Numerous creeks and fast water made Southeastern Pennsylvania a natural choice for mills in Colonial times. The ship bringing William Penn to America in 1682 carried the disassembled works for a mill in its hold. Swedish and Dutch settlers had built mills here 50 years earlier.
In Lower Merion, more than two dozen mills hummed along the aptly named Mill Creek in the 18th century at the height of the waterwheel era. In the 19th century, paper mills, gristmills and sawmills could no longer compete against steam power. Some closed or were used for different purposes, while others were converted into textile mills.
But the great Mill Creek flood of 1893 was the end. The waters swept away John Roberts’ 1746 gristmill (one wall remains standing along Old Gulph Road). The 1748 mill where Conrad Scheetz made paper for Benjamin Franklin—gone. Righter’s Mill, Chadwick Mill, Stillwagon’s Mill—all gone. A few survive today only as street names.
It had happened before. In August 1843, heavy rains had sent floods rushing through Darby, Crum and Chester creeks, sweeping away numerous mills. But those mills were not yet outmoded, so they were rebuilt. In 1893, however, rebuilding no longer made sense.
And that’s how weather works to keep our planet fresh. It’s always been that way. Here are some more examples.
So you complain about shoveling your 50-foot driveway? Moan about your hard-starting snowblower? How would you like to be one of these guys at the Bryn Mawr Station in February 1899, clearing snow from what we call the R5 line with a shovel? Weather historians call that year’s blizzard the “Snow King”—a storm with below-zero temperatures from Georgia to Maine. Even Cuba got a hard frost. The port of New Orleans was iced over; there was a blizzard near Tampa; and Cape May received 34 inches of snow. At least 30 inches fell here, and it snowed for 51 hours straight in Washington, D.C. At least they didn’t have to shovel out many cars.
It’s a conundrum: Plowing snow from the street means pushing it to the side, where it blocks the sidewalk. So homeowners and business owners shovel it back into the street. And then, the plow passes again. Eventually, mercifully, the stuff melts. That’s how it was in Narberth in the mid-1950s. This photo, taken in front of Ricklin Hardware, was dated “circa 1955”—and that’s how it is today. Some things never change—well, except that Ricklin’s modern big-box competitors now close for serious weather. Ricklin, a family-owned business whose customers still have the owner’s home phone number, was probably open on the day this photo was taken.
In 1954, an elderly W.F. McNally recalled his commute home to Rosemont during the Blizzard of 1888: “The train managed to push through as far as Wynnewood (seen here a day or so after the storm). The train would hit the drift, stall, back up a few feet and then buck it again. This kept up until we got through, only to head right into another drift.”
McNally worked in Center City and, not realizing the magnitude of the storm, “foolishly stayed on” until his regular quitting time. The train finally made it to Bryn Mawr, where the engineer gave up. McNally lived in Rosemont and had to walk. “It was bitterly cold,” he said. “The winds were of hurricane proportions, and the blinding snow piled around in huge drifts. I did not meet a single person. All I could see was an occasional light dimly seen through the snow and frost-covered window of a house or store as I passed.”
An 1877 tornado not only ruined the Ercildoun Seminary, a private school in East Fallowfield Township, but it also resulted in a public feud over the owner’s account of the storm—one that proved embarrassing. After the onslaught, Richard Darlington published a pamphlet describing the “unprecedented destruction of property,” including his and numerous other homes, barns and mills. But Ezra Michener, a local physician, replied with his own pamphlet, proving there was nothing unprecedented about it. “Young as I am,” wrote Michener, then 81, “I once saw a tornado which demolished 27 out of an orchard of about 30 fine apple trees, and raised the roof of the house in which I was born 6 inches.”
Besides his seminary and his reputation as a scientist, Darlington lost his stable and a cow. The West Chester Local News, in its strangely prioritized account, also listed many demolished barns and—as an afterthought—the death of a black woman whose three children “have not yet been found. They are supposed to have been killed.”
A bit of weather can really mess up your day, as this young woman discovered in August 1971. According to Birmingham Township supervisor Thomas Marshall (who took this photo), she was driving—perhaps a bit too fast, given the wind and the rain—around a bend on Route 100 south of Meetinghouse Road.
