Ridge Ave Roxborough Historic District
In 1686, before Europeans settled Roxborough, Mary Farmar, the widow of Major Jasper Farmar, discovered large deposits of lime on her 5,000-acre estate in Plymouth Township, Montgomery County. In 1687, the residents of Plymouth Township petitioned the Court of the Quarter Sessions to lay out a roadway from Philadelphia to the Township to transport the lime, which was valuable as a building material, especially in a city where brick construction would become predominant. The residents of Plymouth Township again petitioned the Court of the Quarter Sessions “to grant them a common Cartway or Road to extend from Wissahickon Mills [where the Wissahickon flowed into the Schuylkill] up into the Perkioming Creek” [in Collegeville] in March 1706. That same year, surveyor Thomas Fairman certified that he had laid out the road as ordered by the Court. In June 1706, the Court directed Fairman to survey the road leading from the City of Philadelphia at 6th and Sassafras (Arch) Streets to Wissahickon Mills so that it could be confirmed. In 1707, Fairman reported to the Court that he had surveyed the road, which had existed but had not been confirmed. In 1709, the road was extended from Collegeville west to Manatawny (Pottstown). Ridge Avenue was known by many names during its first century including the Great Road, King’s Road, Wissahiccon Road, Plymouth Road, Manatawny Road, and Reading Road.
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At several points during the eighteenth century, in 1723, 1753, 1786, and 1797, the route of the Ridge Road from the western bank of the Wissahickon to the top of the ridge, where Ridge, Righter, and Hermit intersect today, was shifted to ease travel up the steep hill. By the end of the eighteenth century, this section of the Ridge Road was established on its current line (Figure 9). 20
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To help orient travelers, milestones marking the distance from the City of Philadelphia were placed along Ridge Road in the middle of the eighteenth century. On 12 August 1768, Jacob Hiltzheimer noted in his diary that he “Went up the Wissahockon Road to set milestones.” 21 A Plan of the City of Philadelphia and Environs Surveyed by John Hills of 1808 identifies the locations of some of the milestones along Ridge Road. The Milestone 6 was located immediately west of the bridge across the Wissahickon. Milestone 7 was located near the intersection with Rittenhouse Lane, now Walnut Lane. Milestone 8 was located near the current intersection on Ridge Avenue and Gates Street. Milestones 9, 10, and 11 were not depicted on the map, but would have been located west of Domino Lane, at Port Royal Avenue, and at the Montgomery County line, respectively. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the milestones on Ridge Road were used like addresses. For example, in 1837, the National Gazette advertised a farm for rent “on the Ridge road, near the eight mile stone… The location of this property is on the most elevated part of Roxborough, and for salubrity and fertility cannot be excelled by any in the vicinity of the city.” 22 In 1841, John Parker and David Millar offered a $2 reward for “a brown COW, some white on her forehead with large horns,” which had strayed away “in Roxborough township, Ridge Road, near the seven mile stone.” 23
Ridge Road was an important trade route, providing access to the interior of Pennsylvania and beyond. Freight was hauled in Conestoga wagons (Figure 10). James Logan, secretary to William Penn, appears to have coined the term Conestoga wagon in 1717. Logan ran freight wagons between Philadelphia and the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster County. In 1787, Benjamin Rush described the Conestoga wagon as "a large strong waggon covered with linen cloth is an essential part of the furniture of a German farm. It is pulled by four or five large horses of a particular breed, and will carry 2000 to 3000 pounds." The Conestoga wagon’s curved shape prevented cargo from shifting as it traversed rough terrain. The large, broad wheels allowed the wagon to maneuver in ruts and mud. Rush noted that, during the fall harvest season, "on the road between Philadelphia and the Valley you'll see 50 to 100 [Conestoga wagons] a day." Wagon traffic was significant. More than 10,000 wagons made the trip to Philadelphia annually by 1775. Convoys sometimes included as many as 100 wagons on a single train. As historian David McCullough has noted:
the crowds and noise [in the center of eighteenth-century Philadelphia] seemed overwhelming … on market days, Wednesdays and Saturdays, when German-speaking country people came rolling into town in huge farm wagons loaded with produce, live chickens, pigs, and cattle. The “thundering of coaches, chariots, chaises, wagons, drays, and the whole fraternity of noise almost continually assails our ears,” complained a visiting physician. [Continental Congress] delegate Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island counted one day seventy farm wagons on Market Street. 24
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As the population expanded westward, Conestoga wagons leaving Philadelphia took one of three main routes: over the Appalachian Mountains to Pittsburgh where the freight was then shipped downriver into the Ohio Valley; along the National Road connecting Baltimore and Frederick, Maryland with Wheeling, West Virginia and eventually to Vandalia, Illinois by 1852; and down the Great Wagon Road through the valley of Virginia into North Carolina. Wagoners with horse-drawn Conestoga wagons carried supplies and finished goods westward on three-to four-week journeys and returned with flour, whiskey, tobacco, and other products. In addition to the long-distance trade, wagoners moved cargo locally and regionally, hauling agricultural products, lumber and other building materials, and various other goods. Shipping companies, like Philadelphia’s Inland Transportation Office, hauled “Goods, Mdze. &c., by waggons to … Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Lancaster, and all other parts of the Western Country” (Figure 11). 25 As one witness reminisced:
When Conestoga wagons roamed the highways of Pennsylvania before freight trains appeared, Ridge road was the direct route to and from that astonishingly fat region, the Schuylkill Valley. From Berks, Lebanon, and Montgomery poured an endless string of Conestogas, hauled by great horses -- often four to a team. Down that valley poured the output of America’s first iron works. At certain seasons Ridge road was white with lime wagons from the kilns about Bridgeport. Indeed, a great part of the city’s bread and butter flowed down the Ridge. 26
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Inns and taverns along Ridge Road provided food and shelter for travelers. The first, the Leverington Hotel, was erected in 1731 at what is now the southeast corner of Ridge Ave. and Leverington Street. It was demolished by real estate mogul Albert M. Greenfield in 1925. 27 Located at the top of the steep hill at the eastern edge of the ridge, where Ridge, Hermit, and Righter intersect today, the Plough Tavern was constructed in 1746. After housing travelers on the Ridge Road, the building was used for many purposes including as an almshouse and church. It was abandoned in 1925 and demolished in 1937. 28 The Sorrel Horse Tavern, located on Ridge Road above Port Royal, was erected in 1785. When it sold in 1867, the “valuable hotel property, known as the ‘Old Sorrel Horse Tavern’” was described as “a 2½-story stone house, 4 rooms and a large hall on the first floor, 4 rooms on second floor, and 3 rooms on third floor; a large stone barn, stabling and shedding sufficient to accommodate 30 to 40 horses, ice house, and 3 wells of never-failing water.” 29 In 1878, the Sorrel Horse Inn was described as “once famous, but now empty.” 30 The tavern was used by the Roxborough Passenger Railway Company, but eventually demolished.
