The Conshohocken Historical Survey is a comprehensive report documenting the borough's historic buildings, providing a brief overview of its history, and outlining a number of potential historic districts. The report consists of three main parts:
- The "Historical Overview," covering the borough's history from William Penn's first land grants to the mid-twentieth century. Because the survey's primary focus is on the borough's architectural heritage, this section emphasizes the built environment, the economic forces that created this environment, and the "founding families" who led the way in developing the borough.
- Selected Significant Buildings. These survey forms document 82 individual buildings or building groups in detail. Each building was chosen either because of its distinctive architecture or because of its association with an individual, a family, a business, or an institution that played an important role in borough history. (We recognize that these are by no means the only significant buildings in the borough; only a representative sample could be selected for detailed treatment.) Each form contains a description of the architectural features and the historic significance of each building, a location map, black-and- white photograph, and other data.
- The Comprehensive Survey Database. This lengthy section attempts to list every building in the borough, including those built in recent years, although only those built before 1940 receive complete entries. For each of these, the database lists the building's approximate date of construction, architectural style, present and past uses, condition, architectural integrity, and whether or not it would contribute to a potential historic district. The parcel number, which identifies each property on the county tax records, is also included as a means of identifying and locating each property. This section has been computerized and can therefore be corrected and updated as necessary.
The Historical Survey was funded through a Survey and Planning Grant from the Bureau for Historic Preservation of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (a program funded by the National Park Service), with matching funds provided by the Conshohocken Borough Council. As with any other State grant of this type, the products of the survey -including the original photographs and negatives -are kept on file in the Bureau for Historic Preservation's archives in Harrisburg.
The grant enabled the Historical Society to hire a team of consultants, Steve Wiesenthal and Rebecca Trumbull, to conduct the survey. Steve and Rebecca share extensive experience in architectural history, including surveys of individual buildings and districts, and nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. They faced the daunting task of surveying every building in the borough -more than 3,000 in all -and evaluating the age, style and significance of each one. They are responsible for most of the contents of this report, including the Individual Resource Survey Forms, the Comprehensive Survey
Database, much of the Historical Overview, the accompanying list of sources, and recommendations for potential National Register districts. They also worked closely with the survey's volunteers, advising them on deed searching, photography, and historical research.
An Historic Overview
The borough of Conshohocken, Incorporated in 1850, is located on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, thirteen miles northwest of Philadelphia, on one square mile of land in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Its proximity to major transportation links, natural resources, and markets created a favorable environment for the rise of a virtually self-contained industrial, commercial, residential, civic and religious community. Perhaps best known for its great industrial firms, such as the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company, whose roots date back to the early 1800s, and "Lee of Conshohocken," the automobile tire company founded in the early 1900s Conshohocken played a major role in the industrial development of southeastern Pennsylvania. The growth of the town's industries brought together wealthy Quaker mill and landowners with immigrant laborers from Ireland, Poland, Italy, and other European countries to give the borough its distinctive character. As the town's industries expanded and moved outside the borough limits in the early twentieth century, Conshohocken evolved from an industrial leader into a primarily residential community. Although Conshohocken has experienced many changes since its founding in 1850, the trends which have shaped the borough can still be seen in the surviving architecture when walking the streets today.
Conshohocken's general historical development can be divided into four time periods differing in social, economic and architectural character. The first period, prior to borough incorporation in 1850, was marked by the acquisition of large tracts of farmland and the beginnings of trade and industry along the Schuylkill. The borough's early industrial boom, from 1850 to 1875, was marked by the establishment of new mills, the expansion of commerce, residential growth, and the founding of civic and religious organizations. A period of economic maturity followed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, during which the boom and bust cycles evened out, transient laborers became homeowners, and large immigrant populations were absorbed into the community. The last distinct historical period, in the early twentieth century prior to World War II, was characterized by the continued success of one industry, the blossoming of another and the transformation of the borough into a predominantly residential community.
The impetus for Conshohocken's rapid industrial growth can be attributed to three primary factors: 1) the natural resources of the area, including an abundance of excellent iron ore, marble and limestone; 2) the efficient transportation network created by the ford, the canal, and later by railroads and bridges, and 3) the forces of market demand from nearby Philadelphia, intelligently exploited by a small group of Quaker families combining their resources to create the town.
The earliest purchase of land in the vicinity of Conshohocken can be traced to deeds from the Tammany (Native Americans) to William Penn in 1683. In that year, William Penn sold 5,000 acres to Jasper Farmer, an Irishman, whose family established the first limestone quarry in the area. (The abundance of lime, used as a flux for blast furnaces, later facilitated the local development of iron manufacturing.) Son Thomas Farmer sold 1250 acres of land, 200 of which were in what is now Conshohocken, to Radnor Quaker David Harry in 1700. In 1710, David Harry met David Jones at the Friends Meeting and subsequently sold him 160 acres of land. At the time of the borough's incorporation 140 years later, the Jones and Harry families would own the entire: east side of Conshohocken.
Conshohocken was favorably situated at a natural ford across the Schuylkill River, referred to on early maps as "Harry's Ford" After Peter Matson purchased land on the south side of the river in 1741 and improved the ford, the area received a more reliable means of transportation across the river as well as the informal name of "Matson's Ford."
A ferry at Spring Mill, downstream a few miles, also served the area from 1804 to 1830.
