Holmesburg: Some History

William Penn's father was a wealthy Englishman who had loaned money to King Charles II to help finance the King's wars.  When his father died, Penn inherited that wealth as well as the debts owed his father by Charles II.  In 1681, William called in one of the debts and as payment obtained the charter for land in the New World - Pennsylvania.  Having very little knowledge of what land this charter included, he sent his Surveyor General, Thomas Holme, to scout the area with the intent of recommending a site on which to build a towne.  Thomas Holme's recommendation for the site was where the Pennypack Creek flowed into the Delaware River.  Penn decided to build his towne farther down the Delaware River where a Swedish settlement was already prospering.  As payment for his services, Holme was given title to land that included his choice of a site - today's Holmesburg.



Roland Williams


Travel north or south on Frankford Avenue and you are retracing a route which is at least a thousand years old.

Long before asphalt and concrete, long before William Penn traveled this way between his newly laid-out town and his Bucks County home, long before even the earliest European explorers came here, this north-south route was being used by Native American People.

The present-day Frankford Avenue follows the route of the old "Falls Path", the Indians’ route to the "Falls of the Delaware", the first set of rocky rapids on the river at Trenton. This was where the Indians crossed the river on their way north to what are now New York and New England. Coming south, the Falls Path passed through villages near present-day Philadelphia.

Archeologists believe that Native American People came into what is now Pennsylvania around 12,000 years ago. For many thousands of years these earliest people lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. They did not build villages or cultivate crops as did the later Indian people. They depended solely on what Nature had to offer. Hunting provided meat and animal skins for clothing. Gathering wild plant foods rounded out their diet.

These people made distinctive types of spear-points for hunting. These spear points are found here along the Pennypack in Holmesburg, showing that these people hunted and gathered wild foods here thousands of years ago.

Eventually, Indians in this area began to live more settled lives. By about two thousand years ago they had learned to use the "Three Sisters" plants; corn, beans, and squash which they planted together in garden-fields cleared from the forest. Once these fields were cleared and planted the Indians were committed to staying to cultivate and harvest the crops. Now small villages were established, often at the point where streams such as the Pennypack join the Delaware.

Of course these people were also hunters. But instead of spears the new hunting tool was the Bow-and-Arrow, the arrows being tipped with small triangular stone points. These points are also found here along the Pennypack, showing that this was part of their hunting territory.

The village-dwelling, corn-growing people were the ones who greeted the first Europeans who sailed up the Delaware. Naturally, the Europeans called them the "Delaware Indians", although their name for themselves was Lenape. Their homeland was Lenapehoking, "Land of the Lenape". in their language, our creek was called something like "Pemapeek" or "Pemapaki" meaning "lake land" or "water which flows like melted bear fat".

Passing through Lenapehoking were many trails running from village to village or to strategic points on the land. One of these strategic points was the river-crossing at the "Falls of the Delaware", reached by the Falls Path.

The first Europeans in this area realized the practicality of the Falls Path route and they widened the narrow woodland path and made it their "King’s Highway", the major over-land route between the growing colonial towns of New York, Philadelphia and Wilmington.

Despite the new name, people still crossed the Pennypack in the old way, splashing through the water at the shallow fording-place. We know that Penn’s annoyance at this inconvenience led to his decision to build a bridge. Locating it at the old creek-crossing made sense. The Falls Path/King’s Highway parallels and is close to the Delaware but is far enough inland to avoid the lower, tidal area of the creek which goes through a twice-daily cycle of low and high water as tides shift on the Delaware. High water would have been too deep to wade safely. The Indians knew this and so located their crossing-place just above the high-tide line. Following the Indians’ lead, the European settlers continued to cross at this point and this was where Penn had his bridge built in 1697.

In choosing this crossing-place and laying out their trail, the Indians used their age-old knowledge of this land and its waters. They freely shared their knowledge with William Penn and this gave his followers a head-start on developing settlements and commerce in this area.

Penn’s philosophy of respect for the Indians meant that relations were good between Indian and European. In 1683 Penn was able to purchase from the Indians the land between the Pennypack and Neshaminy Creeks including the land where Holmesburg now stands. Over the next three-hundred years, civilization radically changed the face of this land and in time the ancient woodland trail of the Native American People became the busy urban highway we know as Frankford Avenue.




