Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Lincoln Drive

The 4.1 miles of Lincoln Drive that link Philadelphia’s northwest neighborhoods to Center City was built in three distinct segments over the course of five decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At its south end, a winding mid-nineteenth-century section along the Wissahickon Creek was originally constructed to provide access to water-powered industrial mills. A middle, City Beautiful-era section, was constructed on top of the channelized and buried Monoshone Creek. And at its north end, a discontinuous section was built to facilitate residential development of the Chestnut Hill neighborhood in the early twentieth century. Lincoln Drive’s twisting alignment and complicated character—a single roadway that functions as both a local street and a major arterial—reflect its hydrological origins and gradual evolution from commercial road to parkway to high-volume commuter route.

A nineteenth century photograph of the Maple Spring Hotel. The building is rectangular in shape with a pronounced porch along its exterior. Behind the building is a forest.

One of the many inns that lined Lincoln Drive in the nineteenth century, the Maple Spring Hotel served travelers and residents until business dropped off following a ban on the sale of alcohol within Fairmount Park boundaries in the 1870s. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

The first section of Lincoln Drive was a mile-and-a-half-long private toll road known as the Wissahickon Turnpike. Completed in 1856, it ran along the Wissahickon Creek between its confluence with the Schuylkill River, in the East Falls neighborhood, and Rittenhouse Town (also referred to as “Rittenhousetown” in many early sources), a small settlement of mills and residences in the Germantown neighborhood. This earliest section of the road provided access to paper, grist, fulling, saw, and powder mills that contributed to Philadelphia’s early industrial development. Inns, such as the Maple Spring Hotel, quickly sprang up along the turnpike to lodge and feed people traveling into and out of the city.

This first incarnation of Lincoln Drive was short-lived, however. Most of the mills along the Wissahickon Turnpike were gone within thirty years of the road’s construction. The city’s Fairmount Park Commission took title to lands in the Wissahickon River Valley in 1869 and 1870 and—to eliminate industrial discharges and protect water quality downstream—razed the mills. Still, the road, renamed Wissahickon Lane in the mid-1880s, remained open to provide access to the city’s growing park system and to the southern end of Germantown.

In the late 1890s, Wissahickon Lane was extended one and a half miles from Rittenhouse Town into the Mount Airy neighborhood. The combined length—the newly constructed section and the older mid-nineteenth century section—was given a new identity by being christened “Lincoln” in honor of the sixteenth U.S. president, though the road was known as Lincoln Avenue until an official name change to Lincoln Drive in 1931.

A Fortuitous Convergence

This extension of Wissahickon Lane and its renaming resulted from the concurrence of an exceptional opportunity and a growing demand. The opportunity was provided by the construction of a modern sewer system by the Public Works Department. The growing demand was for good roads due to booming sales of the first modern automobiles to wealthy residents of Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill.

A view of an S-Curve on the Lincoln Drive. To the left of the curve is a creek, and a forest surrounds the scenic road.

Lincoln Drive, linking Northwest Philadelphia to Center City, winds along the Wissahickon Creek and its tributaries. In this photograph, a view of Monoshone Creek (also known as Paper Mill Creek) can be seen on the left. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Philadelphia’s Public Works Department, in just one example of projects occurring across the city in the 1890s, channelized and buried in sewer pipes much of a small tributary of the Wissahickon called Monoshone Creek (also known as “Paper Mill Run” on some early maps). Then, between 1900 and 1909, the underground sewer was extended into Chestnut Hill and the branch’s entire length from Germantown to Chestnut Hill became known as the “Lincoln Avenue Interceptor.” This buried stream provided the alignment on which Lincoln Drive was built. (Streams and creeks elsewhere in the city met a similar fate, many of them with names still familiar today because of the roads that were constructed on top of them: Aramingo, Wingohocking, and Tacony, to name a few.)

This extension of Lincoln Drive provided a second major roadway connection to Center City. The other was Germantown Avenue, a historic, centuries-old road connecting Philadelphia to Chestnut Hill and to towns and cities to the north and west, including Reading, Allentown, and Bethlehem.

