Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades


Colonial Times
More than half of American history took place before 1776, but after 1492. For Philadelphia, Colonial history lasted about a century.

Colonial Days
More than half of American history took place before 1776, but after 1492. For Philadelphia, the Colonial period lasted about a century.

History: Philadelphia and the Quaker Colonies
Philadelphia and the Quaker Colonies

Quaker Philadelphia 1683-1776
New volume 2012-11-21 17:33:18 description

Pre-Revolutionary Ben Franklin
Poor Richard was able to retire at the age of 42, and spent the rest of his life as a rich man, dying at the age of 82 with an eye-popping estate.

Pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia



Logan, Franklin, Library

{The Library Company of Philadelphia}
The Library Company of Philadelphia

Jim Greene is the librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia, and one of the leading authorities on James Logan, the Penn Proprietors' chief agent in the Colony. Since Logan and Ben Franklin were the main forces in starting the oldest library in America, knowing all about Logan almost comes with the job of Librarian. We are greatly indebted to a speech the other night, given by Greene at the Franklin Inn, a hundred yards away from the Library.

{James Logan}
James Logan

Logan has been described as a crusty old codger, living in his mansion called Stenton and scarcely venturing forth in public. He was known as a fair dealer with the Indians, which was an essential part of William Penn's strategy for selling real estate in a land of peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, Logan was behind the infamous Walking Purchase, which damaged his otherwise considerable reputation. Logan must have been a lonesome person in the frontier days of Philadelphia, because he owned the largest private library in North America and was passionate about reading and scholarly matters. When he acquired what was the first edition of Newton's Principia, he read it promptly and wrote a one-page summary. Comparatively few people could do this even today. It's pretty tough reading, and those who have read it would seldom claim to have "devoured" it.

{Benjamin Franklin}
Benjamin Franklin

Except young Ben Franklin, who never went past second grade in school. The two became fast friends, often engaging in such games as constructing "Magic Squares"of numbers that added up to the same total in various ways. For example, Franklin doodled off a square with the numbers 52,61,4,13,20,29,36,45 (totaling 260) on the top horizontal row, and every vertical row beneath them totaling 260, as for example 52,14,53,11,55,9,50,16, while every horizontal row also totaled 260 as well. The four corner numbers, with the 4 middle numbers, also total 260. Logan constructed his share of similar games, which it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the colonies doing at the time.

Logan and Franklin together conceived the idea of a subscription library, which in time became the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1732. The subscription required of a library member was intended to be forfeited if the borrower failed to return a book. Later on, the public was allowed to borrow books, but only on deposit of enough money to replace the book if unreturned. We are not told whose idea was behind these arrangements, but they certainly sound like Franklin at work. More than a century later, the Philadelphia Free Library was organized under more trusting rules for borrowing which became possible as books became less expensive.

Logan died in 1751, the year Franklin at the age of 42 decided to retire from business -- and devote the remaining 42 years of his life to scholarly and public affairs. He first joined the Assembly at that time, so he and Logan were not forced into direct contention over politics, although they had their differences. How much influence Logan exerted over Franklin's plans and attitudes is not entirely clear; it must have been a great deal.

East Jersey's Decline and Fall

The colony of New Caesaria (Jersey) had two provinces, East and West Jersey, because the Stuart kings of England had given the colony to two of their friends, Sir George Carteret and John, Lord Berkeley, to split between them. Both provinces soon fell under the control of William Penn but it took a little longer to acquire the Berkeley part, so the Proprietorship of East Jersey was the oldest corporation in America until it dissolved in 1998.