Matson's Ford acquired special historic significance during the Revolutionary War, when the American army crossed the ford twice in one day in December 1777. On May 19, 1778, Lafayette led 2,000 troops across the ford in a dramatic escape from the British on Barren Hill. Fayette Street was named in honor of the French general. Edward Hector, a black wagon master in Washington's army, led an escape that brought him stature as a local hero. He died in 1834 in a cabin at the intersection of Fayette and Hector Streets, named in his honor twenty years later.
The most important event in the early development of Conshohocken was the building of the Schuylkill Canal. Begun at Philadelphia in 1816, the canal reached Conshohocken in 1818 and by 1826 had reached its terminus at Port Carbon in Schuylkill County. The canal not only provided a transportation route along the unnavigable Schuylkill, but it also brought the water power which spurred the development of the first mills in the area. A grist mill built in 1821 by David Harry, great-grandson of the early landowner of the same name, became the first industrial enterprise in Conshohocken. The Schuylkill Navigation Company, which originally purchased the land for its canal from David Harry, began advertising in 1822 for industrial development along the canal. John Freedley and James Wells, both of Norristown, purchased most of the land for speculation and established a mill for sawing marble on Plymouth Creek in 1831. This was followed by the establishment of an iron rolling mill by James Wood in 1832.
In addition to the canal, transportation in Conshohocken was enhanced by the construction in 1833 of a wooden covered bridge, Matson's Ford Bridge, near the site of the original ford. By 1835 the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad was in operation. The Plymouth Railroad spur line from Conshohocken to Cold Point, providing access to limestone quarries, was completed in 1836. The turnpike to Plymouth Meeting, late; known as Butler Pike, was carrying traffic by 1849.
Conshohocken in 1833 had one store, one tavern, one rolling mill, one grist mill and six houses. A census from the time identifies five of the homeowners as David Harry, Cadwallader Foulke, Isaac Jones, Dan Freedley and C. Jacoby. Historians have speculated that Edward Hector, the black wagon master in George Washington's army, was the owner of the sixth house.
Four families with long and intertwined local histories formed the backbone of the new town. In 1850, at the time of borough incorporation, three of the families owned the majority of the land. The Harry and the Lukens families divided most of the southern half of the town, while descendants of David Jones, who in 1710 had purchased land from David Harry, owned the northern half. The fourth influential family, brought to the area by James Wood in 1832, contributed most directly to the town's industrialization.
Though relative newcomers to the area, the Wood family became the leading economic force in Conshohocken during the next century. By purchasing land from David Lukens, forming partnerships with his offspring, and marrying into both the Lukens and Harr families, the Wood family dynasty established itself in the tightly-knit society of the Conshohocken elite.
James Wood, with his son Alan, erected a small water-powered mill for rolling iron n 1832. James had come from Wooddale, Delaware, where he had established the Delaware Iron Works. When he arrived in 1832 he bought farmland from David Lukens to build his homestead. This house, although greatly altered, stands today as the rectory of St. Mary's Church at West Elm and Oak Streets. Wood's rolling mill, started in 1832 as the Conshohocken Iron Works (later becoming J. Wood and Brother, then J Wood and Sons), manufactured sheet-iron, saws, shovels and spades. The Woods had an agreement with the Schuylkill Navigation Company which gave the ironmasters the use of the land between the canal and the Schuylkill River, on a yearly lease of "25 cents a running foot" and at an annual rent of $1000 for the right to use the canal's water in a 20' plunge over the mill wheel to the river.
The Wood family did not at this time engage in the smelting of iron only in the various refining processes such as rolling and puddling. The iron itself was obtained from furnaces in rural areas of Pennsylvania closer to sources of the charcoal used to smelt the iron ore. For a time Wood obtained iron from a furnace in Lebanon County run by Lewis Lukens, who married his daughter Mary in 1834. Around 1840, however, ironmasters in Pennsylvania discovered that anthracite coal could be used to place of charcoal. This major innovation resulted in the shift of iron furnaces from rural to more urban areas such as Conshohocken, where coal was easily obtained via canal and where the Wood family's factories provided a read market.
At least for iron furnaces were stabled in the Conshohocken area in the 1840s. Stephen Colwell established the Plymouth Furnace and Foundry in 1845 near the intersection of Colwell Lan and Elm Street, and built the Merion Furnace, across the river in present day West Conshohocken, in 1848. David Reeves established the Spring Mill area on the eastern edge of Conshohocken. These furnaces, together with the Wood rolling mills, earned Conshohocken the nickname of "Ironborough" and made it one of the main centers of the anthracite iron industry in the Delaware Valley.
It is not surprising then that ironmaster James Wood played a leading role in the founding of Conshohocken and was the chairman of the committee which successfully incorporated the borough in 1850. Having fathered twenty children, laid the groundwork for an industrial dynasty, and founded a town, he lived to see his son John become the first burgess in 1850 before he passed away seven months later.
