“The Old Main Line” part 3: Bryn Mawr in the “60s” – PRR, Baldwin School

We have noted before in this column that the Pennsylvania Railroad ran considerably to the south of its present right of way, in what was later the Bryn Mawr section. At one time it stopped right at Whitehall Hotel, which was directly across the present Glenbrook avenue from the old Bryn Mawr Hospital building. Later the railroad built a station a few yards further west of Whitehall, which to this day forms the nucleus of the Bryn Mawr Thrift Shop building. The tracks were originally located here because, according to Mr. Townsend’s book on “The Old Main Line’”, the railway “took the easiest courses around hills, or swerved here and there to suit some politician’s pleasure, having been built by the State.”

In the late sixties, however, the Pennsylvania Railroad decided to eliminate the long detour past Whitehall Hotel. But when they found it necessary to make a deep cut through the high ground covering the proposed cut-off, neighboring farmers claimed heavy damages for the right of way. And so the railroad decided to buy the large tract of ground which later proved to be the beginning of the suburb of Bryn Mawr. It included nearly all the land between Penn street, Gulph road, Roberts road and the present railway tracks. This they plotted into building lots and to make it exclusively residential, “all the deeds of sale prohibited all manufactures, stores, shops, livery stables or buildings for any offensive occupation.”

It is interesting to note that the Baldwin School started on the northwest corner of Morris and Montgomery avenues in a double frame house, originally built by the railroad with the idea that the purchasers of their lots would reside there while their own homes were being built. Later this house was much increased in size and became the “Lancaster Inn”. Another building erected by the railroad was the Bryn Mawr Hotel, to which many aristocratic Philadelphia families came in the summer. Within a few years’ time the original hotel was burned to the ground, whereupon a neighborhood syndicate built a new one at the cost of a half million dollars. After the foreclosure of the mortgage on this building it was rented to the Baldwin School.

Compared to the grounds now around the School the surroundings of the hotel were quite unattractive, for in the front of it were two large ice ponds fed by a small stream. Although these were merely mud holes in dry weather, it was necessary to have them, since the country in the sixties and seventies depended on ponds for ice. The hotel building itself boasted gas lights and bath tubs, the latter to the extent of only one on each floor for the use of about fifty people!

“Country summering” was becoming increasingly popular with city folks, as indicated by a small prospectus issued by the Railway Company in 1874, when it listed 54 boarding houses from Overbook to Downingtown with accommodations for 1330 guests, exclusive of the Bryn Mawr Hotel, which held 250. The largest of these houses was “Summit Grove”, a frame building on the south side of Bryn Mawr Station with a capacity of about 80 boarders. Its memory has been preserved in the name Summit Grove avenue.

“The Main Line showed the first symptoms of getting gay”, writes Mr. Townsend, “when the hotel got well under way in its second summer of 1873. The Bryn Mawr Assemblies’ were the events of the season and were run by George Kimball . . . about 500 people attended each of these ‘assemblies’. Other entertainments of the summer were a magic lantern exhibition by Will Struther, a comic talk by Benjamin Franklin Duane, a Mock Trial, and an Orpheus Club concert. This was soon after the Club started forty-six years ago* . . . It is curious to consider that these functions continued through the whole of hot summers . . . Philadelphians had not yet acquired the expensive and unnatural habit of seeking distant climbs for cold in summer as well as for heat in winter.

Mr. Townsend’s account continues, “The hotel life was quite similar to that of the old boarding houses, only it was gayer and more formal . . . In the afternoons nearly everyone drove or rode. Cavalcades of perhaps twenty-five riders would go out together and explore the country roads for miles around. Women and girls used only side saddles; bifurcated riding would have been looked upon with horror. The Radnor Hunt had not started and little hunting or jumping was indulged in. The roads were all dirt roads except Lancaster Pike, which was very rough and ridgey, without any smooth surfacing. The dirt roads were fine for horseback, but became a foot deep in mud when it rained, and in winter were almost impassable. The old Haverford road that ran through the Whitehall district was then a ‘plank road’, that is, one-half of it had heavy boards laid close together, unpleasant to ride on but a great boon in muddy weather”.

When the Bryn Mawr tract was laid out, its avenues were covered with a coarse gravel which made for very slow travel. These roads exasperated Mr. Cassatt, vice-president of the railroad, who was fond of driving his four-in-hand coach. He accepted the position of township road supervisor and was instrumental in obtaining macadamized roadbeds. He also got a company of his friends to buy Lancaster Pike as far as Paoli and to make a macadamized road of it. Toll was charged to keep it in order and “it was a great boon” to the driving public for many years. In later years the toll gates were abolished when the State bought the PIke and maintained it by taxes.

The Railway Company gave its new village the name of Bryn Mawr from the home of Rowland Ellis, who in Colonial times settled the tract on Gulph road opposite where Bryn Mawr College now stands. Mr. Ellis had brought the name from his old home in Wales. The old town of Humphreysville, consisting of a few dwellings on Lancaster Pike, also took the name of Bryn Mawr. Mr. Townsend, writing in 1922, says “there are now several thousand residents using the station, from the Schuylkill hills on the north to Newtown Square on the south. All of this territory calls itself Bryn Mawr, while the girls’ college which soon started in the new settlement seems to think the name belongs to it exclusively!”

So much for the interesting early history of a section of the Main Line, a large section of which lies in Radnor Township and is therefore an integral part of “Your Town and My Town”. For all that part of Bryn Mawr south of County Line road between Gulph road and Coopertown road (now known as Llandover road) is part of our township.

(to be continued)

*Mr. Townsend dates the beginning of the Orpheus Club 46 years before 1922.