Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Carolyn T. Adams

Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Bucks County, one of three counties established in 1682 by William Penn (1644-1718), originally stretched northward along the Delaware River all the way to the Delaware Water Gap and westward past Allentown. Even after shrinking dramatically when Northampton and Lehigh Counties were carved from its territory in 1752, the county still encompassed multiple regions that developed along different historical trajectories. A largely bucolic Upper Bucks County remained distinct from the areas that became blue-collar Lower Bucks County and the white-collar townships of Central Bucks County. This tripartite division shaped many institutional patterns, from colonial-era disputes about where to locate the county seat to twentieth-century decisions to create three chambers of commerce and divide the county’s community college into three campuses. 

Lenni Lenape people resided in the area before Europeans arrived. In 1640 Swedes purchased parts of Lower Bucks County from the Lenape, and a handful of Swedish settlers began building log houses in the region. In July 1682, William Penn’s agent purchased other lands from the Lenape, which eventually became the townships of Bristol, Falls, Middletown, Lower and Upper Makefield, Newtown, and some of Wrightstown. When Penn arrived in Pennsylvania later in 1682, he chose to build his family’s manor house, which he called Pennsbury, in Falls Township.   

[caption id="attachment_31453" align="alignright" width="300"]This color map shows Bucks County's median household incomes by region. The Central region largely contains townships and boroughs with median incomes above $75,000, while the upper and lower regions generally fall below this amount. The age and style of housing stock varies significantly in different parts of Bucks County. Wealthy townships cluster in Central Bucks while lower-cost housing appears in Upper and Lower Bucks. (Map by Michael Siegel, Rutgers Geography Department)[/caption]

English newcomers first settled the lower portion of Bucks County along the Delaware River, but soon the abundant and fertile land available farther north drew them upward to Newtown, Wrightstown, and Buckingham Townships. Other religious reformers unwelcome in Europe followed the English Quakers, including German Mennonites and Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Welsh Quakers, and Baptists.

The town of Bristol, which afforded the county’s only port with access to the Atlantic Ocean via the Delaware River, served as the first county seat from 1705 to 1726. But early sectional differences arose when residents living in Central and Upper Bucks complained about the long distance they traveled to do business. So officials moved the county seat northward to Newtown in 1726. Even Newtown, however, proved too distant for settlers in Upper Bucks, who grumbled that they had “long labored under the great disadvantage of having the courts of justice held in a place very un-central in Bucks County." That forced the legislature in 1810 to authorize three commissioners to select a new county seat, instructing them to choose a location within three miles of the exact geographical center of the county. They picked Doylestown, which remained the county seat across the centuries.

Significant Role in the Revolution

Bucks County played a significant role in the Revolutionary War. In 1776, the army of George Washington (1732-99) camped in Central Bucks, using it as a base for his Trenton campaign. On the night of December 25–26, Washington famously crossed from Bucks County into New Jersey to win the battle of Trenton. After securing that victory, Washington returned to Pennsylvania and quartered his men at Newtown. August 1777 found Washington’s army camped in Bucks County, this time in Warwick Township, on its way to the Battle of Brandywine. Again in 1778, his army camped at Doylestown.

Although Upper Bucks was more sparsely populated than other sections of the county during the revolutionary period, a group of German farmers there attracted national attention by fomenting the so-called Fries Rebellion in 1798-99. Having just overthrown British taxation without representation, residents in the northwest corner of the county balked at paying a new federal property tax that President John Adams (1735-1826) invented to fund another war that the U.S. expected to face with France. (As it happened, that war never broke out.) Federal troops quickly quelled the rebellion. 

Agricultural Surpluses

As early as 1700, farmers began producing substantial surpluses and found they needed roads that extended all the way to the markets of Philadelphia. To construct those long routes, early road builders often linked together a series of shorter spans. They strung these routes across the county from northeast to southwest so that farmers and craftsmen in different sections of Bucks County could move their goods southwesterly toward Philadelphia.    

Early dirt roads were unreliable enough to suffer a strong challenge from canals in the early 1800s. Canals proved especially important in transporting coal and iron from the Lehigh Valley to Bucks County communities. In 1827 the Pennsylvania legislature authorized construction of a canal from Easton, Pennsylvania, south to Bristol in Bucks County. The first section of that canal ran between New Hope and Bristol in 1830, and the rest of the waterway up to Easton opened two years later.

To supplement the canals, investors upgraded roads to become “turnpikes.” Private companies applied to the provincial government for permission to reinforce dirt roads with crushed stone to make them sturdy enough to support heavy wagonloads. The turnpike companies then required travelers to pay tolls at intervals along the route to cover the costs of improving and maintaining the road.

One of the early turnpikes ran along the banks of the Delaware River, connecting Philadelphia to New York. Called the King’s Highway (later Route 13), it followed an existing Native American trail. The road was laid out in 1686 by order of William Penn. After critics deplored “ye unevenness of ye road from Philadelphia to ye falls of Delaware,” its maintenance was assigned to the Frankford and Bristol Turnpike company, incorporated in 1803. Farther north from the Delaware River, the Route 1 turnpike became an informal boundary line separating the old river towns of Lower Bucks from Central Bucks County.

East to West on Route 202

About halfway up the county, Route 202 emerged out of a string of shorter roads, many of which were already in place by 1800. The national government brought those individual stretches into the national highway system in 1927 as Route 202.  When connected together, they crossed the county, linking New Hope on the eastern boundary of the county to Doylestown and Chalfont on the western side. In Upper Bucks, residents of Bedminster Township could travel southwest on Bedminster Road (later Route 113) as far as the border with Montgomery County, and there pick up the Bethlehem Pike that would take them all the way south to Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_31460" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows a tunnel connected to a section of railroad track. The area is surrounded by trees and rocks. In this mid-twentieth century photograph, a section of track owned by the North Pennsylvania Railroad Company leads to the Landis Ridge Tunnel in Perkasie, a Bucks County borough. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The diagonal orientation of roadways (running from northeast to southwest) reinforced the county’s historical separation into three regions. An important exception to that travel pattern was Dyers Mill Road, later called the Easton Road (now Route 611). It opened in the 1720s connecting Doylestown to Montgomery County and eventually stretched all the way up to Easton. But the dominant road pattern reinforced lateral connections between communities, with weaker linkages between the northern and southern parts of the county.  

The coming of railroads did little to alter those cross-county travel patterns. In 1833 the Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad Company built the county’s first rail line. It ran between Philadelphia and Trenton via Bristol. That line was acquired in 1873 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which also operated a second east-west line across Bucks County farther north to link other Bucks County towns with Trenton.  

Other lines operated by the North Pennsylvania Railroad spanned the county from west to east. For example, in 1856 the North Pennsylvania Railroad Company built an offshoot from its north-south route that carried passengers and freight east to Doylestown. In 1855 that same company also built a line across Lower Bucks through Yardley to Trenton, an expansion that continued to operate after the Reading Railroad leased routes from the North Penn Railroad Company in 1879 and operated them as part of the Reading system. (That route eventually became the West Trenton line of SEPTA’s regional rail system, and commuter trains shared the track with freight operations by CSX Corp.) In 1891 Reading also chose to significantly expand a short line running from Warminster to Hartsville, all the way across the county to New Hope on the Delaware River.

The North Pennsylvania Railroad

An important exception to the east-west pattern of early railroad lines ran through the northwest corner of Bucks County. In the 1850s the North Pennsylvania Railroad extended a line from Philadelphia north to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to carry both passengers and coal from the Lehigh Valley. That Bethlehem line passed through the Upper Bucks towns of Sellersville, Perkasie, Telford, and Quakertown. 

At the close of the nineteenth century, trolleys became the “poor man’s railroad.” Doylestown occupied the center of a countywide network of street railways. Initially the Bucks County Electric Railway Company and later the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company ran a trolley line between Doylestown and Willow Grove, later adding lines to Newtown and Easton. By 1902 a twenty-six-mile network connected Doylestown to many other county places, including Bristol, Hulmeville, Penndel, and Langhorne.

Patterns of Production

Agriculture furnished livelihoods for the early Europeans, who favored growing wheat, partly because it required a few periods of intensive labor, while leaving farmers free at other times to tend other crops like flax and potatoes. When the adoption of fertilizer allowed farmers to feed more livestock, they began to shift toward dairy cows that produced butter and cheese in large enough quantities to sell. Farmers often combined agriculture with mills for processing grains as well as lumber.

Along the Delaware River, investors built mills producing textiles and paper. The river port of Bristol attracted ship building in the early decades of the eighteenth century. In 1727 a group of Philadelphia investors built the county’s first iron furnace at Durham in the far northeast corner of the county. The Durham iron works forged cannonballs and other munitions for Washington’s colonial troops. 

After a canal built in 1830 had connected Lower Bucks with Easton and other upriver towns, mills in Bristol relied on Pennsylvania coal to drive their machines. In 1876 William Hulme Grundy (1836-1893) moved his Grundy Brothers and Campion woolen mill from Philadelphia to Bristol, partly to escape from union organizing by the Knights of Labor. There it became Bucks County’s largest industrial employer and made Bristol the county’s manufacturing center.

In both Lower and Upper Bucks County, the cigar industry proved to be a major economic force.   In both places, many farmers raised tobacco. Government records in 1871 reported 470 manufactories of cigars in Bucks County as well as one snuff-mill at Bristol.  Even in the largely-agricultural spaces of Upper Bucks, cigar factories served as important employers during the first half of the nineteenth century. When the North Pennsylvania Railroad opened through Quakertown in 1856, it connected those cigar makers with new suppliers and markets, spurring new factories in several towns where the railroad stopped, including Quakertown, Sellersville, and Perkasie. The collapse of Cuban tobacco plantations during the Spanish-American War helped the Pennsylvania producers, but ultimately the mechanization of the industry during the 1890s undercut their profits and drove many out of business by the 1920s.

Heavy Industrial Development

[caption id="attachment_31455" align="alignright" width="300"]This color painting by William Langson Lathrop shows a tree surrounded by purple and white flowers. William Langson Lathrop (1859–1938) founded the New Hope Impressionist Colony and became one of America’s most popular landscape artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He painted this artwork, entitled Spring Landscape, in 1915. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)[/caption]

The early decades of the twentieth century brought heavy industrial development to Lower Bucks, particularly in shipyards along the Delaware River, where land was cheaper than in the city and the river afforded easy access to Philadelphia and other Atlantic ports. When Averell Harriman (1891-1986) built the Bristol shipyards in 1917, that enterprise spawned not only shipbuilding but also related business. At about the same time, Rohm and Haas Chemical Company built a plant that remained a major force in the town’s economy for decades. During World War II, shipyards were converted to build airplanes. But by the 1960s, these factories stood empty, victims of a combination of obsolete technology and higher costs than competitors were facing in the American Sunbelt and overseas.

The rise and fall of heavy industry in Lower Bucks County involved multiple industries and companies, but is best captured in the history of United States Steel Corporation. In 1952 that company built its Fairless Works in Falls Township. Within a year, the facility employed nearly eight thousand workers in the main plant and adjacent shops. That plant became a symbol of post-World War II prosperity. Yet the Fairless Works could not withstand relentless competition from overseas steel manufacturers. By 2001, the company had shut down virtually the entire massive plant except for a small galvanizing facility.

Compared with other parts of the county, Central Bucks distinguished itself in the   nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the production of arts and literature. As early as 1815, Quaker artist Edward Hicks (1780-1849) worked there, painting the image of The Peaceable Kingdom that would make him a celebrated folk artist. However, the real influx of artists to migrate to Central Bucks began when the painters William L. Lathrop (1859-1938) and Edward Willis Redfield (1869-1965) each moved there in 1898, drawing other painters and sculptors to the area around New Hope. The work they and their followers produced would ultimately be dubbed “Pennsylvania Impressionism.”  

[caption id="attachment_31457" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows several levels of the Mercer Museum. Objects and tools cover nearly every inch of open space, many of them made out of wood. Archaeologist Henry Mercer (1856–1930) donated a six-story castle and his personal collection of 30,000 items—including tiles, prints, tools, and vehicles—to the Bucks County Historical Society in 1916. Today, the Society operates this property as the Mercer Museum, shown here in a c. 1980 photograph. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Another cultural force was the Arts & Crafts tile maker Henry Mercer (1856-1930), who built his Doylestown home Fonthill as a castle where he designed tiles, gathered an extensive collection of tiles, prints and tools, and conceived (and later built) an equally fanciful castlelike museum for the collection of the Bucks County Historical Society (renamed the Mercer Museum after his death).

“The Genius Belt”

During the 1930s Bucks County also gained a reputation as a haven for novelists, playwrights, actors, and songwriters. New Yorkers bought properties in the small stretch between Doylestown and New Hope and along the Delaware River, including Margaret Mead (1901-78), Pearl Buck (1892-1973), Oscar Hammerstein 1895-1960), Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930), Charlie Parker (1920-55), Moss Hart (1904-61), George S. Kaufman (1889-1961), James Michener (1907-97), Dorothy Parker (1893-67), and S. J. Perelman (1904-79).  Their numbers and notoriety led the novelist Michener to dub this part of his native Bucks County “the genius belt.”

Despite the demise of heavy industries in the late twentieth century, Bucks County retained some manufacturing, although not the kind that could provide employment for workers operating milling machines and assembly lines. By the turn of the twenty-first century, knowledge-based enterprises like finance and other business services, along with biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, required college-educated workers. 

An early turn toward high technology took place at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster. Originally in the 1930s a private company built an aircraft assembly plant there. However, by 1942 the U.S. Navy had become so frustrated by the firm’s inability to deliver on contracts that it bought the plant to operate as a government facility. Over the decades, the Navy built one of the most important research and development facilities in the United States, developing early prototypes of global positioning systems (GPS) and constructing a centrifuge that trained NASA astronauts for space. The Naval Air Warfare Center closed in 1996 in a wave of military cutbacks, and the land was converted to a park and residential and commercial developments.

Fortunately for the local economy another important aerospace facility, Lockheed Martin, opened in Newtown in 1996, when Holy Family College transferred fifty-two acres to the company. The Newtown facility served as the headquarters for Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems, which employed scientific and technical staff in the research, design, and development of satellite systems. In 2010, the company invested in a lavish new 15,000-square-foot building that added to the facility's manufacturing capabilities as well as conference facilities. Only three years later, however, Lockheed Martin announced that it would close its Bucks County facilities along with several other plants, in response to cuts in federal defense spending required by the sequester of 2013.

High-Tech Innovation

Again, Bucks County demonstrated its resilience. KVK-Tech, a specialty pharmaceutical company producing generic drugs, quickly acquired Lockheed’s Newtown facilities. KVK-Tech used the site to create a high-technology business incubator, moving its research and development teams there as well as leasing space to high-tech small start-ups, especially in pharmaceuticals. The draws for KVK-Tech included the strong pharmaceutical workforce residing in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, plus Central Bucks’s highly-rated schools and amenities.

In 2006 the county’s cluster of bio-pharma and life sciences attracted the Hepatitis B Foundation to establish the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center in an empty warehouse in Doylestown. Again, the goal was to foster start-up companies. The center operated for its first ten years as a partnership between the Hepatitis B Foundation and Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, whose students gained hands-on experience working in the center’s research labs. In 2016 the university and the foundation parted ways, and the center came under the sole ownership of the Hepatitis B Foundation. Although individual tech companies remained in place for shorter periods than earlier manufacturers, officials in Central Bucks displayed confidence that the industry would continue to be an important source of jobs, even as it went through ups-and-downs. One sign of that confidence was the county’s investment in the Central Bucks campus of Bucks County Community College. In 2017 the Newtown campus added a 43,000-square-foot science building that featured biotechnology laboratories and  tissue-culture and instrument rooms. 

In Lower Bucks as well, the economy began shifting in the late twentieth century toward high technology companies. After U.S. Steel shut down Fairless Hills in Falls Township, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania designated over a thousand acres at the site as a Keystone Opportunity Improvement Zone (KOIZ). That created tax benefits to persuade companies to locate there. An early arrival was Gamesa Corporation, a Spanish wind energy company that located a manufacturing facility in Fairless Hills, while leasing office space in nearby Trevose for administrative offices. In 2010 Gamesa and Bucks County Community College started a Green Jobs Academy in Bristol to train workers for the green economy. Another milestone of the site was the launch in 2014 of a company called Keystone NAP (short for Network Access Point) to take over the part of the abandoned steel mill containing the electric motors that had run the mill. They converted that electrical heart of Fairless Hills into an advanced data center serving the Northeast Corridor of the U.S. It offered cloud computing and other services to hospitals, insurance, telecommunications, financial services, and other data-intensive businesses.     