John 'Squire" Wood not only headed the Wood iron business for the next forty years, but served as Justice of the Peace in 1851 and as a US Congressman in 1858. He remained in the house at West Elm and Oak Street, dubbed "Oak Lawn", until his death there in 1898. He also won international acclaim for J. Wood and Brothers through the "Woods Process," which duplicated the highly-polished Russian sheet-iron and won a prize for sheet-iron at the 1857 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. Son John Wood, Jr., and nephew Alan Wood, Jr., whose house on East Fifth Avenue was bequeathed in 1918 to the borough as the "Mary Wood Park House," dominated local industry into the next century
The Harry family also played a prominent role in the development of Conshohocken. David Harry's original purchase of land in 1700 marked the starting point of six generations of the Harry family in Conshohocken. Harry's two-story "Homestead" or "Mansion House," built in 1706 at what is now the intersection of Apple and Hector Streets, stood for over 200 years as the oldest building in Conshohocken. Grandson David Harry, mentioned above as the builder of the first gristmill, sold land to the Schuylkill Navigation Company in 1831, probably for improvements to the canal. His daughter Mary Harry Yerkes set up a temporary hospital for the treatment of those who, while working on the Schuylkill Canal, were affected by the cholera epidemic of 1832. The "Underground Railroad" to aid fugitive slaves was supported by the Harry family in the early 1830s. David Harry was one of the five men on the 1850 committee that established Conshohocken as a borough.
His son Benjamin, born in 1809 in the Harry Homestead at Apple and Hector Streets, devoted himself to private business. His activities included management of his father's mill, the parceling and sale of his family's large landholdings (which would become an upper class residential area in the late nineteenth century) and the ownership of a nursery that is credited with providing most of the trees in Conshohocken. The two extant houses associated with the Harry family were built by two of Benjamin's sons in the late nineteenth century. James Wood Harry's house at 205 Harry Street and Winfield Scott
Harry's house at 114 Harry Street, both constructed on land .parceled from the original Harry estate, represent a broad range in scale and architectural character despite their close proximity.
Isaac Jones was born in 1772 on the family farmstead in Whitemarsh, at what is now the intersection of Righter Street and Eighth Avenue. He became president of the Matson Ford Bridge Company in 1837. When he died in 1868, his sons Isaac, Jr, Charles and John divided the estate into lots. His descendants sewed in borough government throughout the next century. Horace Jones, the great-grandson of Isaac, followed his father into the Jones Lumber Company from 1874 to 1880. With Stanley Lees as a partner, he then formed the H.C. Jones Company to operate the textile mill owned by John Whitton at the intersection of Ash and Washington Streets. In 1885 they took over ownership of the Whitton Mill, which remained in operation until the 1950s. As seen on the 1891 Smithplan of the borough, both Charles and Isaac retained ownership of a significant portion of the undeveloped land in the northern half of town, partially subdivided in anticipation of residential development.
The Lukens family contributed greatly to the commercial, cultural and civic life of the town. The Lukens' original farmstead was located on what is now Second to Fourth Avenues, Maple to Wood Streets. The farm shows on the 1871 Hopkins plan and the 1877 Scott atlas, and although streets were laid out it still shows on the 1891 Smith atlas. One of the most prominent members of the family was Lewis A. Lukens, the son of David Lukens and Mary Shepherd. (Shepherd's father had been the proprietor of a stone sawing mill powered by Plymouth Creek near the Shepherd home, close to Colwell Lane and Elm Streets. The house, built in 1794, survives today as 359 West Elm Street, the only extant eighteenth-century building in the borough.) Lewis Lukens built his house at the corner of Third Avenue and Fayette Street in c. 1857 when he gave up farming and went into an iron manufacturing partnership with his brother-in law Alan Wood, Jr. Donated in 1909 to the borough, the house stands today as the public library, its exterior now fully restored. Lewis Lukens was elected burgess for three consecutive terms, from 1859 to 1861, and served as director and president of the First National Bank of Conshohocken for seventeen years. His sons, Charles and James (also known as Jawood), founded and/or managed at various times the Schuylkill Iron Works, the J. Ellwood Lee
Company, the Longmead Iron Works, the Conshohocken Tube Works, and the Alan Wood Company. Both of their grand Fayette Street houses have been demolished, although the carriage house remaining at 410 Harry Street attests to the grandeur of the Charles Lukens estate, once located at Fifth Avenue and Fayette Street.
Conshohocken had begun to physically take shape prior to its 1850 incorporation. As first laid out by the Schuylkill Navigation Company in 1830, the town consisted of several mills, houses and a tavern along the river to either side of the Matson's Ford. Completed a few years later, the Matson's Ford Bridge led directly into the turnpike to Plymouth Meeting and crossed Washington Street, which ran parallel to the river along the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad line. The 1860 Lake & Beers map illustrates the street layout as it exists today. Designated as one square mile, apparently for ease of geographical description, the streets were laid out in a grid system oriented to Plymouth (Butler) Pike, or Fayette Street, as the Conshohocken end of it was named. The area along the Schuylkill River east of Fayette Street, however, was laid out parallel to the canal and riverbank, virtually aligned with the cardinal axes, and is thus skewed about 45 degrees from the rest of the town. This area includes the first several streets, Washington, Elm and Hector. The two grids intersect at Spring Mill Avenue.
Street names were designated around the time of incorporation, with the main commercial streets of Washington (originally intended as a commercial street, but soon taken over by industry and the railroad), Hector and Fayette honoring revolutionary war heroes. Colwell, Corson, Righter, Freedley, Wood, Harry, Hallowell, Wells and Jones Streets are named for town founders and businessmen. First Avenue, shown on early maps as Front Avenue, through Twelfth Avenue, demarcate the cross streets. Benjamin Harry, owner of the local nursery, is credited with establishing the remaining street names, such as Poplar, Cherry, Ash, and Walnut, and local trees.