{Apology for the True Christian Divinity}
Apology for the True Christian Divinity

It would appear that Penn intended West Jersey to be a refuge for English Quakers, and East Jersey was to be the home of Scots Quakers. Twenty of the original twenty four proprietors were Quakers, at least half of them Scottish. Early governorship of East Jersey was assumed by Robert Barclay, laird of Urie, who was certainly Scottish enough for the purpose, and also a famous Quaker theologian. Even today, his Apology for the True Christian Divinity is regarded as the best statement of the original Quaker principles. However, Barclay remained in England, and his deputies proved to be somewhat more Scottish than Quaker. Eighteenth century Scots were notoriously combative, and soon engaged in serious disputes with the local Puritans who had earlier migrated into East Jersey from Connecticut with the encouragement of Carteret. This enclave of aggressive Puritans probably provided the path of migration for the Connecticut settlers who invaded Pennsylvania in the Pennamite Wars, so the hostility between Puritans and Quakers was soon established. The Dutch settlers in the region were also combative, so the eastern province of Penn's peaceful experiment in religious tolerance started off early with considerable unrest. Of these groups, the Scots became dominant, even referring to the region as New Scotland. To look ahead to the time of the Revolution, most of the East Jersey leadership was in the hands of Proprietors of Scottish derivation, with at least the advantage that these were likely to have been very vigilant in seeing Proprietor rights originally conferred by the British King, continue to be honored by the new American republic.

East Jersey was probably already the most diverse place in the colonies when loyalists and revolutionaries took opposite sides in the bitter eight-year war over English rule, with hatred further inflamed when the victors in the Revolution divvied up the properties of loyalists who had fled. Earlier conflict was created by management blunders of the Proprietary leadership itself. Instead of surveying and mapping before they sold off defined property, like every other real estate development corporation, the East Jersey Proprietors adopted the bizarre practice of selling plots of land first, and then telling the purchaser to select its location. In the early years it is true that good farm land was abundant, but inevitably two or more purchasers would occasionally choose overlapping plots of land. The Proprietors were astonishingly indifferent to the resulting uproar, telling the purchasers that this was their problem. The outcome of all this friction was that settlers petitioned London for relief, and in 1703 Queen Anne took governing powers away from both the East and West proprietorships and unified the two provinces into a single crown colony. The Queen obviously nursed the hope that South Jersey would impose a civilizing influence on the North, but immigration patterns determined a somewhat opposite outcome. Both proprietorships, however, were allowed to continue full ownership rights to any remaining undeeded property.

In later years, the East Jersey Proprietors created more unnecessary problems by attempting to confiscate and re-sell pieces of land whose surveys were faulty, sometimes of property occupied with houses for as much as fifty years. This East Jersey proprietorship, in short, did not enjoy either a low profile or the same level of benevolent acceptance prevailing in the West Jersey province. A climate of scepticism developed that easily turned any management misjudgment into a confrontation.

{New Jersey Line}
New Jersey Line

The East Jersey proprietorship operated by taking title to unclaimed land, and then reselling it. In what seemed like a minor difference, the West Jersey group never took title itself, but merely charged a fee for surveying and managing the sale of unclaimed land. The upshot of this distinction was that the East Jersey group got into many lawsuits over disputed ownership, which the West Jersey Proprietorship largely escaped. The nature of unclaimed land in New Jersey is for ocean currents to throw up new islands in the bays between the barrier islands and the mainland, or pile up new swamp land along the banks of the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Such marshy and mosquito-infested land may have little value to a farmer, but lately has become highly prized by environmentalists, who supply class-action lawyers with that nebulous legal concept of "standing". The posture of the West Jersey Proprietors is to be happy to survey and convey clear title to a particular property for a fee, but a buyer must come to them with that request. The East Jersey method put its proprietors in repeated conflict over possession and title, with idealists enjoying free legal encouragement from contingent-fee lawyers. By 1998, the Proprietors of East Jersey had endured all they could stand. Selling their remaining rights to the State for a nominal sum, they turned over their historic documents to the state archives. The plaintiff lawyers could sue the state for the swamps if they chose to, but the East Jersey Proprietors had just had enough.

The only clear thing about all of this is that the Proprietors of West Jersey now stand unchallenged as the oldest stockholder corporation in America. It's not certain just what this title is worth, but at least it is awfully hard to improve on it.