Roland Williams


Holmesburg is one of the older communities of Philadelphia and home to the nations oldest stone-arch bridge still carrying the traffic of a major highway. But how did Holmesburg come to be here? Why in the late 1600’s did a village begin to grow at this particular spot along Pennypack Creek? Is there some special feature of the creek at this spot which made the early settlers say "This is the place!"? Yes indeed there is. What made this an important location for development along the creek is a geological feature known as the fall-line.

The Pennypack’s fall-line is the point where the creek flows over the last sets of rapids and drops almost to the level of the Delaware River. From the fall-line on out to the Delaware, the Pennypack is a tidal creek and changes from shallow to deep and back again in a cycle repeated twice daily as the tide rises and falls on the Delaware.

You can see the fall-line for yourself as you walk across the old bridge on its downstream side. The fall-line is the set of rapids immediately downstream from the bridge. It is not a dramatic feature of the landscape but it has shaped our local history by the way it effects the flow of the creek Upstream from the fall-line the creek is normally shallow enough to wade safely. Downstream from the fall-line the creek is too deep to wade at high tide but provides water deep enough to float boats. In fact on a good high tide the Pennypack could be used as part of a water-highway from the heart of Holmesburg all the way to the Atlantic Ocean!

From the earliest days, people in this area noticed the fall-line and took advantage of it. Sometime deep in prehistory Indians established a trail through here which crossed the creek at the fall-line. When Europeans arrived they continued to use this trail, making it their "King’s Highway", and William Penn had his bridge built here in 1697.

In addition to being the best crossing-point, the fall line provided early colonial industrialists with two things they needed: water-power and transportation. A natural water-fall upstream from the bridge became the foundation for a mill-dam. (The old "Holmesburg Dam", now "Rocky Falls".) The mills themselves were built not at the dam but about a quarter of a mile downstream, below the fall-line, on a stretch of the creek where the high tide provided water deep enough to float small cargo boats. Water to turn the mill-wheels came from the dam to the mills through a long mill-race.

The mill owners took full advantage of their location: water-power ran a saw-mill turning logs into lumber and a grist-mill grinding grain into flour and meal. High tidewater on the creek allowed raw materials and finished products to come and go by boat, an unusual advantage which made the old "Pennypack" mills especially important in early Pennsylvania history. Farmers came by boat from New Jersey, rowing up the creek to bring their grain to be ground at the mill which had a kind of dock or wharf right on the creek. Barrels of flour and meal were shipped down the creek to the Port of Philadelphia and beyond; to the West Indies and Europe. So important was this mill that Welsh farmers who had settled in Montgomery county built a road to bring their grain to the mill. (We still know it today a Welsh Road. Follow Welsh Road to its end and you will find Mill Street which leads directly to where the old mills once stood.)

Being situated at the fall-line area, the Pennypack mills prospered and the mills helped make early Holmesburg. With the mills came the need for workers and housing for them. Merchants set up shops to supply their needs. The local population increased and flourished. Schools were established. Congregations formed and built their churches. The intersection of the Welsh Road and the King’s Highway became a convenient place for travelers to pause for rest and refreshment. Several hotels were established and continued in business all through the 1800’s.

In 1803 the Frankford and Bristol Turnpike Company was formed and Holmesburg got its own toll-house and toll-gate. In 1868 the Bustleton railroad was built through Holmesburg, carrying both passengers and freight. The freight included coal to fuel the new steam-engines which now replaced water-power to run the mills.

With steam-power running the mills and the railroad transporting goods, the Pennypack began to lose its importance in the local economy. By 1905 lands along the Pennypack had been acquired for parkland. The mills, now in disrepair, were torn down, clearing the way for recreation.

But the creek still flows through the heart of Holmesburg, under the old bridge and across the fall-line where the tides still rise and fall in the ancient rhythm. Walk across the bridge and take a look for yourself— see the reason why a town grew here, at this particular spot along the Pennypack.

America’s earliest history reflects the shape of the land and the way its waters flow or shift with the tide. The nature of the land determined what happened here. At Pennypack Creek’s fall-line in the heart of Holmesburg, nature and history flow together.




Eleanor P. Birkmann, taken from Historical Northeast Philadelphia, ©1994


The year 1697 saw the completion of four essential constructions in the vicinity of the fall-line of Pennypack Creek; the bridge, the grist mill, the dam, and the mill-race.

