Ridge Ave Roxborough Historic District
Patent Holders and Early Settlers
Between 1681 and 1685, William Penn conveyed more 4,000 acres of land in lower northwest Philadelphia to 11 original purchasers. Most of the land was located to the northwest of the Wissahickon Creek, in what is now known as Roxborough and Manayunk, but a small portion of the original 11 parcels was located to the southeast and east of the creek, in what is now known as East Falls and Mt. Airy. The names of several of the original purchasers are identified on Thomas Holme’s Map of improved part of Pensilvania in America, divided into counties, townships and lotts. of 1681 (Figure 5). The original purchasers did not settle the land between the Wissahickon Creek and Schuylkill River, but instead held the properties as investments. Over the next six decades, the original 11 parcels were subdivided numerous times, and by 1741 had been carved into 43 lots. Europeans began settling in the area in the 1690s.
In 1676, Andrew Robeson, his wife Elizabeth, and their son Samuel emigrated from Great Britain, settling in Gloucester, South Jersey. Robeson served in South Jersey as the Surveyor General and Judge. In 1690, they moved to a property called “Shoomac Park” near the mouth of the Wissahickon Creek, in what is now East Falls. They obtained the estate from Joshua Tittery, who had obtained it from Robert Turner, William Penn’s original grantee. Robeson erected a house and renamed the estate “Roxburgh,” after his birthplace, Kelso, Roxburghshire, Scotland. Robeson became Chief of Justice in Pennsylvania and was instrumental in the establishment of Roxborough as a township. Robeson also operated a flour mill on the Wissahickon. After the deaths of Robeson, his wife, and son in the 1690s, the property passed to nephew Andrew Robeson Jr. The Robeson family held the property until 1864, when John and James Dobson, the well-known carpet manufacturers, purchased it. The old mill burned in 1866. The Fairmount Park Commission took much of the property in 1872 for the Wissahickon branch of Fairmount Park. 3 The old Robeson house was used as a hotel and public house known as the High Bridge Mansion in the late nineteenth century and as a restaurant in the twentieth century. In 1956, the Fairmount Park Commission approved its demolition, concluding that it had “no particular architectural design nor historical significance.” 4
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John Kelpius, a Bavarian religious leader who espoused millennial and universalistic doctrines, arrived in Philadelphia in 1694. He and his followers settled and lived as hermits in small huts in the woods adjacent to Wissahickon Creek, near Roxborough’s present day Hermit Lane. 5 The hermits conducted religious services in the wooded area overlooking the Wissahickon.6 Kelpius died in the first decade of the eighteenth century, and his followers eventually disbanded. 7 Although the name Roxborough, or Rocksburrow, has been attributed to Kelpius, who wrote about "foxes burrowing in rocks,” the area was named by Robeson for his native land, Roxburgh, Scotland.
Brothers Gerhard and Wigard (Wickert) Levering arrived in Pennsylvania from Holland during the summer of 1685 and first settled in Germantown. Wigard Levering purchased 200 acres in Roxborough in 1691 and moved to the area, where he farmed. He purchased another 300 acres in 1697 in the area that came to be known as Leverington. He prospered and died a wealthy man in 1744. 8 Wigard’s eldest son William was born in Germany in 1677 and came with his family to Pennsylvania at the age of eight; he was 15 when his family moved to Roxborough. In 1717, Wigard gave William a large tract of land, which consisted of the unsold portions of Wigard’s speculative land holdings in Roxborough. William was a farmer like his father, but engaged in other ventures as well. He built the Levering Hotel, Roxborough’s first hotel, in 1731. He also gave land on which Roxborough’s first school was built in 1748. 9 He died in 1746, having amassed a valuable estate. 10 Wigard’s son Jacob was the first of his 12 children to be born in Roxborough. In 1717, Wigard granted Jacob 85 acres of land, which abutted the along the Schuylkill River in the area of Green Lane, extending to Levering Street and comprising much of present-day Manayunk. Jacob lived on this land, first in a log cabin, and then in a stone house that he built in 1736 on the northwest side of Green Lane. Besides farming, Jacob was also engaged in industrial undertakings. He owned a distillery in Roxborough and a saw mill on the western side of the Schuylkill River in what is now Montgomery County. Jacob died in 1753 with an estate valued at the substantial sum. 11
