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East Falls History Mystery

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A History of East Falls

East Falls boasts an extensive history that spans well over 300 years. From the colonial settlement to the American and Industrial Revolutions, the story of East Falls is one of innovation and hard-working people. In fact, we could dedicate an entire web site to it. But in the meantime, we hope this brief summary paints a helpful picture. If you would like to know more, we encourage you to visit our library (Falls of Schuylkill) or contact our Historical Society at (215) 848-5131 or (215) 848-8396 or visit them at www.eastfallscommunity.org/efhs.

Originally a settlement of the Lenni Lenape, a Native American tribe, East Falls was a collection of villages located in the vicinity of the falls of the Schuylkill River. Calling the area Ganshewahanna, meaning noisy water, the Lenni Lenape hunted, farmed and lived off the abundance of fish brought up the river with each high tide. Around 1755, the Indians departed from the shores of the falls and traveled to new lands on the Susquehanna River. New European settlements were constructed in the early 1700s to take advantage of the many natural amenities in East Falls that provided revenue potential. In 1732, Fort St. David, the first fishery in East Falls, was built and attracted many similar investments. Catfish were so plentiful in this part of the Schuylkill River that fishermen’s nets could barely hold the abundant catch (Wissahickon is derived from “Wissha mechan”, meaning “catfish”). Catfish became even more popular in the area because of the “catfish and waffles” delicacy introduced by Mrs. Robert Watkins, owner of the Falls Tavern. The creation of the Fairmount Dam three miles down-river ultimately submerged the falls, leaving only a few rocks remaining protruding from the river.

Above the river, Thomas Mifflin, the first governor of Pennsylvania and a signer of the U.S. Constitution, made his home near the intersection of Ridge and Midvale Avenues. The hill on which the Queen Lane Reservoir stands was the campground of the Continental Army in 1777, and was seriously proposed as the site for the permanent Federal Capital. Also during the American Revolution, Lafayette set up his headquarters on what is now McMichael Park.

As America began to industrialize, the river provided residents with waterpower to build mills along the Wissahickon and Falls Creeks, encouraging a small community to form. Prior to the Revolution, East Falls, like the rest of the country, was dependent on England for manufactured goods. However, during and after the war there was a movement for economic independence, eventually leading to the development of more mills. The mills of Wissahickon Creek produced a number of goods, including paper, cloth, gunpowder, sawed lumber, milled wheat and corn, and pressed oil from flax. There were more than fifty watermills by 1850, although residents were still able to preserve the organic beauty of the surrounding landscape. The natural allure of this area attracted the attention of various literary figures throughout the ages, including Edgar Allen Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier.

During the Civil War, the Dobson Mills were built, which produced woolen blankets for the Union Army. Dobson Mills was demolished in 1872 by the Fairmont Park Commission and then rebuilt and moved to Scott’s Lane where it flourished until the 1930s. At this time, East Falls also began to attract breweries, providing still more employment opportunities.

The Powers & Weightman Chemical Company, which started in 1848 on Ridge Avenue, was yet another important business that brought East Falls more economic and social success. William Weightman, considered the wealthiest person in Pennsylvania at the time, built the “Ravenhill” estate on School House Lane, next to the mansions of other industrialists, such as railroad tycoon Frederick Kimball’s “Red Gate”. These historic properties were eventually charitably bequeathed to Philadelphia University which continues its careful stewardship of them as part of its campus.

As was standard at the time, both Dobson Mills and Powers & Weightman also built homes for its employees, developing many of East Falls’ still existing attractive row house neighborhoods. As more and more people gathered around the successful industries, East Falls continued to expand and develop. More homes were built, quickly followed by schools, churches, and neighborhood corner stores. East Falls became a town where people both lived and worked.

In 1930, The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (1850-1995) relocated from Center City to East Falls. This was the world’s first medical school for women and the first facility of its kind in the City of Philadelphia. Although the hospital has closed, the campus is currently being used for medical offices and facilities. Drexel University currently provides medical education in East Falls at its Queen Lane Campus.
East Falls is also known as the childhood home of Grace Kelly, Academy-Award winning actress and Princess of Monaco, who was born in 1929 and began her acting career at the Old Academy on Indian Queen Lane, which is still operating as an amateur theater in the neighborhood (www.oldacademyplayers.org) She was born into a new but prominent family in Philadelphia society: her father, Jack Kelly, was a self-made millionaire and a triple gold-medal-winning Olympic sculler at the height of rowing’s popularity. Her brother, John B. Kelly Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps, winning the Sullivan Award in 1947 and the bronze medal in the 1956 Summer Olympics, which he presented to his sister as a wedding present. She married Prince Rainier III of Monaco and had three children.

Today, East Falls continues to grow and flourish, with new housing, retail space, and recreation centers, such as the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education Center. The Pep Boys have carried on East Falls’ tradition of industrial innovation even as creative and historic-minded developers have renovated and adapted the Dobson Mills and other properties into modern residential and retail uses. With its diverse background, community spirit, attractive properties and strong sense of pride, East Falls remains an active and vital part of Philadelphia.

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