Belmont Hills: the end of a long immigrant road

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

It’s been a six-century journey through two countries to the Schuylkill’s west bank.

The Italian-American residents of Belmont Hills can date their immigration heritage back further than most. Many of the first Italian immigrants to cross the river from Manayunk weren’t originally Italian. Their Albanian ancestors left hearth and home to settle in another country 550 years ago.

In 1448 the King of Naples needed reliable – preferably non-local – troops to quell an uprising. Giorgio Castriota of Kroja, known as Skanderbeg, was military commander ofthe Albanian Alliance. He sent a detachment of Albanian troops, probably from several different clans in Albania. Unusually, they brought their wives and families with them. Skanderbeg became Governor of Calabria, and his troops received tracts of land to settle in the mountainous area of today’s province of Catanzaro. The twelve towns in Catanzaro were: Amato, Andali, Arietta, Caraffa d’Catanzaro, Carfizzi, Gizzeria, Marcedusa, Pallagorio, S. Nicola dell’Alto, Vena, Zagarise and Zangarona.

Two years later another detachment of Albanian troops was sent to garrison Sicily against a rebellion and invasion, and they settled in three separate military camps in the Palermo Province of Sicily. These camps later became the villages of Contessa, Entellina, Mezzojuso and Palazzo Adriano.

The second migration of Albanians was in 1462 when Skanderbeg helped Naples in their rebellion against the new and unpopular King of Aragon. After successful military action, Skanderbeg quickly returned to Albania but his troops remained and were rewarded with grants of lands east of the city of Taranto in Apulia.

The villages they founded there were: Carosino, Faggiano, Fragagnano, Monteiasi, Monteneosola, Monteparano, Rocaforzata, S. Crispieri, S. Giorgio Ionico and S. Marzano. Skanderbeg himself was awarded large tracts of land in Foggia near S. Giovanni Rotondo.

For 450 years their descendants lived in these villages but retained their Albanian heritage. When they came to America, they brought these traditions, as well as their Italian heritage. Even today, many Americans of Italian descent can tell you what village their ancestors came from – something much less common with other nationalities.

Their move from these villages to America came in the early 20th; century as they joined the general emigration to America from Southern Europe. They were seeking a better life, away from the economic and political upheaval that was a part of both the creation of modern Italy and the general tenor of the Mediterranean Basin.

As with most immigrants, they began by taking work where they could find it. They were doing the hardest and most dangerous work. Some were lucky and brought needed skills with them.

Much of the excellent turn-of-the-century stonework throughout the region was accomplished by Italian stonemasons. Others were cabinet makers or carpenters and found the work skilled craftsmen can always find.

For the others, it was often left to the sons to move up America’s economic and cultural ladder. They were better equipped, with a better command of the English language and understanding America in ways first-generation immigrants find difficult to learn.

Like all immigrants, they also tended to settle where others like them lived. While South Philadelphia is the area’s best-known Italian immigrant community, Manayunk wasn’t far behind. Just being an Italian neighborhood wasn’t enough: people tended to settle in neighborhoods where earlier immigrants from familiar villages in their homeland lived.

In Manayunk, there were plenty of jobs in the burgeoning steel and textile mills. Most of the families were from the Umbrian area, including many Italian-Albanian villages. But many of these settlers weren’t done traveling yet. As Manayunk grew and became more industrialized they began to seek their own spaces. As Polish and Central European neighborhoods developed in Manayunk these Italian-Albanian-Americans slowly moved across the river into what was then called West Manayunk.

But the area’s history goes well back before the Italian immigrants took up residence, in fact back to the very beginning of the Welsh Tract.

In November 1683, about four months after the death of John Thomas, one of the original purchasers of the Welsh Tract, Thomas’s wife sailed with her children from Chester, England in the ship “Morning Star” for Philadelphia. One son, Robert Jones, was given possession of part of his father’s land.

Near the corner of Price St. and Ashland Ave. in contemporary Belmont Hills stands a home with a date stone that reads, “R J P – 1682 – 1771.” It refers to Robert Jones. He is known to have erected a small stone house at what is now the General Wayne Inn sometime after 1709, so he may have lived at the Ashland Avenue dwelling until then. If the existing structure there was actually built in 1682, it would have been one of the first homes built, let alone one of the earliest remaining, in the Welsh Tract.

This actually makes sense, because early settlers didn’t wander too far from rivers and streams – they were the path to civilization. In the decades following their arrival, a town sprang up in the hills along the Schuylkill River.

