History of 1860s and ‘70s, The Welsh Barony, historical book suggestions

More than eight years ago, when “Your Town and My Town” became a regular weekly feature of “The Suburban,” several of its early columns were based on information assembled by Joseph M. Fronefield, on Wayne as it appeared in the early ’80’s.

Mr. Fronefield first came to Wayne in 1881, and established a small drug store in the old Lyceum building, now remodelled into the Colonial building. After his death, the notes were lent to the writer by his son, Joseph M. Fronefield, 3d, as material for this column.

Mr. Fronefield also left a large number of books of historic interest and value. Among them are “The Wayside Inns on the Lancaster Roadside between Philadelphia and Lancaster,” written in the early 1900’s by Julius F. Sachse; “In old Pennsylvania,” by Anne Hollingsworth Wharton in 1920, and “Old Trails and Roads in Penn’s Land,” by John Faris, 1927.

The book of the greatest local interest is “The Old Main Line,” written by Joseph W. Townsend in 1919, and lent to your columnist in 1950 by Herbert S. Casey, then president of the Radnor Historical Society.

Now that seven years have passed since material from this book was used in this column, it seems timely some of the information concerning the now famous Main Line be repeated, particularly since so many new residents have come to this area in recent years. Many questions asked this columnist by newcomers may be answered in this way.

In the 60’s and 70’s, according to Mr. Townsend, the section from Overbrook to Paoli was not even designated as the “Main Line,” since the Lancaster and Columbia Railroad, predecessor of the Pennsylvania Railroad, had only one line then. The first settlers of this part of Pennsylvania knew the section, then consisting of some 30,000 acres, as “The Welsh Barony.”

Before the Main Line was settled, the Germantown and Chestnut Hill areas had already become favorite places for country residences. Early Philadelphians “who craved country air and more room to breathe” settled north of the city “because the journey by horse or foot to the City from the West and back again involved the sun in the travellers’ eyes both ways.” Indeed it was in the late ’50’s, according to Mr. Townsend, that a “new migration” began beyond the western City Line, and a few city people began to locate along the “Pennsylvania Central Railroad soon after it took over the old Columbia State Road.” The first stop was Mantua, now almost in downtown Philadelphia, while the second was Hestonville, described as a “small village in the midst of farming country.” This was our present 52d street station! Then came City Line Station where the tracks crossed a creek. When a culvert was built for it, the new station was appropriately called “Overbrook.” What remains of the site of the stream parallels the railroad near the station, as the westbound commuter can see.

Mr. Townsend writes, “It is curious to note that the railroad does not cross any sizeable stream until far into Chester Valley, showing that it was laid out on a ridge from which the waters flow in both directions.” In the 60’s, there were only six trains a day each way on the railroad. After 6 P.M., there was nothing from Philadelphia until “The Emigrant” at midnight which stopped only at destinations for which passengers were booked. The cars were “lighted by oil lamps and in cold weather red hot coal stoves stood at each end. A brakeman on each car turned a wheel such as those that the present freight cars have. The city terminal was a small square brick building near the present West Philadelphia Station.”

The “Old Lancaster Road” and “The Lancaster Turnpike” pre-date the railroad by many years. The former, later known as Conestoga road, was originally an Indian trail from the Delaware River to the Susquehanna River. Conestoga road, laid out in the 18th century, had in the early 60’s some 67 taverns on it between Philadelphia and Lancaster, or about one a mile. Among these were “The General Wayne” near Merion; the “Red Lion” at Ardmore; the “Old Buck” at Haverford; “The Eagle” at Strafford, and the “Old Ship” near Exton.

These old turnpike taverns of Revolutionary days were utilized by some of the first Philadelphians to come out to the Main Line for two or three summer months in the 60’s and 70’s. But the largest aggregation of all, according to our historian “summered in the Whitehall Hotel,” the site of which is now occupied by the row of houses opposite the old Bryn Mawr Hospital building on Glenbrook avenue. When the late disreputable old ruins of Whitehall were torn down some years ago “they did not look as if they ever housed a gay crowd of Philadelphia elite.” However, it was “the place for large dances for both city and country people. The railway went by it, and the trains stopped at its door, though later a station was built a few yards further west.”

The original building of this old Lancaster and Columbia Railroad Company now houses the well-known Bryn Mawr Hospital “Thrift Shop.”

Whitehall Hotel held about 80 people. Another popular summer place on the Main Line was the Wildgoss Boarding House near Haverford College, which was kept by an elderly lady of that name. Life in that boarding house, as colorfully described by Mr. Townsend, was probably typical of the many summer hotels in the 60’s and 70’s, such as the old Bellevue Hotel and Louella Mansion in Wayne.

Next week’s column will be largely devoted to a description of the amusements enjoyed by the young people of the Main Line 80 years and more ago.