Postwar Population Growth

Bucks County experienced its highest percentage growth during the 1950s. The county’s population more than doubled during that decade, a growth rate never equaled before or since. That growth concentrated in Lower Bucks County, spurred by the state’s decision to extend the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Philadelphia eastward to connect with the New Jersey Turnpike. In 1954, the state opened the turnpike from Valley Forge to Bristol, and two years later completed the bridge across the Delaware River into New Jersey. The turnpike exits onto Route 1 serving Bensalem, and Route 13 serving Bristol and Levittown, spawned both industrial parks and housing developments. By far the largest and best-known of the new developments was Levittown, the massive assembly-line suburb built by William Levitt (1907-94). Levittown was so large that it encompassed land in the townships of Bristol, Middletown and Falls, as well as the borough of Tullytown. Buyers snapped up Levitt’s affordable houses priced from $9,000 to $17,500 as soon as they came on the market, and began moving into their homes in June 1952. Eventually, Levittown brought tens of thousands of new residents into Lower Bucks. 

[caption id="attachment_31456" align="alignright" width="300"]This aerial black and white photograph shows several hundred houses aligned in straight rows in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Levittown, Pennsylvania, was an early model for American suburban living, welcoming its first family in 1952. The town’s mass-produced affordable housing proved influential, but its racial policies stirred controversy. It is shown here circa 1959. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

By 1980 population growth had shifted upward to Central Bucks. That growth was most pronounced for townships sitting in the path of Route 202. As a very old route crossing the county on a diagonal path, Route 202 enabled suburb-to-suburb commuting that had become popular by the 1970s. The combined population of five townships arrayed along Route 202 in Central Bucks (Solebury, Buckingham, Doylestown Township, New Britain, and Warrington) grew by 60 percent in just two decades between 1980 and 2000. 

Contributing to the housing boom in Central Bucks, in the 1970s developers launched a spate of lawsuits against township zoning codes. For example, in 1976 builders sued Buckingham Township and forced a change in zoning that had previously only allowed homebuilding on lots of one acre or larger. That set in motion a rash of lawsuits in other communities, where builders challenged zoning laws as exclusionary, demanding that the municipality “cure” the zoning’s alleged defect and allow the project favored by the builder. Typically, the developers who won lawsuits against overly restrictive zoning codes had little interest in building affordable housing at high density. Instead, they built on quarter-acre or half-acre lots to appeal to middle and upper-middle class households. Merely the threat of a lengthy, costly curative amendment challenge often persuaded municipalities to negotiate with developers. In 1998 one Bucks County coalition labeled curative amendments “the single greatest vehicle for development sprawl” and “nothing more than a way to circumvent our communities’ land use plans.” 

Less Development in Upper Bucks

As new subdivisions multiplied in Central Bucks, Upper Bucks remained far less developed. Its rolling hills and farmlands continued to appeal not only to farmers who tended its fields, but also to others who enjoyed its unspoiled beauty. During the 1940s, well-to-do families from Philadelphia and New York had bought land and hired managers to operate their farms, which they dubbed “country estates.” During the 1980s, a new generation of wealthy New Yorkers started buying land and old stone houses to serve as retreats from life in Manhattan. They paid local residents to stock their refrigerators and clean their swimming pools before weekend visits. They had little reason to change the unspoiled landscapes that had drawn them there.  The comparatively modest growth in Upper Bucks around the turn of the twenty-first century concentrated mainly around Quakertown in the northwest corner of the county.

As different as they remained, the three sections of Bucks County shared a common demographic pattern: population growth has concentrated in the townships, while the boroughs’ share of the county population has declined. Early residents in the county established boroughs as small, dense settlements carved out of larger townships, often where travelers stopped overnight at inns or taverns. They became the county’s market towns. Since many boroughs were entirely built out by the mid-twentieth century, their housing styles and floor plans did not appeal to suburban buyers in the late twentieth century. Many boroughs had limited space to build large new developments. Whereas in 1970, the boroughs taken together had housed 17 percent of Bucks County’s population, by 2010 they accommodated less than 13 percent. Bristol Borough, which had played such an important role in the county’s history, lost 20 percent of its population from 1970 to 2010. Not all boroughs declined at comparable rates, but overall the boroughs gained a much smaller share of the county’s population growth compared to the townships. 

Social Disparities

The early Quakers’ belief in the equality of all people in God’s eyes did not prevent social disparities from emerging. Most significant was the plight of enslaved people in Bucks. Although early settlers mostly employed family members to work their farms, some owned slaves, including William Penn who held slaves at Pennsbury Manor. After the Pennsylvania legislature adopted the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, slave-holding declined rapidly. The federal census of 1790 counted 261 enslaved persons in Bucks County; by 1810 those records showed only eleven African people remained enslaved in the county.   

[caption id="attachment_31458" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows a small stone church resting atop a hill. Several trees and a fence are visible in the background. The Mount Gilead African Methodist Episcopal Church in Buckingham, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1834 and served as a stop on the Underground Railroad for several years. Workers constructed its current stone building, shown in this late twentieth century photograph, in 1852. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In 1837 the Bucks County Anti-Slavery Society held its first meeting, focused mainly on eliminating slavery beyond the county borders. Quakers in all three sections of the county took part in the Underground Railroad. Activists often transported runaways to farmlands in Lower Bucks owned by the Philadelphia abolitionist Robert Purvis (1810-98) and his brother Joseph Purvis (1812-57). From there, the escaping Africans rode northward by wagon or stagecoach, sometimes stopping at the Mount Gilead African Methodist Episcopal Church in Central Bucks halfway between Doylestown and New Hope. Other times, they rode all the way to Upper Bucks to the safe house in Quakertown owned by Richard Moore, who in turn sent them up the valley of the Lehigh or the Susquehanna River. 

Rather than holding enslaved people, most Bucks County farmers relied on indentured servants whose numbers grew so large that the county set aside a township for them. Early records note a “township allotted for servants” called “Freetown.” That township eventually included parts of East and West Rockhill Townships, and the Boroughs of Perkasie, Sellersville and Telford.

At the opposite end of the social scale were merchants who made fortunes in Philadelphia and built lavish Bucks County estates along the Delaware River. Abraham Bickley III (1731-82), the descendant of a wealthy Quaker shipping merchant, at age 18 inherited the family fortune and in 1754 built Pen Ryn, a spacious and dignified mansion in Bensalem, flanked by formal gardens, stables and barns.

Another example was Andalusia, built in the 1790s by Philadelphia merchant John Craig (1754-1807), who engaged the noted architect Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) to design an elegant mansion in Bensalem Township across the border from Philadelphia, naming the estate to reflect Craig’s business as an importer of commercial goods from Spain.  

[caption id="attachment_31454" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows Joseph R. Grundy in a board meeting. The other board members are in the background while the camera focuses on Grundy. Joseph R. Grundy (1863–1961), shown here at a 1924 committee meeting, was a businessman in the textile, newspaper, and real estate industries. He served a brief appointed term in the U.S. Senate from 1929 to 1930 and remained civically engaged in Bristol throughout his life. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Grundy Mansion, another overlooking the Delaware River, was originally built to a modest scale in 1818. But William Hulme Grundy (1836-1893), who moved his woolen mill from Philadelphia to Bristol, bought the property in 1884. He spent a year transforming it into a Queen Anne mansion. The property remained in the hands of that prosperous family for more than seventy years until 1961, when it became a house museum for visitors.

Race and Immigration

During the first half of the twentieth century, as working-class families moved into Lower Bucks County for jobs in shipbuilding and other industries along the Delaware River, the population of the area remained overwhelmingly white. After World War II, when the developer William Levitt began building his massive Levittown development for workers at the Fairless Hills steel plant, he deliberately and openly restricted sales to white buyers.

The obvious racial imbalance inspired two important efforts in the early twentieth century to open the housing market to people of color. In the 1920s a white farmer, Frank K. Brown, set aside eighty acres near Route 1 that he named “Linconia” and invited African American families to build homes there. Another racial pioneer, builder Morris Milgram (1916-97), acquired fifty acres near Linconia and in 1954 opened a housing development called Concord Park to attract both black and white buyers. Over time, the two interracial developments in Bensalem Township blended together to become “Lin-Park.”

Population Gains Through Immigration

Immigrants also contributed to the county’s diversity in the late twentieth century, especially in Lower Bucks. In Bristol, Ukrainian and Russian immigrants arrived in the 1990s. Bensalem and Warminster also took in many new arrivals between 1990 and 2010, including Russians and Eastern Europeans. In those two townships, the large number of immigrant arrivals not only replaced the households who had moved out, but also accounted for all of the population gains registered during those two decades. The 2010 census counted fifty-one thousand foreign-born across Bucks County, with Asians and Hispanics providing the largest numbers of newcomers in the county as a whole.  

Despite some active efforts to promote racial inclusion and the noticeable expansion of immigrant communities, in the early twenty-first century Bucks remained the whitest among the Pennsylvania suburban counties outside Philadelphia. In 2010 only 3.6 percent of Bucks County residents were black in a state with more than 10 percent African Americans. Foreign-born residents made up about 8 percent of the population, the lowest among the suburban counties outside Philadelphia. 

The county’s median household income in 2010 was $70,999. That median figure, however, masked considerable disparities. Working-class families heavily populated older suburbs in Lower Bucks County, partly because they could buy modest houses at lower prices than newer, larger suburban dwellings. The boroughs and townships of Upper Bucks County also tended to be affordable because of the age and styles of their housing stock. In contrast, wealthy townships like Solebury, Upper Makefield, Buckingham, Wrightstown, and Warwick clustered in Central Bucks. There the higher housing prices and household incomes generated greater tax resources to fund municipal services. 

Educational Disparities

Among the county’s thirteen school districts, the affluent schools serving New Hope and Solebury Township in Central Bucks spent $26,275 per student in 2015. In comparison, the two school districts serving the Lower Bucks boroughs of Bristol and Morrisville spent about $10,000 less per child.  Other low-spending districts could be found in Upper Bucks, particularly Quakertown and Pennridge, two districts that spent less than $17,000 per child. Those inequalities were even more pronounced than the dollar figures portray, considering that lower-spending districts were serving larger shares of low-income children. In the older boroughs of Bristol and Morrisville, two-thirds of school children were eligible for subsidized lunches, compared with only 7 percent of children in the New Hope-Solebury district. Comparisons of local budgets invariably showed that the small boroughs were disadvantaged because their land areas were built out so they cannot easily add new development to enhance their tax base. 

Partisan politics reflected the county’s sectional differences. The manufacturing suburbs of Lower Bucks reliably voted Democratic during the post-World War II era. Even in the 2016 presidential election, when pundits expected disaffected white working-class voters across Lower Bucks to support Republican Donald Trump (b. 1946), only Bensalem Township did so. In contrast, the affluent suburbs of Central Bucks, along with the largely agricultural areas of Upper Bucks, leaned Republican. The exceptions to that pattern occurred in the town centers of Central Bucks like Doylestown, Newtown, and New Hope, where Democrats outpolled Republicans.

Sectional Differences in Response to Continuing Growth

[caption id="attachment_31459" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows a stream running underneath a stone bridge at Nockamixon State Park. At 5,286 acres, Nockamixon is the largest state park in Upper Bucks County. This 2016 photograph shows an outlet of the 1,450-acre Lake Nockamixon, which forms the centerpiece of the park. (Wikimedia Commons/Karl Thomas Moore)[/caption]

In the late twentieth century, Upper Bucks remained less developed and more rural than other parts of the county. In addition to farms, several parks—the largest being Nockamixon State Park—provided large areas of protected open space. Longtime residents watched the development boom in Central Bucks and dreaded the prospect of tract housing, office complexes, shopping centers, and sprawling parking lots advancing northward, swallowing horse farms, woodlands, and wetlands. When pressure increased from developers wanting to build on open parcels, residents mobilized during the 1980s to preserve the green spaces that defined the character of their landscapes. 

Starting in 1989, Bucks County began participating in a statewide program to protect agricultural land by acquiring agricultural conservation easements. Together, the county and state governments paid landowners to purchase the development rights on specific parcels.  While landowners could subsequently sell that land, the restrictions against development remained in force, guaranteeing that the land would remain in agricultural production.  Although the program covered the entire county, it was most active in Upper Bucks, particularly in Bedminster Township, and by 2007 had met its starting goal of protecting ten thousand acres. 

While Upper Bucks townships mobilized to slow development, communities in Lower Bucks worked to repurpose industrial lands abandoned by manufacturers that moved away. Brownfield remediation became an important priority for communities trying to convert abandoned industrial areas to new uses. For example, Falls Township promoted industrial re-uses that emphasized green technology, particularly at the abandoned U.S. Steel plant. 

In Bristol, local officials sought to repurpose an abandoned airplane plant that later served as a soap factory but completely shut down in the late 1980s. They welcomed an experienced redeveloper of brownfields who bought the forty-three-acre site in 2003 and converted it into offices. In 2015 Bensalem’s leaders launched an ambitious plan to redevelop 675 acres of waterfront property, whose first element was to be a riverside “urban village” called Waterside constructed on a forty-acre brownfield site. In addition to commercial and industrial reuses, builders proposed new residential developments in communities of Lower Bucks, including Bensalem, Lower Makefield, and Middletown Townships, as infill development or redevelopment of abandoned or underutilized sites.

Development Pressure in Central Bucks

The townships in Central Bucks, meanwhile, experienced by far the most intense development pressure. Many residents resisted by opposing proposals for infrastructure—especially highways, sewers, and trash disposal facilities—that would support larger populations. In the mid-1990s when state highway planners proposed converting Route 202 into a four-lane, limited-access expressway between Doylestown and Montgomeryville, Buckingham Township sued in federal court. The lawsuit stalled the project long enough that the state planners offered a lower-impact alternative of a two-lane “parkway” intersected by crossroads at grade level. When that alternative Route 202 Parkway finally opened in 2012, flanked by attractive bicycle and jogging trails, local residents hailed it as a project that met their needs but was unlikely to generate massive levels of new traffic. 

Some older boroughs in Central Bucks reacted to the population influx by encouraging developers to build new homes on vacant lots in established neighborhoods—a strategy known as infill development. Doylestown, for example, began working with in-fill developers in the 1990s to bolster the borough’s tax base and to discourage sprawl by keeping development in areas where infrastructure and services already existed. Watching the population age while younger homebuyers favored smaller homes and walkable communities, planners for Newtown, Yardley, and other older Central Bucks communities worked to revitalize their town centers.

While some townships worked to preserve open space, others encouraged new development to reclaim brownfields, while still others tried to steer population and commerce into historic town centers where infrastructure already existed to serve them. Those differing strategies reflected the contrasting sectional identities that marked Bucks County across more than three centuries.

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.        

Montgomery County, Pennsylvania

The early Europeans who settled in what would become Montgomery County in the eighteenth century tended prosperous farms, forges, and mills. They depended on the Philadelphia market to sell their products and on its port to connect them to the wider colonial world. Subsequent generations built a dense transportation network that linked county laborers, suppliers, and consumers with each other and with the city, fueling the county’s prosperity across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beginning in the 1950s, however, county residents depended less on Philadelphia for employment, entertainment, shopping, and other daily activities. By the close of the twentieth century, Montgomery County had become an economic engine in its own right, boasting the largest population and by far the largest job base among the counties surrounding Philadelphia.

Lenape people, along with some Dutch and Swedes, inhabited this land before William Penn (1644-1718) acquired it in 1681 and sold what he called the Welsh Tract to Quakers fleeing from persecution in Wales. The newcomers gave Welsh names like Gwynedd and Bala Cynwyd to their communities. English Quakers also acquired land in the area that eventually became lower Montgomery County. Many Germans arrived during the eighteenth century, including Schwenkfelders who settled there as a group.

[caption id="attachment_29491" align="alignright" width="300"]Watercolor depicting the King of Prussia Inn from the mid-nineteenth century. A small farmhouse built in 1719 by Welsh Quaker and farmer William Rees Sr. became the King of Prussia Inn. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Penn encouraged early settlers to form townships and practice self-government. Among the earliest to incorporate were areas located nearest to the port of Philadelphia. They included Cheltenham Township, incorporated in 1683, Plymouth in 1701, Abington in 1702, Whitemarsh in 1704, and Lower Merion in 1714. Those early incorporations were hardly surprising, since originally those townships were included within Philadelphia County. After the American Revolution people in the upper part of Philadelphia County petitioned the state Assembly for a separate county, complaining about the inconvenience of traveling all the way to Philadelphia to conduct business at the county seat. In 1784, state authorities carved Montgomery County out of the original Philadelphia County and placed the county seat in Norristown.

