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Delaware County

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The area now encompassed by Delaware County was originally a part of Chester County, one of the three counties laid out by surveyor general Thomas Holme in 1683. Because of its location on the Delaware River between Philadelphia and the other Swedish and Dutch settlements, Delaware County contains some of the earliest structures of eastern Pennsylvania; it also reflects the regional evolution from agriculture to industry and, finally, to megalopolis.

At the time of William Penn's arrival, there were several small and prosperous Swedish settlements on the lower Delaware River, of which Upland was one of the largest. Penn renamed it Chester after the English county from which many of his settlers came and made it the county seat of Chester County. It was the site for his first Assembly (1682), which accepted the Act of Union linking the southern three counties of the present-day state of Delaware with Pennsylvania and offered the Swedes, Finns, and Dutch the same freedoms enjoyed by Penn's followers.

Upland's (Chester's) location on the fall line provided the waterpower that made it the region's first industrial center. According to George Smith, in his History of Delaware County, Pennsylvania (1862), a Swedish mill stood on or near Cobb's Creek before Penn's arrival. Later, Penn and his associates brought a pre-hewn frame for a mill, a time-saving measure that sped the construction of his house, Pennsbury ( BU16). By the time of the Revolution, Chester was no longer so central and complaints about its distance to the growing inland population led to a proposal to remove the government to the more central town of Goshen. In 1786 Goshen became the county seat and was renamed West Chester as a tribute to its predecessor. Chester's loss of power, however, was brief. The outlying eastern inhabitants now called for their own county, which they received three years later in the form of Delaware County. Again Chester became a county seat and its old courthouse ( DE1) was restored to use. This did not end the musical chairs; now it was Radnor township's residents who complained about the distant courthouse and threatened to join Montgomery County with its seat at nearby Norristown. In 1847 this was resolved with the removal of the county government to a new town laid out by surveyor Joseph Fox and given a name (the happy inspiration of local Quaker Minshall Painter) that would proclaim beyond all doubt its central location: Media.

Agriculture, industry, and, more recently, consumer culture have shaped the county. East of I-95 (the former route of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad) and U.S. 13 along the coastal plain of the Delaware River is a largely industrialized, and in some areas now deindustrialized, zone that reflects the county's role in the “Workshop of the World,” a title appropriated from the English midlands in the mid-nineteenth century and reapplied to Philadelphia by the end of the century. Oil refineries across the state line in Delaware at Marcus Hook; shipyards and other industrial sites at Chester; Simon and Simon's cruciform landmark office tower for the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone (1926); and the Boeing Helicopter Division just south of Ridley Park, leading into the most recent extension of the Philadelphia International Airport ( PH202), are the industries that gave employment to the region, paid for its houses and schools, and formed the basis of its hierarchical society.

West of PA 252, however, the county is still largely rural although suburban development advances unchecked. The generally hilly terrain inland is made memorable by the band of brilliant green serpentinite stone that was heavily quarried in the 1860s and 1870s for its strident colors and used for buildings from Baltimore to Harrisburg until its susceptibility to industrial pollution became apparent in the early buildings of the University of Pennsylvania ( PH147). In western Delaware County and eastern Chester County, pollution has been less of a problem and brilliant green farmhouses and barns remain, some with the original chisel marks still visible.

The northern half of the county is notable for its complex history of settlement. This proceeded in two directions: English settlement overlaid the earlier Swedish substrate and expanded north from the Delaware River, while Welsh settlement moved south and west from the Welsh Tract, a forty-thousand-acre parcel in the vicinity of Lower Merion, Montgomery County, purchased by Welsh dissenters in 1685. (Conflict between the two groups was expressed in efforts of the English Quakers to limit the new Welsh Quaker preparatory meetings.) The area of the Welsh Tract is evident in a host of town names across northern Delaware, Chester, and Montgomery counties: Uwchlan (pronounced “U-clan”), Tredyffrin, Radnor, Caln, and Haverford. More Welsh names appeared in the mid-nineteenth century when station stops along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad were renamed Merion, Narberth, Bryn Mawr, St. Davids, and Berwyn. Traces of Welsh building practice can be seen in the first cell of Haverford's seventeenth-century meetinghouse ( DE38).