Wilhelm Rittinghausen, born in 1644, learned the papermaking trade in Mulheim, Germany, while working at his uncle Mathias Vorster’s mill. The two men later went to Holland, where they were employed in a Gelderland mill near Arnhem. In 1688, Mr. Rittinghausen, by now a Dutch citizen, immigrated to British North America and changed his name to William Rittenhouse. In 1690, he established a paper mill in Roxborough on the Paper Mill Run or Monoshone Creek, a tributary of the Wissahickon Creek. The mill was located near the confluence of Paper Mill Run and the Wissahickon, about 1.6 miles above the point where the Wissahickon flows into the Schuylkill. 12 Joining him in the venture were three partners, Robert Turner, Thomas Tresse, and a printer named William Bradford. Rittenhouse developed a successful mill, owing to his ability to organize financial backers as partners and a printer-partner as a contractual customer for the products. Previous to Rittenhouse’s operation, all paper was imported from Europe and taxed accordingly. The new mill provided a local source of printing, writing, and wrapping paper, as well as pasteboard. All of the mill’s fiber for hand papermaking was obtained from discarded rags and cotton. The paper that came from the Rittenhouse mill during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was made by hand, each sheet crafted separately. First, workers pounded rags into pulp in stone or iron mortars using trip-hammers. After pulp was placed in frames, it needed several days to dry completely. The final product carried the Rittenhouse watermark. In 1706, Rittenhouse bought out the other partners and became sole proprietor of Rittenhouse Paper Mill. Rittenhouse proved that papermaking in America could be a viable, economically sound business. Rittenhouse died in 1708 and left the paper mill to his son, Claus. The business prospered at the site, and was operated by six generations of family descendants. Rittenhousetown grew up around the mill. For 20 years, Rittenhouse Paper Mill was the only paper mill in the Colonies. In 1710, William Dewees, who was married to Claus Rittenhouse’s sister, built a mill nearby in Chestnut Hill, having learned the trade at Rittenhouse Paper Mill. In 1729, the Willcox Ivey Mill was built in Chester County. Forty years after the founding of Rittenhouse Paper Mill, the number of printers and paper mills grew exponentially. The Rittenhouse family monopoly in paper was over, but Rittenhouse’s descendants continued making paper on the Monoshone Creek until the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, when the development of the Fourdrinier, with its endless web and cylinder papermaking, changed the industry forever. 13 Among the many prominent members of the Rittenhouse family, David Rittenhouse (1732-1796) was an astronomer, inventor, clockmaker, mathematician, surveyor, fabricator of scientific instruments, and public official. Rittenhouse was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the United States Mint. Several eighteenth and nineteenth-century buildings survive at the Rittenhouse Paper Mill site including the Rittenhouse Homestead (1707), the Bake House (1725), the Abraham Rittenhouse Home (1720), and the Enoch Rittenhouse Home (1845) (Figure 6). The Rittenhouse complex was not included in this thematic district because of its distance from Ridge Avenue, but it precisely represents both the early mill culture and early architectural styles in Roxborough Township.14
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Between 1746 and 1747, Joseph Gorgas built one of Roxborough’s more impressive surviving residences on a large tract of land bordering the Wissahickon Creek, which he purchased from Benjamin Shoemaker. Gorgas was a Seventh Day Baptist and wished to have an isolated residence for meditation and solitude, as well as for pursuing his grist mill business. The stone house is three stories, with an adjoining grist mill and saw mill. When it was built, it was one of the largest residences in the area and may have been one of the first three-story homes in the immediate vicinity of Philadelphia.15 The Gorgas property was not included in this thematic district because of its distance from Ridge Avenue, but it certainly represents a high point of Georgian architectural achievement in Roxborough Township.16
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Other early Roxborough families included the Righter, Livezey, and Houlgate families.17 The earliest settlers were primarily engaged in farming and milling. Grist mills, located on the Wissahickon and its tributaries, were the most common type of industry in eighteenth-century Roxborough. In 1779, there were at least eleven mills in the area, eight of which were grist mills.18 Glen Fern, the Thomas Livezey House, still stands on the east bank of the Wissahickon. Constructed in 1733-39 and added to later in the eighteenth century, the house evidences many characteristics of the Georgian style. Livezey, who purchased the property in 1747, operated one of the largest mills in the colonies. In addition to the house, the foundation of the mill and the associated dam survive. Glen Fern was not included in this thematic district because of its distance from Ridge Avenue, but it precisely characterizes both the early mill culture and early architectural styles in Roxborough Township.19
This information has been posted by RMWHS with the permission of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
3 Kate Hamilton Osborne, An Historical and Genealogical Account of Andrew Robeson of Scotland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and of his Descendants from 1653 to 1916 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1916), 6-14.