By the late 1840s the inhabitants of thriving "Ironborough" were ready to unite and petitioned the state legislature for an act of incorporation, which was granted on May 15, 1850. It became the third borough in Montgomery County, following Norristown and Pottstown. Prominent citizens James Woods, ironmaster; James Wells, proprietor of the Ford Hotel and the railroad depot; Isaac Jones, president of the Matson Ford Bridge company; David Harry, grist mill operator; and Cadwallader Foulke, farmer, are said to have chosen the name for the town by picking from a hat. The three suggestions were Woodvale, Riverside, and Conshohocken. The last is a derivative of the original name given the area by the Lenni Lenape Indians, "Gueno-Sheiki-Hacki-ing," meaning "beautiful or peaceful valley."
Early Industrial Boom
The incorporation of the borough marks the beginning of the second major phase of historical development, which covers the next quarter century. All aspects of society blossomed with frontier-town abandon in the years of the early industrial boom, from 1850 until approximately 1875. In 1850, at the time of incorporation, there were 727 inhabitants of Conshohocken, with 125 houses and 8 farms. By 1860, census records show a population of 1689, more than double that of ten years earlier. The 1860 census listed 323 families and 324 houses. The 1860 Lake and Beers map of Philadelphia and vicinity clearly shows the building development to be concentrated between Fayette and Maple, Marble and Second Avenue. The remaining landscape included a few scattered farms, the lone house of Isaac Jones, Jr. near the corner of Spring Mill and what is now Eighth Avenue, and the Harry homestead at Hector and Apple Streets. The population continued to increase rapidly, nearly doubling again by 1870, to 3071 people, and by half as much again in the next decade to a population of 4561 in 1880.
Between 1850 and 1875 two developments changed the character of the Conshohocken industrial economy. The first was the establishment of a local textile industry. Although it never reached the proportions of iron manufacturing, it changed the dynamics of the labor force. The Conshohocken Cotton and Woolen Mill were founded in 1856 by Horace Jones with Stanley Lees, the Schuylkill Woolen Mill in 1858 by James and Lawrence Ogden, and the Albion Print Works in 1864. In 1865 the old Cresson saw mill was converted into a silk mill, and the old Freedley mill into a warp and cotton mill. The expanded work force required by the textile industry allowed greater employment opportunities for women and children.
The second major change was the decline of smelting and the coinciding rise in rolling mill iron production. Between 1850 and 1890, iron remained the major item of production of the local economy. Smelting, which had been the most important phase of operation, declined after Civil War and became obsolete in the late 1870s.
The local iron industry and town continued to grow, however, because of the prosperity of the rolling mills which more than made up for the decline in smelting furnaces.
Conshohocken industry as a whole was operating at a steady rate of production in the mid-nineteenth century. Two boiler factories, though modest, added to industry in the area. The J. Wood Company opened a boiler fabricating division and in 1865, William T. Bate and Sons opened a factory for the manufacture of high pressure coal-fired steam boilers at Elm and Harry Streets. Many of the earlier established iron companies were expanding and updating. James Wood's rolling mill, begun as James Wood and Sons, became John Wood and Brothers. It was rebuilt and enlarged in 1845, again in 1867 and again in 1883. Both Stephen Colwell, proprietor of the Plymouth Furnaces and Rolling Mill, and John Wood had expanded with second furnaces in 1864. The 1871 business directory lists 68 businesses. The Radcliff Township and Business Map of Montgomery County from 1873 shows the majority of businesses located in the lower end of town, from Fayette to Maple on the west side and from Wells to Jones on the east side, the sole exceptions being two brickyards owned by Tracy and O'Brien between Sixth and Seventh Avenues.
The successful businessmen had established themselves comfortably by this time in grand houses along Fayette Street and Fourth and Fifth Avenues. In contrast to the elite families who had nurtured the town and its industry, the owners of iron smelting businesses were less involved in community affairs. Stephen Colwell, the founder of the Plymouth Iron Works, never lived in Conshohocken. His successors Samsel Fulton and Theodore Trewendt resided in Conshohocken but devoted their time and energy to managing their operations (although Trewendt did donate land at Fayette Street and Second Avenue for a public school). As the furnaces declined, and their facilities shut down, they left Conshohocken. The house remains from Trewendt's vast estate at Forrest Street and Second Avenue, a monument to a disappearing industrial era.
Conshohocken's iron industry was characterized by an open market system in contrast with the paternalistic iron plantation of the charcoal era. According to Richard Wooten in his 1974 dissertation, Conshohocken differed from the company towns of the earlier iron industry where the ironmaster was responsible for the food, housing, and general well-being of his workforce. Occupations not directly related to iron processing but under the control of the ironmaster under the old system included storekeepers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other service-oriented businesses. Located in secluded rural areas, the older company towns by necessity had to provide services and housing for imported laborers. By contrast, the industry in Conshohocken was freed of the responsibility to provide these services.
The open market system allowed for the development of independent businesses. By 1858 in Conshohocken there were 4 taverns and 22 stores more than there had been 25 years earlier. Atypically for Conshohocken, some company-owned workers' housing did exist. "Puddlers Row," named for the skill of its occupants, is a group of row houses built by the Alan Wood Company for use in housing skilled puddlers, moulders, and founders. In some ways a throwback to the old ways, company-owned housing was used as an incentive in hiring skilled labor. An intact example of extant company-owned housing is seen in the row of twelve houses at 101-123 East Third Avenue, once owned by the Alan Wood Company.