In 1824, Udoravia was suggested as a name for the town on the east side of the river then known as Flat Rock. The mill owners preferred the Indian name, Manaiung. For easier spelling it was changed to Manayunk. In 1839 when the Flat Rock Tunnel was completed for the main line of the Reading Railroad, a sign reading “West of Manayunk” was hung outside the little building used by the workers. Thus the town was named.

Numerous mills lined both banks of the river. On the west side, memories of the mills remain in the street names – and a few descendants. In about 1850, there was an 88-acre tract called Narrows Hill owned by a man named either David or Davis Jones. Its name may have come from the strait separating Jones Island in the Schuylkill from the shore. This estate was later known as Ashland Heights and was surveyed as such in 1910. It was probably named after Ashland Paper Mills.

About 1850, Paul Jones, the grandson of Gerrard, lived on a 27-acre estate called Ashland Hill, named after the Ashland Paper Mills. His home, located at 100 Lyle Ave. was evidently built about 1787. In 1856 the estate was sold to Stewart Lyle, who in 1901 sold it to a developer and the area became known as Belmont Heights.

Stewart Lyle’s great-grandson still lives in Belmont Hills. When Art Lyle was growing up there was a pretty clear dividing line in West Manayunk. He recalls that there weren’t even any Italian-Americans in the local volunteer fire department in the town until he was in junior high. “The English lived in Belmont Heights and the Italians lived in Ashland Heights,” Lyle said. “The Italians tended to stay to themselves, as we did, and that’s the way it was until we went to Lower Merion Junior High School,” Lyle said. “Until then, most of the Italian kids went to St. Lucy’s parish school, which had a branch on this side of the river. Once we got to junior high it was more important that we were all from West Manayunk than where our families originally came from.”

Beatrice Flack, nee Myers, agrees. She’s the granddaughter of Nicolo Minisci (Myers), one of the first Albanian settlers in the town. “Going to the Main Line was very different than here, because for one thing we couldn’t get around,” she said. The West Manayunk students were bussed to Lower Merion, but it was new territory to them. “We didn’t have cars then, so we rarely went that direction. We’d walk down the hill and across the river and catch a bus to go where we wanted to go,” she said.

She also remembers that the Italian-Americans tended to stick together. Her grandparents had moved to the area from near Scranton where they’d lived after immigrating from Italy. “Everyone knew somebody from the old villages, so people recommended coming to their neighborhoods over here,” she said.

They even sent back to their native village in Italy – San Giorgio Albanesa – for a wife for their son. Florence Scavello arrived here and married Beatrice’s father, George Myers, in 1905. He was five years older than she and they lived their lives in West Manayunk, creating a family of 11 children, most of who stayed in the area.

Beatrice was the second youngest of the children and lived at the top of what she calls Goat Hill. “We called it that for obvious reasons — people raised chickens and goats in the houses going up the hill,” she said. “My family owned the land where my house is, and I remember coming up here when it was just an orchard,” she said. It still is a verdant area, complemented by the gardening expertise of Beatrice and her husband, a retired physician.

Art Lyle also lived his life here, except during WWII. He was an aircraft mechanic for the 2nd Aircraft Transport Squadron, flying “the Hump” across the Himalayas into China. But that assignment took him to New Castle Air Base in Delaware, where he thought he had it made. “I was assigned so close to home that my girlfriend and I decided to get married,” he said. She lived across the street from Lyle’s house. “We went to New York City for a weekend honeymoon, and when I reported back to the unit on Tuesday I had orders to Florida and then to India,” he said. That was in April 1944. “I left several days later and didn’t see my wife again until the day before Christmas, 1945.” They too remained in West Manayunk living on what had been part of his great-grandfather’s land. She passed away recently, but Lyle continues to live in the house and continues to be active incommunity activities.

The name change came about not because of the town’s citizens, but due to an article in a national magazine. In 1950 James Michener started a firestorm by his portrayal of the town in a Holiday Magazine article about the Main Line. There was such a negative reaction that the townspeople decided to change the name. There were four possibilities considered in a referendum: Belmont, Belmont Hills, Cadwaler and Welsh Hills.

The voters decided to change the name to Belmont Hills, making the tie to both the geography and history of the region. Now few neighborhoods retain an immigrant heritage. After three or four generations residents seem more American than anything else. Flight from the cities means people moved into neighborhoods because they like a house that was for sale rather than the ethnic makeup of the streets. Today that’s true in Belmont Hills, but that doesn’t matter much to the people who’ve lived their lives there.

This is a town where you know the people when you drive through the streets. You honk and wave to your neighbors. Houses – and more importantly porches – are a mere greeting’s distance away. It’s a community. It used to be a small area with a couple of immigrant neighborhoods in it, but now it’s a community that shares a common heritage – and irritation at James Michener.