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

Robert J. Dodd

Surgeon, Philanthropist, Sailor, Progressive



This piece of land, bordering a part of the Mill Creek in Lower Merion Township, is a heavily-wooded, rocky section of the valley that slopes steeply toward the water that runs by its base. Located off of Old Gulph Road, it is today covered in 16 Main Line properties, a far cry from its origins as a manufacturing center. What are today the houses of Dodds Lane used to be a single piece of property, the home of the Roberts family for generations. But though the Roberts family played a large role in the early history of the Mill Creek Valley and of Lower Merion as a whole, much has already been written on the topic. Thus, this includes only a brief summary of that time, with the focus instead being on the other prominent figure to make his home here, Doctor Robert J. Dodd. 

Going back to the mid-1600s, the first two men that were recorded as having owned this property were John Ap John and Thomas Wynne. It was these men that sold the land to John Roberts. It was a piece of a much larger parcel of the Welsh track that Roberts purchased upon his arrival in the New World. Roberts was responsible for building the first actual mill on the soon-to-be-named Mill Creek: a grist mill that would grind corn, mostly carried down from Upper Merion, into flour.[1]

Roberts’s mill passed down through the generations until it fell into the possession of John Roberts III, his grandson. Roberts III was responsible for much of the wealth the family gathered, as he added two additional grist mills, a saw mill, and finally, in the 1770s, an oil mill to his holdings. He expanded the family’s property to over 700 acres bracketing both sides of the creek.[2]

The Revolutionary War brought an end to the Roberts family in the Mill Creek Valley, with Roberts being hung in Philadelphia for his role in aiding British forces when they came and attacked Philadelphia. Legend says that Roberts III ground up glass and baked it into bread have gave to the Continental Army, but there is no real evidence for anything quite so devious.[3] However, his local tales say that he still haunts the house he occupied at the time of his death, which can still be visited at the intersection of Dodds Lane and Old Gulph Road in Gladwyne today.

The John Robert 'haunted' house.

The John Robert 'haunted' house. Photograph taken by author.

After his death, Roberts’s properties were auctioned off in pieces to various bidders. In 1797, the land was purchased by George McClenachan, son of the Revolutionary War hero Blair McClenachan. George McClenachan died in 1833, leaving his property to his daughters, who then sold the land the Robert J. Dodd.[4] By the time Dodd took control of the land, it had already peaked in its value as a commercial property, as the paper industry in the Mill Valley and elsewhere in Lower Merion was already starting its descent.

Robert J. Dodd, as drawn in Bean's book.

Robert J. Dodd, as drawn in Bean's book. Photograph taken by author.

Dodd, anyway, was very much not dependent on mill work for income. Born in Philadelphia on April 5, 1807,[5] Dodd was a medical doctor by trade. He studied at Jefferson Medical College, or what is today Jefferson University Hospital, where he learned from Doctor George McClellan, the father of Major-General George McClellan. Doctor McClellan was quite an accomplished surgeon for his time, establishing many new procedures, such as the removal of an eye lens or the parotid gland.[6] At the age of 17, Robert Dodd qualified to be an assistant surgeon. Dodd joined the Navy in 1826 and was stationed aboard the USS Shark where he sailed under Matthew Perry, the future Commodore of the US Navy. Here, he sailed the Caribbean and the Spanish Main, protecting American commercial vessels. In 1831, Dodd was promoted to full surgeon of the US Navy. After 21 years in the Navy, and over 12 years at sea, Dodd retired from active duty in 1947.[7] As one biographer wrote, “During that time he had circumnavigated the globe three or four times; had been present in China when certain ports of that country were opened and made free by the power of the British navy, had been several times prostrated by attacks of yellow fever […] In the Mexican war he was on duty in the Gulf Squadron, and on the occasion of General Taylor’s advance into the interior, from Corpus Christi, he was one of a force of five hundred volunteers- officers and men of the naval and marine services- who held the army’s rear communications and base of supplies.”[8]

A model of the USS Shark, the first ship Dodd sailed on.

A model of the USS Shark, the first ship Dodd sailed on. Photograph published under creative commons license by Sturmvogel 66.

After leaving active duty, Dodd was made director of the Naval Asylum in Philadelphia, a retirement home of sorts for members of the Navy that still stands today as a part of the National Register of Historic Places.[9] It was then that he permanently settled in Lower Merion, in the house built in 1850 that still stands today along Dodds Lane. In 1971, Dodd was promoted to the grade of medical director of the Navy on the retired list, a mostly honorary title. He passed in 1876.[10]

An 1847 portrait by Augustus Kollner of the Philadelphia Naval Asylum from the time Dodd was director there.

