West Philadelphia: The History

In the Time of the Lenape

The Lenape were the first human inhabitants of the Philadelphia region.

The Lenape (also called the Lenni Lenape and sometimes referred to as the Delaware) were the first inhabitants of West Philadelphia. We know they resided in the area for thousands of years. Archeological documents and colonial accounts suggest that the Lenape community was characterized by complex relationships with kin, community, and the land. When European colonists settled the area in the seventeenth century, the nature of these relationships, and the Lenape as a people, were threatened.

The Rural Township of Blockley

Not until 1800, more than 100 years after William Penn established the city of Philadelphia, did Blockley Township begin to emerge from its slumber as a rural backwater of the city.

West of the Schuylkill was a hinterland in Pennsylvania's first century—rural farms whose livestock and produce were essential to feeding the city of Philadelphia but existing outside of Philadelphia's mental vision. Though Blockley Township (as it had become known) was a part of Philadelphia County, it was outside the boundaries of the City of Philadelphia. The first settlers were farmers, craftsmen, and those whose work derived from proximity to the Schuylkill River.

From Blockley Township to West Philadelphia

Fixed bridges provided transportation opportunities in the first half of the nineteenth century, bringing residential and institutional development to Blockley Township.

Blockley Township made great strides in the first half of the nineteenth century. Bridges replaced ferries, allowing public transport by horse-drawn buses. Villages formed around transportation routes and the divided land of former estates. The area also housed some of the city's most vital social institutions for the underprivileged.

Streetcar Suburb in the City

Following the Consolidation Act of 1854, West Philadelphia evolved into a desirable, even fashionable, suburb within the city.

The West Philadelphia of the late nineteenth century was a city of neighborhoods done in a suburban style. By the 1860s the land between the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers had been almost entirely filled. West Philadelphia's availability of green, open space seemed like an oasis in what was becoming an industrial gray city. With the introduction of the trolley lines in the 1850s and 60s, reaching it became reliable and affordable for many people. Spurred by this, many real estate developers created new housing throughout the area.