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Cheltenham Township History

Cheltenham Township, as it exists today, is the product of over 300 years of history. The interactions of numerous generations have created a tapestry of events and people that have shaped both the physical and cultural development of the Township. The story of Philadelphia’s first suburb is filled with names of local, regional, and national significance. The physical manifestation of this history is the unique building stock that lends Cheltenham its sense of place and character. It is the express desire of the Township to promote and preserve these historical artifacts through the expansion of regulatory tools and historic preservation efforts.

 

First Purchasers

Cheltenham Township was created in 1682 as part of Philadelphia County. It was not until September 10, 1784 that Montgomery County was formed and Cheltenham became its smallest Township. William Penn deeded land grants to fifteen fellow Englishmen. Each was deeded a small parcel of land in the City of Philadelphia and a larger area, comprising of between 100 and 500 acres, in Cheltenham Township.

 

Two of the “First Purchasers,” Tobias (Toby) Leech and Richard Wall, settled in the Township and became instrumental in its early beginnings. They are considered to be the Township’s Founding Fathers. Both were actively involved in the religious, political, and social growth of the new community. Toby Leech was a successful businessman and was involved in many enterprises upon his arrival in Cheltenham. He established a corn and fulling mill along the Tookany Creek, which gave Mill Road its name. One of the structures built by Leech across from his tannery and bake ovens was used to house his enslaved workers. It still stands today on Church Road. Another house Leech built for his grandson Abraham remains at Old Soldiers Road and Ryers Avenue. In addition to the tannery and bakery in Cheltenham, Toby Leech was involved in land transactions in Philadelphia, Delaware, and Chester Counties.

Richard Wall’s house stands at the entrance to Wall Park. The original section of the house is dated 1682 and additions were completed in 1730, 1760, and 1805. It is the most historic building in the Township and, until 1978, was the oldest house in continuous residence in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Wall name was lost when Sarah Wall, Richard’s granddaughter, married George Shoemaker. The Shoemaker name is another name mentioned quite frequently in association with early development in the Township. The Wall’s granddaughter-in-law developed the Shoemaker Mill on the Tookany Creek, and Shoemakertown (now part of Elkins Park) developed around it. (Read more Wall House History here.)

Humphrey Morrey (also referred to as Merry) was another significant First Purchaser. He was heavily involved in politics and served as the first mayor of Philadelphia between 1691 and 1701. His only surviving son, Richard, inherited this land grant, in addition to other land that was acquired by Humphrey Morrey. Richard Morrey was one of the first Americans to free his slaves and distribute land to them.

The area in which they settled, which was one of the first African-American settlements in the country, became known as Guineatown because many of the slaves had originally come from Guinea. Later the area would become known as Edge Hill, named after the Revolutionary War battle that was fought nearby in Abington Township. Most recently it has been considered as part of the Glenside district.

Richard Morrey fathered five children by his mistress, Cremona, who was herself one of Morrey’s freed slaves. After his death, Cremona Morrey later married John Frey. Upon her death, the Morrey children contested the land. Eventually, it was agreed that the land would be sold and the proceeds divided among her children. Cremona Frey Jr., Cremona’s daughter by John Frey, settled on a portion of the remaining land and the house that was built there still stands, although much altered, on Limekiln Pike near Waverly Road.

The Mather family is another notable name in Cheltenham’s history, though no one in the family was among the First Purchasers. Joseph Mather came from England as an indentured servant and upon the completion of his servitude, married Elizabeth Russell, whose father, John Russell, was one of the First Purchasers. The centrally located original 300-acre tract purchased by John Russell was divided over successive generations of Mather descendants, which through marriage, would also come to include descendants of the Wall and Leech families. The house built by Bartholomew Mather in 1781 at the northeast corner of Church Road and Washington Lane is of note for its historical significance. During the Revolutionary War, a spring on the property was used as a watering place by American and British troops fighting in the Battle of Edge Hill. During the Civil War, the house was used as a stop along the Underground Railroad. The house was later demolished.

