Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia


Jane Mork Gibson, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

Chestnut Hill is in the extreme northwest section of Philadelphia and was a part of Germantown, originally known as the Sommerhausen and Crefeld Townships. In 1854 Chestnut Hill was included in the 22nd Ward of the newly consolidated City of Philadelphia. Present-day Chestnut Hill is bordered by the limits of Fairmount Park at Cresheim Creek on the south and Wissahickon Creek on the west and by Northwestern Avenue on the north. The eastern border is Stenton Avenue. Germantown Avenue (Pike) bisects the community into east and west sections, and the Bethlehem Turnpike terminates in the center of Chestnut Hill where it joins the Germantown Pike near the highest elevation at Summit Avenue, which is 440 feet above the city datum. 1
The area is not a major industrial center but it does have an industrial history. An industrial undertaking in the early 1800s that met with failure was an attempt to grow silkworms to  produce cocoons for a silk industry. On the other hand, the transportation network has always been successful. Both Germantown Pike and Bethlehem Pike were among the earliest turnpikes and were major avenues leading to the center of Philadelphia from the rich farmlands and the limekilns outside the city. Chestnut Hill was a stop on the stagecoach line and developed commercially along Germantown Pike, which came to be known as "The Avenue".
During the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, several mills were in operation along the Wissahickon and Cresheim Creeks which were then included within the boundaries of Chestnut Hill, but most of the land use was agricultural. The mills were taken over by the city in the years after 1868 when the land was designated for Fairmount Park.
2 It is interesting to note that the intersection of Bell's Mill Road and Germantown Pike is identified on J.C. Sidney's 1848 Map of the Township of Germantown as "Mechanicsville," where there was a store, a blacksmith shop, and several houses including that of a clockmaker; 3 today the site is occupied by a Victorian Mansion converted to the Woodmere Art Gallery. This map also indicates veins of iron ore on the present-day Morris Arboretum site, and the location of three mine shafts. It is said that iron for the famous iron-lace balconies in New Orleans was mined here. 4
Within the boundaries of present-day Chestnut Hill there once were grain mills, cotton mills, woolen mills, fulling mills, carpet mills, and, especially, paper mills.  Early names for roadways reflect this—Paper Mill Lane (West Mermaid Lane), Barge's Mill/Spruce Mill/Thomas Mill Road (parts of West Chestnut Hill Avenue and West Highland Avenue), and Paul's Mill/Thorp's Mill/Bell's Mill Road. In addition to the mills on the Wissahickon that were taken over by the city after Fairmount Park was established, the mills on Cresheim Creek were acquired by the Houston/Woodward/Henry Family who subsequently gave the area to the city as an addition to Fairmount Park in the early 1900s. Today it is difficult to picture the large textile mills that were once in operation along Cresheim Creek at Germantown Avenue, at the railroad viaduct, and at the McCallum Street Bridge. At the other end of Germantown Avenue, a short distance from the road on each side where it crosses the Wissahickon near Northwestern Avenue, were the paper and grist mills of the Dewees family; one was in operation as early as 1710 and was the second paper mill in America. William Dewees and his brother-in-law Nicholas Rittenhouse, who had married Wilhelmina Dewees, are reported to have been apprentices in the first paper mill in the United States located on Paper Mill Run, also called Monoshone Creek.
William Penn's original City of Philadelphia expanded in size to become today's Greater Philadelphia. The phenomenal population growth of Philadelphia extended to the outlying towns and districts that were incorporated into the city by the Consolidation Act of 1854, and after the Civil War, settlement in the suburbs increased as Philadelphians moved beyond the "walking city" of its earlier years. In mid-century the Germantown and Chestnut Hill Line (later taken over by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad) led to residential development east of Germantown Avenue near the railroad terminus. The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw much of the area on the west side of Germantown Avenue become, first, a summer resort for the well-to-do, and then an enclave of homes controlled by Pennsylvania Railroad magnate Henry Howard Houston (1820-1895) and designed to attract permanent residents of a selective kind. The stone masons and workmen who quarried the stone and built these homes also settled in sections of Chestnut Hill in less pretentious houses, generally east of Germantown Avenue.    
The coming of the railroads to Chestnut Hill made a great difference in the demographics and the type of activity in the village. The suburban Germantown and Chestnut Hill Line was completed in 1854 and terminated at Bethlehem Pike, east of Germantown Avenue, instead of at Germantown Avenue near Cresheim Creek as originally planned. This provided rapid transportation to Germantown and to the center of the city. The Pennsylvania Railroad's Chestnut Hill Line on the west of Germantown Avenue was completed in 1884 and brought with it a great increase in the upper-class suburban development which has remained the trademark of the area. The railroad stations of these two lines and the engineering that brought the railroads to Chestnut Hill constitute some of the existing industrial archeology, especially the Frank Furness designed Gravers Lane Railroad Station (1883) of the Reading which has been adopted and preserved by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. The Pennsylvania Railroad's Chestnut Hill Station (1884) is typical of the era and was put to adaptive reuse in 1985 as the Chestnut Hill National Bank. The great wrought iron Cresheim Valley Viaduct, an essential element in bringing the Pennsylvania Railroad to Chestnut Hill in 1884, was declared unsafe and was demolished in 1988, replaced by a concrete and steel structure.
The southern entrance to Chestnut Hill along Germantown Avenue contains a reminder of important industries. A new shopping center has been built on the site of a quarry where Chestnut Hill micaceous schist of the Wissahickon Formation was once cut out of the hillside to build some of the many grey stone houses for which the area is famous.  Another quarry located between Mermaid and Moreland Avenues was in operation until just before World War II. The trolley stop at the foot of the hill and the Route 23 trolley now operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) recall the days of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company when this was a major means of transport before the general use of the automobile and when there were trolleys along the "Avenue" every five minutes, and more often during rush hours. In this same area, east of Germantown Avenue near the foot of the hill, are some remnants of Chestnut Hill's industrial past—the buildings occupied by the United Cerebral Palsy Association formerly housed the Yarnall-Waring Company where brass valves were made, and the Kurtz Construction Company has taken over the major part of the building where once ice was manufactured and later where wine was aged in wooden casks. Skilled craftsmen and artisans continue to work at the Willet Stained Glass Studios, the Marcolina Brothers Marble and Tile Works, and the Filippi Brothers Welding and Ornamental Iron Works.
The Chestnut Hill Community has adopted the
Chestnut Hill Water Tower, one of the existing utilitarian structures, as the symbol of community activity and of the recreation and playground areas within the village. The underground springs that fed the reservoir still cause the playing fields to be wet at times, and the water tower that provided the necessary height for gravity water flow to the village, no longer has a wooden water tank on top but sports a lively growth of green shrubbery. Located on the site of the former boiler house and engine house, a recreational building constructed in 1919 is called "The Water Tower" and contains the closest thing to a large public meeting space in the community, an interesting reminder for a generally non-industrial part of the city.  
During the twentieth century, very little industrial production has taken place in Chestnut Hill, and this is likely to continue to be true in the future. In 1987, Chestnut Hill was designated a National Register Historic District which includes the homes and businesses of both the wealthy and the working class alike. The Chestnut Hill Community Association carefully protects the values of the "Village" through a quasi-official government headed by a Community Manager and Board of Directors. The Chestnut Hill Local is an award-winning weekly newspaper published by the Association and there is an active Land Use Planning Committee that sees that zoning requirements are strictly maintained.
Although it is not generally recognized, the development of Chestnut Hill has been strongly influenced by two industrial factors—the curtailment of industrial activity within its borders by the establishment of Fairmount Park, and the coming of the railroads which made the area a viable bedroom community.

