Home > Histories > History of Chester, PA by Hon. John M. Broomall

History of Chester, PA
Hon. John M. Broomall

The following "History of Chester, Pa., by the Hon. John M. Broomall," is taken from the Delaware River and West Jersey Railroad Commercial Directory, for 1872, pp. 93, 94, 95, 96, and is in these words:

"The city of Chester, is situated on the west bank of the Delaware River, below Philadelphia. Its distance from Market Street wharf, measured on the river, is about twenty miles, while that from Market Street bridge, on the Schuylkill, by the Philadelphia and Baltimore post-road, is but thirteen. This difference is mainly owing to the great bend in the Delaware, about the mouth of the Schuylkill, known as the Horse-shoe.

The line of highland on which the higher portion of West Philadelphia is located, recedes from the shore line, and running nearly straight along the island limits of the Tinicum meadows, approaches the river about a mile above Chester. At this point the meadow land narrows to a mere strip, and gradually disappears altogether on the approach to the town. The site of Chester is as high above tide-water as that of West Philadelphia.

While Chester is twenty miles nearer the Capes by water than Philadelphia, the distance between the limits of the two cities by land, is but about eight miles, and the actual distance between the built-up portions of each is rapidly diminishing. The two cities will be united along the highlands long before any great improvement will be made along the river line between them.

Chester is the oldest town in Pennsylvania. The titles of its town lots extend back through the ownership of Europeans and their descendants to 1645. A village of considerable size existed there in 1682, at the time of the founding of Philadelphia, containing a market house, court house, schools, places of public worship, a flour mill and several taverns. It is well known that Penn intended locating his city there, but was prevented mainly by the fear that it might prove to be within the limits of Lord Baltimore’s domain. There is good reason to suppose that this fear was not without foundation, and more than that, that the removal to the mouth of the Schuylkill did not mend the matter. It is shrewdly suspected that nothing but Penn’s influence at Court saved him from holding his grant under Lord Baltimore, if at all, up to a line considerably north of Philadelphia.

Chester was the seat of Government of the Colony of Pennsylvania for several years. It continued to be the seat of justice of Chester County until 1788, when West Chester deprived it of that honor. This event was immediately followed by a division of the county, when Chester became the seat of justice of the new county of Delaware, and remained so until 1850. At that period, the courts and records were removed to Media, a point five miles inland, about the middle of the county, the present seat of justice.

After the establishment of Philadelphia, Chester gradually declined in importance, if not in population and extent. For a century and a half nothing but its Court house distinguished it from Marcus Hook, its neighboring fishing town. Long since the commencement of the present century, its inhabitants consisted of three or four tavern keepers, a doctor, a few dozen fishermen, two country storekeepers and a custom house officer, whose arduous duties consisted of signing a receipt for his small salary four times a year.

About 1840, however, a spirit of innovation began to exhibit itself, a little to the alarm and discomfort of the old inhabitants. Delaware County had always contained much of the elements of progress, and the county town could not always escape the contamination. Manufacturers of paper, cottons, woolens, iron, &c., had sprung up in various parts of the county, and it began to be perceived that steam upon tidewater is better than water power a few miles off. The advantages of Chester as a seat for manufacturing establishments soon became manifest, and from that time onward, its progress in material wealth and population has surprised even the most far-seeing.

In 1840, the population was 700; in 1850, 1600; in 1860, 6400; and in 1870, including the suburbs, about 14,000. Not many towns in Pennsylvania, or anywhere east of it, can show a corresponding increase. With equal advantages of location, Marcus Hook and New Castle have remained nearly stationary during the period of thirty years.

In 1827, the first stationary steam engine was started in Chester, and its advent produced more sensation among the simple villagers than did the downfall of the French monarchy. Now the number in operation is about sixty. These engines operate 28 cotton and woolen mills, 8 machine shops, and some 18 or 20 other manufacturing establishments.

The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad passes through the town with 23 trains daily, including six from the Baltimore Central road, and the new route along the highlands, which will soon be opened, will render Chester accessible to Philadelphia every half hour in the day without crossing the Schuylkill and Tinicum meadows, which constitutes so uninviting a feature of the present road, with its ditches, swamps and drawbridges. This new route is already attracting the attention it deserves, passing as it does, through a country beautifully undulating and rich as a garden, with streams of pure spring water coursing every ravine. Already streets are being laid out and buildings erected upon them, promising a continuous town, so that the southern traveller, in a few years, will not suppose he is outside of Philadelphia, until he reaches the Delaware State line.

The southern terminus of the Chester Creek Railroad, is at Chester. This road is leased and operated by the Baltimore Central Railroad Company, and it forms the connecting link between the two Baltimore and Philadelphia railroads. Connecting at Lenni with the Westchester railroad, and at Chadd’s Ford with the Wilmington and Reading Railroad, the Baltimore Central and Chester Creek roads open out to Chester the rich agricultural and mining districts of Chester County and the entire country traversed by those roads.

The Media and Chester Narrow Gauge Railroad Company has been chartered and organized; and its road is now being located along the valley of Ridley Creek. This, when completed, will bring Chester within twenty minutes ride of the seat of justice. The scenery along the route of this road is not excelled anywhere within the same distance of Philadelphia. In places it approaches the mountainous, and all along the valley are hill sides teeming with agricultural wealth, and manufacturing villages swarming with a busy population. It is in contemplation to construct an 80 feet carriage-way along the bed of the railroad, so as to afford the citizens of Chester an opportunity to reside upon the highlands of the county and be within a few minutes ride of their places of business.