An 1847 portrait by Augustus Kollner of the Philadelphia Naval Asylum from the time Dodd was director there.

The most extensive collection of information about Robert J. Dodd today can be found in Theodore Bean's History of Montgomery County Pennsylvania, a massive tome written in 1884, preserving the lives of what the author sees as important people in the town's history. So, that Dodd would make the cut for such a book shows that he indeed had some standing within the community, even nearly a decade after his death. But on the other hand, information within must be viewed critically. This is because, if Bean was infatuated enough with Montgomery County to sit down and write thousands of pages on the topic, he may have been looking at his subjects through a much more forgiving lens that would match reality. He paints Dodd as magnanimous angel of charity and a patriot to boot. Bean wrote that, during the Civil War, he "was an ardent and steadfast supporter of the government, and contributed most liberally of his means in aid of the Union cause. He gave with a free hand to the support of the families of volunteers who entered the military service, furnishing almost the entire means of subsistence to many women and children whose husbands and fathers were in the field or prisoners of war in the South." In describing Dodd, it is said that "[charity and benevolence] were his life-long characteristics, and the poor who were within his knowledge always found in him a friend and a liberal benefactor." That said, what can be confirmed about Dodd does not prove this to be a totally inaccurate picture of the man.

These same traits are very much reflected in the will he left behind. Dodd had accumulated massive wealth for the time throughout his life, so much so that, as much as he gave away during his lifetime, he was still left with what would today be between three and a half to four and a half million dollars' worth of real and personal property at the time of his death, adjusting for inflation. His will gave to both his son and mother $20,000 each; to his uncle William Dover, $5,000; and $1000 each to a dozen different cousins and second cousins. But Dodd did not just keep his wealth among his own kin. Those living on his estate, most likely immigrant boarders, as well as laborers in his employ at the time of his death, were also named as the recipients on $200 each.[11] That Dodd would include in his will not just lowly tenants, but lowly Irish tenants, seems to say more about the man than Bean's effusive praise could. Dodd did not stop there. He wrote in his will that he wishes his son to sell off the rest of his land and bonds, and that the money should all go to charity. Dodd wrote "I hearby appoint to donate to the Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia to assist Female medical students by tickets and books, with the interest which may accrue on sum funded for that purpose,- to the Woman's Hospital of Phila.,- to the Aged Woman's Home at Boston, and the Orphan Girl's Institution of Boston- in equal proportions and to be funded in the name of my desceased wife "Hannah Matilda Dodd"". They were all to be given $15,000 each, while any money left over, Dodd said, was to be "given in such sums as will do the greatest good to institutions as are intended to promote the comfort of female Orphans and aged women."[12] He gave this task to Fred H. Bradley, his brother-in-law from Boston whom court records say Dodd credited with getting Dodd interested in charity work in the first place[13], and Joseph Jeanes, a Phildelphia-based doctor with a history of contributing to charity himself. In fact, much of Jeanes's own fortune was also donated after he and his wife passed, leading to the construction of Jeanes Hospital in the Burholme section of Northeast Philadelphia[14]. This shows that not only did Dodd himself recognize the importance of giving back, but he also associated with those that thought similarly. Together, this seems enough evidence to substantiate the claims that Bean made about him.

The Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia, one of the beneficiaries of Dodd's estate.

The Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia, one of the beneficiaries of Dodd's estate. Photograph provided by Sylvain Cazalet.

Dodd was survived by his son, Robert J. Dodd Jr., whom he named sole executor of his estate and who was charged with the sale of the lands. Dodd Jr. had followed in his father's footsteps by attending Jefferson Medical College, where not only did his study under the same Doctor McClellan as his father did, but also studied alongside John McClellan, brother of the Major-General. He married one Mary Markley Ghriskey upon graduation[15]. He chose to move himself out west, settling for a short time in West Virginia before extended stops in Kentucky and Illinois. Here, Dodd Jr. set up a "log cabin school"[16], teaching and practicing medicine in an area where it would not have been readily available, described as a "wilderness with settlers few and far between." Coming from a well-to-do family and a prominent school as he did, it seems like it is no great leap to assume that Dodd Jr. probably passed up a more comfortable job and lifestyle for this. But noting the principles his father appeared to live by, one cannot help but think that the son may have picked up on many of the same virtues, and practiced them by leaving the luxury of his Mill Creek estate for the more unsettled areas of the country where his skills were more in demand.