Foot of Arch Street

{The Foot of Arch St.}
The Foot of Arch St.

What we now call Arch Street in Philadelphia was originally named Mulberry Street. Just when that change officially occurred could be argued about, but it took its new name from the fact that a road was cut through the high river bank for easier access to riverside shipping, and an overhead arch connected the two cut ends of Front Street at the point of crossing. A model which is still on display in the Friends Meetinghouse at 4th and Arch depicts this arch in place in 1684. The model displays Thomas Holme, Penn's surveyor and map-maker, pointing up at the arch. It is a matter of record that Thos. Holme owned the property at the corner of Front and Mulberry, so presumably the red brick house stranded by the newly excavated street was Holme's. By the time of the Revolution, the Arch Street wharf had become the center of Delaware River commerce. The model depicts that even in 1684, Arch Street led straight to the Schuylkill.

{The Free Quaker Meetinghouse}
The Free Quaker Meetinghouse

The cemetery at 4th and Arch, set aside as early as 1684 as a burying yard, is known to contain at least 40,000 unmarked graves, many of them from the yellow fever epidemics of the late 18th Century. The meetinghouse was built right on top of them, a fact which may now offend some visitors. But it was in keeping with the ancient tradition of burying the dead in consecrated ground of a churchyard, more or less as a sanitation measure. It is also in keeping with the tradition of early Quakers not to allow their pictures to be displayed, or even their names to be placed on tombstones.

When disputes arose about warfare in the Revolutionary War, and many non Quakers who had been expelled for one reason or another joined with non Quakers to form the Free Quaker Meeting, it ended up where it is now, at 5th and Arch. The Friends Center , home to the administrative focus of Quakerdom, is at 15th and Cherry, just a partial block from Arch Street. At the time of the construction of the 4th and Arch Meeting, many Quakers moved into the area to be within walking distance, giving rise to the original meaning of the term "North of Market".

{chinese wall}
Chinese Wall

By the time of the Revolution, the Arch Street dock was the commercial heart of town, and the London Coffee House at Front and Market was the thriving center of international gossip. Tradition has it that it was Bradford, the owner of the London Coffee House, who first got the news of the Stamp Act, and started the agitation which famously resulted. The construction of the elevated "Chinese Wall"of the Pennsylvania Railroad along what is now John Kennedy Boulevard, sliced off the Northern side of town as a quiet fashionable place to live for nearly a century. And while the Benjamin Franklin Parkway was intended to correct this situation, it actually finished "North of Market" as even inhabitable. Things are gradually improving, particularly with infusions of public money, but it takes a long time for such urban scars to heal.

ZNOTE: Pre-Revolutionary Phialdelphia


Mennonites: The Pennsylvania Swiss

{On the Wall of the Mennonite Heritage Center}
On the Wall of the Mennonite Heritage Center

Anabaptism, originally attributed to Ulrich Zwingli around 1525, centers around believing a baby is too young to understand baptism, so adults need to be re-baptized. The idea arose independently in Switzerland and Holland, and probably thousands of believers were unmercifully martyred for holding the belief. Because the worst persecutions took place during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-50), they are often attributed to the Roman Catholic Inquisition, but Magisterial Protestants, believing in separation of church and state, were often also responsible. Many seemingly unrelated issues were introduced locally, and this period of unrest is known as the French and Indian War in America; its major battle took place in Louisburg, Nova Scotia, although George Washington's skirmish around Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh) has acquired local fame as a major American manifestation.

The Swiss adherents moved to the Rhineland Palatinate, and from there were among the first to accept William Penn's offer of religious freedom. They were the settlers of Germantown, but have mainly moved a few miles west to southern Montgomery County, where the confusion about Pennsylvania Dutchmen is further confounded by the fact that they were Swiss. Menno the Dutchman gave his name to the order, but they themselves regard their true ethnic background as Swiss from the Zurich region. That, by the way, is not to be confused with Calvinism, which also comes from Switzerland, but by way of Geneva, not Zurich. The pacifism of the Mennonites made them mutually attractive with the English Quakers, who had made an appearance fifty or so years later in the region around Manchester, England; each group seems to have adopted some of the features of the other.