The covering of Monoshone Creek made possible the creation of Lincoln Drive, providing a routing and serving the functional and social interests of wealthy northwest neighborhood residents. By the early 1900s Germantown Avenue, still cobblestoned for much of its length, accommodated a busy electric trolley route, making it an inconvenient, uncomfortable, and slow route to use in early cars. Not only did the newly constructed Lincoln Avenue provide a faster route to Center City, it was built to be an aesthetically pleasing parkway in the City Beautiful tradition, an ideal road on which to drive. It complemented the two rail lines already serving the northwestern suburbs.

City Beautiful Influences

A 1915 map of Northwest Philadelphia, with the Chestnut Hill neighborhood in the left center. The Lincoln Drive, with its proposed expansions, cuts through the center of the neighborhood from right to left.

A 1915 map shows a proposed extension of Lincoln Drive through Pastorius Park and the Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Due to the Great Depression and neighborhood resistance, the extension never occurred. (PhillyHistory.org)

This conception of Lincoln Avenue in the 1910s and 1920s—as a beautifully designed parkway in keeping with the principles of the City Beautiful movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—had a lasting impact on adjacent land uses into the 1940s and 1950s. A few commercial properties were established along Lincoln Avenue/Drive, including gas stations and automotive garages. But many residents criticized them for being unsightly and out of keeping with the intent of the roadway. Their opposition succeeded in leading City Council to pass an ordinance in 1930 to prohibit additional filling stations on Lincoln Drive between Mount Airy Avenue and Sedgwick Street. The ordinance was overturned by a Court of Common Pleas the following year, however, because it was deemed an unreasonable and discriminatory prohibition on competition (three gasoline stations already existed nearby). The gas stations remained, but only a few commercial businesses joined them in the following decades and the roadway maintained its primarily residential nature.

Even as the middle section of Lincoln Avenue was being constructed, developers, politicians, and city planners envisioned the extension of the road into Chestnut Hill. There it would connect to Bethlehem Pike and to a proposed bridge over the Wissahickon to link Chestnut Hill to Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood and Main Line communities to the west. Pennsylvania State Senator George Woodward (1863-1952), son-in-law of Chestnut Hill developer Henry Howard Houston (1820-95), strongly advocated for the road and bridge investments. The Houston and Woodward families had substantial land holdings in northwest Philadelphia on both sides of the Wissahickon Creek, and faster and easier access to them would have significantly increased their value.

The extension was quickly initiated in the early 1900s, but in an incomplete and discontinuous manner that left a half-mile gap in the road between Allens Lane in Mount Airy and Cresheim Valley Road in Chestnut Hill and saw the road end at Abington Avenue, a half mile short of its envisioned connection to Bethlehem Pike. Although filling in the gaps remained a priority for many in Chestnut Hill, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the war years that followed left the proposals unfunded and unrealized.

In the 1950s, automobile ownership rose quickly and traffic volumes on Lincoln Drive increased rapidly, as they did on roads and highways throughout the city, the region, and the United States. Following public hearings organized by the city’s Board of Surveyors, some roadway modifications to increase vehicle capacity on Lincoln Drive were implemented, such as the widening of the drive from two to four lanes. But eventually, residents and business owners who had come to value the neighborhood’s reputation for exclusivity and quiet argued for keeping expansions to travel corridors in Chestnut Hill out of the heart of the neighborhood. In the early 1960s, those arguments won out and city planners dropped proposals for any additional work on Lincoln Drive from official city documents. The northern segment of Lincoln Drive remained a discontinuous and less-traveled section of the road.

Rising Car Ownership

A color photograph of the Wissahickon Memorial Bridge, a two-ribbed, open-spandrel, reinforced concrete bridge.

