Thomas J. Wieckowski

Chapter 4

The Gilded Age


Here one may lie in real country, yet share few
of the disadvantages usually attending
country life. Here, girls, you can pick berries
and gather wild flowers, and all of you, young
and old, feel generally free and independent.


     In the Olde Wyncote tract in 1852, life had continued largely unchanged for one hundred and sixty eight years from the granting of the first deeds by William Penn. Interrupted only by the turmoil of the War of Revolution, the verdant countryside supported several generations of farmers and a few millers in relatively comfortable circumstances. Professor Charles Trego of the University of Pennsylvania described the successful agrarian nature of the area:

 Montgomery is in a high state of cultivation, and its agricultural productions are numerous and important. Most kinds of grain cultivated in the state are grown here, and hay, potatoes, butter, fruit and other articles for the Philadelphia market are produced in abundance. The products of the dairy alone are estimated to amount to $402,681 annually. Lime, limestone, and marble also constitute a considerable item in the wealth of this county, producing an annual income of more than $250,000. (Trego, 1843)

     Even after a century and a half, the Olde Wyncote tract could not yet be called a "community":  the population was still too scarce in the tract and the few Quaker farmers found their social sustenance in the broader assembly of congregants at the Abington Friends meetinghouse in nearby Jenkintown. Land had passed from generation to generation within the family, sometimes dividing to accommodate children - as in the multiplication of "Mather" names resident in the tract, or through marriage - as in the introduction of the Lippincott name into formerly Mather territory. But, although not apparent to them, the time and manner of doing things of the legacy Quaker farmer was about over. By the end of the century, significant changes would ensue and life in the tract would undergo a complete facelift. Three factors fomented this transition:  the construction of the railroad, the commercialization of land development, and, a little later, the post Civil War expansion of the economy.


1852:  The Railroad    

     The grand changes that were forthcoming were, in 1852, just brewing in the still-distant social and geographical reaches of the Philadelphia business world. In that year, a group of industrious business activists received authorization from the state legislature to form a new railroad. Perhaps in no other aspect of late nineteenth century life had the benefits of the industrial revolution been so manifest as the railroad frenzy that gripped the nation and would continue to build steam throughout the period. In 1830, the first rails in the United States totaled only twenty-three miles. By 1850, nine thousand miles covered the country. In another twenty years, after the Civil War, the growth in railroading and the country produced a total of fifty-three thousand miles. Every investor with money to spare hurried to find a railroad to harbor his investment. On April 8, 1852, an Act of Legislature granted life to the Philadelphia, Easton, and Water Gap Railroad. The name bore testimony to the business war that pitted Philadelphia industrialists and merchants against those of neighboring New York. It was not the commuter railroad we know today, as the founders were more concerned about moving freight and goods to the city. Passengers were almost an afterthought as long as the coal got to the city. An announcement of a public meeting in the city called citizens to a "Philadelphia Mass Meeting" with the cry "Philadelphians, Hark!" and continued with the harangue:

The Forks of the Delaware echo to the whistle of the locomotive that is come to bear away to a neighbour city in a neighbour state the trade and treasure of the Keystone valleys. THIS CAN BE PREVENTED BY A DIRECT RAILROAD TO THE LEHIGH VALLEY. Therefore, arouse, for where the interests of all are at stake, it is the duty of all to ACT. (Hare, 1940)    

     By the following year, the railroad had changed its name to a "shorter and more appropriate name" (in the words of the board of directors), North Pennsylvania Rail Road, and authorized the survey of a route that would connect existing downtown railways near the docks with New York bound lines leading from Easton. 

     The annual report of the chief engineer, submitted on April 30, 1853, recommended a route that traced in part through the region of the Olde Wyncote tract:

. . . the best line that could be obtained was that which left the Wissahickon by the valley of Sandy Run, crossing the Bethlehem turnpike near Hirsh's tavern, thirteen and a half miles from Philadelphia by the turnpike, passing through Edge Hill by a deep cut at the village of Edgehillville, descending the Tacony to the vicinity of Shoemakertown, where the Old York Turnpike Road is crossed. (Miller, 1854)

    As with the indians and the Dutch, the creek that had already cut a level course through the countryside would be the preferred route through the area. Construction of the line began in 1854 and apparently proceeded at a rapid pace. By that year, $1,538,600 had been raised for construction of the line and a final cost was estimated at $2,980,000 for the entire length of the line to Bethlehem. These cost did not include land acquisition, a topic that was not addrerssed by the board until 1856. By New Year's Day of 1855, the right-of-way had been graded from the city terminus to Plymouth Road in Gwynedd and construction commenced on laying down a single track from the city to the end.

Locomotive of 1870's vintage pictured at Jenkintown Station in 1888. A cow pasture of the Baeder farm can be seen in the upper left corner, now the site of the 101 West Avenue office building. Photo courtesy of the Old York Road Historical Society.

Header Photograph: All Hallows Episcopal Church, Bent Road and Greenwood Avenue, Wyncote.

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