{On the Wall of the Mennonite Heritage Center}
Franconia Mennonite Meetinghouse

Determined use of the German language has always held the Mennonites apart, however. From the start, it was really necessary to be somewhat bilingual in Montgomery County, using English for business conversation, and German at home and in the church. The idea of using a foreign language is based on the hope it would thus maintain a sense of distinctiveness or even remoteness from non-believers, without adopting the least hostility to them. It almost inevitably follows that the group has used its own schools, attached to their meeting houses. This sense of remoteness has persisted for almost four hundred years, surrounded by entirely different cultures. Starting only around 1960, this attitude has gradually softened however, and it is widely assumed that in another few decades Mennonites will come to resemble the people in their environment a great deal more than they do at present. If you want to know where to find them, Harleysville is a good place to start. As the tinge of Pennsylvania Dutch accent gradually fades, and fewer of them wear the old costumes, a curious remaining hallmark of their presence can be noticed: an avoidance of foundation planting around their houses. The Mennonites themselves seem to be entirely oblivious to this unintended distinctiveness, which is however quite striking to non-Mennonite passers by. Those who work in the fields all day have little interest in digging around their houses for decoration; those who have moved away from farming have seemingly adopted the bush-less style as a natural way of arranging things. There's no particular reason to change it, and so, there's no particular reason to notice it.

History of the Mennonites

Glorious Revolution: Nov. 5, 1688

William III of Orange

The history of William III, or William of Orange, or the William of William and Mary, is mentioned in American history but not much noticed. In academic parlance, it's a topic which probably won't be on the test. By contrast, British schoolboys do learn a lot about Winston Churchill's ancestor the Duke of Marlborough who was William's commander against the French, and also the religious troubles William provoked in Ireland, but Britons mainly seem to express a bewildering relief that religious quarelling in England finally came to an end with the ascension of William and Mary to the throne. What the Irish thought about the same events is apparently just ignored. But what Pennsylvanians (and residents of Delaware and New Jersey, too) should mainly note is that when William came to the British throne, the era of William Penn's special protection by the Monarchy was over. Penn's heirs changed both their style and their religion, and worked hard to be friends of the King; but it was never going to be the same as it had been when Charles II made a promise to William Penn's father on his deathbed, that he would look after the troublesome boy.

The British populace had thought they became a Protestant nation under Henry VIII, and solidified that situation under Elizabeth I. But somehow the religious issue violently re-arose under "Bloody" Mary, and Cromwell. And even that was not enough; Charles II and his brother James II were secret Catholics, there seemed to be no end to this. An American gets the feeling that the British citizenry were more fed up with wrangling about Royal Religion than so much exercised about its theology. In any event, when James II produced a royal son who would almost certainly be raised a Catholic, it was just too much for most of his subjects. James just had to go.

Landing at Torbay

The most likely Protestant king available was William of Orange, the Dutch king. William himself was eager to have more allies for the Netherlands, because the French king Louis XIV was busily swallowing up his weaker neighbors and the Netherlands were probably next. His wife, Mary, was the daughter of James II, so the legitimacy of his line was assured. Urged on by members of the British aristocracy and several powerful members of Parliament, he built a fleet which was alleged to be needed against Algerian pirates, and soon set sail for England. Fearing French attack while his troops were in England, William had made extensive alliances in British military circles, and when he arrived he was more or less acclaimed, bloodlessly. For whatever reason, James II put up very little fight, was imprisoned briefly in a way that invited escape, and left for France. And so William and Mary were victors in a bluffing game which James did not resist very hard, and were the monarchs of a Protestant nation. However, Ireland was Catholic and resisted, leading to bloody suppression which is still muttered about in Irish taverns, and fought over in Northern Irish elections.