From the county’s earliest days, farmers participated in long-distance commodity trading through the Philadelphia port. They sent much of their wheat crop to Philadelphia to be milled into flour for export to Europe. Later the railroad system opened broader domestic markets to county farmers, but at the same time brought greater competition from elsewhere. Local farmers eventually reduced their grain crops in the 1880s when cheap Midwestern grain flooded East Coast markets. Montgomery County farmers shifted more heavily toward dairy production, because rail lines could quickly carry perishables to broader markets.

Building a Dense Transportation Network

Beginning in the early 1800s, the county embarked on an era of turnpike construction. Companies built hard-surface, all-weather roads to serve forges and mills, and the freight hauling necessary to operate them. They maintained those roads by selling stock and collecting tolls. Across the nineteenth century, turnpike companies built at least two hundred miles of such roads in Montgomery County.

Germantown Pike had served from 1687 as a simple cart road from Philadelphia through Germantown, and northward to Plymouth Meeting. Between 1801 and 1804, investors lengthened and improved it, transforming the road into the Germantown and Perkiomen Turnpike. Eventually investors extended the road as a turnpike all the way to Reading, completing that project in 1815. Another major north-south route originated as a road connecting Philadelphia to Bethlehem during the 1700s; in 1804 it became a toll road, the Bethlehem Turnpike.

[caption id="attachment_29493" align="alignright" width="300"]A sepia tone illustration of Norristown from the Schuylkill River framed by smaller illustrations of industrial buildings Norristown’s position on the Schuylkill River was advantageous for industry. The opening of the Schuylkill Navigation Company’s system of canals helped transport manufactured goods from the borough to Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Starting in the 1830s county residents could travel by rail as well. Residents of Lower Merion Township gained easy access to Philadelphia when the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad’s Main Line passenger service crossed through the lower corner of Montgomery County on its way outward to Chester County. Taken over by the Pennsylvania Railroad during the period of rail consolidation, it eventually became one of the busiest commuter rail lines on the East Coast.

The Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad (PGN) began operating within Philadelphia County in 1832, and by the spring of 1835 it had made its way outward to Norristown. (PGN became part of the Reading Railroad system in 1869.) In 1841, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad opened its line along the Schuylkill River to the coal fields in northeastern Pennsylvania, it began hauling anthracite to power factories in Pottstown and Norristown as well as Philadelphia.

Rail Competition Builds

In 1884, the Pennsylvania Railroad built a competing line along the Schuylkill River to haul both freight and passengers. After World War II the fortunes of anthracite coal declined as the nation relied more on oil and natural gas, and both rail lines eventually ceased hauling coal.

Rail lines pushed development northward beyond the well-traveled southern portion of the county. The North Pennsylvania Railroad line (which later became the Lansdale Regional Rail Line) made Cheltenham Township the city’s gateway to the northern suburbs and gained importance as a local carrier of passengers along Bethlehem Pike, with branch lines from Lansdale to Doylestown (1856), from Glenside to Hatboro (1872), and on its Jenkintown-Beth Ayres-Langhorne-Bound Brook line (1874-76).

To attract passengers, rail investors promoted leisure travel. Shortly after the Civil War, the Perkiomen Railway Company started running a passenger line from Valley Forge north along the Perkiomen Creek up to Pennsburg Borough. In the 1920s the Perkiomen Valley became a favored vacation spot served by rail. The Reading Company bought the line in 1944, but the advent of the automobile forced passenger trains on this route to cease operations by 1955.

With leisure travelers in mind, investors in the Pennsylvania Railroad guided real estate development in Humphreysville, a town that straddled the border between Montgomery and Delaware Counties. The railroad company acquired large tracts of land in the area and built a posh hotel for summer visitors, creating by the 1880s a booming summer resort business. To burnish the reputation of the new development, the railroad rebranded Humphreysville in 1871, giving it the Welsh name of Bryn Mawr. With a similar intent to develop Main Line suburbs as affluent enclaves, the railroad company also renamed Athensville in 1873, preferring the Scottish name of Ardmore.

In the 1880s trolley companies began serving passengers for short trips. The first horse car lines ran on DeKalb Street in Norristown in 1885, and Pottstown soon got streetcars as well. Like the railroads, some trolley companies lured new customers by offering leisure travel. Willow Grove Park operated for eighty years as an amusement park from 1896 until 1975. The Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company conceived the park as a way to encourage weekend customers to patronize the trolley lines. One of the biggest attractions was the music pavilion, where John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) and his band played annually from 1901 to 1926, along with other important bands and orchestras.

Another trolley company, the Philadelphia Transportation Company, ran lines from Germantown Avenue to Bethlehem Pike. In 1897 they opened the Chestnut Hill Amusement Park (also known as White City) at the corner of Bethlehem Pike and Paper Mill Road. They intended to provide a park for Philadelphia’s working classes by charging a trolley fare of only a nickel, far less than their competitor’s thirty-cent fare to Willow Grove Park. Nearby residents complained that the new park lowered the tone of the area, however, and by 1912 it closed. A handful of wealthy Chestnut Hill families living near the amusement park had pooled their money, bought the park for about $500,000, and immediately shut it down.

The trolley companies prospered for only a half century. By the 1950s, all these routes had closed and the tracks had disappeared to make way for automobiles.

Mills, Mines, and Manufacturing

Many streams flowed into the Schuylkill River, including the Wissahickon, Plymouth, Sandy Run, Skippack, Pennypack, and Perkiomen Creeks. Early settlers erected dams and built mills to produce grain, lumber, oil, paper and powder. In 1795 the county boasted ninety-six gristmills, sixty-one sawmills, six fulling mills, and ten paper mills. The Langstroth paper mill opened on the Pennypack in Moreland township in 1794. Riverside paper mill in Whitemarsh Township began in 1856 to produce a fine grade of book, card, and envelope paper. Lower Merion Township was especially noted for its mills, including plaster, grist and saw mills.

Water power also enabled early settlers to exploit the area’s rich iron ore deposits. Valley Forge was named for the Mt. Joy iron forge built on Valley Creek in 1742. Those ironworks on Valley Creek devoted a large part of their production to the Revolutionary War effort, which prompted British forces to target that location in September 1777, burning the forge and carrying off supplies. Not long afterward, General George Washington (1732-1799) arrived at Valley Forge in December 1777 to winter his troops there.

Pottstown on the Schuylkill River initially relied on grain mills for local livelihoods. Local mills transported their flour to both Philadelphia and Reading markets. However, by the 1850s the iron and steel industry had surpassed grain mills in economic importance. A bridge-building company founded in 1877 as Cofrode & Saylor was acquired by Bethlehem Steel in 1931, providing thousands of jobs. Pottstown-made iron and steel contributed to major national and international projects like the Panama Canal and Golden Gate Bridge.

[caption id="attachment_29531" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial view of the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. This 1915 aerial view of the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company along the Schuylkill River shows the factory complex in proximity to the railroad and a bridge over the river, with portions of Conshohocken in the distance. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Conshohocken, another important industrial town on the Schuylkill River, initially produced spades, saws, iron pipe, and machinery in the 1840s. Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company built the Schuylkill Iron Works there in 1857, and the plant became a mainstay of the borough’s economy. So successful was that enterprise that the company built its own railway in 1907—the Upper Merion and Plymouth Railroad Company—a wholly owned subsidiary operating on both sides of the Schuylkill River. Lee Tire and Rubber Company, founded in 1912, made automobile tires and accessories there until 1980.

The borough of Ambler depended on grain milling to power its early economy, but it suffered losses when the coming of the railroads made it possible for Philadelphia merchants to buy cheap Midwestern grain and grind it themselves. In 1896 Henry Keasbey (1850-1932) and Richard Mattison (1851-1935) built an asbestos plant in Ambler and launched the industry that powered the town for almost a century. They used asbestos mined in Quebec to manufacture asbestos-treated fabric used for wrapping steam pipes as well as asbestos fireproof roof shingles. In the late twentieth century, public health officials publicized the health dangers of asbestos and that industry collapsed, leaving Ambler to once again renew itself.

The dense rail network that emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century allowed individual towns to specialize in manufacturing and fostered a resilient economy whose diversity of products and services kept the area strong across the economic upturns and reversals of the decades. The variety of products included automobile works in Ardmore, worsted and felt textiles in Bridgeport, shovels and spades in Cheltenham, flags and banners in Collegeville, men’s clothing in Lansdale, and cigars in Schwenksville.

Social Disparities

Even with its diverse and productive economic base, Montgomery County always included residents who did not share in its prosperity. The early European settlers who worked modest-size farms owned some African-descended slaves, though in small numbers. The first U.S. census in 1790 reported a total of 118 enslaved people in the county. By the 1810 census, that number had dropped to three. Many of the county’s Quaker, Mennonite, and Schwenkfelder landowners opposed slavery, and some actively undermined that system.

Starting in the 1830s, thousands of escaping slaves traveled through Montgomery County by the Underground Railroad. Abolitionists would conceal them in homes and barns until the evening hours when they could take night trains on the Norristown Railroad to Philadelphia, where a well-organized network could set them on the path to Canada. One resident in Plymouth Township, George Corson (1803-1860), hid escaping African Americans on his property and also built Abolition Hall as a meeting place for the anti-slavery movement on Butler Pike, near its intersection with Bethlehem Pike. Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and other famous abolitionists visited there.

Farm workers came mainly from Germany, Britain, and Ireland through an indenture system. Known as “redemptioners,” they bargained with ship captains to give them free passage across the Atlantic; in exchange, the ship captains sold their labor to buyers who came to the Philadelphia docks. The purchaser would buy an immigrant’s labor contract for a specified number of years of service. After working off that contract, the immigrants were free to pursue their livelihoods as independent citizens. Not all succeeded in supporting themselves in farming or trades, sometimes ending up in the county’s poorhouse.

Religion exercised significant influence on daily life, including on education. So strongly did residents prize faith-based education that proponents of universal public education met considerable opposition in Montgomery County. When Pennsylvania passed the Common School Law of 1834, the state allowed residents of local school districts to decide whether to adopt the state requirements and become part of the state system. A majority of local school districts in Montgomery County initially opposed joining the state system, not because they refused to support public education but because they did not want their schools secularized. German Lutherans as well as the Amish, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Quakers preferred faith-based schools. Not until 1853 did the last district in the county join the state system.

Camp William Penn

[caption id="attachment_29533" align="alignright" width="300"]A color illustration of a group of USCT soldiers in uniform with a white officer. One soldier holds a US flag and a small child stands with them in uniform playing a drum. Text reads "United States Soldiers at Camp "William Penn" Philadelphia, PA. Rally Round the Flag, boys, Rally once again, Shouting the battle cry of FREEDOM!" The 10,950 men recruited to the United States Colored Troops in Philadelphia trained at Camp William Penn. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The county’s diversity stemmed not only from differences between towns, but even within towns, one of the best examples being Cheltenham Township immediately across the county border from Philadelphia. One prominent nineteenth-century resident, railroad tycoon and financier Jay Cooke (1821-1905), contributed significantly to that town’s social mix. Cooke had helped finance the Civil War by selling government war bonds. Having been involved in both the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, Cooke along with fellow businessman Edward M. Davis (1811-87) leased land for the U.S. government to operate Camp William Penn, a thirteen-acre training compound for African American soldiers. Frederick Douglass helped recruit volunteers to form so-called “colored regiments,” and in 1865, Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), the legendary Underground Railroad operator, gave a stirring speech to one of the last detachments of soldiers trained there. The camp opened in the summer of 1863, and by the time it closed in 1865 it had trained about eleven thousand soldiers. Cheltenham Township subsequently drew African American residents who regarded it as hospitable.

After the Civil War, Jay Cooke and Edward Davis turned to land development that served their own social class. They promoted Cheltenham Township as a place where rich industrialists and merchant families could build mansions befitting their newfound wealth. While Philadelphia families with inherited wealth generally preferred the Main Line or Chestnut Hill, many self-made millionaires built estates in Cheltenham, including a number designed by the noted architect Horace Trumbauer (1868-1938). Subsequent generations often converted Trumbauer’s monumental estates into schools, colleges, seminaries, and other religious institutions.

[caption id="attachment_29494" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a Greek-Revival mansion with a columned portico Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer built Whitemarsh Hall in Springfield Township for Edward T. Stotesbury, a prominent investment banker. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Even while Gilded Age industrialists chose Cheltenham for their lavish estates, the township gained significant numbers of lower-income Italians who came to work in quarries in the township’s Edgehill section (later known as Glenside). Also in the twentieth century, Koreans established themselves in large enough numbers that Cheltenham became the Korean epicenter of the metropolitan region. Other Asian immigrants arrived, along with many African American residents, so that by the end of the twentieth century Cheltenham was one of the two most diverse municipalities in Montgomery County.

The other markedly diverse municipality was the county seat of Norristown. In the mid-nineteenth century, its mills and factories had drawn large numbers of Irish immigrants, followed by Italians. The Great Migration from the American South to northern cities during and after World War I brought many African American residents to work in Norristown. During the second half of the twentieth century, Latino immigration, especially from Mexico, became the overwhelming source of the increase in Norristown’s foreign-born population. By 2000, Montgomery County had attracted a percentage of foreign-born residents (9 percent) that was smaller than the 11 percent foreign-born in Philadelphia, yet higher than the three other suburban counties in Pennsylvania.

Development Patterns

In the 1950s, the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike played a significant role in shaping the county’s development. Philadelphia’s business leaders saw the turnpike as an opportunity to link the city to the national highway network, and they vigorously supported construction of the Schuylkill Expressway in 1958 to connect downtown Philadelphia with the turnpike at Valley Forge. What they did not anticipate, however, was the turnpike’s impact in creating a major east-west route across Montgomery County that bypassed Philadelphia entirely, creating new employment and shopping centers along its path and enabling a pattern of daily trips from suburb-to-suburb that eventually surpassed the suburb-to-city travel pattern established during the rail era.

The turnpike exit serving Valley Forge/King of Prussia turned a small village in the 1950s into the most significant job center in Montgomery County. Located at the confluence of the turnpike with Route 202, Route 422, and the Schuylkill Expressway, King of Prussia drew companies in aerospace, defense, and security industries like General Electric and Lockheed Martin, along with many pharmaceutical companies. This prime location also gave rise to the King of Prussia Mall. In 1963 the Kravitz Company began building a strip of anchor stores (Korvette, JC Penney, John Wanamaker, Gimbels) around a supermarket. Starting from that midmarket retail cluster, the mall gradually expanded into one of the nation’s largest shopping centers and shifted toward luxury goods for higher-income shoppers.

To the east of King of Prussia, a pair of turnpike exits created a growth center spanning Plymouth and Whitemarsh Townships. At the Plymouth Meeting exit, an interchange with Germantown Pike provided access to Norristown in 1954, while the second exit opened in 1955 headed north as the Northeast Extension of the turnpike. In 1950, the townships of Plymouth and Whitemarsh had barely begun to suburbanize, but their populations grew dramatically once the turnpike arrived, doubling from 1950 to 1960 and tripling by 1970. The highway interchange also drove business and retail development in the area. The James Rouse Company of Baltimore built a shopping center aimed at middle-income consumers in 1966 at Plymouth Meeting, anchored by Strawbridge & Clothier and Lit Brothers department stores. Plymouth Meeting office complexes attracted many companies, scoring a coup in 1985 when Swedish furniture company IKEA purchased and renovated space for its first U.S. location.  

East of Plymouth-Whitemarsh, the turnpike intersected with Route 309 at its interchange in Fort Washington. There a huge business complex, the Fort Washington Office Park, opened on over five hundred acres in 1955. McNeil Pharmaceuticals, a division of Johnson & Johnson, located there, as did Rohm and Haas Chemical Company (which subsequently moved a short distance north on Route 309 to Lower Gwynedd Township).

Willow Grove Naval Air Station

Finally, near the eastern edge of Montgomery County, the Willow Grove turnpike exit at the intersection with Route 611 served the already-existing employment center at Willow Grove Naval Air Station, an airfield built originally in 1926 when Harold Pitcairn (1897-1960) tested airplanes there. The field served as a military base in World War II. (Its advantageous turnpike location later helped the surrounding area to survive the drastic military cuts imposed on the Naval Air Station in the early twenty-first century.) Willow Grove Park Mall opened in 1982 a little more than a mile from the turnpike exit on the former site of the Willow Grove Amusement Park, which had closed in 1975.