 

Early Industrial Development

The Tookany Creek proved to be the lifeblood of Cheltenham’s early development. The creek provided industrial opportunities for early settlers and entrepreneurs. Many of the mills along the creek began as gristmills and were expanded to accommodate the changing needs of the local population as well as to reflect the changing technology of the times. As the mills prospered, small villages containing workers’ housing and supporting businesses grew up around them. By the early twentieth century, most of the mills had been abandoned and demolished and the Township began the process of reacquiring the land along the Tookany Creek as recreation and open space. However, the mills have left a permanent mark on land use in the Township because the original villages developed around them.

 

In 1690 Richard Dungworth built the Township’s first gristmill. The ownership of this mill changed hands a few times and was eventually purchased by Benjamin Rowland Sr. This mill was then incorporated into the thriving shovel manufacturing business that had been developed by his nephew, Benjamin Rowland Jr. By the 1880s, T. Rowland and Sons was the second largest producer of shovels in the United States. The large number of employees that were employed at the Rowland complex precipitated the development of Milltown, which later became known as Cheltenham Village. The mill was abandoned and demolished in 1929, but the Shovel Shop at 300 Ashbourne Road remains as a testament to the village’s early history.

 

Areas of what is now Elkins Park developed around early mill establishments. Shoemakertown, later known as Ogontz, grew around a mill developed by Dorothy Shoemaker and her brother-in-law, Richard Mather, in 1746. At its peak productivity, the mill was known as Charles Bosler, Flour and Feed. The mill was demolished in 1929. Adjacent to Shoemakertown, the village of Ashbourne grew around a mill that had originally been built by Toby Leech in 1706. The mill reached its greatest prominence as the Meyer and Ervien Fork Factory in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

 

Only a few remnants of the original mills along Tookany Creek, or branches thereof, remain in the Township. C. Hammond’s Tacony Edge Tool Works, which produced hammers and sledges, was eventually purchased for residential use. Knight’s Mill, also known as Paxson’s Mill and Rice’s Mill, no longer exists. Originally the mill produced flour, but in the twentieth century, it was converted to a carpentry mill that produced commodities such as window and door frames, shutters and stairs. A few of the outbuildings were converted to residential use and some of the foundations were incorporated into new structures.

 

Camp William Penn

In the heart of La Mott, on the grounds of the Community Center, is a stone marker memorializing “Camp William Penn: 1863-1865. Training camp for colored troops enlisted into the United States Army.” The monument was “erected by the Allied Veterans Association of Pennsylvania” in 1943. Of the troops trained at the site, two were marked for special combat performance: the 6th and 8th USCT. (United States Colored Troops).

 

Our Civil War was at first a war for the Union. As such, the war was viewed as a “white man’s war.” Those blacks who came forward were rudely turned away. Generals Hunter and Fremont tried to enlist black troops, only to be slapped down by an administration worried about holding the Border States in the Union.  As Union defeat after defeat piled up in the Eastern Theater, the remorseless logic of war, as well as the pleadings of abolitionists, led first to use of blacks as “Contraband” labor units, then as full-scale military units.

 

Northern blacks yearned to get into the fight. Their motives were complex but revolved around a desire to “prove” themselves worthy of equal citizenship. They knew that the war meant the death of slavery, but not necessarily the birth of freedom or equality. They hoped to prove their worth to the racist white population in the North in the crucible of battle. With the January 1, 1863 issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, without a particularly ringing endorsement of their use, Lincoln authorized recruitment of blacks “to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.”