Meanwhile, we all know what was happening to William Penn. He had a stroke, his steward in England and Logan in Pennsylvania "stole him blind", and the greatest private landowner in British history went to debtor's prison. Hardly any of this is imaginable under the Stuart kings. And for that matter, the later behavior of George III is not imaginable under the Stuart kings, either.

Ball Lightning, Regular Lightning, and B. Franklin
Franklin and the Kite

Just about everybody knows that flying a kite in a lightning storm is too dangerous to consider, but hardly anyone appreciates the enormous scientific significance of what happened at 10th and Chestnut Street in 1752. Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity, essentially explained it, displayed its commercial value with lightning rods (but never patented or profited from them), and received the acclaim of the scientific community which would have won him a Nobel Prize if such a thing had existed then. It's true this didn't happen overnight; in many ways he made the clinching demonstration on the shores of France. Something called the torpedo fish lives there, and Franklin gathered a group of friends holding hands in a circle, demonstrating the electric shock started with the fish and traveled around the circle. Out of this appreciative circle of scientists emerged his rightful reputation as a scientist of the first rank, soon to be the most famous American in the world.
Leyden Jar

But while millions of people had observed lightning flashes before Franklin connected one to a Leyden jar, those millions were merely content to go inside the house before it started to rain. Millions more still think of the whole episode as a quaintly stupid thing to do, without much scientific or practical value. Dangerous it was indeed, and it knocked young Franklin for a loop at another time, and killed several other people who tried to repeat it. But to grasp the scientific feel of it, let's put ourself in Ben's shoes. Let's look at a probably related issue, called ball lightning.

{Ball of Lightning}
Ball of Lightning

Ball lightning is relatively uncommon, but some chronicler has calculated that about a half of one percent of the world's population has observed it. Counting from the beginning of history, that means a lot of ball lightning. Let's describe it here in the words of two Philadelphians who have actually seen it. One lady describes that she was in her kitchen on the Main Line during a thunderstorm, when a big ball of light about the size of a basketball bounced through the door and sat on her stove for at least a full minute. It didn't give off much heat, didn't explode, and didn't smell bad. Although she was badly shaken emotionally, she doesn't remember anything much more. It just went away.

And another Philadelphian was on an airplane in a thunderstorm, back in the days when planes mostly flew below the clouds. A smaller blob of ball lightning appeared from nowhere and rolled down the aisle. Although no one kicked it or did anything else stupid, it created its sensation and then was gone.

A student of this matter says that although ball lightning is comparatively rare, it does occur often enough for extensive credible descriptions to exist. The size is most commonly between that of a pea and a sofa. It is not reported to give off much heat, usually but not invariably appears during a thunderstorm. Ball lightning appears to favor appearances over the ocean, and surfaced submarines seem over represented among reporters of it. By report, the ball usually disappears with an explosion which does not sound like thunder, but leaves behind a sulphurous odor. People who physically tangled with it, have been killed.

{Young Franklin and Print Press}
Young Franklin and Print Press

From the descriptions of crowds of people surrounding some of them, it seems unlikely these phenomena are merely visual hallucinations induced by lightning strikes, as has been suggested by some. And just what it would feel like to be that close to astronomical black holes, has not been reported by any survivors. Black holes are found scattered all over the universe, so there is no reason small ones couldn't appear on the Main Line, but it would seem likely they would be surrounded by a turbulent force field of some kind. Lots of other theories have been propounded, but haven't developed much scientific traction. In short, the state of ignorance about ball lightning today, is about as total as about regular lightning bolts in the Eighteenth century.

So, there you are, a mysterious natural phenomenon which everybody ignores, just waiting for some amateur to get curious enough to devise a simple experiment to explain it. The remarkable thing about the discovery of electricity was not that it was a problem crying out for solution, or a dangerous dragon needing to be slain. It was just something that everybody noticed, and everyone ignored. What was remarkable about this episode was not nature of the phenomenon, but unusual nature of the curiosity of a local printer named Ben.