1  Sea level is 5.7 feet below city datum. City Datum is defined by the Department of Public Works as an established horizontal plane which is 2.25 feet above mean high water and 7.50 feet above mean low water in the Delaware River in Philadelphia.
2  See Workshop of the World—Fairmount Park.
3  John J. Macfarlane, History of Early Chestnut Hill, (1927) p. 131.
4  Germantown Crier, Vol. 37, No. 3, summer 1985, p. 61.
5  D. Macfarlan, "The Wissahickon Mills," (typescript, 1949),  p. 71.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to John McIlhenny, Fairmount Park Historian, for courteous and helpful assistance and for information on the mills on the Wissahickon and Cresheim Creeks. Special thanks to Harold E. Spaulding, who contributed information on the Yarnall-Waring Company and Pio Winery/Willet Stained Glass Studios. Jefferson Moak compiled a complete description of the buildings included in the National Register Historic District of Chestnut Hill for the nomination in 1985, and I am indebted to him. Richard Boardman of the Map Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia was most helpful in providing the typescript materials and maps that made it possible to write about the mills, and I am grateful for the cheerful assistance given. Thanks to Lisabeth M. Holloway, Librarian, Germantown Historical Society, for her responsive and knowledgeable assistance. Thanks to Kathryn Shaifer, Executive Director, Chestnut Hill Historical Society, for her patience and help. Thanks to Carmen Weber for scouting out old maps that I would not have seen. Finally, those persons who were interviewed and are cited in the text graciously shared technical and personal information so that I could present the reader with a better product, and I thank them.

Chestnut Hill bibliography