The Plymouth Iron Furnace also owned company housing and a company store near its furnace. During the 1850s and 1860s the company housed a large portion of its work force between West Elm Street and Washington Street. As furnaces declined in importance during the 1870s, the area did too. Most of the Plymouth Iron Works' housing was demolished to provide the right of way for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1883.
Conshohocken initially attracted young, unmarried transient men to work in the industries, a large percentage of them immigrants. During this time, a number of civic and religious institutions arose, reflecting the increasing need for discipline in family and private life. Within the space of ten years, four prominent churches were established: the Conshohocken Presbyterian Church was the first in 1847, followed by the St. Matthews Catholic Church in 1851and both the Conshohocken Methodist Episcopal Church and the Calvary Episcopal Church in 1857.
The Conshohocken public school district was established in 1850, with classes held at Stemple's Hall off of Fayette Street. The first school building was completed in 1855 on the land donated by Theodore Trewendt, owner of the Colwell furnace. It was used until 1885 when a school was built at Third Avenue east of Harry Street, on the site of the current school, built around 1950. In 1864 a Catholic grade school was started in the basement of St. Matthew's Church. The first Catholic free parochial high school in America was founded at 218 Hector Street in the grand Palladian edifice built in 1872 by St. Matthew's Church. It exists today as the Criminal Research Building.
The 1870s continued a time of general growth for the borough as a community. The decade saw the beginning of the Recorder, the local newspaper still currently published. In 1872, the wooden covered bridge across the Schuylkill River, which replaced the original bridge in 1852, was replaced with an iron span bridge, and the First National Bank opened on the first floor of the house of George Washington Jacoby at Hector and Fayette Streets. The Washington Hose and Steam Fire Engine Company #1 was chartered in 1874. The first borough hall and lockup was built at Hector and Forrest Streets. Council appointed the first policemen in 1873. The Conshohocken Gas and Light Company built a gas producing plant on Poplar Street in 1875.
The impact of this "boom town" period on Conshohocken's landscape can be seen in a number of buildings that survive today. Residential examples predominate although several industrial and civic buildings remain. Isolated upper-and middle-class houses scattered among neighborhoods of the working class illustrate the development pattern typical in the west side of town. In the 1860s, in addition to the large Wood and Trewendt estates west of Fayette Street, four or five middle-class residences arose on each of the newly parcelled blocks of West Third, Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Representative are the simple three-story stucco Italianate houses at 324 West Third and 312 West Fourth Avenue.
By contrast with the interspersed housing on the west side, the separation of the upper- and lower-class housing of the east side took form during this period. Free-standing and twin residences belonging to the mill owners, managers, and other members of the middle and upper class occupied Fourth and Fifth Avenues on the hill overlooking the dense working-class neighborhood along Hector and Elm Streets. Individual estates of the Harry, Wood and Lukens families stretched along Fayette Street north of the established commercial district, which ended at Front (later First) Avenue. Typical of the industrial buildings interspersed throughout the area is the W.T. Bate and Suns factory at 125East Elm Street, the most intact of the industrial buildings of this era. Portions of the Albion Print Works, later taken over by the John Wood and Brothers Rolling Mill, remain at the foot of the former Matson's Ford Bridge and Washington Street.
A comparison of the two property atlases dating from the 1870s shows similar patterns of development concentrated in the lower portions of the town, but extending northeasterly by 1877. This signaled the beginning of the breakup of the large farms of earlier times, parceled but not yet developed. The northeast quadrant of the town, labeled the "Estate of Isaac Jones" shows subdivision into lots but no buildings; the northwest quadrant is not yet subdivided.
Maturation of Community
Conshohocken entered a new phase in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. A severe recession had hit the mills in 1873, blast furnaces declined into obsolescence and the general rate of economic and population growth declined. Yet the borough was still on solid ground. The torrid pace of the earlier industrial boom leveled off into a more controlled economy. Religious and civic institutions served the needs of a work force which was becoming older and more family-oriented. The rowdy, frontier-town mentality that had promoted taverns throughout the working class district and required a "lock-up" as the first civic building gave way to Victorian civility and the rise to prominence of the church and school. In a word, Conshohocken matured. Diversification of the economy was a product of this maturity.
In 1883, licenses were issued to 18 hotels, 7 restaurants, 3 dry-goods stores, 15 groceries, 3 tobacco shops, 3 pharmacies, 2 butchers, 4 confectionaries, 1 carpet store, 3 boot and shoe stores, 2 clothing stores, 1 lumber yard and 5 coal yards. Rather than boom and bust cycles attributed to a few businesses, the economy was opening up to a greater number of people. The general prosperity of a healthy economy could be shared at more levels of society, although the real wealth of the elite few never trickled down to anyone but their families. However, the lot of the laborers improved as the town matured and the economy prospered. Over a single generation the number of propertied men increased from a bare minimum to a point where nearly one half of the working men owned property.
Unskilled laborers were eager to buy property. In his thesis, Wooten asserts that "at least with a good number of the working class, the accumulation of property appears to have been an all-consuming preoccupation." The reasons for this may be that they had good veterans' benefits, or that good employment provided the economic and psychological impetus necessary to convince an unskilled laborer to buy property. According to local historian William Collins, "an unusually large number of unskilled laborers owned property in Conshohocken. Their religious leaders emphasized the family and home, and opinion frowned on transient laborers. By 1883, 78% of the laborers who owned property in the borough were foreign born." The prudent and thrifty worker may have saved for a lay-off, and when none came, he eventually had money to pay for a house. Laborers were encouraged to buy property, and those who did were considered solid, respectable, law-abiding citizens of the community, unlike transient workers who had little stake in the town welfare.