Lincoln Drive passes under the Wissahickon Memorial Bridge, a two-ribbed, open-spandrel, reinforced concrete bridge completed in 1932. (Photograph by Doug Kerr)

By the turn of the twenty-first century, rising car ownership rates and ongoing development in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill resulted in another change in the character of Lincoln Drive. By 2000, it had become a major route for commuters traveling from the northwestern neighborhoods of Philadelphia to Center City via the drive’s southern end, where motorists continued along the Schuylkill River via Interstate 76 (on the west bank) or Kelly Drive (on the east). Traffic volumes rose to a high level: tens of thousands of cars used the southernmost section of Lincoln Drive every day, with volumes tapering down to the low single-digit thousands in the northernmost section in Chestnut Hill. Because of the drive’s traffic volumes, narrow lanes, and winding route, buses and large commercial trucks were prohibited from using it.

While Lincoln Drive did not match the traffic volumes or crash counts of Philadelphia’s most dangerous roadways, such as Roosevelt Boulevard in the city’s Northeast, it developed a reputation for being a risky route. Commuters regularly traveled at double its posted 25 mph speed limit. And serious accidents, some causing major injuries and fatalities, occurred regularly, such as the 1982 crash on Lincoln Drive near Rittenhouse Street that left Philadelphia native and R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass (1950-2010) a paraplegic.

None of the 4.1 miles of Lincoln Drive existed before the mid-1850s, nearly two centuries after the founding of the city of Philadelphia by William Penn in 1682, but the eventual road and its alignment became reminders of the economic, infrastructure, and natural histories of the city. The beauty of the southern section’s setting along the Wissahickon Creek was impossible to miss, the history preserved in the Rittenhouse Town Historic District evoked the city’s industrial past, and the leafy early twentieth century neighborhoods of Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill illustrated the connection between residential development and investments in transportation infrastructure.

Bradley Flamm is the Director of Sustainability at West Chester University, an academic who has taught at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania, a transportation planner, and a resident of Northwest Philadelphia. He is grateful to the Philadelphia Streets Department’s Michael Carroll and Frank Morelli, the Philadelphia Free Library’s Alina Josan, and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s David Schaaf for their assistance in researching this article.

Copyright 2017, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Brandt, Frances Burke. The Wissahickon Valley Within the City of Philadelphia. Corn Exchange National Branch, Philadelphia, 1927.

Contosta, David R. Suburb in the City: Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 1850-1990. Ohio State University Press, 1992).

Philly H2O, The History of Philadelphia’s Watersheds and Sewers. Compiled by Adam Levine, Historical Consultant, Philadelphia Water Department.


The plot of Blow Out (1981, directed by Brian De Palma) turns on the unintentional recording of a car crash into the Wissahickon River from Lincoln Drive, just south of Forbidden Drive.


Archives, Philadelphia City Planning Commission, 1515 Arch St # 13, Philadelphia.

Archives, City of Philadelphia Streets Department,  1401 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia.

Archives, Fairmount Park Commission, 1515 Arch Street, Philadelphia.

Historical Maps collected in the Interactive Maps Viewer of the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network, Athanaeum of Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Rittenhouse Town, Lincoln Drive at Rittenhouse Street just off Wissahickon Avenue, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.

Wissahickon Bike Trail, accessible from Ridge Avenue, one hundred yards west of Lincoln Drive, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.

Pastorius Park, Lincoln Drive at West Abington Avenue, Philadelphia.

One Comment Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Flamm,

    That is a very interesting article. Thanks for posting it.

    I have a few comments and questions.

    As I understand it, the southern (or western–downstream) section of the road under discussion, between Ridge Avenue and Wissahickon Avenue, was originally called “Wissahickon Drive”, or “Lower Wissahickon Drive”, while “Upper Wissahickon Drive” was the road, now closed to motor vehicle traffic and called “Forbidden Drive”, that runs from Rittenhousetown north to Northwestern Avenue at the city line. “Forbidden Drive”, begins at Lincoln Drive and crosses to the west side of the creek a few hundred yards upstream of the confluence of the Monoshone with the Wissahickon.