4 “Park Commission OKs Destruction of Shoomac Mansion,” Inquirer, 12 December 1956, p. 17; “Senator Stiefel Sues to Preserve Shoomac House,” Inquirer, 20 December 1956, p. 19.
5 John Fanning Watson and Willis Pope Hazard, Annals of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time: or, Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Incidents of Philadelphia and Its Inhabitants from the Days of the Founders (Philadelphia: E.S. Stuart, 1899), 458-460.
6 Horatio Gates Jones, The American Historical Record, and Repertory of Notes and Queries Concerning the History and Antiquities of America and the Biography of Americans, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Samuel P. Town, 1873), 3.
7 J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1884), 1319.
8 Horatio Gates Jones, The Levering Family; or, a Genealogical Account of Wigard Levering and Gerhard Levering, Two of the Pioneer Settlers of Roxborough Township, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: King & Baird, 1858), 3-12.
9 Ibid., 187.
10 Ibid., 18-21.
11 Ibid., 22-25. This nomination draws liberally from Emily Cooperman and Claire G. Schmieder, “Historic Context Statement for Neighborhood Cluster 2,” prepared for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, 2009.
12 James Green, The Rittenhouse Mill and the Beginnings of Papermaking in America (Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia and Friends of Historic RittenhouseTown, 1990), 5; Horatio Gates Jones, “Historical Sketch of the Rittenhouse Papermill; the First Erected in America, A.D. 1690,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 20 (1896): 317.
13 Green, The Rittenhouse Mill, 3-5; Jones, “Historical Sketch of the Rittenhouse Papermill,” 322.
14 Rittenhouse Town was designated as historic and listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places on 26 June 1956 and on 7 June 1973.
15 Unfortunately, the HABS data pages for The Monastery are not among the documents in the Library of Congress’ Historic American Building Survey collection. Julius Friedrich Sachse, The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania, 1708-1742: A Critical and Legendary History of the Ephrata Cloister and the Dunkers (Philadelphia: P.C. Stockhausen, 1899), 284-285.
16 The Joseph Gorgas House, the Monastery, and associated outbuildings was designated as historic and listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places on 26 June 1956.
17 Information about the original and early purchasers as well as “Map Showing the Roxborough Tracts Bought by the First Purchasers” and “Map Showing the Roxborough Tracts Purchased by Early Settlers” is provided in: Joseph Starne Miles and Rev. William H. Cooper, A Historical Sketch of Roxborough, Manayunk, and Wissahickon (Philadelphia: George Fein & Co., 1940), p. 75-79.
18 The grist mills were owned by the Robeson family, John Vanderen and Martin Rittenhouse, Nicholas Rittenhouse, William Rittenhouse, Abraham Rittenhouse, Peter Care, John Gorgas, and Thomas Livezey. The Rittenhouse papermill was in operation, as well as a fulling mill owned by Matthew Houlgate and Christian Snyder and an oil mill owned by Benjamin Gorgas. Jones, The Levering Family, 187.
19 Glen Fern was designated as historic and listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places on 26 June 1956.