Bala Cynwyd

The T.H. Lukens Dry Goods Groceries and Provisions store was located on Montgomery Avenue near the Mile 7 marker. This 1885 photo shows Thomas Lukens on his delivery wagon, his wife Kate, two sons and daughter-in-laws and grandchildren. The second floor was used as Temperance Hall. The section to the right was the Academy Post Office. In 1918 it housed the Women’s Club tea room.

Over the years Bala Cynwyd has been known by a number of names.

Pencoyd. In November 1683, John Roberts, a gentleman farmer, arrived on the sailing ship Morning Star. He purchased from Dr. Edward Jones 150 acres in this area and immediately set about clearing the land for farming. He called his new home Pencoyd after his family’s ancestral home in Wales.

Academyville. In 1813, the Lower Merion Benevolent School (Lower Merion Academy) opened its doors to all the children of Lower Merion. The schoolhouse sits high on a hill overlooking the community which it serves and the area was named Academyville. The community was strictly a rural one. In winter, cut off by snow from Philadelphia, the people had to make their own amusements: sleigh rides, skating parties, barbecues and other types of country pleasures.

Bowman’s Bridge. The next change came in 1832 when the Philadelphia & Columbia Railway, the Main Line of Public Works of the State of Pennsylvania, traveled through the area. Where the tracks crossed over Montgomery Avenue (near Levering Mill Road) a bridge carried the road traffic over the railway. This intersection, and the community surrounding the bridge, became known as Bowman’s Bridge.

Merionville. When this section of the railroad was abandoned and the bridge dismantled, the area was renamed Merionville. The hamlet had a blacksmith shop, a little brick building used as a general store and three or four houses. Twice a year, gypsies would visit the area and set up their camp.

Bala and Cynwyd. In 1884, George B. Roberts, President of the Pennsylvania Railroad, opened the Schuylkill Valley Division of the railroad. Three stations were located in Lower Merion. The first station was named Bala because Mr. Roberts’ ancestors came from Bala in the lake region of Wales. Cynwyd and Barmouth were the Welsh names selected for the other two stations.

The blacksmith and carriage shop of Luther C. Parsons was a necessary fixture at the busy corner of Montgomery and Parsons Avenues. Parsons was a community leader and involved in many civic associations: one such group was The Society for the Detection & Prosecution of Horse Thieves and Recovery of Stolen Horses.
Toll Gate No. 3, at the intersection of Old Lancaster Road and Montgomery Avenue, c. 1900 photograph.

Land Development. The new rail line forever changed the landscape of this rural community. Until then, it had a small population and consisted of a few mills, farms and estates. Being only six miles from Philadelphia’s center, officials of the railroad and real estate developers began to subdivide the farms and estates and build the infrastructure necessary to support their plans for suburban development.

In 1913, the Pennsylvania Railroad called Bala and Cynwyd “one of the most rapidly growing and most popular suburbs of Philadelphia.” At this time, the railroad offered 22 weekday trains and 15 Sunday trains to the city. To attract middle class families from the city to the new and upcoming suburbs, the land developers promised “every city convenience and every country comfort. Pure air, Springfield water, gas, electric lights, telephone service and pleasant surroundings.”

By 1920, the infrastructure of Bala and Cynwyd was complete. The township provided paved roads, sewers, schools and police. The community equipped a volunteer fire department, a civic association, churches, a library and clubs (such as the Women’s Club, Needlework Guild, Garden Club and Community Choral) to make up the town’s social networks. Finally, to top it all off, there were wonderful vaudeville performances at the Egyptian Theatre.

Cynwyd depot about 1912. Civic pride, social pressure and the safety of many of its executives who lived nearby encouraged the Pennsylvania Railroad to build good stations and eliminate grade crossings.
This book, published by the Pennsy, was created “to facilitate the selection of homes and to provide the information essential to the choice of a suburban residence.”
A Colonial Revival style home.

During the housing boom, developers offered modern suburban homes in various styles to please the upwardly mobile middle class families. One example: an English Tudor style.

Patrick J. Lawler spared no expense when he built the Egyptian Theatre in 1927…”Where the Show is Always Good.” It was a fine place for Bala Cynwyd residents and their neighbors to see many live attractions.
Joseph Conway was the theatre manager and also responsible for movie selections and scheduling of other events such as vaudeville acts and the circus.

Anthony “Buck Rogers,” an American icon, was born in August 1928 at 126 Cynwyd Road in Bala Cynwyd. His “father” was the fertile imagination and creativity of 40 year old Philip Francis Nowlan, the financial editor of the Philadelphia Ledger. Nowlan and his illustrator, Dick Calkins, created the first science fiction comic strip. Rogers and his female companion, Wilma, first appeared in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories.

  • According to Ray Bradbury, Nowlan and Calkins “introduced rocket guns that shoot explosive bullets; people who fly through the air with jumping belts; hovercrafts which skim over the surface of the earth; disintegrators which destroyed anything they touched; radar equipped robot armies; television controlled rockets and rocket bombs; invasions from Mars, and the first landing on the Moon.”
  • In the late 1920s, the head of the National Newspaper Service was searching for a new cartoon strip he could syndicate. Nowlan and Calkins created Buck Rogers which, in its heyday, appeared in over 200 newspapers. Calkins lived and worked in Chicago; Nowlan lived and worked in Bala Cynwyd. And yet, they could collaborate, in the days before fax machines, e-mail and overnight deliveries.
  • Nolan graduated from Philadelphia’s Central High in 1906. He was on the football team, secretary of the chess club and voted one of the three most handsome men in the graduating class. He was in the 1910 class at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Buck Rogers appeared as a syndicated comic strip from 1929 to 1967. In 1939, a Buck Rogers movie starred Buster Crabbe. Buck appeared on TV in the 1950-1951 season, followed by an adaptation of 34 episodes for the 1979-1981 seasons.
  • Cream of Wheat sponsored the thrice-weekly Buck Rogers radio show with a secret organization of solar scouts who promised to live healthy, obedient, honest and studious lives. Today, all of the Buck Roger collectibles are highly prized: a disintegrator pistol; “Big Little Books”; lead figures.
  • Philip Nowlan died in 1940 at 53, leaving behind a young widow, ten children, a legacy of science fiction adventures and a road map for space exploration.