The 1980s witnessed the completion of the Route 422 expressway stretching through the county’s quiet west end. Completed in 1985, it connected Pottstown in the north and Collegeville in midcounty with the King of Prussia megaplex. That made the Route 422 corridor attractive to developers. Businesses, most notably pharmaceutical companies, built facilities employing hundreds along Route 422 near Collegeville. Pfizer and Dow Chemical shared a global research and development campus. GlaxoSmithKline located a research and development facility nearby. Wyeth also came to Collegeville. So many pharmaceutical jobs located there that one GlaxoSmithKline vice president referred to the Collegeville area as “the legal drug capital of northeastern America.”

An important path connecting other towns to King of Prussia was Route 202, an east-west route that increased population along its path during the 1980s, when low mortgage interest rates spurred residential construction. Route 202 was a convenient path across the midcounty suburbs carrying local traffic to workplaces, shopping centers, and other destinations inside the county, giving them less incentive to travel into Philadelphia. The boroughs of Lansdale and North Wales became home to multiple facilities owned by Merck Sharp and Dohme, creating a strong employment base in midcounty.

By the opening of twenty-first century, Montgomery County received more daily commuters traveling to its employment hubs than it sent outward. It epitomized the pattern of suburb-to-suburb commuting. It even enjoyed a positive commuting balance with Philadelphia, receiving more daily workers from Philadelphia than it sent into the city. As in earlier eras, the diversity of the county’s modern economic base remained an important strength. The county developed advanced manufacturing specialties like precision instruments, business machines and electronics, along with industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals. It added high tech jobs in the fields of computer science, information technology, and telecommunications. Service jobs were also abundant in education, health care, retail, financial and professional services.

Coping with Economic Success

The county’s enviable economic growth created winners and losers among its towns. Highways made it convenient to locate production near off-ramps instead of in older population centers. Many companies operating in the county’s older manufacturing centers moved to new facilities. Newer retail developments lured customers away from older shopping districts, causing their deterioration. Over time, the shift of employment and retailing into job centers defined by highway interchanges generated marked differences in taxable resources available to different local jurisdictions.

Towns with commercial development possessed significantly stronger tax bases than neighboring towns without that advantage. The disparities became most evident in school spending. Among the twenty-two school districts in Montgomery County, the highest spending district in 2015 (Lower Merion) spent over $28,000 per student, while the four lowest-spending districts (Pottstown, Spring-Ford, Perkiomen Valley, and Upper Perkiomen) invested less than $17,000—a dramatic difference of more than $11,000 per child.

Aggravating such stark inequalities, the lower-spending districts were educating higher shares of low-income children. For example, in 2015 only 9 percent of the school population in high-spending Lower Merion Township had incomes low enough to qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches. During that same year in low-spending Pottstown School District, 95 percent of children qualified.

Not only did older industrial towns lose jobs and employers, they also faced environmental costs left behind when manufacturing plants closed. However, some real estate investors saw opportunities in brownfield sites. After an industrial landmark, Lee Tire Factory, closed in Conshohocken in 1980, developer Brian O’Neill (b. 1960) transformed the vacant factory into an office and light industrial complex called Spring Mill Corporate Center. His brother Michael O’Neill (b. 1962) transformed a 1929 chemical plant, adding an office extension for the Quaker Chemical corporate headquarters. These projects triggered an office and condominium boom in Conshohocken, helped by the town’s advantageous location at the intersection of the Schuylkill Expressway and the Blue Route.

[caption id="attachment_29492" align="alignright" width="300"]Colorful map representing household income. Map is in the shape of Montgomery County. The key notes that areas filled in with green make over $75,000 in household income and areas in red or orange make less than $75,000. Most of the map is green, but red and orange areas are visible, mostly neat the borders of the county map. Montgomery County has long been home to wealthy and not-so-wealthy residents and, over time, farmers, free African Americans, new immigrants, and industrialists shaped the townships and boroughs they lived and worked in. (Map by Michael Siegel, Rutgers Geography Department)[/caption]

In Ambler, the closing of the former Keasbey and Mattison asbestos company in the 1970s also left behind a major brownfield site. After nearly ten years of environmental remediation and financial problems, the Ambler Boiler House rose from the neglected site as a multi-tenant office building that provided a new workplace within a two-minute walk of a regional rail station. Shortly after that, a nonprofit organization bought the historic downtown Ambler Theater and spent millions restoring its original character. That project anchored additional main street development.

Even the U.S. government left environmental contamination in its wake when it de-commissioned the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, leaving the groundwater in and around the base tainted from years of chemical dumping. When the township of Horsham launched plans in 2015 to develop a multimillion-dollar residential-retail-office complex to replace the military base, its first challenge became environmental remediation.

Planning for the Future

The twentieth century transformed a county that had once boasted a sizable rail network into a suburban landscape shaped largely by highways. Travel from suburb to suburb increased, creating a pattern that was ill-served by rail lines constructed to carry passengers back and forth to Philadelphia. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, 80 percent of Montgomery County workers got to work by driving alone. More than half of all county residents had access to two or more vehicles, and 95 percent had access to at least one vehicle.

Facing this reality of auto dominance in the early twenty-first century, municipalities adopted different development strategies. Some towns sought to take advantage of highway-based transportation patterns. For example, planners in the county seat of Norristown saw their town’s resurgence tied to the very turnpike that had earlier undermined their commercial vitality. For decades, the King of Prussia and Plymouth Meeting malls and suburban industrial parks arrayed along the turnpike had drawn commerce away from Norristown. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Norristown boosters lobbied the state to build a new exit off the turnpike at Norristown in order to spur redevelopment. In 2016 the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission committed to build that interchange, projected for completion by 2020.

Other towns tried to limit auto dependence by creating walkable environments within town centers. Pottstown, for example, worked to reinvent itself as a walkable main street community, restoring its disused train station as a bank and transforming a long-vacant shirt factory into a mixed-use arts center along with affordable housing. By promoting their sidewalks, historic architecture, street trees and storefronts, Pottstown leaders hoped to attract young adults to an urban-style setting.

Despite the successes of some plans adopted by individual municipalities, the county failed to address the broader issue of the massive daily commute caused by so many workers living at significant distance from their workplace, unable to find affordable housing near the job centers where land and housing prices were high. Some communities had adopted zoning laws making it impossible for entry-level workers to find housing near their jobs. In 2006, the Montgomery County Planning Commission began urging municipalities to increase the housing stock accessible to moderate-income workers. However, planners could do little more than urge local officials to promote what they labeled "workforce housing," since municipalities carried responsibility for land-use and zoning under Pennsylvania law. As a result, housing choices remained limited in many towns and progress towards diversification was slow at best.

The history of Montgomery County more than justified the early settlers’ confidence that they need not depend entirely on Philadelphia markets, wealth, and employers to achieve prosperity. By the opening of the twenty-first century, they had built an economic base and quality-of-life in many communities that ranked among the highest in the metropolitan region.

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Chester County, Pennsylvania

[caption id="attachment_28389" align="aligncenter" width="580"]A map of Pennsylvania in 1687 showing land purchases and town and county borders Parts of the original territory of Chester County, left of center in this 1687 map by Thomas Holme, became Lancaster County (1729), a small part of Berks County (1752), and Delaware County (1789). (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

As one of the original counties established by William Penn (1644-1718), Chester County was only modestly influenced by Philadelphia in its early development because after 1789 it shared no border with the city. Although the Pennsylvania Railroad linked the county’s central valley to Philadelphia in the mid-nineteenth century, it remained a largely rural landscape whose farms, mills, and forges operated within a mostly self-sufficient economy while sending surpluses to the Philadelphia market. Not until the second half of the twentieth century did dramatic changes come to its pastoral landscapes and small towns. Starting in the 1970s the arrival of financial services firms along with bio-medical research and development companies drew thousands of new residents, turning it into a county of “farms plus pharma.”

Lenni Lenape (also known as Delaware), along with some Dutch and Swedes, already lived in the area before Penn laid out the county boundaries stretching more than one hundred miles from the Delaware River to the Susquehanna River. That initial county structure proved too large to serve its inhabitants well. In 1729, provincial authorities carved out Lancaster County, then in 1752 shifted a small part to Berks County as well. Not long after the American Revolution, the residents in the western portion of the remaining county objected to traveling so far to conduct business in the county seat at Chester City on the Delaware River. They wanted a county seat located farther west. They got their wish when West Chester became the county seat, and three years later, in 1789, Delaware County was carved out. From that time, Chester County no longer shared a border with Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_28069" align="alignright" width="300"] In the tradition of many communities in the Philadelphia area, the Old Kennett Square Meetinghouse served as the center of Quaker life in the Chadds Ford area of Chester Country during the Colonial and Early Republic eras. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Penn had encouraged the early formation of townships covering the entire territory as a way to promote self-government. Many boroughs and townships had incorporated by the early eighteenth century, for example Caln in 1686,  Kennett in 1704, Uwchlan in 1712, and numerous others. But the Quakers who predominated in much of Chester County shunned town living, preferring life on their farms. Based on religious scruples, Quakers showed little interest in formal governance of their territory. Except for the county seat, early towns carried few public responsibilities beyond providing small local marketplaces and serving as units for assessing taxes. Rural families produced a large share of the goods for home consumption, and craftsmen lived among the farmers, trading their products for food.

Transportation Routes Shaped Settlements

The land formation known as the “Great Valley,” stretching from the Schuylkill River in Montgomery County to the southwest through Chester and Lancaster Counties, provided early travelers with a natural route. The first major east-west road following the Great Valley westward was the Lancaster Road or the Great Road, which became the most traveled route of its time. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813) in 1789 remarked that it was "not uncommon to meet fifty to a hundred Conestoga wagons in one day along this road, mostly belonging to German farmers."

Largely following that same route, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road Company constructed in 1798 the first long-distance paved route in the United States stretching sixty-two miles between Philadelphia and the city of Lancaster. The improved road bed allowed farmers and craftsmen to haul heavy freight and drive stage coaches from Lancaster to Philadelphia. It brought travelers to dozens of inns, taverns, saddleries, and shops of every variety, and helped build Downingtown and a few other commercial centers along its route.

To serve the southern part of the county, the state chartered the Philadelphia, Brandywine and New London Turnpike Company in 1808 to build a stagecoach road from Philadelphia to Baltimore. That route, known as the Baltimore Pike (designated Route 1 in 1926), entered Chester County from Delaware County at Chadds Ford and ran through the Brandywine Valley—a mix of farms and woodland, as well as commercial towns and villages like Kennett Square. Farmers in the Brandywine Valley hauled their grain to mills powered by the Brandywine River, which also powered paper mills that supplied Philadelphia printers.

Railroads exerted less impact on early settlement patterns in Chester County than in other suburban counties around Philadelphia because the rail network was less densely built on the western edge of the region. The great exception was the Main Line, a railroad designed as one component of a larger network of canals and rails that the state government sponsored in order to help Pennsylvania compete commercially against New York State. Construction started in 1829, carried on largely by Irish immigrants. In 1857 the Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the line since known as the Main Line.  

Across the middle of the county, investors built the Philadelphia & Baltimore Central (P&BC) railroad just before the Civil War. They broke ground in 1855 in Concord Township in Delaware County, where the celebrants tossed one shovelful of dirt toward Philadelphia and another toward Baltimore to signify the goal of connecting the two cities.

[caption id="attachment_26780" align="alignright" width="252"] A Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of West Chester, produced in 1886, depicts railroad connections with the county seat of Chester County. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

As those two major lines crossed the county from east to west, they helped spur the economies of some towns along the way, including Downingtown and Coatesville on the Main Line and Oxford Borough on the P&BC near the county’s southern border with Maryland. But their main function was to link Philadelphia to the distant cities of Lancaster to the west and Baltimore to the south. One of the few places within the county that did purposely build rail lines to spur its own development was the county seat of West Chester, where business leaders formed a railroad company to connect their town to the Main Line running some miles to the north. They opened the West Chester Railroad (WCRR) in 1832 to carry both passengers and freight. In the 1850s a second group of investors built West Chester & Philadelphia Rail Road (WC&P) to offer an alternative connecting West Chester to the Philadelphia & Baltimore Central line running through southern Delaware and Chester Counties. During the period of railroad consolidations around the turn of the twentieth century, the Pennsylvania Railroad gained control over both West Chester railroads, as well as the Main Line and the Philadelphia & Baltimore Central.

Agriculture and Industry

Abundant sources of water power made milling the county’s first industry. Farmers grew corn, wheat, barley, oats, rye, buckwheat, and flax, and most settlements had a grist mill, which could also be used as a sawmill. However, as improved transportation networks made long-distance shipping easier, farmers shifted away from diversified crops to produce more livestock. The growth of Philadelphia and increasing purchasing power of the population persuaded farmers to supply more meat. By mid-nineteenth century, agriculture in Chester County focused most heavily on grazing and dairying. The 1860 agricultural census showed that of Chester County’s roughly fifty thousand cattle, half were for dairy and the other half for beef purposes.  

[caption id="attachment_28096" align="alignright" width="300"] Iron and steel production led the industrialization of Chester County. Founded in 1790, the Phoenix Iron Company (later known as the Phoenixville Iron Company) processed the anthracite coal from the Lehigh Valley region into a variety of iron products for nearly 200 years. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Water power enabled the county’s residents to exploit the area’s rich iron ore deposits. Early iron manufactories established a basis for nationally-known ironworks. In 1790 on the banks of French Creek, the French Creek Nail Works opened the first nail factory in the United States, later renamed the Phoenix Iron Company. It grew into an extensive ironworks consisting of furnace, foundry, rolling-mill, and nail factory, employing three hundred to four hundred men. During the Civil War, Phoenix Iron produced the Griffen Gun and became a major supplier of the Union Army. As railroads multiplied, the company focused on structural steel for bridge building, a crucial requirement for railroad expansion. 

Lukens Steel in Coatesville was born in 1810 when Isaac Pennock (1767-1824) began the Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory on the banks of the Brandywine River. All the raw materials needed—iron ore, limestone, and hardwood forests for charcoal—were available in the Coatesville area. In 1813 Pennock’s daughter Rebecca (1794-1854) married Charles Lukens (1786-1825), who oversaw the operation of his father-in-law’s business. When Lukens died in 1825, Rebecca took over operation of the steel mill. She managed the business until 1849 and turned it into the top producer of boilerplate in the country. 

Agriculture continued to operate profitably throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aided by the rail lines that crossed the county. By the 1890s, the Pennsylvania Railroad trains that ran all the way to Lancaster gave farmers in western Chester County a way to ship fresh milk and produce daily to Philadelphia. In 1906 Abbott’s Dairy opened in Oxford on the far west side of the county yet still transported its products to the Philadelphia market. 

Plant cultivation contributed significantly to the county economy. In the borough of West Grove In 1868 the Dingee & Conard Nursery Company began growing and selling fruit trees, roses, and other nursery products. They pioneered the use of mail order catalogues, and by the late 1880s shipping of their nursery products made West Grove the second-largest post office in Chester County. The company became nationally known for its roses, most notably the Peace Rose. In 1945, the company provided one of this specially bred flower to every international delegate meeting in San Francisco to establish the United Nations.

[caption id="attachment_28384" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo showing a bed of white mushrooms in the foreground with a booth worker in yellow shirt in background. Mushrooms, on display here at the annual Mushroom Festival in 2014, are among Chester County's significant agricultural products. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Undoubtedly mushrooms became Chester County’s best-known food crop. In the 1890s William Swayne (1851-1950), a florist in Kennett Square, began growing mushrooms in the unused space underneath his greenhouse benches. Because he required precise regulation of the temperature, humidity, and air quality, Swayne erected the first building to be used exclusively for mushroom growing, and Kennett Square eventually became the national center of mushroom cultivation. Ironically, old-fashioned mushroom cultivation helped build Chester County’s twenty-first century specialization in bio-life sciences. Starting in the 1920s chemist G. Raymond Rettew (1903-73) began providing testing services to area mushroom growers. He devised a process for growing penicillin that made mass production of the drug possible. He sold the idea to Reichel Laboratories of Phoenixville, which was acquired by Wyeth in 1943. The penicillin case demonstrated the important process of turning research into production that became a hallmark of Chester County’s high tech economy. 