The Dodd household was not limited to just Dodd, Dodd Jr., and his wife. Census reports, beginning in 1850, show that numerous people resided on Dodd's property. Information from the three censuses that took place before Dodd passed can be seen below. [17]


Dodd, it seemed, used his land as a boarding house for immigrants. Each decade features different names, but there always seems to be a handful of people, mostly young women from Ireland, keeping the land occupied. While he may have just viewed them as a source of extra income, this was a time where the Irish were still in the process of claiming whiteness, and thus would have been viewed as beneath a person of Dodd’s status, economic differences aside. But Dodd’s will left money for several of these people, including Irishwoman Mary Lingard, so one could see evidence of Dodd being above such nativist behavior. Many of the neighboring houses in the census records that had immigrants and the label ‘servant’ next to them, but that was always conspicuously absent from Dodd’s section. Instead, they were either listed as laborers or the line was blank, which makes one think the immigrants were simply housing here while they worked elsewhere, as opposed to working for Dodd himself. 

This brings up an interesting motif among records of Dodd’s actions: his disposition toward women. Bean wrote that he helped the wives and mothers of soldiers who were away during the Civil War; his will shows him putting the majority of his fortune toward the education and well-being of women; his mother was the first person named in his will, and all donations were made in the name of his wife; and here, though the sample size is indeed small, he seems to be more willing to house immigrant women than men. For some reason, women played a very important role in Robert Dodd’s life. Could Dodd have been some sort of early feminist on top of everything else? At the very least, he seems very progressive for his time.

Upon the death of his father, Dodd Jr. returned to Lower Merion to carry out the terms of his father’s will. Dodd Jr. apparently had a difficult time finding buyers for the land he was supposed to sell off, taking almost two decades before finding his first buyer for his father’s property. Between 1887 and 1902, he sold the land off in parcels to Henry Register, Samuel Dixon, Effingham B. Morris, and Thomas B. Hartman, among others.[18]

James S. Austin also purchased part of the land, and in 1905 used it to establish the Rocky Crest Preserve, a 15-acre garden designed by Thomas Warren Sears that still stands along Dodds Lane today.[19] Dodd’s house, constructed in 1850, is likewise still there. While today it fits nicely among the Main Line manors that are its neighbors, the building must be looked at in the context of the time it was built to get a true understanding of the wealth of the man who raised it. With this pursuit in mind, an analysis of Dodd’s estate should reveal something of the lifestyle of the upper class during his time. To this end, Dodd Jr., as executor of his father’s estate had a valuation of the property done after his father’s death.[20] That the Dodds’ wealth was at a point where this was necessary is the first clue that these were not ordinary members of society: it was not the norm for such extensive cataloging to be taken up upon a person’s death. Then again, it was not the norm for someone to leave an inheritance of the size that Dodd did either.

Rocky Crest Preserve

Rocky Crest Preserve. Photograph taken by author.

The first room taken account of is the Barn. It contained a farm wagon, plows, chickens, grindstones, work horses, and other farming equipment. While Dodd certainly had a surplus of land with which he could farm, the land itself is heavily wooded, rocky, and hilly; altogether not suited for commercial farming. This leads to the conclusion that Dodd was something of a ‘gentleman farmer’, a wealthy person who grew crops for more as a leisure activity as opposed to as a source of income or as a necessary source of food. This is reinforced by the census information previously examined. Most of the tenants were female, and none of the male tenants were labeled as farmhands or farmers. Likewise, for a man this meticulous in dividing up his posessions in his will, that he made no mention of any farm animals or the like stands as further evidence that this was not a major investment of his. His cellar, though, was stocked with both potatoes and turnips, two types of produce which can be grown in a Pennsylvanian climate, meaning they could have been some of the fruits (or vegetables) of his labor.

Dodd’s dining room featured a mahogany table with 8 chairs, as well as a silverware set valued at $1405 in today’s money. His parlor contained a piano valued at $2634 today, as well as several couches and chairs, and a marble-top table. The house also contained a library with a dozen shelves of books and a writing desk, as well as an oil painting valued at $878. The first floor of the house also featured a kitchen and sitting room. Looking at the number of rooms, places to sit, and the size of the silverware set, this house was most likely set up to entertain sizable groups. After all, for much of the time that Dodd lived here, his son had already moved out on his own, meaning that he and his wife shared eight chairs and $1405 worth of silverware between them. This is clearly excessive for a house where meals were shared between only two people. This leaves two non-exclusive options: first, the Dodds and their boarders often shared meals together, an action that would not seem to juxtapose what has already been said about Dodd. Second, the Dodds often hosted dinner parties or other social gatherings at their house. It is not hard to see this as a requirement of life the higher socio-economic bracket Dodd was a part of. Looking at the maps of this area of Lower Merion during Dodd’s time, each person’s property size was much larger than today’s usual plots of land are, and being that transportation was relatively limited compared to today, it would have required some effort for people of that time to travel for social occasions. That is to say, having large social dinners does not seem to be a pastime that people of lesser status would take part in during those days, at least not often enough that it would make sense to invest in to furnish one’s house for it.           

