Changing Landscapes People and Places in the Mill Creek Valley Lower Merion c.1870-c.1920

Changing Landscapes

People and Place in the Mill Creek Valley, Lower Merion c.1870 to c.1920


In 1871, a stylish new train station announced the arrival of ‘a place called Bryn Mawr’ and the erasure of the village of Humphreysville from the map.[1] On 21 April, the president and directors of the Pennsylvania Railroad, along with a number of invited guests, rode out from Philadelphia in a special detachment of Pullman palace, parlor and drawing-room cars to view their latest achievement. The gentlemen present were highly pleased with the gothic edifice, made of stone from the company’s quarry in West Philadelphia, and finished in the latest and most improved style. Inside, the sublime effect of the gaslight that filled the oak and walnut lined interior delighted the eyes. Built to impress, the station supplied all modern conveniences, yet had the appearance of age, dignity, strength and permanence; all agreed it was without exception the finest on the line. There were confident predictions that Bryn Mawr was destined to become a thriving little village.


By July 1872, the railroad company’s new hotel, within walking distance of the station, was up and running.[2] The four stories of stone formed a model of elegance and an air of comfort seemed to pervade the whole establishment. A large and commodious portico surrounded the building; inside, carpets of the most costly character covered the floors, and, of course, gas, made on the premises, helped light the way. Fresh air and bucolic scenes awaited those who sought to unwind, while dances (or “hops”) were scheduled every Wednesday evening for those city folk who desired entertainment. All 60 rooms were occupied, and many hopeful holidaymakers had to be turned away. Rumor had it that there were plans to build an addition in the form of a Maltese cross to meet the increasing demand. Bryn Mawr was becoming a favorite summer resort for those who wanted to see and be seen.


The guests of the Bryn Mawr Hotel in July 1872 were excited to take part in a notable event. According to the newspapers, for the first time in history the French Government had sent a military band to tour the United States, the celebrated Band of La Garde Republicaine, which was scheduled to stop at Bryn Mawr on its way to Philadelphia. By one o’clock, a large crowd had assembled underneath the red, white and blue bunting hung around the exterior of the station as a mark of respect to the distinguished visitors. Determined not to miss a highly anticipated concert that surely would be put on for their own personal edification, the men and women in the crowd roasted patiently next to one another in the pitiless afternoon sun. The train did not reach the station until half past two o’clock, and much to the chagrin of those gathered, it only stopped long enough to take on board a delegation of French residents from Philadelphia who had travelled out to meet the band. According to the reporter who covered the story, even if the train had remained at the station longer, the spectators never would have caught a glimpse of the band members, who were ‘completing their toilette in the two rear cars.’[3]


It must have stung the pride of those assembled that a group of honored Europeans could not even muster enough curiosity to glance out a train window and look at the place, let alone admire it, but Bryn Mawr persevered. By January 1873, news had reached as far as San Francisco that Philadelphia had a new suburb, ‘Welsh and called Bryn Mawr’.[4] In February, the New York Times picked up a story about one of the most beautiful suburbs around Philadelphia, where businessmen from the city had built houses of pointed stone along broad avenues laid out around the unique and elegant station.[5] An ad campaign to sell building lots that ran for almost the entire month of July extolled the beautiful country and healthy, high rolling grounds that presented ‘one of the finest landscape pictures’ near Philadelphia.[6] Thirty minutes by rail, Bryn Mawr provided easy access to the city and was convenient for calls, shopping and nightly amusements. The lots were an excellent opportunity for investors, as the demand for accommodations that summer at the new hotel and neighboring boarding houses was already far beyond capacity. The lots were subject to numerous covenants to insure against any ‘objectionable occupation’.


In 1874, property owners continued to rent rooms, houses and farms to ‘first-class families and single gentlemen’ throughout the summer ‘season’, and in 1875, the demand for accommodations seemed certain to rise in the future as preparations for the upcoming Centennial Exhibition at nearby Fairmount Park moved forward.[7]

As a special treat, the Philadelphia Inquirer offered readers a tour of the villages around the Pennsylvania Railroad’s most popular stations in installments beginning on 1 April with Overbrook and ending on 26 April with Malvern. The articles touched on the history, advancements, and people of these areas; and the longest one, which appeared on 12 April next to another article that stressed how the Centennial would provide a ‘thorough exhibition of the material and social condition of Pennsylvania’, pronounced Bryn Mawr the most beautiful suburb on the line, the jewel in the crown.[8] A sophisticated and discerning visitor to the area would see all the conveniences the modern world had to offer, but could also step over the village boundaries and travel back in time. Following the Mill Creek from its source near Bryn Mawr to its mouth at the Schuylkill, one would traverse rugged scenery untouched by the ‘improvements of art’. Among the curiosities in this pristine environment were communities ‘as secluded and almost as little affected by the busy world around them as the least frequented hamlets among the Alleghany Mountains’. These “indigenous” people were ‘as primitive in their habits and as simple in their lives as any [in] agricultural communities remote from lines of railroad and centres of business activity’. The locals lived,