Social Disparities

From the start, Chester County’s population contained both rich and poor. In 1800, the wealthiest 10 percent of the county’s households paid 38 percent of the taxes, and the poorest 30 percent of the citizenry paid only 4 percent. To house the poor and unemployed, county leaders in 1798 built a Poor House about eight miles from West Chester on the banks of the Brandywine Creek. On three hundred   acres, they built a large brick building and a barn to house a working farm. This county almshouse system replaced the aid provided by individual townships. The intent was to provide a more consistent level of care and a more efficient use of funds. Reflecting their shared belief in the value of work, they required every able body to work, even the children. Residents of the Poor House sold homespun cloth, brooms, smoked meats, and even quarried limestone.

Early European settlers held African slaves, though in relatively small numbers. In Chester County the number of slave owners reached 4 percent of taxpayers in 1759. The strong Quaker influence in the affairs of the county discouraged slavery as did economic factors. At the start of the Civil War, African American residents represented about 8 percent of Chester County’s population; although a modest share, that was the highest percentage of African Americans in the counties of southeast Pennsylvania. Those free African Americans worked for hire or owned their own small businesses.

Chester County residents included people who actively embraced the social reform movements of the mid-nineteenth century such as anti-slavery, women’s rights, and temperance. Local European Americans, primarily Quaker, and African American abolitionists concealed runaway enslaved people who traveled from the South through the mid-Atlantic and north to safety in Canada. Anti-slavery sentiment was particularly strong in Kennett Square, a center of abolitionism. Disagreement over the authority of Quaker meetings and how best to address the issue of slavery led to the establishment of the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends in 1853 (Longwood Yearly Meeting). The Longwood Meetinghouse opened in 1855. Its annual meetings hosted radicals and reformers such as  Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison. County residents also hosted the first Pennsylvania Woman's Rights Convention in June 1852 in West Chester, advocating for equal legal, social, economic, and political rights, including suffrage.

The African American population grew after the Civil War, when iron companies in Phoenixville and Coatesville recruited black workers in the South as a way of discouraging European immigrants from striking for higher wages. Animosity between working-class whites and blacks came to a head in Coatesville in 1911 with the horrifying death of Zachariah Walker, a black man who was literally burned alive by a white mob after his conviction for killing a white guard at a local steel plant. 

In part to address social inequality, the Society of Friends supported education for all children. As early as 1787 the Kennett Monthly Meeting began raising funds to support “schooling the children of such poor people, whether Friends or others, as live within the verge of the Monthly Meeting.” For the offspring of more affluent families, the county was dotted by dozens of single-sex boarding schools, for example West Chester Academy, a private, state-aided school opened in 1813. It went through a series of transformations across the years that resulted in its becoming West Chester University. In 1854 the Pennsylvania legislature incorporated another of Chester County’s prominent educational institutions as Ashmun Institute for the education of young men of color, a name that changed in 1866 to Lincoln University

Despite important efforts to promote broad social advancement, the county entered the twentieth century with wide disparities among its residents. Wealthy families built rural retreats on large estates, many of them designed in the Victorian style popular among early twentieth century architects. West Whiteland Township, served by the Pennsylvania Railroad running along the Main Line, boasted an impressive collection of such homes. Important Philadelphia architects built many of them, for example the Francis W. Kennedy House designed by Frank Miles Day (1861-1918) in 1889 for a vice president of the Wilkes-Barre and Western Railway; the Joseph Price House, an older structure that was extensively altered in 1894 for a wealthy Philadelphia surgeon; and Meadowcourt (sometimes called Autun) which was designed by Edmund Gilchrist (1885-1953) in the French style in 1928 for insurance executive Benjamin Rush Jr. Owners of these large properties pursued diversions like foxhunting, for which a group of well-to-do families established the Whitelands Hunt.

[caption id="attachment_28071" align="alignright" width="241"] Purchased by Philadelphia-area businessman and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont in 1906, Longwood Gardens has become one of the most visited horticultural centers in the Delaware Valley. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In the Brandywine Valley in 1906 Pierre S. Dupont (1870-1954) of the wealthy Delaware Dupont family bought the Peirce Farm in Kennett Township and created an estate of incomparable beauty. He repaired and expanded the original Peirce farmhouse, connecting new and old wings with a conservatory whose courtyard was planted with exotic foliage and a marble fountain. In 1923, he added an elegant music room with walnut paneling, damask-covered walls, teak floors, and a molded plaster ceiling, opening onto the central axis of the main greenhouse. Dupont named his estate Longwood Gardens for the nearby Longwood Meeting House built by Quakers.

At the other end of the social spectrum, in nearby communities of southern Chester County, immigrants lived in deplorable conditions. Around the turn of the twentieth century, southern Europeans came to the county. One of the county’s most successful plant nurseries, Hoopes Brothers & Thomas in West Chester, began hiring Italian immigrants in 1906 because they could not find enough local labor. By 1908, newspapers were criticizing these immigrant workers for drying their laundry on the outside of their shanties. Despite the social stigma the Italians stayed, and a century later 16 percent of West Chester residents still claimed Italian ancestry. In industrial towns like Coatesville and Phoenixville, Eastern Europeans, notably Hungarians and Poles, served as a significant source for factory labor.

Puerto Ricans initially arrived in Chester County after World War II, while Mexicans arrived in the 1960s.  Recruiters brought them to Pennsylvania to farm labor-intensive crops like vegetables, fruits, and mushrooms. Kennett Square, the center of mushroom production, attracted a substantial Spanish-speaking population, as did the smaller community of Toughkenamon a mile west of Kennett Square.

Limited by their very low wages and undocumented status, many immigrants settled for dilapidated, overcrowded houses, apartments, or mobile homes. In 1994 the Alliance for Better Housing composed of clergy, mushroom growers, and local officials began working to improve housing conditions for farm workers and other low-income residents in southern Chester County. Additional help came from local organizations like United Way, La Comunidad Hispana, PathStone, Mission Santa Maria, local food cupboards and local churches. 

Newcomers from South and East Asia lived a completely different immigrant experience from the mushroom workers in southern Chester County. Hired into knowledge economy jobs, they clustered in affluent townships along Route 202 or Route 30—for example, East Whiteland, West Whiteland, East Caln, and Upper Uwchlan—in the northeast section of the county, where they worked in technology and finance companies. 

[caption id="attachment_28213" align="alignright" width="300"] In the wake of deindustrialization and suburbanization, the economic distribution of Chester County in the twenty-first century created a sharp delineation of communities. (Map by Michael Seigel for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The county’s rapid economic ascent after 1980 attracted a workforce equipped to prosper in the knowledge, finance, and service economy. The 2014 American Community Survey showed that 49 percent of county residents had college degrees, the highest percentage among suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia. Of the population 25 years or older, 92 percent were high school graduates, 49 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 20 percent had a graduate or professional degree. In 2010, it was the highest-income county in Pennsylvania and twenty-fourth highest in the U.S. as measured by median household income. 

Not all towns shared that success. Because of its reliance on the steel industry, the city of Coatesville suffered the most visible and dramatic setbacks in the county. Lukens Steel had flourished there since the early 1800s, building major national projects from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the Battleship USS New Jersey. But faced with competition from foreign steel producers, in 1982 the company reduced its workforce by 22 percent between January and September 1982 and cut the pay of salaried employees by 10 percent. After 187 years of continuous operation, Lukens Steel Company sold its Coatesville operation to Bethlehem Steel Company, which in turn sold the plant to new international owners. Each new owner reduced the workforce, so that by the end of the twentieth century the steel plant that had employed over six thousand workers at midcentury provided jobs for only one thousand.

These contrasting fortunes yielded substantial differences in tax resources available to town governments, and that in turn produced unequal public services. Among the fourteen school districts in Chester County, the highest-spending district, the Great Valley School District, serving the high tech corridor, spent $20,588 per student in 2015 while the lowest-spending district, the Oxford Area School District in southern Chester County, spent barely more than $13,000 per student. To worsen inequalities, lower-spending districts were educating larger shares of low-income children. In 2015 only 14 percent of the school population in the high-spending Great Valley School District had incomes low enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. That same year, the low-spending Oxford Area School District served a student body in which 40 percent qualified for subsidized lunches. 

Development patterns

The Pennsylvania Turnpike (Interstate 76) dramatically altered development in the northeast section of the county. Builders completed the Chester County section of the Turnpike in 1950. Designed as a limited-access route to allow fast travel across Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Turnpike initially provided just two exits located within Chester County (Downingtown and Malvern/Phoenixville). Those two exits became focal points for growth, as did the Valley Forge/King of Prussia exit located in Montgomery County right at the border with Chester County.

Another example of an expressway influencing development was Route 202, a highway dating back to 1926. In 1964, the Pennsylvania Department of Highways designed a continuous four-lane expressway along the US 202 corridor, opening the section of that new expressway south from King of Prussia toward West Chester in 1967. Over the next several decades that stretch of Route 202 attracted hundreds of computer-related companies, biomedical concerns, and other service and information- based firms. 

Suburbanizing relatively late, Chester County in the 1970s offered developers a chance to acquire huge open parcels on which to build a series of high-profile and often controversial industrial parks. Some occupied more than a square mile of ground, making them larger than some boroughs in Chester County. Businessman Raymond Carr (1925-2015) built Chester County’s first industrial park on what had previously been cornfields. Carr and his partner David Knauer (1928-2011) recognized the value of farmland sitting near the Downingtown exit off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was the only connection to the national superhighway system in Chester County. In 1965 the partners bought 180 acres for sale in Lionville and turned them into Pickering Creek Industrial Park, a collection of more than a dozen multipurpose buildings that housed companies specializing in product testing, manufacturing, and eventually biotechnology and life sciences.

In 1969 not far from the Turnpike’s Valley Forge exit, developer Richard Fox (b. 1927) bought Chesterbrook Farm, located between the turnpike on its northern border and Route 202 on its southern border. His plan, unusual for combining residential neighborhoods with a corporate complex, faced stiff public opposition when unveiled in 1971. Opponents feared that the traffic it generated would negatively impact Valley Forge State (later National) Park. The ensuing legal battle went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Hundreds of residents attended meetings and signed petitions against construction, but eventually Fox prevailed and began to build housing in 1979, gradually adding a shopping center, restaurants, corporate offices, and a hotel, along with open spaces. 

The business complex that launched Route 202’s reputation as Tech Alley was the Great Valley Corporate Center, started in 1974 on pasture land located between a landfill and a quarry. Philadelphia-based developer Willard Rouse (1942-2003) convinced young companies to locate in his new development by building facilities to their specifications and helping them finance the move to Chester County. Biotechnology companies valued a location that put them close to Philadelphia universities and medical centers and at the same time close to pharmaceutical companies like SmithKline, Merck, and Rhone-Poulenc Rorer.

Also in the mid-1970s, Willard Rouse’s uncle, James W. Rouse (1914-96), built the Exton Square Mall. The Maryland developer acquired a tract of land at the intersection of Route 30 and Route 100 that held little more than a few gas stations, a drive-in movie, a diner and a motel, and built his mall there in 1972. Exton Square remained a major retail center well into the twenty-first century. Its size and scope attracted additional services, including a public library, the Exton Transportation Center with connections to the King of Prussia Mall, and medical facilities.

[caption id="attachment_28352" align="alignright" width="300"] The bucolic Church Farm School property, shown here in an aerial photograph c. 1924, drew the interest of developers in the 1980s. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Watching such large-scale, master-planned developments multiply during the 1970s and 1980s, Chester County residents feared the loss of open land and the road congestion that such developments brought with them. Those apprehensions brought an end to one of the most ambitious proposals ever considered in the county. In 1987 Willard Rouse announced plans to build Churchill, a 1,500-acre mixed-use development on Church Farm School property on Route 30 in Exton. That unspoiled expanse of cornfields was so massive that it spanned parts of three townships, forcing Rouse to negotiate for years with multiple local governments to secure permission to build. In the end the sheer scale of development proved too much for local residents. Both East Whiteland and West Whiteland townships denied Rouse permission to build. 

Taking control of development patterns

From 1970 to 1995, Chester County lost over fifty thousand acres of land to development, more than had been developed in the previous three hundred years. If that pace had been allowed to continue, all of the county’s farmland would have been paved over within forty years. To stave off such a future, the county government adopted a dramatic and far-reaching plan titled Landscapes: Managing Change in Chester County to shape its growth until 2020. The plan prescribed preserving open space while directing future development into already-existing towns, to ensure Chester County would remain attractive as a place for knowledge industries to locate. Although the county government could do little more than offer technical assistance for implementing the plan to local governments that retained control of land use under Pennsylvania law, nonetheless by 2015 about one quarter of the land area in the county had been permanently preserved.

Some private developers fell in line with county plans by making investments that reduced the number of auto trips workers needed to make each day. For example, the owners of Great Valley Corporate Center redesigned their auto-dependent complex to incorporate everyday services like day care, fitness centers, stores, and restaurants within a walkable mixed-use development. Other developers saw opportunities in older boroughs like Phoenixville and West Chester to reinvest in Victorian structures and community character that would attract residents. 

Still other builders sought to create new housing on smaller-than-standard-size lots so they could permanently preserve open space for the pleasure of community residents. They found local zoning laws a major stumbling block. A 2007 book written about one company’s effort to build a high-density housing development dubbed “New Daleville” showed how difficult it was to convince town officials to adjust standard zoning to allow a village-style approach with small lots and shared open space. The developer persisted and eventually succeeded, but not without enormous resistance from residents who supported more conventional subdivision designs.

In one important respect, Chester County’s late suburbanization proved a blessing. It gave county leaders a greater chance to preserve farms, wooded areas, and historic landscapes than in other counties in the Philadelphia region. Yet the negative consequence of delayed development was that Chester County possessed even less public transit than neighboring counties. Chester County entered the twenty-first century with little hope of convincing motorists to abandon their cars. The county’s heavy auto dependence, combined with a pattern of erecting massive job centers along major highways, virtually ensured that traffic congestion would continue to be its residents’ unceasing complaint.

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. This essay incorporates information and suggestions provided by Laurie A.  Rofini, Archives Director, and Cliff C. Parker, Archivist, of Chester County Archives and Records Services and Chester County Historical Society.

Delaware County, Pennsylvania

Carved out of Chester County in 1789 (with the remainder of that county lying to its southwest), Delaware County long served as a distinct but close neighbor to the City of Philadelphia. Linked to the Philadelphia port from the eighteenth century onward, the eastern part of the county, including Chester and its neighboring municipalities along the Delaware River, was almost indistinguishable from nearby Philadelphia neighborhoods while much of the rest of the county remained agricultural into the late twentieth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, the introduction of regional railways fostered new town centers at commuter stations. The westernmost section remained predominantly rural until the late twentieth century, when the county began to experience the effects of large-scale development. That mixed settlement pattern created some of the widest social disparities observable in any suburban county in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

[caption id="attachment_26692" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a small log cabin with wood shingle roof and stone chimney The Lower Swedish Cabin on the Darby Creek is the last remaining log cabin of several built by Swedish and Finnish settlers to Delaware County. These same settlers refused to sell William Penn land in Chester to create his colonial capital, forcing him to look northeast to what is now Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Lenni Lenape were the original inhabitants of the area that became Delaware County. In the early seventeenth century, Swedish farmers settled in the area, while Dutch trappers came to trade pelts. Later in that century, William Penn (1644-1718) gained control of the area as part of a land grant from the English king. Arriving in the new territory in 1682, Penn initially made the existing Swedish settlement of Upland his “shire town,” renaming it Chester after a county in England. Only when an established landowner there refused to sell him enough property for the town to expand did Penn turn north to locate his provincial capital, Philadelphia, twelve miles up the Delaware River.

Although no longer the provincial capital, Chester remained a county seat and continued to serve that role after Delaware County separated from Chester County in 1789. During its early history it remained a small market town, hemmed in by farms and the river. In 1850, when the county courthouse and jail became dilapidated and too costly to fix, residents established a new county seat in mid-county and named it Media. That prompted many prominent county citizens to relocate from Chester to Media, where they built fine brick homes and offices surrounding the new courthouse.

[caption id="attachment_26691" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of a two story Colonial building clad in stone. The Old Chester County Courthouse was built in Chester in 1724. It remained in use as the county courthouse after Delaware County separated from Chester County in 1789. A new county seat was established in Media in 1850 and the courthouse became Chester City Hall. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

William Penn encouraged the formation of self-governing communities in his new territory. The earliest townships became incorporated well before Delaware County separated from Chester County, some even before 1700. Penn’s followers named their settlements after the places in England that they left behind or adopted Biblical or descriptive names. In Delaware County, these included Darby, Swarthmore, Ridley, and Lansdowne as well as Middletown, Bethel, and Concord. Quakers from Wales settled along the “Welsh tract” on the county’s northern border, where they founded several villages, including Haverford, Radnor, Tredyffrin, and Bryn Mawr, all named for places in Wales.