 

By June of 1863, authorities were authorized to “enlist into the service of the United States for three years or during the war all suitable colored men who may offer themselves for enlistment.” Before they could be combat soldiers, recruitment and training establishments for them had to be set up.  A June 19, 1863 gathering of prominent citizens in Sansom Street Hall resolved to form a committee to raise black regiments. On the same date, Lieut. Col. Charles C. Ruff announced that he had “orders to authorize the formation of one regiment of ten companies, colored troops, each company to be eighty strong, to be mustered into the United States service and provided for, in all respects, the same as white troops.” A week later, Camp William Penn was to be established to receive the black recruits.  Recruits from Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey were to be trained at Camp William Penn, one of eight northern camps set up for the training of black troops. Camp William Penn has the important distinction of being the only one set up exclusively to train black troops.


 

If the inauguration of Camp William Penn was a week later, on June 26, it was none too soon. Confederate General Jubal Anderson Early was in Gettysburg routing a command of Pennsylvania militia, then pushing this dusty regiment toward York, and the Susquehanna River. On the same day, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Gregg Curtin issued a call for 60,000 three-month militia to turn back Lee’s incursion into the state. Why, with the crisis upon, them the state authorities turned down the services of a company of motivated black volunteers is a mystery. Blacks would be allowed to enlist, in state units, but for three years, or the war, and at lower pay than white enlistees. These conditions did not deter blacks from rallying to the colors.

 

June 30 saw several hundred black men marching on Sixth Street bound for Chestnut Street. They had no arms or uniforms but were led by “fife and drum and inspiriting banners,” and were marching to their newly organized camp in the Chelten Hills. The camp was over the city limits in what is now Cheltenham Township. The first site for the camp was on land owned by Quaker Abolitionist Edward M. Davis, on the southeast corner of Church Road and Washington Lane. The camp was located near the necessary rail connection, the Chelten Hills Station of the newly constructed North Penn Railroad. The camp was not ideal. Then, as well as now, the area was not parade-ground level. As winter approached, more weather-hardy barracks were needed to house continuing recruitment efforts. A new site was selected just outside the Philadelphia City limits in the village now known as La Mott.  The new site was close enough to “Roadside”, the home of Lucretia Mott, for her to comment that “the barracks make a show from our back windows.”

 

This was to be the largest of the training camps set up for black soldiers. Eventually, 10,940 men passed through the camp. The camp commander was Lieutenant Colonel Louis Wagner. Wagner was given command of the post at his own request. Though German-born, he brought with him American combat experience. He was an officer in the 88th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. In this service he had been badly wounded at Bull Run. Other officers were chosen from units in the field, mostly from the ranks of enlisted men.

 

A total of eleven regiments passed through the gates of Camp William Penn. The first training units were the 3rd, 6th, and 8th U.S.C.T. As early as July 9, 1863, soldiers were mustered into the Sixth. This makes this unit, with the Third Regiment, the first to undergo recruitment and training.

 

Citizens for the Restoration of Historical La Mott (CROHL) operates a seasonal museum and annually hosts a Camp William Penn Day in September.

 

Estate Development

During the Gilded Age, a fifty-year period spanning the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Cheltenham established itself as one of Philadelphia’s most prominent suburbs. It is during this timespan that some of Philadelphia’s most influential industrialists constructed large estates in the Township. The palatial estates not only afforded their owners the opportunity to escape the overcrowded, plague-stricken city, but also provided them a place in which to entertain their contemporaries and showcase their wealth. Many large mansions dotted the landscape by the early twentieth century as wealthy estate owners tried to outdo each other.

 

Jay Cooke was one of the first notable figures to build an estate in Cheltenham. Cooke established himself as a railroad tycoon and was known as the “financier of the Civil War” because he successfully negotiated a federal loan for the war by selling treasury notes to the masses. He was also involved in the abolitionist movement and provided stops along the Underground Railroad. He was involved in the community and contributed to the construction of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where his mausoleum is now housed. His stately “Ogontz” mansion was located on a 200-acre estate bordered by Ashbourne Road, Washington Lane and Church Road. In 1883 it was converted to the Ogontz School for Girls. This finishing school operated on the site until 1917 when it moved to Abington. Joseph Widener purchased the property, and the house was demolished. A few years later, Ronaele Manor was constructed on this site.