The English community concentrated along the river and below West Chester Pike (PA 3), where English names predominate along with a few of those peculiarly Quaker states-of-feeling names like Providence and Concord. German migration in the eighteenth-century followed the road west to Lancaster, but left few traces within Delaware County, though here and there along the county's western edge a church or village bears a German name.

By the time Delaware County was constructed from Chester County in 1789, the network of internal roads that still serves it today had already been created. The earliest Great Road was just beyond the tidal zones of creeks, roughly the route of U.S. 13. By the 1740s, what is now Baltimore Pike (U.S. 1) was a part of the coastal system that linked the colonies, while the road to Lancaster (later Lancaster Turnpike, now U.S. 30) formed the major route of the western pioneers. In the nineteenth century and parallel to Lancaster Turnpike came the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the strand on which real estate developers of the nation's centennial era strung their suburban pearls, making the county's northern edge a continuous residential band. The southern industrial zone along the Delaware River was served by the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad, later the Pennsylvania Railroad and now the Amtrak lines; here was less residential development with the notable exception of the planned suburb of Ridley Park. Rail lines concentrated development on the county's north and south edges until the construction of the West Chester Railroad that passed just south of Media. Suburbanization followed the rail lines, but with the exception of Media and industrial Downingtown there has been remarkably little urban settlement.

In the twentieth century, highways and the interstate system transformed the location and types of regional industry and residential development. By the early twentieth century, U.S. 202 formed a western ring road that largely bypassed the county. In the 1950s, regional planners sought to link U.S. 202, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the north–south I-95 to provide a high-speed bypass to the congested region around Philadelphia. The scheme drawn by its planners, in blue ink and thus known as the “Blue Route” (now I-476), roughly followed the Crum Creek Valley bordering Swarthmore College before shifting to the Darby Creek watershed and then into the Gulph Creek Valley toward the Schuylkill River and the expressway (I-76). Planned to open in 1964, litigation delayed its completion until 1991, when there followed a frantic tide of suburban development that has infilled nearly all the region east to Philadelphia. Here office parks and housing developments occupy former eighteenth-century farmsteads and nineteenth-century estates. To the west, agricultural land stretches to Brandywine Creek, retaining a bit of the rural flavor for which neighboring Chester County is still known.

Inland communities can be roughly dated by the founding and construction of their Quaker meetinghouses. Delaware County and adjacent Chester County offer an overview of the evolution of the meetinghouse from the c. 1700 low-roofed, square-planned Old Haverford Meetinghouse ( DE38), the earliest extant building in the county, to the slightly more monumental Radnor meetinghouse of 1717–1718 ( DE41) to William L. Price's Art Nouveau–tinged meetinghouse (1910) at Swarthmore College. Most of the small towns have been absorbed into the large automobile world, leaving few of the isolated eighteenth-century settlements that authors Wallace Nutting, John T. Faris, Ann Hollingsworth Wharton, and others found in their early-twentieth-century travels as having the quality of English villages. Evidence of these still can be found in the highly aestheticized yet rural zone around Chadds Ford toward Longwood Gardens ( CH2) and Brandywine Battlefield Historic Site ( DE6).

Delaware County is home to two of the nation's premier small colleges, Swarthmore ( DE28) and Haverford ( DE36), whose architecture exemplifies their exalted standing. Of equal stature is William Price's utopian Arts and Crafts community at Rose Valley ( DE26). Northern Delaware County's western suburbs of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Main Line, notably Villanova, Radnor, St. Davids, and Wayne, contain the greatest concentration of architecturally interesting domestic and institutional buildings.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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