Boom! There it was: A large chunk of tree in the road, and no choice but to hit it or the ditch. She chose the ditch, and bent her bug. “We got her back on the road,” wrote Marshall, a photography buff whose hobby was recording whatever happened in his neighborhood. (In 1976, he would try to photograph every event in the bicentennial year in Birmingham Township.) “She didn’t want us to call her parents to say she was OK,” he said.
Gaping at the damage was all most West Chester residents could do in October 1954 after Hurricane Hazel blew through. According to the Daily Local News, the storm “stunned Chester Countians as roofs were ripped loose, trees were uprooted, barns were blasted apart, silos and towers toppled, and cars were crushed” by 65-miles-per-hour winds. The owners of this property at High and Washington streets got off lucky when two trees fell to both sides of the house, but not on it. The house stands today, with two new trees that now tower over it on the left side.
Hazel was one of the deadliest storms of all time. It killed 1,000 people in Haiti, 95 in the United States and 81 in Canada. On its way, it passed through central Pennsylvania with 100-miles-per-hour winds.
Hurricane Agnes started as a tropical disturbance off the Yucatán Peninsula in mid-June 1972. A week later, it was in the home of Ken and Helen King and Nora Price on River Road in Lower Merion. Here, a local newspaper photographer caught them while making a return visit by canoe to check out the damage. Of 38 homes along River Road, 30 were evacuated and 37 were damaged. In Manayunk, sections of Main Street were flooded and the Green Lane Bridge was closed. Agnes brought 6 to 10 inches of rain to the Mid-Atlantic region from June 20 to 25. Flood peaks passed 100-year records at many sites along the Schuylkill River. The storm moved through Georgia to North Carolina, then out to sea. It came ashore again near New York City, shifted inland, and sat for about 24 hours over north central Pennsylvania. All that water then went downstream to you-know-where.
Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. And the Brandywine is going to flood again. Floods around Routes 100 and 926 are periodic entertainment for those who, like these two young men in January 1979, might like to place bets on whether flood-defying motorists will make it through. The Brandywine crested at 14.35 feet that day, thanks to a storm that developed over Louisiana and brought 2-4 inches of rain.
Our ancestors understood the Brandywine pretty well, which is why they built mills along it and put their homes on higher ground. That was then. By 1998, 11 percent of the Brandywine Creek watershed was paved or built over, a figure forecasted to rise to 13 percent by 2020. So scenes like this are likely to be more common.
Even on clear days, we plan for storms. And then we forget. As an example, consider these Radnor workers who, in 1890, were photographed while laying a storm drain at Midland and Aberdeen avenues. The pipe, which started at South Wayne Avenue, allowed Ithan Creek to be buried and the surrounding land to be divided up for (supposedly dry) housing lots. But so much pavement has been laid over the past 120 years that runoff now occasionally exceeds capacity.
A newspaper called it “probably the worst disaster” ever to hit the local dairy industry, after a single lightning bolt killed 60 of 87 imported cattle at a farm in West Bradford Township, Chester County, in July 1929. The cattle were in a meadow at about 5 p.m. When one of those violent late-day thunderstorms approached, they trotted to a large tree for shelter. “In the midst of the rushing rain and wind,” a witness told the Daily Local News, “a terrific bolt of lightning descended from the sky and struck the tree. Every animal was affected. They seemed to be drawn toward the tree as the bolt struck and fell in a crowded mass about the trunk, being heaped upon one another.”
The bodies were later taken to a soap factory.
“The beauty of West Chester has been marred for many years,” concluded the Daily Local News in February 1902, after an ice storm ripped the branches from many of West Chester’s shade trees—including those shown here on South Walnut Street. Electricity and the telephone had arrived, and their poles and wires came down along with the branches. The United Telegraph and Telephone Co. reported only 60 phones working out of a customer base of 320. But even those folks could only talk to each other, as all the lines to other towns had fallen. Local trolleys ran on electricity from elevated wires, but there was more trolley wire down than up. “We will be doing well to get the cars running in a week,” said the superintendent.
The storm started as rain, but it froze as it fell. Through the night, the load increased as the winds rose. “In the crash of trees and telegraph poles, human life was placed in jeopardy,” reported the paper, “and in the gloom of a lampless night, people moved about amid the weird scene, amid the falling of trees and flashes that seemed to emphasize the electric conditions as they exist in this new century.”