 

John W. Wanamaker was another famous Philadelphia businessman who constructed his estate in Cheltenham. Lindenhurst was built on a seventy-seven-acre parcel bordered by Township Line Road, Old York Road and Washington Lane. The first Lindenhurst was destroyed by fire in 1907 and the second Lindenhurst was demolished in 1946. Henry W. Breyer, Jr., of ice cream fame, purchased the abandoned property in 1929. Breyer donated the former Wanamaker land to the Boy Scouts of America for use as a wildlife preserve and campground.

 

Abraham Barker was the founder of Barker Brothers Exchange Brokers and later a founder of the Union League. His estate, Lyndon, was located south of Church Road at Greenwood Avenue. His son Wharton is the only Cheltenham resident to have run for president; he was the Fusion Populist candidate in 1890, but lost to incumbent William McKinley. After the Barker Brothers suffered financial failure, Cyrus W. Curtis purchased the estate. Curtis had acquired his wealth in the newspaper business publishing magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies’ Home Journal. Curtis established an impressive arboretum on the property and after his death Lyndon was demolished while the potting shed and pergola were retained and the property donated to the Township. The estate is now known as the Curtis Arboretum. George Horace Lorimer, editor of Curtis’ Saturday Evening Post, built his home, Belgrame, a half mile west of Lyndon.

 

William Welsh Harrison commissioned Horace Trumbauer in 1893 to design the gothic castle that now stands as the administration building for Arcadia University. Trumbauer’s design of Grey Towers established him as Cheltenham’s premier architect. Many of his designs were patterned on castles and palaces in Europe. An example of this is Lynnewood Hall, which was designed for transportation magnate P.A.B. Widener. This striking building was patterned after Prior Park in Bath, England, and the gardens were designed in the formal French style. Trumbauer was originally sought out by the wealthy elite to design large estate buildings, but he also designed many of the smaller area residences. William L. Elkins commissioned Trumbauer to build numerous buildings that still remain in the Township. Elstowe Manor was completed in 1902 and is now the Dominican Retreat House, Prouille. In 1896, Trumbauer designed Chelten House, which was the home of Elkins’ son, George. Another stately mansion designed by Trumbauer was given by Elkins as a wedding present to his daughter, Stella, upon her marriage to George Tyler. In 1932, upon Mrs. Tyler’s donation, the building became the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Art of Temple University.

 

Another Cheltenham resident of note is John B. Stetson, maker of the infamous “ten-gallon hat.” His residence, Idro, was located on Old York Road near Juniper Avenue. Several literary notables resided in Cheltenham. John Luther Long, who penned the story that would become Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, lived on Ashbourne Road. Ezra Pound, the noted American poet, was raised in Wyncote and attended the Cheltenham Military Academy.

 

Other influential Philadelphia capitalists had their estates in Chelten Hills with still-recognizable names such as Lippincott, Charles D. Barney, Proctor, Sharpless, Kemble, and Pardee.


Historic Districts

Cheltenham has two districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The first district, La Mott, is a post-Civil War residential development known historically as the location of the first training grounds for African-American troops. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 31, 1985 and contains 35 units. The second district, Wyncote, is a late nineteenth/early twentieth century wealthy suburb noted for its architectural significance. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 16, 1986 and has 178 units.

 

National Historic Landmarks

Grey Towers of Arcadia University 
• Beth Sholom Synagogue

 

National Register of Historic Places (Township-owned)

• Henry W. Breyer Jr. House (Township Administration Building)
Curtis Hall and Arboretum
Glenside Memorial Hall
• George K. Heller School (Cheltenham Center for the Arts)
• Benjamin Rowland House (Shovel Shop)
• Wall House (Richard Wall House Museum)

 
 
 
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