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AN HISTORIC OVERVIEW
The borough of Conshohocken, Incorporated in 1850, is located on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, thirteen miles northwest of Philadelphia, on one square mile of land in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Its proximity to major transportation links, natural resources, and markets created a favorable environment for the rise of a virtually self-contained industrial, commercial, residential, civic and religious community. Perhaps best known for its great industrial firms, such as the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company, whose roots date back to the early 1800s, and "Lee of Conshohocken," the automobile tire company founded in the early 1900s Conshohocken played a major role in the industrial development of southeastern Pennsylvania. The growth of the town's industries brought together wealthy Quaker mill and landowners with immigrant laborers from Ireland, Poland, Italy, and other European countries to give the borough its distinctive character. As the town's industries expanded and moved outside the borough limits in the early twentieth century, Conshohocken evolved from an industrial leader into a primarily residential community. Although Conshohocken has experienced many changes since its founding in 1850, the trends which have shaped the borough can still be seen in the surviving architecture when walking the streets today.
Conshohocken's general historical development can be divided into four time periods differing in social, economic and architectural character. The first period, prior to borough incorporation in 1850, was marked by the acquisition of large tracts of farmland and the beginnings of trade and industry along the Schuylkill. The borough's early industrial boom, from 1850 to 1875, was marked by the establishment of new mills, the expansion of commerce, residential growth, and the founding of civic and religious organizations. A period of economic maturity followed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, during which the boom and bust cycles evened out, transient laborers became homeowners, and large immigrant populations were absorbed into the community. The last distinct historical period, in the early twentieth century prior to World War II, was characterized by the continued success of one industry, the blossoming of another and the transformation of the borough into a predominantly residential community.
The earliest purchase of land in the vicinity of Conshohocken can be traced to deeds from the Tammany (Native Americans) to William Penn in 1683. In that year, William Penn sold 5,000 acres to Jasper Farmer, an Irishman, whose family established the first limestone quarry in the area. (The abundance of lime, used as a flux for blast furnaces, later facilitated the local development of iron manufacturing.) Son Thomas Farmer sold 1250 acres of land, 200 of which were in what is now Conshohocken, to Radnor Quaker David Harry in 1700. In 1710, David Harry met David Jones at the Friends Meeting and subsequently sold him 160 acres of land. At the time of the borough's incorporation 140 years later, the Jones and Harry families would own the entire: east side of Conshohocken.
Conshohocken was favorably situated at a natural ford across the Schuylkill River, referred to on early maps as "Harry's Ford" After Peter Matson purchased land on the south side of the river in 1741 and improved the ford, the area received a more reliable means of transportation across the river as well as the informal name of "Matson's Ford."
A ferry at Spring Mill, downstream a few miles, also served the area from 1804 to 1830.
Matson's Ford acquired special historic significance during the Revolutionary War, when the American army crossed the ford twice in one day in December 1777. On May 19, 1778, Lafayette led 2,000 troops across the ford in a dramatic escape from the British on Barren Hill. Fayette Street was named in honor of the French general. Edward Hector, a black wagon master in Washington's army, led an escape that brought him stature as a local hero. He died in 1834 in a cabin at the intersection of Fayette and Hector Streets, named in his honor twenty years later.
The most important event in the early development of Conshohocken was the building of the Schuylkill Canal. Begun at Philadelphia in 1816, the canal reached Conshohocken in 1818 and by 1826 had reached its terminus at Port Carbon in Schuylkill County. The canal not only provided a transportation route along the unnavigable Schuylkill, but it also brought the water power which spurred the development of the first mills in the area. A grist mill built in 1821 by David Harry, great-grandson of the early landowner of the same name, became the first industrial enterprise in Conshohocken. The Schuylkill Navigation Company, which originally purchased the land for its canal from David Harry, began advertising in 1822 for industrial development along the canal. John Freedley and James Wells, both of Norristown, purchased most of the land for speculation and established a mill for sawing marble on Plymouth Creek in 1831. This was followed by the establishment of an iron rolling mill by James Wood in 1832.
In addition to the canal, transportation in Conshohocken was enhanced by the construction in 1833 of a wooden covered bridge, Matson's Ford Bridge, near the site of the original ford. By 1835 the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad was in operation. The Plymouth Railroad spur line from Conshohocken to Cold Point, providing access to limestone quarries, was completed in 1836. The turnpike to Plymouth Meeting, late; known as Butler Pike, was carrying traffic by 1849.
Conshohocken in 1833 had one store, one tavern, one rolling mill, one grist mill and six houses. A census from the time identifies five of the homeowners as David Harry, Cadwallader Foulke, Isaac Jones, Dan Freedley and C. Jacoby. Historians have speculated that Edward Hector, the black wagon master in George Washington's army, was the owner of the sixth house.