During the eighteenth century, Ridge Road was poorly maintained and passage could be difficult, as is evidenced by this account by the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt:
On the twentieth of April  Mr. Guillemard, Caleb Lownes, and myself, set out on horseback from Philadelphia, through Ridge Road, on our way to Norris Town. This road, like all the public roads in Pennsylvania, is very bad, for provision is brought to that city from all parts in large and heavy laden wagons. The constant passage of these wagons destroys the roads, especially near the town, where several of them meet. Ridge Road is almost impassible. 31
In response to the poor travel conditions, the Ridge Turnpike Company was founded to improve Ridge Road (Figure 12). Chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on 30 March 1811, the company was authorized to sell 1,500 shares of stock at $50 per share and to build a macadamized road, not less than 40 feet, nor more than 60 feet in width, from the intersection of 10th and Vine Streets at the edge of the City of Philadelphia to the bridge over the Perkiomen in Montgomery County. The Company was also responsible for all of the road’s maintenance and repairs. 32 Construction of the 23½-mile road was completed in 1816 at a cost of $7,500 per mile. The Ridge Turnpike was never profitable, in part because of the competition of the nearby Germantown Turnpike, which also led to the Perkiomen Bridge, and in part because teamsters avoided the steep grade up the ridge to the west of the bridge over the Wissahickon. In 1825, the Ridge Turnpike Company collected about $10,000 in tolls, but faced about $10,000 in expenses. That year, the company paid no dividends and carried about $140,000 in debt. 33
The numbers of Conestoga wagons in the United States increased year after year until the 1830s, when canals began competing with them for freight hauling. In the east, railroads replaced Conestoga wagons and canals by the 1850s. However, the prairie schooner, a lightweight, flat variant of the Conestoga wagon, carried pioneer settlers from Missouri to the West Coast. And the Conestoga wagon remained in use on farms in Pennsylvania well into the twentieth century (Figure 13).
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This information has been posted by RMWHS with the permission of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
20 See Joseph S. Miles and William H. Cooper, A Historical Sketch of Roxborough, Manayunk, Wissahickon (Philadelphia: G. Fein & Co., 1940). P. 17-19.
21 Joshua L. Bailey Jr., “Old Milestones about Philadelphia, Illustrated,” Bulletin of the Friends’ Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 9, no. 2, November 1919, p. 46-62; Jacob Cox Parsons, ed., Extracts from the Diary of Jacob Hiltzheimer: Of Philadelphia. 1765-1798 (Philadelphia: Wm. F. Fell & Co., 1893), p. 15.
22 The National Gazette, 2 February 1837, p. 3.
23 Public Ledger, 27 September 1841, p. 3.
24 David McCullough, American History E-book Set (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), n.p.
25 See, for example, advertisements for the Inland Transportation Office, National Gazette, 27 December 1823, p. 2; National Gazette, 9 January 1824, p. 3.
26 Inquirer, 9 April 1929, p. 10.
27 “Northwest Expect Realty Boom Soon,” Inquirer, 19 July 1925, p. 55.
28 “Famed Inn Must Go,” Inquirer, 25 October 1937, p. 17.
29 Inquirer, 30 October 1867, p. 8.
30 “An Old Tony Weller: The Tales He Tells of the Coaching Days of Yore, The Times, 3 May 1878, p. 1.
31 Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Travels through the United States of North America, the Country of the Iroquois, and Upper Canada, in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797, with an Authentic Account of Lower Canada (London, 1797), vol. 1, p. 2-3.
32 “Ridge Avenue Passenger Railway Company v. City of Philadelphia,” July 15, 1897, The Atlantic Reporter 37 (May 5-August 25, 1897): 910.
33 Donald C. Jackson, “Turnpikes in Southeastern Pennsylvania,” in Judith A. McGaw, ed., Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things From the Colonial Era to 1850 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994), p. 232-233.