Some settlers clustered in market towns and manufacturing centers that prospered largely due to their connections to Philadelphia. Living at increasing densities, residents wanted reliable water supplies, well-maintained roads, docks, and other transportation and commercial facilities, and peacekeeping by hired constables. They secured those services by carving out small self-governing boroughs from large townships. Most such population centers sat near the border with Philadelphia, with housing stock and population mix very much like adjacent areas of the city. By the 1880s and 1890s, a number of them had seceded from large eastern townships like Darby, Upper Darby, and Ridley and successfully established themselves as independent boroughs. Over time this historic pattern of intense fragmentation in southeastern Delaware County brought disadvantages to the smallest jurisdictions.

Transportation Routes and Settlement Patterns

The county’s earliest east-west transportation routes made a lasting impact on development, spawning settlements and boosting their populations over time. One of the most important routes ran along the Delaware River connecting Philadelphia with Wilmington, Delaware. Well before the American Revolution, travelers used a roadway that crossed the southern border of the county between those two cities. In 1851 the state chartered a privately owned company to maintain a section of that roadway as the Darby and Ridley Turnpike (also known as the Chester Pike) and collected tolls to support its upkeep. Eventually, with the creation of the U.S. Highway System in 1926, this route became U.S. Route 13.

[caption id="attachment_26702" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of the Thomas Leiper estate. It features a prominent porch, columed entryway, and twin chimneys. One of Delaware County’s earliest major industrialists was Thomas Leiper (1745-1825), who built the first permanent railway in 1809 to haul building stones from his quarry on Crum Creek to a wharf on Ridley Creek where they could be loaded onto barges bound for Philadelphia. The three-quarter-mile horse-drawn railway operated until 1828 when Leiper’s son George (1786-1868) replaced it with a canal that operated until 1852. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Railroads boosted settlements along the Delaware River when, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad (PW&B) ran a line along the river. Construction began between Baltimore and Philadelphia in 1837, and by 1850 the extended route connected Delaware County to Washington, D.C., in the south and New York City to the north. In 1870 the PW&B built a line north of the river called the Darby Improvement, aimed at skirting areas prone to flooding and serving growth in this largely undeveloped southeast corner of Delaware County. Around rail stations on that line, developers built new towns such as Ridley Park, Sharon Hill, and Norwood.

The Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad reinforced development along the Delaware River by starting its own service from Philadelphia to Baltimore in 1838 on tracks owned by PW&B. When the Pennsylvania Railroad bought control of PW&B in 1884, the new owner barred its competitor from using its right-of-way. That forced the B&O to build another rail line only a few miles north of the PW&B, completed in only two years. In 1887 the B&O also came into possession of an important north-south rail route when its subsidiary, the Baltimore and Philadelphia Railroad, acquired a rail spur originally built by the Thomas Leiper (1745-1825) family to haul quarried stone from their property on the Crum Creek. The B&O network boosted industrial development by providing direct passenger and freight service to the massive Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone on the Delaware River.

Halfway up the county from the Delaware River, early settlers in 1702 began constructing an east-west route known as the Baltimore Pike, making it among the earliest public roads in the English colonies. Later known as Route 1, this road spurred growth in towns along its path, including Media, Swarthmore, Wallingford, and Lansdowne.

In the northern tier of the county, a major east-west route was created in 1848 when private investors built a toll road called the Philadelphia and West Chester Turnpike. During the 1850s, private enterprisers added a horse-drawn rail line along part of the turnpike, and by the 1890s they had introduced trolley service that ran all the way from West Chester to Upper Darby down the middle of the road that became known as West Chester Pike, later Route 3. These east-west routes of roads and rails made commuting to Philadelphia possible. Developers built communities for the new professional classes to inhabit Victorian-style homes. Almost overnight, builders gobbled up any farmland within walking distance of commuter railroad stations. In 1850, when Media was established, the population of Delaware County was 24,679, according to that year’s census. By 1910 it had grown to 117,000.

[caption id="attachment_26697" align="alignright" width="300"]A map showing proposed routes of Interstate 476, labled Interstate 476, colloquially known as the Blue Route, runs through the southeastern portion of Delaware County. Its construction, though delayed for thirty years, increased traffic and commerce to the area and was intended in part to spur Delaware River waterfront redevelopment in Chester. (I-476 Improvement Plan via Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

In the late twentieth century, planners added an important new north-south route to the county’s already-dense transportation network. The southernmost section of Interstate 476, known as the “Blue Route” because of its color designation on planning maps, extended through the middle of the county to link the Pennsylvania Turnpike north of Delaware County to Interstate 95 at the county’s southern border. The protracted, thirty-year negotiation over the route, caused mainly by vigorous opposition from residents living in its path, meant that suburban development had already overtaken most of the land adjacent to the highway by the time it opened in 1991. While the Blue Route did not change the settlement patterns much in mid-county, it did increase traffic and commerce at interchanges with the major east-west routes. Some observers credited the Blue Route with spurring redevelopment near the southern end of the highway on the Chester waterfront, including a professional soccer stadium, a Harrah's casino, and a race track.

Manufacturing and Commercial Centers

Although farming dominated Delaware County throughout the eighteenth century, many paper, cotton, woolen, lumber, and grain mills proliferated along four creeks: Darby, Crum, Ridley, and Chester. Along the Delaware River, early investments in shipping, shipbuilding, brickworks, and iron foundries prompted further industrial development after the Civil War, especially shipbuilding in and around Chester. John Roach & Co., founded in 1864, ranked as the largest shipbuilding company in the United States during the 1870s. By 1900, a third of the county's population lived in Chester, and the waterfront industrial complex contributed significantly to the country’s defense during both world wars, particularly Sun Shipbuilding Company, founded in 1916 by Joseph N. Pew (1886-1963).

[caption id="attachment_26701" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a crowd of thousands of men. The front row is seated while the rest stand. The Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company was founded by the Pew family in 1917 as a subsidiary of Sun Oil Company. At its peak at the end of World War II, Sun Ship employed nearly forty thousand workers and had launched 318 vessels. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The Baldwin Locomotive Works moved from Philadelphia to the borough of Eddystone on the Delaware River in 1906, and by 1916 it was building army tanks for use on the battlefields of Europe during World War I. Sun Oil Co., also owned by the Pew Family, built an oil refinery in 1890 in Marcus Hook at the southern tip of the county. There the convergence of rail, roads, a deep-water port, and the nation's growing thirst for petroleum gave rise to the refineries that became the borough's dominant industry. Other manufacturers located on the Delaware River included Scott Industries, which produced paper and foam products, and American Viscose Co., which made rayon and other synthetic fibers. Ford Motor Co., Boeing Helicopter, and Westinghouse Electric also flourished along the river, drawing workers from all over the country.

[caption id="attachment_27407" align="alignright" width="300"]color map of Delaware County PA showing median household incomes, 2014 This map shows 2014 median household incomes in Delaware County, tucked against the southwest edge of Philadelphia. Click on the map in the image gallery at right for a larger view.[/caption]

From the 1950s onward, Delaware County manufacturers fell victim to the same forces that had already begun to dismantle Philadelphia’s industrial base. From 1970 to 2000, Delaware County lost 54 percent of its manufacturing jobs. Of the manufacturing employment that remained, over a third (38 percent) was in aerospace manufacturing, largely due to Boeing’s continuing presence.

Unlike manufacturing jobs, the service jobs that replaced them were scattered more broadly throughout the county. Retailers, restaurants, and services followed the spread of population into communities that offered desirable housing styles and schools. Health care provided another important source of employment, dominated by general medical and surgical hospitals, but also including physicians, residential facilities treating intellectual disabilities, community care for the elderly, and nursing homes.

In some cases, shopping malls served as focal points for development. For example, the Springfield Mall, a 590,000-square-foot, two-level facility opened in 1974 along Baltimore Pike, near its busy intersection with Pennsylvania Route 320. Its original anchors included a John Wanamaker department store. Although the mall declined during the 1980s, it recovered strongly after the Blue Route opened in 1991, helping to spawn a nearby development of age-restricted townhomes, condominiums, and golf course, as well as the Springfield Health Plex and hospital. Shopping centers and retirement communities like these brought increased traffic and commerce to the county’s major east-west corridors like U.S. Route 1 and West Chester Pike.

Population Growth and Change

Beginning as early as the 1830s and continuing through World War II, early industrial opportunities along the Delaware River drew thousands of Irish Catholic workmen to mill and factory jobs in Upper Darby and Clifton Heights across the border from West Philadelphia. Polish and Italian workers came in the twentieth century to work in factories or to run small businesses. Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants built churches and parochial schools that flourished until the 2000s, when they started to decline along with the county’s aging Catholic population.

Some companies built housing for their workers. The Washington Print Works built Eddystone Village, named for a lighthouse in England. The village, just north of Chester, subsequently became the Borough of Eddystone. Flooring manufacturer Congoleum Nairn Inc. built housing for its workers in Trainer on the Delaware River west of Chester City. In other instances, independent developers built housing for workers in the county’s older settlements, ranging from apartment buildings to row houses to small cottages, in Chester, Clifton Heights, Eddystone, Ridley, and Nether Providence before and during both world wars.

[caption id="attachment_26699" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of shoppers walking through a busy business district. Sign on shop reads Florsheim Shoes. Upper Darby in northwestern Delaware County has been home to a bustling downtown business district for most of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, as seen in this 1978 photograph. The borough was primarily farmland until the construction of the Market-Frankford Elevated Line in 1907 provided easy access to and from Philadelphia. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

When manufacturing declined, housing values in many blue collar neighborhoods also declined. As these neighborhoods became more affordable, they drew growing numbers of minority and immigrant residents, especially in the last few decades of the twentieth century. By the 1990s, African Americans comprised 80 percent of the population of the city of Chester and some of the inner suburbs along the border with Philadelphia, such as Yeadon, Colwyn, and Darby Borough. Because of its transportation system and large rental housing stock, Upper Darby—the county’s largest municipality in both area and population—became a major catchment area for immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Asians from the Indian subcontinent constituted the majority in tiny Millbourne, the county’s smallest municipality at just .07 of a square mile, nestled between Philadelphia and Upper Darby Township.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, many municipalities remained more than 90 percent white. They included townships in the northern and western suburbs like Newtown Square, Edgmont, Chadds Ford, and Bethel. Perhaps more surprisingly, some boroughs in southeastern Delaware County with homes priced affordably for a broad range of both white and nonwhite buyers remained over 90 percent white in 2000 (for example, Eddystone, Norwood, Prospect Park, and Ridley Park). The result was a pattern of racial and ethnic separation into predominantly white or black towns, through a combination of zoning ordinances and informal real estate practices that materialized despite objections from fair housing activists as early as the 1970s.

Social Disparities Amid Changing Political Landscape

The final decades of the twentieth century witnessed dramatic population shifts in Delaware County, with some older communities losing population while newer suburbs to the west and north gained. Those population shifts mirrored the widening income gaps between communities. By 2014, fast-growing Bethel Township boasted a median household income of $123,349, while the shrinking number of residents in Chester City survived on a median household income of only $28,607.

These contrasting development patterns created differences in tax resources and therefore in municipal services. Compared to area townships, boroughs were especially disadvantaged because their very small landmasses (in some cases only one square mile or less) were entirely developed, leaving little room to create new taxable property. Their municipal budgets were too small to fund first-rate services. With stagnating tax bases, school districts collected fewer dollars to spend on public education. Among the fifteen school districts in Delaware County in 2015, the three highest-spending districts spent over $22,000 on each student; these were the districts of Radnor Township, Rose Tree Media, and Marple-Newtown, all serving children in the northern suburbs and mid-county. The four lowest-spending districts (William Penn, Penn-Delco, Southeast Delco, and Upper Darby) spent less than $16,000 per student. Three of those four low-spending districts hugged the western boundary of the city of Philadelphia.

[caption id="attachment_26809" align="alignright" width="300"]a chart indicating a shift between a majority Republican voter base to a majority Democratic voter base in Delaware County between the years 1980 and 2016. Historically the Republican Party dominated county politics starting before the Civil War and continuing through most of the twentieth century. Republican-dominated municipal governments were able to keep many communities virtually all white for decades but, as in Upper Darby and Millbourne, the racial makeup of some communities started to change at the end of the twentieth century. County voters who had given majorities to Republicans Ronald Reagan (1911-91) and George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) favored Bill Clinton (b. 1946) in the 1990s and continued supporting Democratic presidential candidates in subsequent elections.[/caption]

To make such stark inequalities worse, the lower-spending districts were educating higher shares of low-income children. For example, in 2015 only 9 percent of the school population in high-spending Radnor Township had incomes low enough to qualify for free- and reduced-prices lunches. That same year, low-spending districts like Southeast Delco and William Penn served student bodies in which 82 percent and 70 percent, respectively, qualified for the lunch program. Both these districts served multiple towns too small to operate their own schools and densely developed so that they had little prospect of adding new property to bolster their tax base. Southeast Delco educated children from three boroughs plus one township, while the William Penn School District served six small boroughs crowded together at the Philadelphia border. Despite levying relatively high property tax rates compared to their neighbors, these older communities remained consistently underfunded.

According to the 2010 census, the county population was roughly 80 percent white and 18 percent black, with Asians and Hispanics making up the rest. The growing proportion of minority residents appeared to have an impact on political attitudes and behavior. Historically the Republican Party dominated county politics starting before the Civil War and continuing through most of the twentieth century. Republican-dominated municipal governments were able to keep many communities virtually all white for decades but, as in Upper Darby and Millbourne, the racial makeup of some communities started to change at the end of the twentieth century. The political makeup of some municipal governments such as Media and Swarthmore also slowly changed, while gerrymandering of state and congressional election districts helped the Republican Party maintain its grip on the county as a whole. In national elections, the voters shifted in 1990s toward Democratic candidates. County voters who had given majorities to Republicans Ronald Reagan (1911-91) and George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) favored Bill Clinton (b. 1946) in the 1990s and continued supporting Democratic presidential candidates in subsequent elections.

Twenty-First Century Development Patterns

While the populations of many communities in eastern Delaware County remained stable or declined over time, at the end of the twentieth century the western suburbs experienced growth and sprawl. The county’s last valuable unprotected wetlands, woodlands, and farms were located in the western and northern municipalities where new development rapidly replaced open land. As the population in that area continued to grow, so did the need for open space. To preserve farms and woodlands, the county government published a plan in 2013 for economic development and land use that encouraged infill development to preserve and rehabilitate existing infrastructure and housing stock wherever possible while also protecting green spaces.

Key to that strategy was revitalizing the Delaware riverfront. Nearly twenty-five million people lived within a two-hour drive from the heart of Delaware County’s waterfront industrial area, making that location potentially attractive to businesses that relied on quick access to markets up and down the East Coast. Moreover, the nearby Philadelphia International Airport provided passenger and cargo service to waterfront producers.

[caption id="attachment_26810" align="alignright" width="300"]a chart indicating population shifts in various Delaware County municipalities between 1980 and 2010 The final decades of the twentieth century witnessed dramatic population shifts in Delaware County, with some older communities losing population while newer suburbs to the west and north gained. Those population shifts mirrored the widening income gaps between communities. By 2014, fast-growing Bethel Township boasted a median household income of $123,349, while the shrinking number of residents in Chester City survived on a median household income of only $28,607.[/caption]

County planners favored guiding residential investments on the eastern side of the county into transit-oriented developments around regional rail lines and bus ways, for example, at Sixty-Ninth Street (Upper Darby/Millbourne), in Darby, Lansdowne, Media, Parkside, Ridley Park, and Swarthmore. For the western and northern suburbs, planners advised a shift in development patterns away from the sprawling single family homes popular in the 1990s and 2000s, to more dense housing patterns such as townhomes.

No matter how carefully the county government documented the need for and potential benefits of such development strategies, the structure of local government in Pennsylvania gave primary responsibility for regulating land-use to local governments, which controlled zoning. County governments played only a limited role, mainly advising and supporting local planning efforts. Not surprisingly, affluent townships like Radnor and Middletown devoted the most open space for both recreational and passive uses. Local governments in those communities, along with other affluent townships like Concord, Nether Providence, and Upper Providence persuaded citizens to approve bond issues for millions of dollars to purchase and preserve open space. In contrast, leaders in the older suburbs, especially the small boroughs, faced greater obstacles. These small, densely-populated communities possessed few undeveloped parcels. Moreover, local leaders felt pressed to develop any available spaces in order to bolster their precarious tax bases.

