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. In the mid-eighteenth century, wealthy Philadelphians looking to build country retreats made their homes on the west bank of the Schuylkill. Other than the riverside mansions, Blockley Township was sparsely populated with family farms, and most of the economic activity came from people traveling through the township to and from the city. Blockley was a major transportation route for colonial goods, but the roads and ferries did not change Blockley's rural nature until the construction of the Lancaster Turnpike. Near the end of this period, many businesses west of the Schuylkill—businesses such as ferry operators and tavern owners—earned a living serving the needs of travelers.

The First European Settlers Were Not Quakers

Some of West Philadelphia's most studied first settlers are not the ones you might expect.

Though the area we today call West Philadelphia is well-known as a former Quaker colony, the area was settled well before the arrival of William Penn. Swedish residents, though few in number, were the first. Others followed, including William Warner, who gave the area it's eighteenth century name, Blockley Township.

Swedes

The Swedish were the first Europeans to make settlements along the west bank of the Schuylkill River.

The first European settlement in the Delaware Valley—including the future West Philadelphia—was Swedish in origin. The relatively small quantity of Swedes (and some Finns) offered tax revenues to any other nation that could conquer it. One result of these successive conquests was that the original Swedes fled up the Delaware River from their original settlement near present-day Wilmington, Delaware. Only a handful of Swedes settled in the area that would become present-day West Philadelphia. The earliest recorded date of Swedes within the West Philadelphia area was circa 1648, when Peter Jochimson was listed as a resident of the Aronameck plantation near present day Bartram's Garden.1

William Warner

The name Blockley Township originated with William Warner, one of the first European settlers of West Philadelphia and a man noted for his public service to the community.

William Warner had settled west of the Schuylkill by 1677, purchasing his land from the Lenape. He named his estate "Blockley" after his birthplace in England. In 1705 all of West Philadelphia was widely known as Blockley. Warner was a prominent figure in Blockley Township and was elected twice to the Pennsylvania Assembly.

Blockley Township in Penn's 'Green Country Town'

Blockley Township was almost entirely agricultural in the 1800s, despite being best-known today for the riverside country estates built late in the century. 

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Blockley Townships's thousands of acres of woods and fields only rarely gave way to farms and houses. However, its plentiful farms provided food like corn, flour, and grain that fed the city of Philadelphia. In turn, the township was supplied with new residents as transportation spread to support the industry of cash crops. As the century progressed, the natural landscape was brought under human control. Lands were fenced. Roads were built. Signs of human habitation were almost everywhere. By the end of the century, as population grew with the construction of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, Blockley became well-known for the beautiful country estates on the bank of the river.

The Bartrams

If you were asked, "What is the most famous historic site in West Philadelphia," what would you say?

Many people, perhaps most, would say Bartram's Gardens. Do you agree? It was almost 300 years ago when John Bartram, purchased a 102 acre farm on the West Bank of the Schuylkill. Bartram was a botanical genius. Though he started out like any other Blockley farmer, Bartram created a legacy by following his passion for plants. He is generally recognized as the father of American botany and the first North American to hybridize flowering plants. A famed collector of plants and seeds, Bartram established his namesake gardens on the western bank of the Schuylkill River below Grey's Ferry. It was famed throughout Philadelphia because you could go there and see things you couldn't see anywhere else, and, what's more, you could buy them.

Eighteenth Century Estates

Blockley's great estates, which appeared from the mid-eighteenth century and continued until the mid-nineteenth, served as dazzling beacons of prestige, inviting more people to live and prosper in West Philadelphia.

Set close (but not too close!) to the city, with abundant rolling green hills and lush woods, Blockley was an ideal oasis for Philadelphians looking to build secondary residences. These mansions sat back from the city both physically and metaphorically. Expanses of undeveloped country and a river divided Blockley from the noise of Philadelphia's urban growth and any unwanted visitors residing there. The removed location also meant cheaper land prices, important because an estate was an expression of its owner and a large, ornate mansion symbolized wealth and status. But the estates were also opportunities for creative self-expression. William Hamilton, owner of the Woodlands, took trips to Europe to research the design of his house and studied horticulture to create an ever-evolving landscape to set it in. Many of the most prominent Philadelphians and even visitors to Philadelphia, made it a point to visit the Blockley bank of the Schuylkill River, in order to take in the elegance, beauty, and prestige of these fashionable residences.

