“The Old Main Line” part 1: The area in the “60s” & “70s” – Lancaster Pike

A little book entitled “The Old ‘Main Line’” has come my way recently through the courtesy of Herbert S. Casey, whose interest in matters of a bygone day is evidenced by the fact that he is president of the Radnor Historical Society. Originally printed more than thirty years ago in pamphlet form, tis book was rewritten in 1922 by its author, J. W. Townsend, as the “meanderings of an old man’s memories jotted down for his amusement . . . they do not pretent to accuracy, in which memory often fails, but a wide margin will allow the reader to make corrections as desired”.

Mr. Townsend was a member of the large Joseph B. Townsend family who were among the first to own country places near “City Line.” Although the book has few specific references to Wayne as a community, it does contain much of general interest about the Main Line section of which this suburb is so integral a part.

A quaint picture of a locomotive of this sixties in the front of the book dates the contents, which are mostly of that decade and the following, the seventies. At that time this section was not even designated as the “Main Line” since the Lancaster and Columbia Railroad, predecessor of the Pennsylvania Railroad, had only one line then. By the first settlers of this part of Pennsylvania the section was known as “The Welsh Barony” which consisted of some 30,000 acres. Several railroad stations and many country estates have Welsh names derived from the names of the places from which these early settlers migrated to America. SOme of the early deeds signed by William Penn are still held by present land-owners.

Early Philadelphians “who craved country air and more room to breathe” settled north of the city first, however, “because the journey by horse or foot to the city from the West and back again involved the sun in the traveler’s eyes both ways”. (Many a commuter by automobile in these days notices this, too!). Although this was not the main factor, it could be one of the reasons why Germantown and Chestnut Hill had become favorite places for country residences of Philadelphia some time before the Main Line was settled.

Germantown, of course, dates back to the Revolution and Chestnut HIll has long been a popular residential section. It was in the late fifties, 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, and the second was “Hestonville”. described as “a small village in the midst of a farming country”. This is our present 52nd Street Station! Next was “City Line Station”, where the tracks crossed a creek. When later a culvert was built for it, the new Station was appropriately called “Overbrook”. What remains of the stream site parallels the railroad near the Station, as the west bound commuter looking from his window can see. Mr. Townsend makes an interesting comment when he writes “It is curious to note that the railroad does not cross any sizable 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 sixties there were only six trams a day each way on the railroad. After the six o’clock from Philadelphia in the evening there was nothing until “the Emigrant” at midnight which was a through train for arriving foreigners, stopping only at each destination for which these foreigners were booked. According to Mr. Townsend’s description, “the cars were lighted by oil lamps and in cold weather, red hot coal stoves stood at each end. A brakeman at 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” of course predated 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. The latter, laid out late in the eighteenth century, had in the early sixties some 67 taverns on it between Philadelphia and Lancaster, or about one a mile! Among them were “The General Wayne”, near Merion; the “Red Lion” at Ardmore; the “Old Buck” at Haverford; “The Eagle” at Strafford; the “Old Ship”, near Exton, and many others.

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 sixties and seventies. But the largest aggregation of all, according ot our historian “summered” in “The White Hall Hotel,” the site of which is now occupied by a row of houses opposite the old Bryn Mawr Hospital building on Glenbrook avenue, formerly Railroad Avenue. When the last disreputable old ruins of White Hall were torn down more than thirty years ago “they did not look as if they had ever houses a gay crowd of Philadelphia’s elite”, Mr. Townsend writes, “but it was”, he continues, “the place for large dances for both city and country people. The railway then went by it, and the trains stopped at its door, though later a station was built a few years further west.” The original building of this old Lancaster and Columbia Railroad company now forms the nucleus of the building that houses the well-known Bryn Mawr “Thrift Shop”. A study of its quaint architecture is well wroth a few minutes of the passerby’s time.

Whitehall Hotel held about eighty 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. In winter her daughters had a school for children in the house which had ten acres of woods in the rear to make a pleasant recreation spot for boarders in summer and the school pupils in winter. Life in Wildgoss Boarding House, as colorfully described by Mr. Townsend, was probably typical of the many summer hotels on the Main Line in the sixties and seventies, such as the old Bellevue Hotel and Louella Mansion in Wayne. A summary of this description will be given in the newest article of this series.

(to be continued)

In order to complete an extra scrap book of the “Your Town and My Town” series, Mrs. Patterson need a copy of the Suburban of July 15. Anyone who has such a copy to spare will please call Wayne 4569. Such a scrap book, when completed, will be lent to anyone who is interested in the series, or who may have missed some part of it.