Mill Commons The 1697 grist mill built on the Pennypack was central to Holmesburg’s development. The Welsh journeyed from Gwnyned on horseback over the winding Welsh Road with their grain harvest to be ground; the farmers came from New Jersey by boat, rowing up the creek to the mill door to unload their grain, and returning home with flour or meal. Some of the ground grain found its way to Philadelphia via the Delaware. With this impetus for commerce, Robert Lewis, as owner of the mill after Peter Dale and John Holme, added a cooperage to the mill, where barrels and hogsheads were made for shipping the flour and meal to the West Indies or even to England directly from the grist mill, thereby saving a re-loading operation. The Delaware tide on the creek was sufficient to float the shallow bottomed sea going vessels of that period. This exporting was possible because the fertile ground produced grain abundantly -corn, rye and wheat. As the making of barrels led to an increased use of wood, a saw mill also was added to the Mill Commons.

A poem written by Judge John Holme in 1696 sang the praise of Pennsylvania’s profuse vegetation, providing so much fruit that cider was everywhere. This gives credence to the possibility that a cider mill was a fourth addition to the mill complex. Soon David Lewis, nephew of Robert Lewis, built a textile mill slightly further upstream. This was burned during the War of 1812 but rebuilt, again burned and again rebuilt in the 1880s by a new owner, Dr. Bray, a wealthy chemist who gave up weaving to concentrate on dyeing and finishing. Bray’s mill was a steam - operated plant, and each morning at 7 o’clock steam was let off with a shrill whistle by which residents over a wide radius could set their clocks. The mill, operating in its last years under the name of Summerdale, finally ceased operation after World War II.

The King’s Highway. The King’s Road, the link between the English seat of government at Upland (now Chester, PA) and its counterpart in New York, was not a public road but, as the name indicates, was for the King’s business. It grew out of a Lenni-Lenape trail used by the Indians in going to their northern hunting grounds. Paralleling the Delaware River, the trail avoided the tidal waters of the creeks that broke the road and marked the spot where they could more easily wade across. Originally only wide enough for foot or hoof, the path was inadequate for use by carts or "chairs." William Penn begged the court at Upland to widen the road "for easier passage of carts and carriages from the Schuylkill to Neshaminy." With this improvement, it became the King’s Highway, still for official business and still a rough road.

The first stagecoach service for public use was established in 1756 between Philadelphia and New York, the trip taking three days each way. This service, requiring rest stops for passengers and horses, eventually gave rise to taverns at convenient distances which, in turn, led to the development of settlements around them. The Washington House, 1796, and the Green Tree, 1799, in Holmesburg are examples. The King’s Highway was traveled by the New England Delegates to the Continental Congresses in Philadelphia before the American Revolution. Following the defeat of the English, the road was renamed the Bristol Turnpike and with patriotic fervor the settlement spawned by the Pennypack became Washingtonville in honor of George Washington. In 1802, the Bristol Turnpike became a toll road, the toll being used for road maintenance, instead of taxing the landowners on the route for that purpose. To collect the toll, a toll house for the toll keeper to live in and a toll gate were placed near the bridge over the Pennypack and designated as Gate #3. This arrangement was to last for almost a hundred years.

As more people were discovering the area through stagecoach travel, large tracts of land were being bought for developing and divided into smaller parcels. This marked the first real estate boom since Penn’s arrival. At this time. John and George Holme. descendants of justice of the Peace, John Holme, were the "movers and shakers" in the area.

Public transportation over the Bristol Turnpike continued by stagecoach. in 1895, the electric trolley appeared, the "brainchild" of the newly organized Holmesburg, Tacony and Frankford Company (popularly known as the Hop, Toad, and Frog). The Turnpike and the bridge over the Pennypack were widened to accommodate the trolley tracks and the road was macadamized. No longer a toll road, the toll house and gate were removed. The road was renamed Frankford Avenue.

The First Three Arch Stone Bridge in America. The Pennypack Creek, so vital to the early settlers for energy, for contact, for transportation, and even survival, was an impediment to land travel by the King’s Highway. The Lenni-Lenape, as they visited their northern hunting grounds, had discovered the best place for wading the stream but William Penn found fording the Pennypack both wasteful of time and hazardous; horses slipped and fell, coaches became mired and passengers and riders were soaked. In one of his first official acts in 1683, Penn appealed to the English court at Upland asking that "an order be given for building a bridge over the Pennypack where the King’s Highway crossed it." The order was given and the now famous bridge was completed in 1697. Native stone, hand hewn, was used in the construction. Local male residents under the leadership of Edward Duffield and Joseph Ashton supplied the labor. Each male resident was taxed paying either in money or its equivalent in labor. They did their work well, for the 300 year old three arch stone bridge, the first of its kind in America, still carries the daily traffic of a busy highway now called Frankford Avenue.