Four families with long and intertwined local histories formed the backbone of the new town. In 1850, at the time of borough incorporation, three of the families owned the majority of the land. The Harry and the Lukens families divided most of the southern half of the town, while descendants of David Jones, who in 1710 had purchased land from David Harry, owned the northern half. The fourth influential family, brought to the area by James Wood in 1832, contributed most directly to the town's industrialization.
Though relative newcomers to the area, the Wood family became the leading economic force in Conshohocken during the next century. By purchasing land from David Lukens, forming partnerships with his offspring, and marrying into both the Lukens and Harr families, the Wood family dynasty established itself in the tightly-knit society of the Conshohocken elite.
James Wood, with his son Alan, erected a small water-powered mill for rolling iron n 1832. James had come from Wooddale, Delaware, where he had established the Delaware Iron Works. When he arrived in 1832 he bought farmland from David Lukens to build his homestead. This house, although greatly altered, stands today as the rectory of St. Mary's Church at West Elm and Oak Streets. Wood's rolling mill, started in 1832 as the Conshohocken Iron Works (later becoming J. Wood and Brother, then J Wood and Sons), manufactured sheet-iron, saws, shovels and spades. The Woods had an agreement with the Schuylkill Navigation Company which gave the ironmasters the use of the land between the canal and the Schuylkill River, on a yearly lease of "25 cents a running foot" and at an annual rent of $1000 for the right to use the canal's water in a 20' plunge over the mill wheel to the river.
The Wood family did not at this time engage in the smelting of iron only in the various refining processes such as rolling and puddling. The iron itself was obtained from furnaces in rural areas of Pennsylvania closer to sources of the charcoal used to smelt the iron ore. For a time Wood obtained iron from a furnace in Lebanon County run by Lewis Lukens, who married his daughter Mary in 1834. Around 1840, however, ironmasters in Pennsylvania discovered that anthracite coal could be used to place of charcoal. This major innovation resulted in the shift of iron furnaces from rural to more urban areas such as Conshohocken, where coal was easily obtained via canal and where the Wood family's factories provided a read market.
At least for iron furnaces were stabled in the Conshohocken area in the 1840s. Stephen Colwell established the Plymouth Furnace and Foundry in 1845 near the intersection of Colwell Lan and Elm Street, and built the Merion Furnace, across the river in present day West Conshohocken, in 1848. David Reeves established the Spring Mill area on the eastern edge of Conshohocken. These furnaces, together with the Wood rolling mills, earned Conshohocken the nickname of "Ironborough" and made it one of the main centers of the anthracite iron industry in the Delaware Valley.
It is not surprising then that ironmaster James Wood played a leading role in the founding of Conshohocken and was the chairman of the committee which successfully incorporated the borough in 1850. Having fathered twenty children, laid the groundwork for an industrial dynasty, and founded a town, he lived to see his son John become the first burgess in 1850 before he passed away seven months later.
John 'Squire" Wood not only headed the Wood iron business for the next forty years, but served as Justice of the Peace in 1851 and as a US Congressman in 1858. He remained in the house at West Elm and Oak Street, dubbed "Oak Lawn", until his death there in 1898. He also won international acclaim for J. Wood and Brothers through the "Woods Process," which duplicated the highly-polished Russian sheet-iron and won a prize for
sheet-iron at the 1857 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. Son John Wood, Jr., and nephew Alan Wood, Jr., whose house on East Fifth Avenue was bequeathed in 1918 to the borough as the "Mary Wood Park House," dominated local industry into the next century
The Harry family also played a prominent role in the development of Conshohocken. David Harry's original purchase of land in 1700 marked the starting point of six generations of the Harry family in Conshohocken. Harry's two-story "Homestead" or "Mansion House," built in 1706 at what is now the intersection of Apple and Hector Streets, stood for over 200 years as the oldest building in Conshohocken. Grandson David Harry, mentioned above as the builder of the first gristmill, sold land to the Schuylkill Navigation Company in 1831, probably for improvements to the canal. His daughter Mary Harry Yerkes set up a temporary hospital for the treatment of those who, while working on the Schuylkill Canal, were affected by the cholera epidemic of 1832. The "Underground Railroad" to aid fugitive slaves was supported by the Harry family in the early 1830s. David Harry was one of the five men on the 1850 committee that established Conshohocken as a borough.
His son Benjamin, born in 1809 in the Harry Homestead at Apple and Hector Streets, devoted himself to private business. His activities included management of his father's mill, the parceling and sale of his family's large landholdings (which would become an upper class residential area in the late nineteenth century) and the ownership of a nursery that is credited with providing most of the trees in Conshohocken. The two extant houses associated with the Harry family were built by two of Benjamin's sons in the late nineteenth century. James Wood Harry's house at 205 Harry Street and Winfield Scott
Harry's house at 114 Harry Street, both constructed on land .parceled from the original Harry estate, represent a broad range in scale and architectural character despite their close proximity.