The second floor had a number of bedrooms. Four of them are listed as ‘bedchambers’ while the other three are said to be ‘servant chambers’. Working with the hypothesis that Dodd ran a boarding house as opposed to having servants on hand, this probably was more an assumption made by the register in charge of this matter as opposed to the occupation of the actual resident of said room. Additionally, at the time of Dodd’s death, his wife had already passed, so the only people living there would have been Dodd Jr. and his wife, Mary. Assuming the same boarders that were there in 1870 were there in 1876, or at least a similarly sized group, it does not seem to make sense that all the boarders would share the three ‘servant chambers’ rooms while three of the four ‘bedchambers’ were left unoccupied. That said, the labeling does imply that there were noticeable differences between the two groups, whether it be the quality of the rooms themselves or just what was in them. The difference in stature of the residents of each room can be seen plainly in the valuations of what they each contain. In the 4 bedchambers, the bed and bedding were valued at an average of $245, adjusting for inflation. In the servant’s rooms, that same value drops to about $40. Looking at the value of everything in the room together shows a similarly wide gulf between the employees and employers. The property in the servants’ chambers averages to just over $100 in goods per room. With the servants, it seems a safe assumption that most everything they own is kept in their room. On the other hand, the bedchambers contain on average over $450 worth of goods, and is only one of many rooms that the Dodds would have made use of. 

The house Robert Dodd built in 1850 today.

The house Robert Dodd built in 1850 today. Photograph taken by author.

Just looking at the inflation-adjusted prices of Dodd’s belongings will inevitably undersell his wealth compared to the time. That he even owned a painting, or shelves full of books, or a piano, says more than the price of the good could. The idea of free time or leisure was still decades from fully trickling down to working class America.[21] While the masses were not quite at subsistence-level existence, to assume that the working and middle class then were similar to the working and middle class today would be a gross misestimation. Though he certainly seems to have enjoyed his wealth at home, Dodd appears to be a man that recognized his privilege, giving back to the community in many ways, especially in his caring for marginalized groups like the Irish or women. All in all, the more that is learned about the Dodd family, it seems that they, and not the Roberts clan, are the ones that deserve to be better preserved in the history of Lower Merion.


[1] Welcome Society of Pennsylvania, “Plaque,” 20 April 1997. 

[2] Pierce, Josiah. “Early History of the Mill Creek,” Main Line Chronicle, 22 November 1955, p. 7-8.

[3] Pierce. “Early History,” p. 7-8.

[4] OC 4505.

[5] Year: 1850; Census Place: Lower Merion, Montgomery, Pennsylvania; Roll: M432_800; Page: 178B; Image: 539

[6] Wilson, James, Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. 4. (Lodge-Pickens, New York, NY. 1900). p. 85.

[7] Bean, Theodore, History of Montgomery County Pennsylvania, (Everts & Peck, Philadelphia, PA. 1884). p. 640-642

[8] Bean, History of Montgomery County. p. 640-642. 

[9] United States Naval Asylum Nomination Form, National Register of Historic Places.

[10] Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Death Certificates Index, 1803-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2011.

[11] RW 1548.

[12] Bean, History of Montgomery County. p. 640-642.

[13] OC 4505.

[14] “Our History: Comfort and Compassion. Health and Wellness. For more than 80 Years.” Temple Health, 2012. 

[15] Bean, History of Montgomery County. p. 640-642.

16] Gayley, James, A History of the Jefferson Medical College of Philadelpia. (Wilson, Philadelphia, PA, 1858). p. 10.

[17] Year: 1850; Census.

Year: 1860; Census Place: Lower Merion, Montgomery, Pennsylvania; Roll: M653_1145; Page: 290; Image: 297; Family History Library Film: 805145

Year: 1870; Census Place: Lower Merion, Montgomery, Pennsylvania; Roll: M593_1377; Page: 518B; Image: 560; Family History Library Film: 552876

[18] OC 4505.

[19] Rocky Crest 2003. Call #PA634000, Archive of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution Research Information System.

[20] OC 4505.         

[21] McClean, Daniel. Recreation and Leisure in Modern Society. (Jones & Bartlett, Sudsbury, MA, 2012). p. 68.