One large-scale example of the trend to direct new investment into already-developed locations involved repurposing Granite Run Mall in Middletown Township, near the center of the county. That mall, opened in 1974 as a middle-class shopping venue, failed to compete against e-commerce and the retailers occupying Springfield Mall. By summer 2015, an investment partnership that included longtime developer Bruce Toll (b. 1943) demolished the retail spaces located between two large anchor stores, in order to replace them with high-end retailers and restaurants. The plan would transform the site into a mixed-use town center called “The Promenade at Granite Run.” This new incarnation included not only retail but also hundreds of residential apartments, a renovated movie theater, bowling alley, and seven thousand square feet of pediatric offices operated by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Delaware County’s long arc of development created dramatic contrasts: from a gritty industrial belt along the Delaware River, to Victorian towns built around rail stations, to pastoral landscapes painted by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) in Chadds Ford on the county’s western edge. These stark differences created both challenges and opportunities for county leaders. The broad variation in the age, character, and social composition of different communities, while making coordinated planning difficult, also insured that Delaware County offered living choices for newcomers of almost all backgrounds and means. The combination of abundant rail transportation, high-density town centers, and surviving open spaces made the county a prime candidate to adopt a “smart growth” plan aimed at concentrating future development in existing settlements in order to preserve natural landscapes.

Jodine Mayberry is a retired journalist. She was a legal writer and editor for West Publications, a division of Thomson Reuters, for 18 years.

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Manufacturing Suburbs

[caption id="attachment_22865" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial view of the Schuylkill River looking southeast from Manayunk This 1915 aerial view of the Schuylkill River, looking southeast from the vicinity of Fountain Street in Manayunk, shows the numerous factories and homes that lined its banks. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Although early industrialization in the eighteenth century took root mainly in urban centers, a substantial share of the Philadelphia region’s early manufacturing sprang up in small towns outside the young city. The explanation for that pattern lay in the region’s great rivers, the Delaware and Schuylkill. As early as the eighteenth century, enterprising settlers saw that the fast-moving currents in those rivers could drive water wheels to power grist mills, sawmills, paper mills, and iron foundries, and they built such businesses along the banks. When coal-fired steam engines overtook both water wheels and hand work, some of those early producers remained on the rivers’ edge since waterways provided affordable transportation for raw materials and finished goods. Thus, the map of early suburban manufacturing followed the region’s main waterways, a pattern that eventually influenced the paths of subsequent transportation networks of rail lines and highways.

[caption id="attachment_22497" align="alignright" width="236"]An image of two smoke stacks and three water towers of the Campbell's Soup Company building.  The Water towers are painted with the Campbell's name and logo The Smoke stacks have the words Visible here are the smoke stacks and water towers of the Campbell’s Soup factory in Camden, New Jersey. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the first half of the nineteenth century canals enhanced the region’s rivers by extending their reach into the hinterlands and overcoming obstructions along particular stretches of river. Canals served especially to transport anthracite coal from the northeastern Pennsylvania coal fields to riverfront manufacturing towns. For example, Bristol Borough in Bucks County began to prosper as a manufacturing center on the Delaware River twenty-three miles northeast of the city after the Lehigh Canal built in 1829 connected Bristol with the state’s anthracite coal fields located near Mauch Chunk (later renamed Jim Thorpe) in Carbon County. Bristol’s industrial base expanded substantially in 1876 when William Grundy (1836-93) moved his woolen mill from Philadelphia, producing rugs, carpets, hosiery, and cloth. In 1815 the Schuylkill Navigation Company built a canal from Pottsville to Philadelphia, making possible the emergence of Manayunk as a mill town on the banks of the river. By 1830 the canal reached into the state’s coal region via Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, prompting its textile mills to mechanize to such an extent that Manayunk acquired the unflattering label “the Manchester of America.”

Table showing numbers of manufacturing employees by county in 1860A few of the manufacturing clusters outside Philadelphia grew to become small cities. The city of Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia developed a diversified manufacturing base in the nineteenth century by producing woolens, carriages, writing pens, and, most famously, Campbell’s Soup. The New York Shipbuilding Corporation began operations in 1899 on 160 acres in Camden, where the company built ships in assembly-line fashion, from barges to passenger liners and battleships. By World War II, it had become a central engine of Camden’s economy. Down the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the city of Chester in Delaware County based its prosperity on a diverse manufacturing base that included shipbuilding, textiles, metal products, and paper. Unlike smaller manufacturing suburbs, cities like Camden, Chester, and Wilmington developed beyond their manufacturing base. They gained prominence as hubs of transportation (mainly ports and railroads) and regional business services like banking, finance, and insurance.

Manufacturing Villages

[caption id="attachment_22866" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial view of the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. This aerial photograph of the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company, taken in 1915, shows the factory complex on the bank of the Schuylkill River with proximity to railroad tracks and a bridge over the river. Portions of Conshohocken are visible in the distance. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

By contrast, other early manufacturing villages remained small, focused on one or two industries. On the west side of Philadelphia, ten miles up the Schuylkill River, the town of Conshohocken spawned iron works on a canal alongside an unnavigable stretch of river. The first foundry was built in 1844. The longest-surviving firm was Alan Wood & Co., which established the Schuylkill Iron Works plant there in 1857. By 1920 Alan Wood Steel could produce 500,000 tons of steel a year. It remained the economic mainstay of Conshohocken until the mid-twentieth century. Many such towns specialized: Phoenixville produced steel; Gloucester City housed DuPont Chemicals; and asbestos plants fueled Ambler’s growth. Although they remained small, these nineteenth-century manufacturing towns shared some features in common with cities, including a land use pattern that mixed together manufacturing, housing, and walkable commercial districts where craftsmen, tradesmen, and merchants clustered. That surviving land-use pattern differentiated early manufacturing communities from twentieth century suburban towns.

Not every important industry located on a river bank. Some chose locations near an important source of raw materials. For example, glass manufacturing flourished during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, particularly around the town of Glassboro in Gloucester County, named for the distinguished craftsmanship of what came to be known as “South Jersey Glass.” The quality of southern New Jersey’s sand, a major ingredient in glass manufacture, helped to establish its reputation, while its proximity to Philadelphia provided a large market for the industry. 

[caption id="attachment_22528" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the Lee Tire and Rubber Company's main building in Conshohocken, Pa. The main building of the Lee Tire and Rubber Company, built in 1909 in Conshohocken, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.(Library of Congress)[/caption]

In the first three decades of the twentieth century, more manufacturers built factories in the suburbs, attracted by cheap land and enabled by cheap energy. In 1916 Sun Oil chose to locate Sun Shipbuilding Co. in Marcus Hook in Delaware County eighteen miles downriver from Philadelphia. That plant grew quickly by delivering tanker ships to serve in World War I. In 1924, Baldwin Locomotive expanded its massive Philadelphia operations by building a suburban plant in Eddystone in Delaware County, about twelve miles south of Philadelphia on the Delaware River. In 1925 the Ford Motor Co. transferred its regional operations from North Philadelphia to Chester, where it found more space and more efficient transportation for finished cars. Another major auto manufacturer, General Motors, opened a components factory upriver from Philadelphia in 1938 in West Trenton. 

The Depression dealt a dramatic blow to many of these plants. Markets for their products collapsed in the 1930s, but business revived during World War II. Military contractors in Camden, Chester, and many parts of Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties employed thousands of defense workers. Sun Shipbuilding once again constructed vital oil tankers for a Navy that fought a war on two oceans, while New York Ship built aircraft carriers and battleships.

Lure of the Highway 

Once the expanded highway network of the 1960s and 1970s increased access to undeveloped parcels of land outside the city, manufacturing spread more widely across the region. Rather than concentrating in towns, many manufacturers chose to build near highway off-ramps to speed transportation in and out of their plants, creating a highly dispersed pattern of industrial development.

[caption id="attachment_22530" align="alignright" width="300"]A Molder collecting liquefied steel at Baldwin Locomotives' Eddystone, Pa plant. Photographed in 1938, a molder is shown at work at Baldwin Locomotive, which slowly shifted its production from Philadelphia to suburban Eddystone, Delaware County, beginning in 1906. (National Archives and Records Administration)[/caption]

To counteract the flight of industrial jobs, the city created its own industrial park in Northeast Philadelphia. In that sparsely populated section of the city, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation assembled large parcels of land during the 1960s and equipped them with water, sewer, and other industrial infrastructure. In effect, the city developed its own manufacturing “suburb” within the city limits.

In the space of only a few decades, however, new forces emerged to further challenge both city and suburbs. Obsolete technologies, coupled with competition from low-wage producers around the globe, forced many suburban manufacturers out of business. When diesel technology eclipsed Baldwin’s steam engines, the company shut down its Eddystone plant in the early 1970s. Alan Wood Steel Co. closed its Conshohocken plant in 1977, driven out of business by foreign steel. U.S. Steel managed to keep its Fairless Hills Plant in Falls Township, Bucks County, open, but only until 1991. 

Manufacturing Persists

[caption id="attachment_22529" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial view of he U.S. Steel Fairless Plant on the Delaware RIver. The U.S. Steel Fairless Plant in Fairless Hills, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, began steel production in 1952 on a 1,600-acre site. (National Archives and Records Administration)[/caption]

Despite a broad regional decline in manufacturing, the Philadelphia metropolitan area remained competitive in various forms of advanced manufacturing that make use of new materials and processes enabled by nanotechnology or other scientific innovations. Those include pharmaceuticals, medical devices and equipment, precision instruments, plastics, chemicals, aircraft, and other defense industries.

As factory after factory fell victim to overseas competition and outsourcing, the loss of that industrial base brought a host of fiscal and social problems to manufacturing suburbs, including distressed schools, brownfields, deteriorating housing stocks, and stagnating tax bases. Populations aged in some of these suburban towns because the housing stock turned over so slowly that homeowners could not find buyers for their houses. Even in towns that were able to attract new populations, including African American and immigrant families, often the newcomers’ incomes and property values could not provide an adequate tax base for services.

Yet manufacturing suburbs also offered significant opportunities for redevelopment. Towns built before the automobile resembled the city’s industrial neighborhoods, densely developed with worker housing built within walking distance of manufacturing plants. They remained walkable communities usually with a main street commercial district. Planners and developers recognized a preference among some homebuyers for higher density housing in communities with historic character that allowed residents to rely less on automobiles and more on walking, bicycling and passenger rail lines serving many older river towns. The market potential was especially high for manufacturing suburbs built along rivers because of the premium that real estate markets place on waterfront locations. In places like Conshohocken and Bristol, developers repurposed mills, lofts, and other industrial buildings to house offices and commercial businesses. The success of such projects led regional planners to recognize that old manufacturing towns could help concentrate future commercial and residential development and lessen sprawl. 

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

King of Prussia, Pennsylvania

Twenty miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia, where the Pennsylvania Turnpike converges with the Schuylkill Expressway, a sleepy rural town clustered around a colonial-era tavern expanded massively in the twentieth century to become the region’s largest employment hub outside of Center City Philadelphia. Its suburban location in fast-growing Montgomery County proved irresistible to real estate developers in the 1950s, when highway builders added the turnpike-expressway interchange to the area’s already-existing connections to two national routes slated for significant upgrades: U.S. Route 202 running north-south and U.S. Route 422 stretching west into Ohio. Although built as an auto-dependent suburb, King of Prussia in the twenty-first century fell increasingly under the influence of new urbanist preferences for a higher-density grid pattern and transportation options that accommodated pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users.

[caption id="attachment_20988" align="alignright" width="300"]Watercolor depicting the King of Prussia Inn from the mid-nineteenth century. This watercolor depicting the historic King of Prussia Inn was painted by nineteenth-century railroad agent and amateur artist David J. Kennedy. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

King of Prussia’s name comes from an inn and tavern opened in 1769 in a converted farmhouse originally built by Welsh Quakers in 1719. The owner named his tavern to honor King Frederick II of Prussia, an eighteenth-century monarch who opposed Britain’s imperial ambitions. The business prospered because its location stood at a crossroads exactly one day’s travel from Philadelphia by horse, a favored position further boosted with the arrival of a rail connection to the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads. By 1850, both the inn and the place were called King of Prussia. By the twentieth century, its size warranted its own zip code (19406) and post office, but King of Prussia existed as an incorporated governmental jurisdiction in Upper Merion Township, not a separate town. In this edge city, so-called because of its replication of historically central city functions in a previously rural area, the King of Prussia Business Improvement District established in 2010 became the closest thing to a governing framework through its work to enhance the commercial environment and to influence township policies on zoning, planning, taxes and transportation issues.

King of Prussia Business Park

[caption id="attachment_20991" align="alignright" width="280"]Black and white of the turnpike interchange at King of Prussia. The turnpike exchange at King of Prussia was surrounded by largely undeveloped land when this photograph was taken in 1954. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Highway construction in the mid-twentieth century set the stage for King of Prussia’s rapid development into an edge city. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, constructed from west to east across the state, arrived at Valley Forge in 1950, and by 1954 it extended eastward to the Delaware River. Almost at the same time Philadelphia was building its Schuylkill Expressway, which fully opened in 1958. That same year, spurred by the turnpike’s arrival near King of Prussia, Boston developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes acquired rights to 710 acres north of the turnpike interchange and began signing up companies like Western Electric, Smith Kline and French, Merck Sharp and Dohme, and Pennwalt to occupy warehouses, office buildings, and factories. Since the highway interchange made it a reasonable commute from many other suburban communities, jobs quickly multiplied in what was then called the King of Prussia Industrial Park (later known as the Business Park). While some companies came from outside the region, others moved from Philadelphia to this convenient suburban location. For example, General Electric in 1962 relocated a major division from West Philadelphia to King of Prussia.

Subsequently the business park hosted software, biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, finance, and insurance firms. From the beginning it welcomed defense contractors, one of which became the target of a famous anti-war protest by the Plowshares Eight. In September 1980 antiwar activists Daniel (1921-2016) and Philip (1923-2002) Berrigan with a half dozen other protesters illegally entered the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, vandalized the nose cones of several nuclear warheads being assembled there, and poured blood on company documents. Their arrest and trial sparked the Plowshares Movement, which grew into an international Christian peace movement. The business park continued to house numerous defense-related firms, most notably Lockheed Martin Space System Company, which took over the General Electric facility through corporate mergers.

King of Prussia Mall

[caption id="attachment_20992" align="alignright" width="238"]Black and white photo of a large crowd gathered outside of Gimbels department store for the grand opening at the King of Prussia Mall. Gimbels department store held its grand opening ceremony at the King of Prussia Mall on May 2, 1966. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

To the average resident of the Philadelphia region, King of Prussia became known even more for its retailing than for its industrial production. The Kravitz Company began building its first-generation mall near the highway interchange in 1963. That early outdoor mall consisted of a strip of anchor stores (Korvette 1962, JC Penney 1963, John Wanamaker 1965, Gimbels 1966) around an Acme supermarket, along with a cluster of smaller specialty shops. Starting from that mid-market retail cluster intended to serve middle-income households, the mall gradually shifted toward luxury goods for higher-income shoppers. This evolving business strategy reflected the mall’s location in a favored part of the region where high-paying jobs abounded.

As early as 1970 the mall added an enclosed arcade to provide some indoor shopping at what came to be known as “The Plaza.” Then, in 1981, a second complex called “The Court” opened, adding upscale stores including Bloomingdale’s and Abraham and Strauss. The Court signaled the developers’ effort to rebrand King of Prussia as a higher-end shopping location for the increasingly affluent population living in the area. In a subsequent upgrade during the 1990s, the owner added nearly a million square feet to the older Plaza to make it the second largest mall in the United States, behind only the Mall of America in Minnesota. The renovations of the 1990s made room to add increasingly pricey shops to the existing retail mix, leading locals to distinguish between the “poor mall and the rich mall” because different sections of King of Prussia attracted different customers.

