Lower Merion Historical Society

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Main Line Millennial moments

By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

People should take note of major events, if only to put their lives and history in perspective. Main Line Life did that recently by asking what were the major events of the Millennium on the Main Line. Now granted that means excluding the first 600 years, but not because there wasn’t a history, but because we no longer have knowledge of it. So we gathered six people who have a love of both the Main Line and its history and put the question to them. They are the following:

The Participants

Carol Creutzenberg – is vice president of the Radnor Historical Society. An artist, she had a business in New York before returning to her native Wayne.

Arthur Dudden, is a professor emeritus of Bryn Mawr College. With a PhD in American History. His interests were 19th and 20th century American social and economic history and he has published three books. He is on the board of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Jerry Francis – is president of the Lower Merion Historical Society and a lifetime resident. With a degree in sociology he’s particularly interested in the social history of the area and specializes in the history of local Lenape Indians.

Bennett Hill – is president of Radnor Historical Society. He’s lived on the Main Line all his life, taught history before retiring.

Henry Nevison – an independent film maker he recently completed a documentary of early Philadelphia and is working on a historical documentary about the Main Line.

Bruce Reed – has a bachelor and master’s degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania and did graduate work at Cambridge University in England on British History. He’s now a lawyer and is very active in his community and serves on the board of the Lower Merion Historical Society.

The Events

The events they came up with in a freewheeling afternoon of discussion weren’t so much actions as expressions of concepts that shaped out history. Not one suggestion of a politician giving a speed or cutting a ribbon was raised. No legends of William Penn throwing a silver dollar across the Schuykill.

Just a feeling for what has created the special place called the Main Line. So here are those events, in no particular order, although they are slightly chronological.

1. The Welsh Tract
When Penn began selling land in his colonial territory, one group that came to be very important to the Main Line were the Welsh Quakers. This area had been settled by the Dutch and the Swedes but when William Penn was given a charter to form a colony for Quakers, the Welsh were ready to buy.

“Penn’s representatives were basically land developers,” says Francis. “They didn’t want to occupy Philadelphia, because that was English,” says Francis. “They intended to speak Welsh and be governed by Welsh laws, but Penn forbid that,” says Creutzenberg.

In spite of which there was a lot of Welshness to the area. “Welsh was spoken in the Old St David’s church for awhile, and certainly the architecture was Welsh,” says Hill. “They built their houses to look exactly like they did in Wales,” he says.

But the biggest impact involved the freedoms that came to define the United States. “The Quaker colonization was the first instance of religious freedom in the world, as being practiced here,” Reed says.

The Main Line adds another twist to that. “Depending on who you believe, the Welsh Quakers were sort of banished by the English Quakers out to the hinterlands,” says Reed. “It was a double departure, first from the British Isles, then from the city of Philadelphia.”

2. Native Americans
The natives were friendly. “When the Europeans arrived all along the eastern coast they formed communities for defense and then fought their way inland. Except here where the Lenape were friendly and accepted the Welsh. Because of that, the settlers could spread out on plantations and immediately began growing food rather than banding together in villages,” Francis says.

The Lenape tribe had a positive attitude towards the settlers, unlike many of the other tribes. “The Lenape were known and negotiators between other tribes when there was trouble,” says Francis. “On the other side, the Quakers were naturally accepting people, whereas other settlers fought the difference and thought them to be heathers and heretics,” said Reed.

So the two groups had similar philosophies, and it made a difference “Not only did they help the white men survive, all the roads in the region were originally Indian paths,” Nevison says. “They were the ones that taught the settlers were the water and game were and even much later, for instance at Valley Forge, they helped feed the soldiers,” he says.

3. War comes to the Quakers
The Revolutionary War was a major event for people on the Main Line, but not because they were fighters. Nearby battles, such as the Battle of the Brandywine, led to the Paoli Massacre and the encampment at Valley Forge.