With all the railroad facilities, and with a river not obstructed by ice up to that point once in twenty years, few localities offer the inducements to manufacturers which Chester does: and this, with the energy and enterprise of those who have made it their home, is the sufficient explanation of the fact, that in thirty years the population has increased twenty-fold.

The width of the Delaware at Chester, is about a mile and a half. The channel is near the town, and is deep and wide enough for vessels of ordinary draft of water to tack and manoeuvre [maneuver] in, so as to avoid the necessity of being towed. Few vessels that enter the port of Philadelphia require towing, except from Chester upwards. In 1856 and 1857, two winters in succession, the river was frozen over at Chester so as to bear loaded wagons, and for a few weeks, much hauling of wood and other commodities was done to and from the opposite shore. No such occurrence had taken place for years before, nor has the river there been frozen over since. On both those occasions, it was open opposite the present extension of the town southward, and at that point and below, the river has probably never been fast during the memory of the oldest inhabitant.

Among the public institutions of the town, may be mentioned the Delaware County National Bank, founded as a State Bank in 1816, and for many years so ably conducted as to merit and enjoy a high degree of public confidence. It became a national bank in 1865, with a capital of three hundred thousand dollars. The First National Bank of Chester, established in 1865, with a capital of one hundred thousand dollars. This institution ranks among the best in the country. The Chester Gas Company, founded about 1856, well managed and exceedingly profitable to the stockholders. The South Ward Water Works, supplying a large portion of the city with water from the Delaware. The Crozer Theological Institute, a college founded by the late John P. Crozer, and managed by the religious denomination of Baptists. The Chester Military Academy, under the charge of Col. Theodore Hyatt, as principal. Thirteen public schools and five private academies.

There are also 19 places of public worship; 2 Episcopal, 6 Methodist, 3 Baptist, 2 Presbyterian, 1 Catholic, and 2 of the denomination of Friends.

There are also 7 hotels, and more drinking houses than the Court of Quarter Sessions of the county is probably aware of.

There are 5 shipyards in Chester, one of which, then operated by Messrs. Reany, Son & Archibold, was extensively engaged during the recent war, in making iron vessels of war for the Government. Though the business of ship-building has been unprosperous in this country for the past few years, yet the facilities afforded at Chester have been such that these yards continue in operation, and are now doing a good paying business. These facilities consist of cheapness of the river front for locations, as well as of living for the workmen, and the opportunity of obtaining materials by water and by railroad at less cost than in the larger cities.

The town was erected into a Borough by Penn’s government in 1682. Its charter was reconstructed and amended on several occasions by the state Legislature, and in 1866, it was constituted a city. The old town occupied a part of what is now the Middle Ward. The North Ward was laid out and to a large extent built up by John Larkin, Jr., the first and present Mayor of the city, having been commenced in 1850. John P. Crozer and John M. Broomall laid out and began to build up the South Ward, in the same year. The three wards constitute the city proper. But the town has extended beyond the city limits in almost all directions. One of these extensions is the Borough of Upland, founded by John P. Crozer, about 1847, and still owned almost wholly by his heirs. It contains two large cotton mills, a church, several school buildings, and the theological college already mentioned. Another is the Borough of South Chester, laid out by John M. Broomall and William Ward, in 1863. This contains two shipyards, a brass foundry and machine shop, four cotton and woolen factories, three places of worship, and three school houses. The other extensions are embraced within the township of Chester, and contain factories and schools, and other establishments.

In giving the population and business of Chester, these extensions are necessarily included. Except in the case of Upland, they are mere extensions of the same streets, with nothing to mark where the city proper ends, and doubtless before long, they will be incorporated with the City, under the same government.

Among the curiosities of Chester and its vicinity, are several old buildings erected during the early importance of the place, and still in good condition. Among these may be mentioned the dwelling house of David Lloyd, an important personage in the early colonial history. It was built by Lloyd, in 1721, and is beautifully located on the banks of the Delaware. Though suffered to fall into decay within a few years, it still bears marks of its ancient grandeur. Many years ago, it became the property of the late Commodore David Porter, and it is still held by his heirs. The Logan house, built by Jasper Yates, about 1700, is still standing, though altered into two dwellings, and all marks of its antiquity effaced. This building is situated upon Filbert street. Until desecrated by modern utilitarian hands it was a grand specimen of the mansion house architecture of that day.

The City Hall, once the Court house of Chester County, and afterwards of Delaware, was built in 1724; it is still one of the best buildings of the place, and will outlast most of those now in process of erection, if spared by Vandal hands. The residence of Caleb Pusey, still standing on the banks of Chester Creek, in Upland, is older than any of these. It was built about 1683. It is a one-story building with a Mansard roof, better proportioned than roofs of that kind now being constructed. It was, however, the style of that day, and the change may justify the charge made against our age, that we take up what was really good of centuries ago and spoil it. This building has been carefully preserved in its original style by the late John P. Crozer and his heirs, who still own it.

But the present work has more to do with the town of our day than the past, and we conclude our observations of both by the remark, that from present appearances, before many years have passed by, Chester will be in fact, if not in name, a part of the city of Philadelphia."

*Chester (and its Vicinity), Delaware County in Penna. with Genealogical Sketches of some old families, John Hill Martin, Originally Published 1877, fully indexed by John A. Bullock III., 1999

If you have any information and or pictures that you would like to contribute about the history of Chester, please forward it to john@oldchesterpa.com

2000, 2004 John A. Bullock III.

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