for rest and refreshment. Several hotels were established and continued in business all through the 1800's.
In 1803 the Frankford and Bristol Turnpike Company was formed and Holmesburg got its own toll-house and toll-gate. In 1868 the Bustleton railroad was built through Holmesburg, carrying both passengers and freight. The freight included coal to fuel the new steam-engines which now replaced water-power to run the mills.
With steam-power running the mills and the railroad transporting goods, the Pennypack began to lose its importance in the local economy. By I905, lands along the Pennypack had been acquired for parkland. The mills, now in disrepair, were torn down, clearing the way for recreation.
But the creek still flows through the heart of Holmesburg, under the old bridge and across the fall-line where the tides still rise and fall i5 the ancient rhythm. Walk across the bridge and take a look for yourself- see the reason why a town grew here, at this particular spot along the Pennypack.
America's earliest history reflects the shape of the land and the way its waters flow or shift with the tide. The nature of the land determined what happened here. At Pennypack Creek's fall-line in the heart of Holmesburg, nature and history flow together.