[caption id="attachment_20996" align="alignright" width="200"]Color photograph of King of Prussia Mall interior. The Kravitz Company established the Plaza at King of Prussia as a large open-air mall, with department stores, restaurants, and specialty shops totaling more than a million square feet of space. Over time, it was enclosed. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

In 2003 a major retail developer based in Indianapolis, the Simon Property Group, bought a controlling interest in the King of Prussia Mall. The Simon Group continued upgrading the property to provide the largest collection of luxury retailers in the region (for example, Neiman-Marcus, Nordstrom, Tiffany’s, and Hermes). Additional renovations done in 2016 included an indoor heated connector between the two main shopping centers—The Plaza and The Court—to tie them into a single complex while simultaneously adding fifty new stores and restaurants. The resulting three million square feet of mall space was projected to serve twenty-six million visitors a year, about one-fifth of them tourists in the region. Interestingly, that renovation sacrificed four hundred parking spaces, signaling a shifting vision for the edge city as a place that would also be reached by public transportation.

Coping With Congestion

King of Prussia’s history of reliance on the automobile made congestion on local roads a major problem for daily commuters, shoppers, and even tourists visiting nearby Valley Forge National Historical Park. Regional transportation planners and township zoning officials took steps to reduce dependence on automobiles and encourage people to live near their workplaces. With the closest rail station located two miles away from the mall, bus service on congested roads offered the only transit option, especially frustrating to the large number of transit-dependent riders commuting daily from Philadelphia to jobs in King of Prussia. To address this problem, SEPTA reviewed proposals for a five-mile rail extension to bring the Norristown High Speed Line into the core of King of Prussia, winding through the high-end stores, chain restaurants, and offices, with stops in both the shopping mall and business park. Construction was projected to start in 2020, with a cost exceeding one billion dollars.

As part of a broader movement to create a more traditional urban environment, Upper Merion Township rezoned the Business Park in 2014 to foster mixed uses and more compact development, to reduce parking requirements, and to promote pedestrian-friendly designs. The new guidelines authorized multifamily residential developers to build as many as thirty units per acre. Over time, plans called for replacing existing buildings with multipurpose structures to house people as well as businesses, restaurants and shops, allowing residents to live near their work.

That trend continued in plans to develop the last major open parcel, a former golf course west of the mall, as the Village at Valley Forge, centered on a “lifestyle shopping mecca” with streets laid out in a walkable grid pattern, sidewalk cafes, living spaces built above stores and restaurants, and a town square area for programming public events like yoga sessions and movie nights for families. Beyond that core, additional elements of the new Village at Valley Forge were to include hotels and a conference center along with a new surgery center for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This ambitious plan prompted some critics to question whether the area really needed more shopping, restaurants, and services. Wouldn’t that simply worsen congestion?

Despite spirited debate, it should not have surprised critics to see township officials approve the plans. Ever since the highway cloverleaf triggered new development in the late 1950s, Upper Merion Township’s government mostly maintained a pro-development stance, largely because new investment generated enough tax revenue to allow the township to keep its residents’ property taxes among the lowest in the region.

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Greater Philadelphia Movement

The reform wave that swept through City Hall in the mid-twentieth century owed much of its power to the Greater Philadelphia Movement (GPM), a volunteer group of corporate leaders who believed the city’s scandalous political corruption threatened its economic future. Formed in 1948, they called themselves “practical men” who wanted Philadelphia to work more effectively for both residents and investors. GPM members represented economic sectors like finance, insurance, law firms, and banks that were challenging the longstanding dominance of manufacturing businesses in the city’s economy and politics.

[caption id="attachment_19451" align="alignright" width="300"]Philadelphia was run by a powerful Republican Party for nearly 70 years, in part due to its weak charter which allowed patronage for public office. A new Home Rule Charter was approved by voters in 1951 with the promotion and support of the Greater Philadelphia Movement. Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries) Philadelphia was run by a powerful Republican Party for nearly 70 years, in part due to its weak charter which allowed patronage for public office. A new Home Rule Charter was approved by voters in 1951 with the promotion and support of the Greater Philadelphia Movement. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The example of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Conference, formed in 1944, had shown that active and well-organized business leaders could effectively join with political leaders to rebuild faltering cities. Among GPM’s most influential early members were C. Jared Ingersoll (1894-1988), railroad executive and banker; Robert T. McCracken (1883-1960), a leading Republican lawyer; and William Fulton Kurtz (1887-1969), president of First Pennsylvania Bank & Trust Co. Along with about two dozen colleagues, they saw political reform, physical renewal, and economic growth as interrelated issues. They proceeded problem-by-problem, each time investigating its nature and scope, proposing solutions, and handing the project off to another organization to implement solutions. If no organization existed to take on the task, GPM launched a new one–for example, the Food Distribution Center Corporation. GPM’s executive director and small staff were paid by contributions from the members and their firms.

GPM began by revising the city charter, the legal document defining the organization, powers, and functions of Philadelphia city government. The political scandals of the 1940s had convinced its leaders that the city required a new charter to eliminate corrupt practices and ensure more efficient delivery of city services. The new charter that GPM promoted created a strong mayor government, removing the City Council from administrative roles it had been playing and instead making all city departments report to a managing director. It introduced a strong merit system for staffing city departments, allowing them to hire only candidates that had been vetted by the Civil Service Commission.

Once drafted, the reform charter had to be ratified by Philadelphia voters. They required serious persuasion, especially because the established political parties opposed changes that would disrupt machine politics. To orchestrate the successful campaign for voter support, GPM formed in 1949 a new civic organization, the Citizens Charter Committee, which eventually consisted of representatives from five hundred social, fraternal, religious, and community organizations. The Chamber of Commerce raised $80,000 to fund the campaign waged by this network of civic organizations that ultimately won the voters’ approval for the reformed charter in April 1951. That same year Joseph Clark (1902-90) became the first reform mayor with support from GPM.

[caption id="attachment_19452" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the former Dock Street Market seafood warehouse in Society Hill For centuries, the market at Dock Street was the primary wholesale food distribution center in Philadelphia. The cramped, unsanitary market was razed by the Greater Philadelphia Movement when the new Food Distribution Center opened in South Philadelphia. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Physical redevelopment was another important priority for GPM. An early goal was eliminating the hazardous, decrepit downtown food market where fruits and vegetables were trucked into town and sold to local grocers and restaurants. Created in the days of horse carts, the Dock Street Market by the 1950s had become the cramped destination of 15,000 trucks per day. GPM spearheaded the project, launching the nonprofit Food Distribution Center Corporation in 1954 that removed this health and fire hazard from Society Hill and relocated it in a new Food Distribution Center built on 388 acres between Packer and Pattison Avenues in South Philadelphia.

During the 1960s GPM shifted its efforts to Philadelphia’s failing public schools, which operated primarily as a haven for patronage. Common Pleas judges appointed the members of the school board in a politically-driven process. Both teaching and nonteaching jobs were filled through patronage. Having succeeded in revising the city charter, GPM members successfully pressed Pennsylvania’s General Assembly to permit the Philadelphia City Council to create an Educational Home Rule Charter Commission to reform public school governance. Once established, the commission recommended assigning the mayor responsibility for selecting school board members from a list proposed by a nonpartisan citizens panel. GPM took a strong hand in the campaign to win voter approval for the change, using a strategy similar to the charter campaign–founding a Citizens’ Education Campaign Committee co-chaired by Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) and Thacher Longstreth (1920-2003) that included many of the same citizen activists who had campaigned for the charter. Arguing that a nonpartisan panel would assure higher-quality nominees for the school board than patronage politics had produced, they secured public approval in a referendum in May 1965. A month later the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin lauded GPM as “the cream of civic group giants,” the “powerhouse of Philadelphia’s citizen elites,” and “the combat and control center of the city’s movers and shakers.”

[caption id="attachment_19450" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a seated crowd at the Black Panther Party convention, Temple University Thousands peacefully assembled when the Black Panther Party convened at Temple University over Labor Day Weekend in 1970 despite public opposition. The Greater Philadelphia Movement surprised its supporters by speaking out in favor of the convention. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

GPM occasionally took stands not usually associated with business coalitions. A very public example occurred on Labor Day weekend 1970. Temple University had agreed to host a national convention of the Black Panther Party on its North Philadelphia campus. Responding to significant public opposition as well as incendiary comments from Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo (1921-1991), some Pennsylvania state legislators demanded that the university cancel the event in order to avoid civil unrest, whereas Governor Raymond Shafer (1917-2006) argued that despite their unpopularity, the Panthers were entitled to express their views publicly at an open convention. GPM surprised many by supporting the Panthers’ convention on the opinion page of the Bulletin: “We call upon all Philadelphians to understand and accept the vast difference between supporting the rights of others (to peaceful assembly) and agreeing with their views.” In the end, the convention drew thousands of participants to a peaceful event.

Despite its successful record, by the early 1970s business commentators were raising doubts about GPM’s future. Underneath the headline “Once-Powerful GPM Turns Flabby,” Lou Antosh and Peter Binzen reported that for the first time since GPM’s founding, business leaders were turning down invitations to join. To sustain itself, GPM merged in 1973 with another civic improvement organization, the Philadelphia Partnership, to become the Greater Philadelphia Partnership. Subsequently in the 1980s that group transformed itself again, expanding its concern beyond the city to the wider metropolitan region and calling itself the Greater Philadelphia First Corporation, which subsequently merged in 2003 with the regional Chamber of Commerce.

That trend of gradual shrinkage and consolidation reflected the diminishing role of corporate leadership In Philadelphia as in other U.S. cities. When corporate executives started moving more frequently from city to city, they took less interest in civic improvement. Mirroring that trend, the city’s mayors, starting with James Tate (1910-83) in the mid-1960s, began to pay less attention to policy advice from business leaders. Perhaps the most important explanation for diminishing corporate influence was that so many large corporations moved to the suburbs, giving their executives less motivation to invest time and money in systematically tackling the city’s deepest problems. In its early days, Mayor Joseph Clark had urged GPM to pursue city-suburban cooperation, but its members had shied away from what they saw as a goal that might take generations to achieve. Instead, they chose to focus their efforts on near-term objectives.

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC)

[caption id="attachment_12804" align="alignright" width="268"]A black and white photograph of a construction crew outside of the glass and steel building, working on the sidewalk and road. The Market East Shopping Center (known also as the Gallery) was part of PIDC's efforts to attract shoppers back into the heart of Philadelphia. When the Gallery opened in 1977, it was one of the first urban shopping centers in the country. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), a nonprofit corporation controlled jointly by the city government and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, formed in 1958 to support existing businesses and attract new ones by offering land and low-cost financing for both for-profit and nonprofit enterprises.  To accomplish this mission, PIDC manages the oldest municipal land bank in the United States, pioneering a novel approach to assembling, upgrading, and marketing urban land to business owners. 

During the 1950s the prevailing analysis of Philadelphia’s economic problem was that a lack of suitable land discouraged companies from expanding their plants and prevented new firms from moving into the city.  Modern technology and production processes had made one-story factories more efficient than multistory industrial buildings. Investors favored one-story factories with convenient access to highways, off-street parking for employees, and easy loading and unloading of freight—all features more likely to be found in suburban locations than in the city’s congested industrial districts. 

Elected in 1956, Mayor Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) made industrial renewal a top policy priority.  In 1958 Dilworth secured the cooperation of the city’s Chamber of Commerce to establish PIDC as a jointly-controlled nonprofit corporation.  The city and chamber each furnished half of its initial operating budget.  PIDC also received financial support from state industrial-development programs.

Moving quickly and at times controversially, PIDC acquired an inventory of abandoned industrial sites, as well as undeveloped parcels that might prove attractive to new firms or expanding companies whose owners wanted to stay in Philadelphia. Often PIDC improved the sites with water, sewer, and street installations before selling them to manufacturers.  PIDC then used the proceeds of those sales to create a revolving fund for further purchases. Most of this help went to small and medium-sized manufacturers and wholesalers in a wide variety of industries that reflected the historic diversity of the city’s economy: metal fabricators, publishers, machinists, food processors, makers of furniture, clothing, chemicals, and dozens of other products. 

PIDC soon realized it would also have to help companies acquire financing in order to counteract the lure of suburban and Sunbelt locations, many of which offered financial incentives.   Older plants, especially small family-owned businesses, suffered from declining property values in older industrial sections of the city.  Their declining equity made it hard for them to borrow money for upgrades they needed in order to compete against suburban producers.   PIDC found it could borrow money at below-market interest rates because the debt issued by municipalities is treated as tax-exempt by the federal government.  Borrowing at low interest rates, PIDC could then lend to companies at similarly low interest rates.  As historian Guian McKee has observed, that arrangement has meant over time that the subsidy enjoyed by PIDC’s client companies came largely from the federal government, not from local taxpayers.  

PIDC used its inventory of land parcels combined with financial incentives to lure companies to large industrial parks it began creating at the edges of Philadelphia during the 1960s.  Two prime examples are the Philadelphia Industrial Park created in the far northeast corner of the city and the Penrose Industrial District in the city’s southwest corner.  Each was constructed on land originally set aside for the city’s two airports, but not needed for that purpose.  These complexes provided the same modern buildings, landscaping, and ample parking as suburban industrial parks, with easier access to the city’s ports and airports.  Not surprisingly, they attracted dozens of companies, including both new arrivals and older established firms wanting to expand.

[caption id="attachment_12803" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the a three story building with the words The University City Science Center in West Philadelphia began with one building, at Thirty-Fourth and Market Streets. Today the Science Center exists as a fifteen-building complex spread across eight city blocks. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

PIDC also played a role in creating the nation’s first urban research park in 1963.  As early as 1959 PIDC began pursuing that goal in partnership with the West Philadelphia Corporation (a nonprofit organization focused on drawing research and development activities to the area adjoining the universities in West Philadelphia).  Hoping that the city’s combination of medical schools, along with pharmaceutical and chemical companies, could attract new research and development firms, PIDC and WPC together created a nonprofit entity, the University City Science Center, with a dual mission: to promote scientific, medical, and engineering research that could be commercialized, and to develop real estate that would attract companies and individuals engaged in those pursuits.  Since the Science Center’s incorporation in 1963, PIDC has supported its growth with low-interest loans and other assistance for real estate development, in addition to funding early-stage companies bringing health care and life science technologies to market.

Starting in the 1970s, PIDC began devoting major efforts to reinforce downtown Philadelphia as the region’s commercial center.  By the early 1970s it was becoming clear that business services were overtaking manufacturing as the backbone of the Philadelphia economy. PIDC added hotels, offices, shopping, entertainment, and commercial properties to its redevelopment agenda.  For example, PIDC bought the Bellevue Stratford Hotel on South Broad Street when it closed after a 1976 outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease.  That transaction allowed a critical property in a strategic location to be returned to productive use.  Other commercial projects included the Market East Shopping Center known as the Gallery, along with downtown parking garages, movie theaters, and restaurants. 

The largest of all PIDC endeavors is its ongoing campaign to redevelop 1,200 acres of land at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, which the federal government decommissioned after it had served for 125 years as a shipyard and naval base.  When the Navy transferred ownership of the yard to the city in 2000, PIDC was assigned responsibility for transforming the enormous installation into a mixed-use campus with an emphasis on green technology.  Combining office suites, manufacturing spaces, and research-and-development buildings, the area has benefited from $130 million in public investments for utilities, landscaping, roadways, and other infrastructure.  PIDC has incorporated environmental values into its redevelopment, including LEED building design, advanced storm water management, preservation of open spaces, smart grid, and renewable power sources.  More workers are now employed there than were employed by the naval shipyard before it closed.

[caption id="attachment_12802" align="alignright" width="575"]A map of the future construction of the Navy Yard, on top of a satellite image of the navy yard. The map portion shows colored sections of buildings, trees, and roads in various states of development. The satellite view is black and white, but shows more details of the buildings and roads. Since 2000, the PIDC has brought together more than 143 partners to the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to develop a mixture of commercial businesses, office buildings, public recreation spaces, and residential units. This map from the 2013 Navy Yard Master Plan shows the progress that has been made, and where future development is planned. (Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation)[/caption]

Despite its record over more than fifty years of investment and job development, PIDC has its critics.  Some have faulted PIDC for shifting manufacturing to industrial parks at the far edges of the city.  In so doing, PIDC spurred job growth in locations only reachable by automobiles, and that requirement discouraged employment of low-income workers who did not own cars.  Good-government advocates, including the city controller, have periodically complained that PIDC conducts its business without regard to the checks and balances that normally constrain government.  As a separate nonprofit corporation, PIDC is able to circumvent debt-protection and bidding requirements and spend money outside of the usual appropriation process, without the transparency normally expected from government departments.   Balancing such criticism is PIDC’s record of completing over 5,000 transactions involving 2,000 acres in land sales and about $8 billion in financing—numbers that increase each year as PIDC continues to attract business investment. 

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

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