The British came because of the forges in the area. “Valley Forge was where the colonists were making cannons,” says Reed. “In addition the Schuykill River was a transportation route and also a series of fords led the way north,” says Dudden. You just have to look at a modern map and see all the towns whose names end in the term “ford” to understand.

“The Quakers weren’t active in the war, but they were very much a part of defining what the new nation would be,” says Francis. Religious tolerance and freedom were clear expressions of the Quaker heritage.

4. The opening of the west leads straight down Lancaster Pike.
It began as a forty day walk to Pittsburgh. In the early 19th century you left Philadelphia and set out down the Lancaster Turnpike, paying your toll as you went. “There are taverns all along the way and stables where they could get horses,” Dudden says.

People think of covered wagons as something from the West, but they were a Main Line accomplishment. “The Conestoga Wagon was invented here and building them was an early area industry,” says Hill. They carried many a pioneer west, but canals began to open up the west, making it easy — and more importantly cheaper — to get goods to market.

The name Main Line even comes from the name given to the state-owned combination of canals and railroads running west from Philadelphia “It was known as the Main Line Public Works of the State of Pennsylvania” says Francis.

“The Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad was to connect Philadelphia to the Main Line Canal which was opening up the frontier,” says Reed. “They lifted canal boats over the mountains by stationary steam engines and then dumped them on the other side,” says Dudden. “The state almost went bankrupt on this,” he says.

5. Falling Waters power the settling of the Main Line
Once settlers knew they can feed themselves, they look for power. The Main Line was lucky in that regard, because it sits above the river, if you have falling water, you have industry.

Hydro-mechanical power allowed the Main Line area to develop beyond merely being a farming area. It didn’t have to depend on other areas for its industrial equipment. “The people that came over here from Wales were gentlemen farmers. They came over with their servants and ran their plantations. They needed mills to process their products,” says Francis.

“You had to have iron tools, and they were made in the small forges that lined Mill Creek and other waterways,” says Hill. “Falling water turns a wheel and you can do a lot of things once you turn that wheel,” says Dudden. “You can power bellows and forge metal, turn a stone to grind wheat into grist and flour or rotate a saw to cut lumber,” he says.

Immigrants add to the ethnic diversity of the area
The African Americans are one of the oldest groups on the Main Line, certainly predating most European immigrations. And this wasn’t just because of slavery. Pennsylvania had one of the largest free black populations in the country for much of America’s early history.

They came because there was work for them.”They came to Ardmore and Bryn Mawr from Virginia and the Eastern Shore to work in the Quaker colleges and hotels. The Quakers were good people to work for,” says Dudden.

“The Irish arrived to build the canals and railroads,” says Nevison and they remained laborers through the decades. “Most of the railroads of the East were built by the Irish, and they built the Erie Canal,” says Dudden.

A later wave of Irish immigrants came to the Main Line with the help of the Philadelphia’s Catholic leaders who were anxious to expand the church’s influence into the suburbs. Because they were Catholic, the Irish maintain strong links and their sense of community. “When the railroad began naming all their stations after things Welsh, the Irish objected: So Ardmore, an Irish name for a town with Irish inhabitants, stayed Ardmore,” said Francis.

The Italians were the stonemasons, they built the mansions and came to America to do just that, settling in Narberth. “There were even many Sicilians who came each summer to build stone walls, returning to Sicily for the rest of the year,” says Dudden. “Eventually they saved enough money to buy a plot of land and then they stayed in Sicily and others replaced them,” he says.

7. The Railroads bring wealth and Welsh heritage
Philadelphia needed to improve its westward focus, because the canals had make it possible for goods from the heartland to get directly to the ports of Baltimore and New York. “The Erie Canal had changed the flow of goods from the west, and the coming of the Pennsylvania Railroad redresses the balance a little bit,” Reed says.

The railroads were seen as the way of moving goods and people over long distances. That was why they were invented — to be canals were there wasn’t any water. They really weren’t viewed as a revolutionary technology “But what the Main Line became derived from the railroads,” says Reed.