Foreground: Parliament Irks the Colonial Merchants

{Charles Townshend}
Charles Townshend

Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer under King George III in 1766-67, had a reputation for abrasively witty behavior, in addition to which he did carry a grudge against American colonial legislatures for circumventing his directives when earlier he had been in charge of Colonial Affairs. His most despised action against the Colonies, the Stamp Act, seems to have been only a small part of a political maneuver to frustrate an opposition vote of no confidence. The vote had taken the form of lowering the homeland land tax from four to three shillings (an action understood to be a vote of no confidence because it unbalanced the budget, which he then re-balanced by raising the money in the colonies.) The novelist Tobias Smollett, subsequently produced a scathing depiction of Townshend's heedless arrogance in Humphry Clinker, but at least in the case of the Stamp Act, its sting was more in its heedlessness of the colonies than vengeance against them. One can easily imagine the loathing this rich dandy would inspire in sobersides like George Washington and John Adams. After Townshend was elevated in the British cabinet, almost anything became a possibility, but it was a fair guess he might continue to satisfy old scores with the colonies. When King George's mother began urging the young monarch to act like a real king, Townshend was available to help. On the other hand the Whig party in Parliament had significant sympathy with the colonial position, as a spill-over from their main uproar about John Wilkes which need not concern us here. Vengefulness against the colonies was not widespread in the British government at the time, but colonists could easily believe any Ministry which appointed the likes of Townshend might well abuse power in other ways, before such time as the King or a more civilized Ministry could arrive on the scene to set things right. It was vexing that a man so heedless as Townshend could also carry so many grudges. Things did ease when Townshend suddenly died of an "untended fever", in 1767.

Whatever the intent of those Townshend Acts, one clear message did stand out: paper money was forbidden in the colonies. Virginia cavaliers might be more upset by the 1763 restraints on moving into the Ohio territories, and New England shippers might be most irritated by limits on manufactures in the colonies. But prohibiting paper money seriously damaged all colonial trade. Some merchants protested vigorously, some resorted to smuggling, and others, chiefly Robert Morris, devised clever work-arounds for the problems which had been created. Paper currency might be vexingly easy to counterfeit, but it was safer to ship than gold coins. In dangerous ocean voyages the underlying gold (which the paper money represents) remains in the vaults of the issuer even if the paper representing it is lost at sea. Theft becomes more complicated when money is transported by remittances or promissory notes, so a merchant like Morris would quickly recognize debt paper (essentially, remittance contracts acknowledging the existence of debt) as a way to circumvent such inconveniences. In a few months we would be at war with England, where adversaries blocking each other's currency would be routine. By that time, Morris had perfected other systems of coping with the money problem. In simplified form, a shipload of flour would be sent abroad and sold, the proceeds of which were then used to buy gunpowder for a return voyage; as long as the two transactions were combined, actual paper money was not needed. Another feature is more sophisticated; by keeping this trade going, short-term loans for one leg of the trip could be transformed into long-term loans for many voyages. Long-term loans pay higher rates of interest than short-term loans; it would nowadays be referred to as "riding the yield curve." This system is currently in wide use for globalized trade, and Lehman Brothers was the main banker for it in 2008. And as a final strategy, having half the round-trip voyage transport innocent cargoes, the merchant could increase personal profits legitimately, while cloaking the existence of the underlying gun running on the opposite leg of the voyage. If the ship is sunk, it can then be difficult to say whether the loss of such a ship was military or commercial, insurable or uninsurable. In the case of a tobacco cargo, the value at the time of departure might well be different from the value later. Robert Morris became known as a genius in this sort of trade manipulation, and later his enemies were never able to prove it was illegal. Ultimately, a ship captain always has the option of moving his cargo to a different port.
Thomas Willing