    Wissahickon Drive was indeed a turnpike and the road served many road houses and something like 27 mills just within the current city borders. The Wissahickon was a thriving industrial valley until about the middle of the 19th century. I believe that Rittenhousetown alone had as many as 58 buildings at one time. As I understand it muchof Rittenhousetown is buried under the intersection of current Lincoln Drive and Wissahickon Ave and perhaps in Saylor’s Grove.

    As you note, in the mid and late 19th century the Fairmount Park Commission oversaw the purchase of the land on both sides of the creek to create the Wissahickon valley park. Upon doing so virtually of the remaining mills and other structures were demolished with only Valley Green Inn and the former Inn at Gypsy Lane remaining.

    The park was immediately popular for riding horses, paddling canoes, and other activities including driving along Wissahickon Drive. Many years ago while paging through a turn of the century (19th-20th) driving guide to the United States, I came across an entry about “Wissahickon Drive” (from Ridge Avenue to Northwestern Avenue) that described it as a road not to be missed, extolling its beauty and wonders. It was not until the early 1920s that “Upper Wissahickon Drive” was closed to motor vehicle traffic.

    When I was a child and teen the section of Lincoln Drive below Wissahickon Ave was still both officially and coloquially referred to as “Wissahickon Drive”; the name “Lincoln Drive” was only applied to that lower section of the road beginning in the 1970s in order to end confusion among drivers (and perhaps traffic reporters) between ‘Wissahickon Avenue”, “Wissahickon Drive”, and “Lincoln Drive”.

    Until very recently on City maps “Forbidden Drive” was still “Upper Wissahickon Drive”; if a person called 911 and asked for assistance on “Forbidden Drive” the dispatcher told the caller that s/he was not in the city and hung up. The caller had to say “Upper Wissahickon Drive”–a term that fell out of use well over a half century ago!.

    As to commerce, both Wissahickon Avenue and Ridge Avenue served as the major arteries to the northwest long before Lincoln Drive was conceived of. Wissahickon Avenue may have been called “Township Line Road”, but it is difficult for me to tell whether that designation on old maps refers to the border or the name of the road. At any rate, current Wissahickon Avenue separated “The German Township”–Germantown–from Roxborough Township (which I think was incorporated into the City of Philadelphia ahead of Germantown.) To this day city councilmatic districts are–absurdly– divided along the center of Wissahickon Avenue rather than the Wissahickon Creek so that residents of Mount Airy on the west side of Wissahickon Avenue have to vote–and are represented by legislators–over in Roxborough!

    On another note, a distinction has to be made between sanitary and storm sewers in this section of the city. The Monoshone was indeed capped over and flows under much of Lincoln Drive. Its flow is enhanced I believe by storm flow fed from street inlets and elsewhere. However, there is a separate sanitary sewer as well that connects to the interceptor that you mention. These are two separate systems although “cross connections”, where people have connected sanitary lines to the storm sewer system, remain a problem. These cross connections make the Monoshone one of the most polluted tributaries of the Wissahickon Creek, although the Water Department works diligently to find and correct them.

    Currently the beginning of the Cresheim Trail runs along the Lincoln Drive right of way from Allens Lane to its terminus near the Chestnut Hill West commuter rail line. Although the bridge across Cresheim Road was never constructed, a great deal of filling and cutting was done and most of it was paved as of the early 1940s. The WPA did extensive work there in 1938. Curbstones, the crown of the roadway, and degraded asphalt are evident, especially in winter.

    Thank you for a very interesting article. For old maps I encourage you and your readers to explore http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/ where one can type in a current address and view layers historic maps. There are lots of paper streets to be seen and a lot to learn from this fun website.

    David Dannenberg

    David Dannenberg Posted September 11, 2017 at 10:49 am

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  1. By Philly’s Lincoln Drive | Moving History on June 26, 2017 at 10:20 am

    […] shed light on over two hundred years of the economic, natural, and social histories of the city. This recently published article (an entry in the online Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, produced by the Mid-Atlantic Regional […]

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