The 1880s brought building and loan companies to finance the new residential construction. (The first building and loan association in Montgomery County had been founded in Conshohocken on September 29, 1851.) Other services came to supplement and improve the existing infrastructure. James Wood Harry operated the first telephone in his Fayette Street drugstore in 1880. The Pennsylvania Railroad opened up a line in the Schuylkill Valley in 1883 with a station and stop in Conshohocken, standing today, although greatly altered, as the Outbound Station antique shop at the foot of Harry Street. In 1887, the Conshohocken Electric Light and Power Company built the first electric light plant. In 1893, the Conshohocken Street Railway Company built a trolley which connected Norristown, Plymouth Meeting and Conshohocken. Originally carrying passengers only as far as Twelfth Avenue, tracks were soon laid on Fayette Street, carrying people south. In the 1890s, two sports teams brought entertainment and a degree of recognition to Conshohocken. The 1893 "Ironmen" football team was league champions from 1895 to 1901. The basketball team, founded in 1894, was the acknowledged world champion in 1904-05.
By 1900, the population had swelled to 5762, a good percentage of which were immigrants. The Irish, who had earlier come to work in the mills and quarries, remained the largest segment. Their neighborhoods became known as "Whiskey Lane" in the area of West Elm and Colwell Lane, "Cork Row" along Maple Street from Elm to Third, "Irishtown" around Fifth and Wood Streets, and "Connaughtown," along Elm Street west of Plymouth Creek, extending into Plymouth Township. Polish immigrants began arriving in 1895,with the backbone of their new community along East and West Elm Streets. They were followed by the Italians in 1901. The Irish enclave, "Cork Row," was renamed "Little Italy" after the turn of the century.
Conshohocken had become a town with distinct neighborhoods based on class, ethnic and family ties. Occupations, which determined areas of residence, were prescribed by family, class and socio-economic background. As laborers began to buy property, the look of Conshohocken changed. Men built houses close to their work. The west side of town became home to the lower paid laborers in the early iron manufacturing and quarrying industries. The west side became less attractive to potential homeowners as those businesses were superseded by the more successful east side industries. The thriving industries on the east side attracted laborers who were paid more than their counterparts on the west side, and who contributed to an expanding residential working class district. Fayette Street clearly divided the town with a level of hierarchy even among the working class.
The 1891 Smith atlas provides a clear reflection of new construction which, with few exceptions, followed the patterns set forth during the early industrial boom of the mid-century. With the complete subdivision of the Trewendt estate from Second to Fourth Avenues between Fayette and Wood Streets, the west side residential enclaves would soon be solidified. Remaining late nine tenth-century construction on the west side of town was concentrated in the first several blocks west of Fayette.
Fayette Street itself experienced perhaps the greatest boom in construction, with virtually every lot from the Matson's Ford Bridge north to Ninth Avenue filled. From south to north, Fayette Street encompassed the lower commercial district, exemplified by civic buildings (Sons of America at the corner of Second Avenue and Fayette Street); churches, (the Calvary Episcopal Church at 317 Fayette); large corner estates ("Leeland" at the comer of Eighth Avenue and Fayette Street) and several attached houses. A small enclave of doctor's offices arose in the 300block of Fayettte Street (300, 312 Fayette Street). The already parceled east side saw the virtual completion of the Fourth and Fifth Avenue upper-class neighborhood, the expansion of the workers' housing eastward to the borough boundary and beyond, and the infill of new middle-class residences scattered northward to Eighth Avenue.
In the last decades of the 1800s, two businesses achieved a degree of success that would almost single-handedly carry Conshohocken into the twentieth century. Indicative of the changes brought by the stabilizing economic climate in the late 1809s, the two companies differed greatly in their backgrounds and industrial focus. One was the established industry of the Alan Wood Company with roots traceable to James Wood%1832 rolling mill. The other was the fledgling J. Ellwood Lee Company.
By 1901, the Alan Wood Company had attained an annual production of 25,000 tons of iron and steel. It could produce the iron self-sufficiently but the steel required the import of steel billets to heat and roll for steel sheets. The Wood Company needed its own means of steel production and the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company was incorporated November 21, 1901, to include the Schuylkill Iron Works.
The son of a laborer in the J. Wood and Brothers rolling mill, J. Ellwood Lee began a small surgical supply business in 1883 in the attic of his mother's home at Eighth and Harry Streets. Having learned the business as an apprentice in the Snowden Company of Philadelphia, Lee rapidly parlayed a $400 loan from his Sunday School teacher, Charles Heber Clark, into a thriving business. He incorporated in 1888 with three large new mill buildings, one of which remains on East Eighth Avenue (101 East Eighth Avenue). Winner of five awards at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the Lee Company quickly established its superiority in the field. Following the pattern set by the elite of the early industrial era, Lee built his residence in town (730 Fayette Street) and maintained close ties with the existing upper class. His company's first board of directors included Alan Wood. Jr., Howard Wood, Charles Lukens, and as president, his first beneficiary, Charles Heber Clark. Through expansion and buyouts, the Lee Company grew to become the second largest in the industry by 1905,at which time it merged with Johnson and Johnson. Lee then entered into the new industry of tire manufacturing for which "Lee of Conshohocken" is still nationally known.