Other colonists surely responded to a shortage of currency in similar resourceful ways, including barter and the Quaker system of maintaining individual account books on both sides of the transaction, and "squaring up" the balances later but eliminating many transaction steps. Wooden chairs were also a common substitute as a medium of exchange. But "Old Square-toes," Thomas Willing, experienced in currency difficulties, and his bold, reckless younger partner Morris displayed the greatest readiness to respond to opportunity. Credit and short-term paper were fundamentally promises to repay at a certain time, commonly with a front-end discount taking the place of interest payment. The amount of discount varied with the risk, both of disruption by the authorities, and the risk of default by the debtor. This discount system was rough and approximate, but it served. Quite accustomed to borrowing through an intermediary, who would then be directed to repay some foreign creditor, Morris and Willing added the innovation of issuing promissory notes and selling the contract itself to the public at a profit. Thus, written contracts would effectively serve as money. A cargo of flour or tobacco represented value, but that value need only be transformed into cash when it was safe and convenient to do so.
Robert Morris

The Morris-Willing team had already displayed its inventiveness by starting a maritime insurance company, thereby adding to their reputation for meeting extensive obligations; they established an outstanding credit rating. Although primarily in the shipping trade, the firm was also involved in trade with the Indians. There, they invented the entirely novel idea of selling their notes to the public, essentially becoming underwriters for the risk of the notes, quite like the way insurance underwriters assumed the risk of a ship sinking. Their reputation for ingenuity in working around obstacles was growing, as well as their credibility for prompt and reliable repayment. In modern parlance, they established an enviable "track record." A creditor is only interested in whether he will be repaid; satisfied of that, he doesn't care how rich or how poor you are. The profits from complex trading were regularly plowed back into the business; one observer estimated Robert Morris's cash assets at the start of the Revolution were no greater than those of a prosperous blacksmith. It didn't matter; he had credit.

In the event, this prohibition of colonial paper money did not last very long, so profits from it were not immense. But ideas had been tested which seemed to work. Today, transactions devised at Willing and Morris are variously known as commercial credit, financial underwriting, and casualty insurance. In 1776, Robert Morris would be 42 years old.

The Wissahickon
Sarah West

Recently, Sarah West came to the Right Angle Club and told us about the history of the Wissahickon Creek. Sarah taught at Germantown Friends School for twenty-five years, and in the course of it became the acknowledged expert on the Wissahickon. The mouth of the creek empties into the Schuylkill in Fairmount Park, but the mouth of it is so covered over with a tangle of clover-leaf overpasses, most people zip past without noticing. After that, the drivers of cars up to Chestnut Hill are so busy negotiating the sharp curves, they don't see much of the rest of the creek, either. There's a stop light opposite Rittenhousetown, so perhaps the little village is noticed on the other side of the rivulet, but the entrance is off to the left on Wissahickon Avenue, approachable only from the other direction, so even this cute little village is seldom visited. Pity.
Johannes Kelpius

First, notice that the mouth of the creek is just opposite City Line Avenue, so it is an important geographical landmark. The creek is 23 miles long, going right past Roxborough and ending up well beyond Philadelphia's city limits. To a passing motorist, the creek seems to disappear at Rittenhousetown, and the commuter goes on his way through miles of city before reaching Chestnut Hill. In fact, the creek curves abruptly north at Rittenhousetown and travels twenty miles through woods and wilderness, accompanied by fifty miles of hiking trails. This Wissahickon Park contains about 1200 acres of the 9600-acre Fairmount Park; at one time it was lined with mills seeking water power for one industrial activity or another. From Rittenhousetown to Chestnut Hill College the creek is accompanied by Forbidden Drive, forbidden (in 1922) to automobiles, that is. It crosses Germantown Avenue at that point and circles around Chestnut Hill College, only a branch disappears back into the woods surrounding the edges of the College and Morris Arboretum. On its right that branch of it, starting at Chestnut Hill College, passes (and supplied water for) Washington's encampment at Fort Washington. As a sidelight, Forbidden Drive parts company with the creek at Chestnut Hill College and the main branch of the creek goes on for miles past the Whitemarsh Country Club, then the Germantown Cricket Club, and the Wissahickon Valley Park, eventually reaching its origin in the water runoff from a parking lot off in the country near Ambler, well past Fort Washington, out in Montgomery County.