William Hamilton's "Woodlands"

William Hamilton's "Woodlands," perhaps more than any other Blockley country retreat, symbolized the emergence of American ideals of social status and fashionable beauty.

Beginning in 1735, and culminating in 1783, the family of the famed colonial attorney Andrew Hamilton, accumulated the fabulous total of 535 acres of Blockley Township land. To provide a contemporary comparison, the Hamilton estate in 1783 was considerably larger than all of the University Pennsylvania Campus in 2016. This was a place that people would go out of their way to see. And for a quarter century, that is, until William Hamilton's death in 1813, travelers throughout the English speaking world did come to see it.

The Powels and Powelton

"Powelton," owned by the Powel family, was the only estate that rivaled the grand opulence of the Woodlands.

"Powelton," the estate owned by Samuel Powel and his wife, Elizabeth Willing Powel, at the turn of the nineteenth century, was home to one of the greatest Greek Revival mansions in the entire Delaware Valley. The estate's 97 acres extended, in present-day terms, from the Schuylkill River on the east, 36th Street on the west, Lancaster Avenue on the southwest, and Powelton or Pearl Street on the north. Samuel Powel (1738-1793) and his wife, Elizabeth Willing Powel (1742-1830) purchased the land in 1775 and built a country house there sometime before 1784. In 1793, Samuel Powel, then mayor of Philadelphia, died there in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic. His widow began building the grand mansion in May 1800. "Powelton House," as she called it, was completed in December 1801. It stood on ground bounded by present-day Race Street on the south, 32nd Street on the east, Powelton Street on the north, and Natrona Street on the west. 

Serving as a Transportation Corridor

Blockley Township was part of the pipeline of local and regional goods that helped Philadelphia secure a position as a major commercial trade hub in the eighteenth century. 

Farmers' Roads and King's Highways

Residents of Blockley Township were the creators and guardians of important commercial roads that helped make Philadelphia a commercial hub in the eighteenth century.

Blockley's network of roads were, for the most part, created, approved, and maintained by its residents. The majority of these roads were private paths used by farmers to transport their goods to market. The costs and labor to create and maintain these roads rested entirely on the shoulders of the small number of people who used them. If a road gathered more traffic, road "owners" could collectively petition to transfer maintenance costs to the public through a regional tax. In Blockley Township, most public roads were opened by the county and managed by the township. The two significant exceptions were the Lancaster Road and the Darby Road which were opened at the direction of the colonial Provincial Council, thereby giving them the designation of "King's Roads." The east/west Lancaster Road was one of the most traveled Philadelphia roads in the 1800s.

The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike

The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, replacing the popular Lancaster Road in 1795, made travel easier year-round by paving the road with stones.

In 1786, a large project was initiated to construct the "First Long Turnpike in the United States."1 The Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road Company completed this "first important public improvement in the state." The turnpike, a wagon road from Lancaster to Philadelphia, was ready for public use in 1795.2 With the completion of the first permanent bridge at Market Street in 1805, the turnpike linked the City of Philadelphia and the coastal region to the northwest interior of the Commonwealth.

Ferries

Schuylkill River ferries were the western gateways to the city in eighteenth century Philadelphia and an essential component of east/west land transport.

Ferries were an essential part of the eighteenth century transportation map of the Mid-Atlantic region. Ferries, the first method of providing regular crossing of the Schuylkill, were individual, privately-owned boats that would charge a toll for pulling travelers across the river. Their importance was syndicated by the province of Pennsylvania making them publicly regulated utilities early in the eighteenth century. During colonial times, the city only intervened in the business of transportation when the subject was vital to the health of the colony. In the eighteenth century almost all city-bound traffic across the Schuylkill River was handled by three ferries - the Upper, Middle, and Lower (Gray's) Ferries.