Early Twentieth-Century Expansion
The last of the four distinct historical phases of Conshohocken's growth began with the twentieth century. The economy was dominated by the Wood and Lee Companies and the residential expansion that pushed new construction beyond the borough limits. Fueling the large industries and precipitating the residential growth, new waves of arriving immigrants joined the last century's assimilated working class as the social stability of the town was challenged once again by young transient laborers.
Topographical limitations, together with the self-imposed one-square mile boundaries had forced the Wood Company, followed soon after by Lee Tire and Rubber Company, to locate their large expanded facilities outside of the borough. Even residential growth eventually outgrew the borough. According to Wooten, "the Borough could no longer provide that which had contributed to its original development. Cheap land was no longer available in adequate portions for new style production. During the first twenty years of the twentieth century, Conshohocken took on the character of an industrial bedroom suburb. It housed the workers for the major industries situated outside the community....[Conshohocken] was to be burdened [in the long run] with providing the necessary social services for the workers without enjoying the revenues to be derived from taxing their employers."
The newly incorporated Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company produced its first steel on June 1, 1903 at its larger facilities one mile west of Conshohocken in Ivy Rock. With five 55-ton open hearth furnaces starting up in 1903 and the addition of four more in 1907, the Wood Company increased annual production to 250,000 tons of steel. In 1907 a portion of the Upper Merion and Plymouth Railroad was added to create a consolidated distribution system with both the Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroads. With the buyout of the Upper Merion Hecksher and Sons Steel Company in 1911, an increase in milling plate capacity in 1914, the addition of a third blast furnace in 1917, and the construction of a five-story office building in 1918, the Wood Company became a major producer for the U.S. Government in World War I. In 1918, it entered into an agreement with the W. J. Rainey Estate, a coal mining company, to assure a constant supply of coke, enabling continuous 24-hour operation. By 1920,the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company was producing a half-million tons of steel and iron annually, or eight percent of the national output. Management remained staunchly in the Wood family until the 1929 Depression, which forced the temporary sale of the Company to outside interests.
The J. Ellwood Lee Company's twentieth century development followed a similar pattern of rapid expansion, major construction outside of the borough, the blossoming into a nationally recognized industrial giant, and the subsequent takeover by outside interests. With 600 employees at the turn of the century, Lee's surgical supply company became the largest individual employer in Conshohocken. His factories at Eighth and Harry Streets expanded to a complex of seventeen buildings in 1905, not including the off-shoot factories built by others on Ninth and Tenth Avenues for the production of glass supplies. As the second largest surgical supply manufacturer in the country, the J. Ellwood Lee Company merged with Johnson and Johnson in 1905. It continued operating out of both Conshohocken and Johnson and Johnson's headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey, until 1909, at which time most of the production was consolidated in New Brunswick.
All was not lost in Conshohocken, however. During the time that his surgical supply business was being transferred, J. Ellwood Lee was experimenting with the retooling of his rubber goods production. Lee foresaw the mass-production of automobiles and corresponding market in rubber tires, which he was soon to exploit magnificently. The Eighth and Harry Street factories continued to produce trusses, elastic hosiery, rubber goods and minor druggist supplies, alongside the new tire division. Inefficient operations in cramped headquarters led Lee to consider expansion of his facilities. Like the Woods eight years earlier, Lee was forced to expand outside of the borough boundaries due to the limited availability of land in Conshohocken. On May 1, 1912, the Lee Tire and Rubber Company, with 850 employees, opened its one block long, four story modern factory in Spring Mill, just across the borough's eastern edge. Pioneering a "puncture-proof" tire, "Lee of Conshohocken" achieved national prominence. It remained a thriving independent business long after J. Ellwood Lee's death in 1914. In 1965, the Goodyear Corporation acquired the Lee Company as a subsidiary.
Although tied to the success of the Wood and Lee Companies, the Conshohocken economy supported numerous smaller businesses. Both the Wood and Lee companies created the demand for off-shoot industries derived directly from the larger corporations. Iron and steel related foundries and mills, such as the William T. Bate and Son boiler works and the Ford and Kendig Company, manufacturers of cast iron fittings, exemplified the "second tier" of the steel industry. Lee's surgical supply company used glass vials produced by such neighborhood businesses as the Freas Glass Works, founded in 1905 on East Ninth Avenue, and the Ruth Glass Company around the corner at Tenth Avenue, founded by former Lee employee Joseph Ruth. The Hale Fire Pump Company was founded in 1914 and soon became the largest business in the newly diversifying economy.
Prior to World War I, three tire and rubber companies, a branch of the Adam Scheidt brewery, several lumber yards, a furniture manufacturer, flour and feed supplier, candy factory and the "Philadelphia Dental Parlors" all opened for business. As newly arriving immigrant groups became assimilated into the local economy, Conshohocken helped them realize the American dream -that with hard work and determination anyone can be successful and own a home. Scores of successful businesses were founded by immigrants. Corner groceries, Italian bakeries, barber shops and similar service businesses arose to support the town's expanding population. An abundance of housing from this era reflects the degree to which both speculative developments and custom-built houses proliferated.