Isaac Jones was born in 1772 on the family farmstead in Whitemarsh, at what is now the intersection of Righter Street and Eighth Avenue. He became president of the Matson Ford Bridge Company in 1837. When he died in 1868, his sons Isaac, Jr, Charles and John divided the estate into lots. His descendants sewed in borough government throughout the next century. Horace Jones, the great-grandson of Isaac, followed his father into the Jones Lumber Company from 1874 to 1880. With Stanley Lees as a partner, he then formed the H.C. Jones Company to operate the textile mill owned by John Whitton at the intersection of Ash and Washington Streets. In 1885 they took over ownership of the Whitton Mill, which remained in operation until the 1950s. As seen on the 1891 Smithplan of the borough, both Charles and Isaac retained ownership of a significant portion of the undeveloped land in the northern half of town, partially subdivided in anticipation of residential development.
The Lukens family contributed greatly to the commercial, cultural and civic life of the town. The Lukens' original farmstead was located on what is now Second to Fourth Avenues, Maple to Wood Streets. The farm shows on the 1871 Hopkins plan and the 1877 Scott atlas, and although streets were laid out it still shows on the 1891 Smith atlas. One of the most prominent members of the family was Lewis A. Lukens, the son of David Lukens and Mary Shepherd. (Shepherd's father had been the proprietor of a stone sawing mill powered by Plymouth Creek near the Shepherd home, close to Colwell Lane and Elm Streets. The house, built in 1794, survives today as 359 West Elm Street, the only extant eighteenth-century building in the borough.) Lewis Lukens built his house at the corner of Third Avenue and Fayette Street in c. 1857 when he gave up farming and went into an iron manufacturing partnership with his brother-in law Alan Wood, Jr. Donated in 1909 to the borough, the house stands today as the public library, its exterior now fully restored. Lewis Lukens was elected burgess for three consecutive terms, from 1859 to 1861, and served as director and president of the First National Bank of Conshohocken for seventeen years. His sons, Charles and James (also known as Jawood), founded and/or managed at various times the Schuylkill Iron Works, the J. Ellwood Lee
Company, the Longmead Iron Works, the Conshohocken Tube Works, and the Alan Wood Company. Both of their grand Fayette Street houses have been demolished, although the carriage house remaining at 410 Harry Street attests to the grandeur of the Charles Lukens estate, once located at Fifth Avenue and Fayette Street.
Conshohocken had begun to physically take shape prior to its 1850 incorporation. As first laid out by the Schuylkill Navigation Company in 1830, the town consisted of several mills, houses and a tavern along the river to either side of the Matson's Ford. Completed a few years later, the Matson's Ford Bridge led directly into the turnpike to Plymouth Meeting and crossed Washington Street, which ran parallel to the river along the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad line. The 1860 Lake & Beers map illustrates the street layout as it exists today. Designated as one square mile, apparently for ease of geographical description, the streets were laid out in a grid system oriented to Plymouth (Butler) Pike, or Fayette Street, as the Conshohocken end of it was named. The area along the Schuylkill River east of Fayette Street, however, was laid out parallel to the canal and riverbank, virtually aligned with the cardinal axes, and is thus skewed about 45 degrees from the rest of the town. This area includes the first several streets, Washington, Elm and Hector. The two grids intersect at Spring Mill Avenue.
Street names were designated around the time of incorporation, with the main commercial streets of Washington (originally intended as a commercial street, but soon taken over by industry and the railroad), Hector and Fayette honoring revolutionary war heroes. Colwell, Corson, Righter, Freedley, Wood, Harry, Hallowell, Wells and Jones Streets are named for town founders and businessmen. First Avenue, shown on early maps as Front Avenue, through Twelfth Avenue, demarcate the cross streets. Benjamin Harry, owner of the local nursery, is credited with establishing the remaining street names, such as Poplar, Cherry, Ash, and Walnut, and local trees.
By the late 1840s the inhabitants of thriving "Ironborough" were ready to unite and petitioned the state legislature for an act of incorporation, which was granted on May 15, 1850. It became the third borough in Montgomery County, following Norristown and Pottstown. Prominent citizens James Woods, ironmaster; James Wells, proprietor of the Ford Hotel and the railroad depot; Isaac Jones, president of the Matson Ford Bridge company; David Harry, grist mill operator; and Cadwallader Foulke, farmer, are said to have chosen the name for the town by picking from a hat. The three suggestions were Woodvale, Riverside, and Conshohocken. The last is a derivative of the original name given the area by the Lenni Lenape Indians, "Gueno-Sheiki-Hacki-ing," meaning "beautiful or peaceful valley."