…on the farms inherited from their ancestors, who carved them out of the forests trod by the Red Men, the houses in which they were born serve them until they die: and generation after generation follows in the same routine— tilling the earth as their fathers tilled it— regulating their lives by rules their fathers established—worshiping in the venerable churches their fathers built, and at last lying down to their rest in graves dug beside those of their fathers.[9]


These observations tell us as much about the mentalities of the author and his intended audience, as they do about the “indigenous” inhabitants of the Mill Creek Valley. The newspaper’s tour through the Mainline in 1875 whet the appetite of a middle-class and elite readership that was already excited by the prospects of the upcoming Centennial, by using the settlements along the railroad stations as material to create a ‘thorough exhibition of the material and social condition of Pennsylvania’ in miniature. Among the readers who received confirmation of their own status by gazing upon the ‘simple’ and ‘primitive’ objects in this exhibit, were the men and women who were beginning to settle in the prosperous new suburbs of the Mainline, which began to take shape in the early 1870s.


These new residents, supported by surveyors and cartographers who created astonishing maps and atlases that reimagined the spaces of Lower Merion, set about constructing a new place in their own image. Large estates with romantic names were carved into the high rolling hills that commanded magnificent vistas beyond the township as far as Bucks County, Philadelphia and New Jersey, while smaller, yet still substantial homes were built for the professional classes. The Pennsylvania Railroad and its stations were already in place, and trolleys followed not long after, but Lower Merion became famous, above all, for the quality of its roads, which knit together the fabric of this new landscape. Sewers, sidewalks, and street lights contributed to the construction of this modern infrastructure; police and fire services were professionalized; banks and trust companies cropped up to offer mortgages to facilitate the endless building boom; schools, churches, hospitals, post offices, and libraries appeared alongside retail shops; and institutions like the YMCA emerged to guide the development of the community.


The 1870s marked the early stages of a transformation in the landscape and communities of Lower Merion, from farm and mill, to the familiar suburbs of today. Evoking the spirit of the Centennial Exhibition, advocates at the time (and long afterwards) described these changes unequivocally in terms of progress and advancement. But such deep-seated change is rarely straightforward, and the benefits are usually accompanied by costs: financial, environmental, social, cultural and emotional, to both individuals and communities alike.


Students in our course studied this transformative moment in the history of Lower Merion Township, and weighed up the benefits and costs of change from a historical perspective. This group project focused on the Mill Creek Valley, an area in the middle of the township where a relatively small population had been engaged in industry and agriculture since at least the early eighteenth century. Each student selected, from an atlas published in 1877, a property that bordered on the Mill Creek, traced that property’s development over time, and reconstructed the lives of the inhabitants.


Working alongside Digital Humanities staff in Falvey Library, students constructed this interactive website to communicate their research about the families of physicians such as Dr Samuel Dixon and Dr Robert Dodd; financiers like Isaac Register, Effingham Morris and John Crosby Brown; mill owners including Seth Humphreys, John Baltz, and Thomas Barker; and farmers like Gabriel Vaughan. While property was the starting point for research, many students in the course moved quickly from an exclusive focus on owners to consider the lives of servants, mill workers, and other members of the working classes as well. As the semester progressed, our class discussions, shaped by the discovery of these other populations (the “indigenous” inhabitants described in the Philadelphia Inquirer article of 1875), turned increasingly towards an examination of the meanings of community, and we began to wonder, perhaps our case study of the Mill Creek Valley exposed the existence of communities rather than a community, in the singular.


And if there were communities in the plural, what of a place like Toddtown? Named after William Todd who owned a mill complex on the lower reaches of the creek, Toddtown did not appear on any of the increasingly sophisticated maps that surveyors and cartographers were churning out in ever greater numbers, but everyone who lived in Lower Merion at the time knew it was there. The limits of Toddtown are unknown, but it extended beyond the boundaries of William Todd’s land and seems to have included the men, women and children living and working on the Booth and Barker property across the creek, and those working upriver for Seth Humphreys. There were signs in the late nineteenth century that Toddtown was on the road to becoming an officially recognized place; newspapers depicted a vibrant (albeit rough and uncultured) community, and one that was populous enough to convince the Episcopalians of Bryn Mawr to establish a mission there.

Perhaps a renaming was on the horizon; as Humphreysville was born again as Bryn Mawr, and as Athensville turned into Ardmore, maybe Toddtown was ripe for reinvention?


But it was not to be. The small mills and farms of the Mill Creek Valley could not compete within the changing economic landscape, and were sold off as urban flight raised residential property values to unprecedented heights. Toddtown never made it onto the map and for all intents and purposes, it has disappeared from living memory. Perhaps advocates for change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were right, and the forces of suburbanization brought about benefits that outweighed the costs. That conclusion is, of course, subject to debate, but at the very least, the pages of this website reflect the realization that we need to know what was lost in order to understand what was gained.


Craig Bailey, August 2015

[1] Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 April 1871, 2.

[2] Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 July 1872, 2.

[3] Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 July 1872, 2.

[4] Evening Bulletin (San Francisco), 2 January 1873, 4.

[5] New York Times, 28 February 1873, 1.

[6] Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 July 1873, 8.

[7] Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 May 1874, 8.

[8] Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 April 1875, 2.

[9] Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 April 1875, 2.