Only a short part of the Wissahickon is visible from the paved road, which veers to its right near the top of the steepest dropdown of the cliff on the west side of Germantown. That's one of two ridges. Roxborough is on one side of the valley, Germantown and Chestnut Hill on the east. The longest part of the creek veers to the left up the wooded valley, along miles of Forbidden Drive before it re-emerges to sight of motorists as it crosses Bethlehem Pike. This was one of several routes followed by sections of Washington's army in their attack on the Chew Mansion in the Revolutionary War. Washington lost, partly because of the stout stone walls of the Chew House, and partly because two sections of his troops got lost in the the fog along the creek and started shooting at each other. Even today, the geography around here is so confusing it is really pretty hard to criticize Washington for getting mixed up.

The edge of the Wissahickon creek was first settled by an early group of Germans led by Johannus Kelpius in the Seventeenth Century; the Kelpius Society feels that colony was located around the Henry Avenue Bridge footings standing athwart the gorge, comparatively near the mouth of the creek into the Schuylkill. Swift waters running downward provided water power for mills, originally paper mills. Paper plus education leads to printing, and at this point was located the heart of German culture, running north and south through all the thirteen colonies; eventually, this settlement of Baptists, Dunkards and Church of the Brethren moved westward toward Ephrata and other more scattered locations. Sarah tells us that a good workman could produce about three hundred sheets of paper in a day, so it had to be of good quality. Many of the historical documents of the Revolutionary period were written or printed on this paper. Bear in mind however, that nothing smells so bad as a papermill.
Wissahickon Paper Mill

It takes wood to make paper, so paper mills tend to denude the surrounding hills and start a process of washing away the topsoil. The creeks started to flood in the spring, and dry up in the summer. The final blow of this type was caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1985, which washed away many of the landmark buildings, leaving miles of the woods to the pleasure of hikers and joggers and environmentalists. Sarah West reports that you don't have to walk very far into the woods to find the remnants of mills and mansions, many of which had fruit cellars dug into the side of the basements. Some of these fruit cellars were then extended into tunnels, allowing the Underground Railroad to flourish here before the Civil War. And possibly earlier than that, because this area close to Philadelphia was a favorite place for spies to hide, attracting British raiding parties during the Revolution.

{Wissahickon Valley}
Wissahickon Valley

But water power was water power in Colonial days, and mills of all kinds flourished up and down the length of the creek, until steam power ultimately posed too much competition. For a while, the dwindling water-powered mills supplemented their power with steam generation, and tall smoke stacks, but eventually water power was driven away by steam power. Whether it was a flour mill or a nuts and bolts factory, grist mills or blanket factories, the product was usually shipped in white oak barrels, which hastened the destruction of the woods and made the flooding worse. Around each mill was usually found a cluster of houses for the workers, so the whole Wissahickon Valley eventually filled with settlements, usually with the owner's mansion dominating the scene, surrounded by little workers' houses. Eventually, the stream became polluted, and the pollution was unfairly blamed for Yellow Fever epidemics. The Schuylkill Water Works and and the migration of the factories elsewhere did a whole lot of good for typhoid fever, which definitely is caused by water pollution. So pollution control is sometimes useful even if there is no pollution of the kind you had in mind. The area became Fairmount park, dotted with mansions which used to belong to rich Quaker families with names like Evans and Livezy. There were once five covered bridges scattered along the creek, but mostly they were replaced by bridges, or just got washed away.

So, over the course of two centuries, the pioneers settled the woods, civilization created a factory town in the middle of a peaceful city, and then the environment took it all back. Now we have a forest in the middle of a city, and rather more unemployment than we want. It isn't fair to say the environmentalists won, it just seems to be cyclic. So enjoy it while you can.


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