Concentrated throughout the borough's north end, the early twentieth century residential boom formed an early version of a national trend toward suburbia. On parceled lots subdivided predominantly from the estates of Charles and Isaac Jones, blocks of twins and freestanding houses created an orderly grid layout. Built for an emerging middle class of immigrants realizing their goals of homeownership in a healthy economy, these houses looked unpretentious yet solidly built. Grouped windows and open plans distinguish the Craftsman, Bungalow and Colonial Revival vernacular houses from earlier Victorian era vernacular residences. Larger yards and porches carried an increased concern for light and air out to the streetscape. A variety of building materials contributed to an overall sense of diversity despite the general similarities in scale and house type throughout the neighborhood. Joining the established materials of brick, cut stone, stucco, and wood shingle and siding was a newly developed formed concrete masonry unit. As a relatively inexpensive structural building block designed to simulate real stone, it served the purposes of many economy-minded builders. Between 1900 and 1925, it flourished. Its rusticated appearance fit in well with the informal Craftsman and Bungalow style houses then popular. Examples include 133 West Eleventh Avenue and 320 and 333 East Tenth Avenue.
A combination of developers' subdivisions and custom-built individual houses added to the architectural diversity. Several large multi-block speculative developments (143West Eighth Avenue and 303 West Tenth Avenue) illustrate a new architectural character that contributed to the middle-class transition from an urban row house image to a more countrified shingled bungalow (303 West Eleventh Avenue). Within an orderly grid layout, suburbia had arrived in Conshohocken.
Perhaps the dominant image of Conshohocken's early twentieth century houses not part of subdivisions is that of a full front porch beneath second floor symmetrical windows, capped by a large overhanging hipped roof with a single central dormer window. An early version built in 1904,140 West Ninth Avenue, was designed by Philadelphia architect George Lovatt. Intended to house working immigrants, it was not to be grandiose, but rather dignified and functional. Examples of this house type, executed in various materials, as twins or as detached houses (133and 150 West Eleventh Avenue, 132 East Tenth Avenue) abound.
The emerging middle class supported the strong community organization that had emerged by the end of the nineteenth century. Numerous lodges and clubs provided a social structure for everyone. A few of the groups were organized in earlier years, such as the Masons, who began meeting in 1868, or the Patriotic Order of Sons of America which was chartered in 1870. The turn of the century proved a booming time for these organizations--old established ones built new buildings, and new clubs were founded. In 1903, the Masons moved to Washita Hall. In 1891, the Sons of America built their headquarters at Second and Fayette. Other organizations born around this time were the Conshohocken branch of the Needlework Guild of America in 1894; the Women's Club of Conshohocken in 1897; the Foresters of America in 1898; the Companions of the Foresters in 1907; the Shepherds of Bethlehem in 1907; the Loyal Order of Moose in 1901; and the Knights of Columbus in 1911. Benevolent societies for the various ethnic groups were founded to aid in the immigrants' transition and provide social support (137 West Fifth Avenue, 300 Maple Street). And in 1908, the Conshohocken Improvement Association was formed to promote a new concrete bridge across the Schuylkill River, opened with great fanfare in 1921.
Conclusion & Acknowledgements
Blending elements from all four phases of its historical development, Conshohocken became the epitome of an industrial bedroom suburb. Just as the borough grew in response to technological innovations and a changing market economy during the boom years of the mid-nineteenth century, it likewise has adapted to the conditions of the twentieth century. Led by the Wood and Lee industrial giants, the economy evolved to exploit new market opportunities. The community's residential character developed as well, rooted in the evolution of its immigrant working class. Conshohocken became the embodiment of the archetypal American dream-that a hard-working immigrant could buy his own home and raise a family within easy reach of his place of work, close to stores and markets which supplied his material needs, and convenient to churches and civic clubs which strengthened his spirit, all within one square mile.
As well as professional consultants, a project of this magnitude requires the help of many skilled volunteers. Those listed below devoted days, nights and weekends to deed and tax research, general historical research, data entry, mapping, photography, and other tasks:
- Melissa Cahill
- Jack Coll
- Joseph Collins
- Ruth Cressman
- Susan Furst
- Maureen Galie
- Rich Galie
- Barbara Kirsch
- Joseph F. Leary
- Ann Love
- John McCarthy
- Vera McPhilomy
- Dennis Moore
- Steve Nelson
- Peggy O'Neill
- Vincent O'Neill
- David J.Rhees
- Suzanne S. Rhees
- Marian Ramirez
- Connie Sdomone
- Sean Smith
- Isabelle Srnullen
- Peggy Talbot
- Mariellyn Zeock
The particular contributions of several of the volunteers should be mentioned. Melissa Cahill, as volunteer coordinator, synchronized and kept track of all volunteer activities, and also acted as an expert advisor on all deed and tax research. Jack Coll, assisted by Rich Galie, was responsible for most of the photographs of individual buildings; he also created a separate photographic record of every street in the borough for the Historical Society's archives. Jack also provided all the photographs used to illustrate this report.
Joseph Collins, President of the Historical Society, initiated and monitored the project, kept track of financial matters and publicized the survey widely. Peggy O'Neil single-handedly invented the computerized database used for the survey (the first time to our knowledge, that this method has been used in Pennsylvania) and also took on the responsibility of completing, cross-checking and updating the database, as well 8 overseeing the printing and production this report. Suzanne Sutro Rhees wrote the original grant application and handled financial reporting to the Bureau of Historical
Preservation; she and David J. Rhees assisted with editing of the "Historical Overview." Dennis Moore acted as project treasurer. Mariellyn Zeock produced the maps used in the report and designed the cover.
The Historical Society would particularly like to acknowledge generous assistance and financial support of the Borough Council and the Bureau Historic Preservation. We would also like to thank the BHP staff; especially Dora Hershey, Tobi Gilson and Greg Ramsey, for their patience, advice, and encouragement.