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Chester County

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Despite losing a third of its territory and its Delaware River frontage following the subdivision of Delaware County, Chester County remains the largest in area of the five counties of William Penn's initial settlement. Like Bucks County, Chester County's economy is primarily agricultural, which accounts for the many farms with their large barns set amidst rolling hills interspersed with tiny crossroad villages. Although what is now Delaware County was the center of the region's heavy industry, Chester County played an important role in the region's nineteenth-century industrial history with transportation and mercantile pursuits along its northern edge near the Schuylkill River and, by midcentury, in a band through the county's center along the route of the Pennsylvania Railroad. For the moment, the area around Coatesville is dominated by the immense foundries and erecting sheds of Lukens Steel Company, now a division of ArcelorMittal. In their brooding blackness they recall the English “coketown” of Lewis Mumford's acerbic commentary in The City in History (1968) on the industrial age. Phoenixville, on the Schuylkill River, was similarly shaped by the ability to ship by river the raw materials of the iron industry. Most of the western portion of the county, bordered by the Delaware state line and two roads, PA 82 and Strasburg Road (PA 162), remains rural; culturally it is connected to and in many ways is part of the Amish country of Lancaster County.

Development followed land routes radiating from the original county seat in Chester on the Delaware River. A secondary network of roads is aimed at such specific places as Quaker meetinghouses, many of which had their beginnings in the last years of the seventeenth century. Like Montgomery, Delaware, and Bucks counties, Chester County richly tells the story of the groups that passed through, leaving town names and churches in their wake. But Chester is mainly a British isle. Along the Delaware border it is largely English with some town names such as Oxford recalling the homeland counties of Penn and his followers; Caernarvon, Upper Uwchlan, Caln, and Tredyfferin, all largely north of U.S. 30, continue the line of the Welsh Tract. English Episcopal and Methodist churches, Scots Presbyterian, and Welsh Quaker meetings predominate. The German passage through the northern portion of the county toward Lancaster and Berks counties is far more diffuse, evidenced at a local scale by street names, a few tiny German churches, and by such German agricultural practices as contour farming and barn types that make the region west of PA 10 a nearly seamless continuation of Lancaster County.

With the exception of a short portion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-76) across the upper third of the county, there are few connections to the modern interstate highway system. As a result, housing developments are only now spreading near turnpike intersections. This is not to say that Chester County lacks variety. In the blackened remnants of coketown in the industrial zone along the Pennsylvania Railroad, in its English estate sector, and in the Amish country and more, Chester County preserves important parts of Pennsylvania's story.

The county terminates on the northwest in a low ridge called Welsh Mountain, which parallels the Great Valley running southwest to northeast, in turn joining the coastal plateau. In the nineteenth century rich farmlands produced more hay than any county but Montgomery, more corn than any but Lancaster, and more butter than any but Bucks. This accounts for the great dairy barns that are still visible west of U.S. 202 and unlike those of the German settlements to the west, many of these are of frame construction following English models. Geology accounts for the county's early architectural variety. Bands of schist, serpentinite, transitional marble, and other stones make for distinct architectural regions. Most remarkable are the brilliant green serpentinite farmhouses and barns that run along PA 926 from Pocopson to U.S. 202. The area near Avondale is known for stone laced with iron deposits that results in rust staining of walls, as on the meetinghouse at Kennett Square ( CH4).

Geography accounted for the location of early industry. Phoenixville continued the Schuylkill River's line of industrial development from Manayunk in Philadelphia to Pottstown in Montgomery County. The man-made rivers of steel determined the location of Downingtown, Coatesville, and Parkesburg along the route of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although the immense steel works of Lukens Steel Company ( CH24) in Coatesville still can be seen for the moment, the sites of earlier industrial giants such as the Wentworth Steel Company in the Great Valley are now largely being replaced by office parks.

Chester County's greatest claim to fame is the rural aestheticized district that slides seamlessly into the du Pont estates of northern Delaware along DE/PA 52. Here are handsome stone Quaker meetinghouses, large farms with barns and silos, handsome country houses built of local stone, and small villages whose brick buildings denote their larger regional connections. Just as Bucks County's artists helped freeze its iconic image in the rural age, Chester County's image was represented first in the illustrations of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth, then in the nostalgic identity in the transition between historic and modern that characterizes the watercolors, oils, and temperas of Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth. Their zone between PA 926 and the state's southern border is exemplified in such villages as Dilworthtown and Unionville. Few areas of the state have been so successful in their attempt to control and moderate change; villages are made precious; houses have been restored to perfection; and shopping is restricted to leisure of the most exalted order.

Writing Credits

Author: 
George E. Thomas

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