“When Cassatt changed the railway system from strictly freight to include a commuter system, that’s when he made the Main Line into a premier community,” explains Francis. So then came the revolution, which would create giant cities, such as New York, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia, was here. Cities could build skyscrapers and fill them with workers who lived further away than they could comfortably walk to for instance, on the Main Line.

The biggest impact of the railroads was social. “That’s what makes the Main Line different,” Creutzenberg says. And these implications went beyond the manicured mansions with their polo playing residents. As Dr. Dudden points out, the black population in Paoli came from railway work. “That was where the trains stopped and picked up the dining cars as well as the porters and stewards who were African American,” says Dudden.

8. The Mansions create the Main Line image
To most of the world, the Main Line means mansions. Because of the railroad tycoons there was plenty of money. It was a time of architectural development. “Price, Furness, Trumbauer, Kinckerbocker Boyd, all of those great architects worked on these mansions,” says Hill.

This came about because the railroad wanted to encourage enlarged suburban communities that would depend on the railroads. “The Pennsylvania Railroad wanted to maximize the returns from their real estate assets, so it encouraged its executives to build their houses out here,” says Reed.

By 1950, most of the privately held mansions are owned by the descendants of the servants who worked in them,” Creutzenberg says. “The period of the estates lasted only about 40 years, from 1890 and by the 1940s they were gone,” she says. There is a lot of feeling that the graduated income tax probably killed the estates off. The huge fortunes were not longer so easy to maintain.

But the image stuck, and obviously there was still a lot of money on the Main Line. Interestingly, the image for most of the nation was probably created by a movie one called The Philadelphia Story.

9. The horseless carriage creates industry and a middle class on the Main Line
While the railroads were by and far the most important industry in creating the wealth of the Main Line, it wasn’t the only one, and its wealth was imported.

But at the turn of the century industry arrived and brought new people and created a new class workers that weren’t tied to the land or a master. “The horseless carriage made such a difference, There was Autocar in Ardmore and Derham in Rosemont,” Creutzenberg says.

“The railroads created an upper and lower class on the Main Line the rich and then all the servants were added into what was predominantly a farming area,” says Francis. “Autocar suddenly arrives at the turn of the century and that creates a middle class the artisans and craftsmen who built the cars and the service industries that supported them,” he says. “That in spite of the fact that Derham and the original Autocar horseless carriages were for the upper classes,” Creutzenberg says.

“The only opportunity the serving class had was in service, and suddenly they could get factory work and work their way up,” Francis says.

10. Discontinuity makes Main Line more than Philadelphia’s bedroom.
The Main Line has become a place where people both live and work, and it now stands on its own merit and economy. It is, as the saying goes, a destination. That doesn’t mean it isn’t still a part of the Philadelphia world, just a little more equal than before.

Now the Main Line offers services to the region, particularly education. With the end of the gilded age came this reversal now the Main Line began offering services to the rest of the region “With the number of excellent colleges here, there are a lot of people taking those trains out here to get an education,” says Dudden.

“If you look at the travel on a work day, there is still a preponderance of people moving to the city for work from the Main Line,” says Reed. But Dr. Dudden thinks the discontinuity is about more than where people work. “I think of it as a reluctance on the part of people who live in the suburbs to support the city,” he says.

“World War II was the watershed,” says Reed. “The breakup of the mansions comes after the war. And for the most part they were institutionalized.” Francis agrees, and thinks that is one of the advantages people seek in coming here for an education. “We have not only fine schools, but the mansions are now used by schools,” he says.

Coming to a newspaper near you
So those are the top 10. Arguments may be addressed to the editor of Main Line Life at the address listed on the editorial page.

For more information on these items, you will see a story based on each of these subjects during the next year So that when the new millennium really does start next January (as a mathematician can explain) you can rest assured that the events of the previous have been properly recalled.