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Preservation Brief No. 1: A Short History of Lower Merion

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In 1609, British sea captain Henry Hudson sailing for the Dutch East India Company, entered Delaware Bay. By 1680, extensive exploration of the Delaware River area had been made by the Dutch, Swedish and English.

The first known inhabitants of what is now Lower Merion Township were nomadic Native Americans who arrived in the area about 12,000 years ago. They evolved into what we recognize today as the Lenape, a sub-tribe of the Algonquin Nation. A nature-loving matriarchal people, they were hunters and farmers, not warriors. Decimated by diseases brought by early European settlers, they were then deprived of their land. By the mid-1700s, most Lenape had moved westward. Now, evidence of their habitation here is in archaeological digs and such place names as Conshohocken and Manayunk.

The first European settlers found here an agreeably diverse topography: steep rising cliffs along a river, rolling hills with dense woods and open meadows. The land, part of 40,000 acres planned and granted in 1682 by William Penn to Quakers as the "Welsh Tract," was settled as a farming and mining community. By 1741, heads-of-households numbered over one hundred.

Ample waterpower not only drove millwheels that provided food, but the pure waters of Mill Creek attracted paper makers. The Sheetz paper mill, with its dove trademark, produced paper on which the Declaration of Independence was written. Settlers also manufactured powder and guns during the Revolution and the War of 1812.

Washington marched his Army through the area, staying at the General Wayne Inn and other sites. After the Revolutionary War, the crossroads village of Merion Square (now Gladwyne) developed as a service community. Three historic districts now protect that area and the pre-Revolutionary sites of the earliest mill and homesteads.

Into this setting came early, important developments in industrial and commercial transportation: the Lancaster Turnpike (1792-93); the Columbia, Lancaster and Philadelphia Railroad (1832); the Reading Railroad (1839); and the Pennsylvania Railroad (1852).

Corridor development became intense, drastically changing the built environment as well-to-do Philadelphians constructed large country homes and gentleman's farms, summer residences and resorts. The Township boasts pre- and post-World War I planned residential communities, an early shopping center (1925) and unique commercial buildings. Prominent local and nationally recognized architects were retained, their trend-setting designs resulting in the addition of almost every conceivable style. Architects included Samuel Sloan, Furness & Evans, Horace Trumbauer, Addison Hutton, R. Brognard Okie, Walter Durham, William Price, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Cope, Louis Kahn and Vincent Kling.

The Township was built on its historic roots...the early planning of William Penn. Over the centuries, small developments and towns emerged throughout the region to service various communities' needs. Now, in the late 20th century, Lower Merion Township is an almost completely developed area. Though its population has multiplied and its open spaces decreased, its idyllic setting and those historic roots are still apparent. Hopefully, through concerned stewardship, this unique ambience will remain.