"A NEW NAME FOR AN OLD SETTLEMENT"
The present University City, as outlined by the Philadelphia Planning Commission, covers the area from the Schuylkill River on the east side as far west as 44th Street, and from the Schuylkill on the south to Powelton Avenue on the north. Originally this ground was the greater part of the 1500 acres purchased from the Indians by William Warner, said to have been Philadelphia's sole Puritan.
Warner himself settled on the land in 1677, five years before the founding of the City of Philadelphia, and built a mansion called Willow Grove in the vicinity of what is now 46th and Lancaster Avenue.
To his entire holdings Warner gave the name of Blockley, in nostalgic recognition of his native parish in Worcestershire, England, and to this day the name of Blockley lingers.
In the north and central portions, the land rose precipitously from the west bank of the river, but on the southeast tangent it fell low and flat into broad meadows that became dangerous swamps as they neared the river. Farther west the broad meadows were criss-crossed by many rivulets and creeks that at times widened into ponds, and were easily converted into fertile farms and beautiful estates.
In 1783 when Colonel Edward Mr. Heston (of Hestonville fame) and Thomas George (whence we get George's Hill in Fairmount Park) were appointed Assessors for the Township of Blockley, they counted 632 persons. Seven years later the first census showed but 101 added to the population.
As we shall see later, when the Schuylkill River crossings were made easier and the transportation facilities improved, little villages and settlements began to appear.
In 1805 the first permanent bridge across the Schuylkill River was opened, and by 1810, Blockley had doubled its population. By 1840 it had risen to 6214, and ten years later, with the advent of the horse-car, Blockley and the new Borough of West Philadelphia, carved out of it, together topped the 11,000 mark.
The settlements that congregated at the terminal points and along the ways of transportation lines and the main highways began to grow and spread out. Hamilton Village prospered as a summer colony,
Mantua extended its borders, Greenville began its raucous career and Hestonville became a western suburb.
With better roads, industry began to look to the territory beyond the Schuylkill. Maylandville, Abbottsford, Good Intent and other mill towns were founded. Immediately west of the bridge at
Market Street foundries were built, and the term "West Philadelphia" was being substituted as an address for Blockley.
Politics follow people, and political subdivisions follow them both. By 1844 West Philadelphia was ready to be incorporated as a separate Borough covering a little less than two and one-half square miles, fashioned out of the very middle of Blockley Township, practically cutting it in two so that part of Blockley lay to the west and northeast and a portion lay to the south and southeast, the two sections merely touching each other at about 43rd and Baltimore Avenue.
Just prior to the consolidation of the city in 1854, the University City area was, like all Gaul, divided into three parts; the District of West Philadelphia (in 1851 it had been upgraded from a borough to a district), parts of the Township of Blockley and part of the Township of Kingsessing.
It is with these three subdivisions, and the little towns and settlements that grew up within them, that this history will concern itself.
Of the three, the District of West Philadelphia occupied the greatest amount of territory in University City, running roughly from a little above Girard Avenue on the north to the Blockley Almshouse line (Woodland Avenue to about 34th Street) on the south; from the river on the east, to Mill Creek on the west. Mill Creek, after crossing Market Street at about 46th Street, ran diagonally, to meet 43rd Street at about Walnut and followed it to the Schuylkill River, so that all of University City west of the Mill Creek line was in the Township of Kingsessing. Within these West Philadelphia District limits were, also, the towns of Mantua, Greenville, and Hamilton Village.
The lower end of Blockley Township ran from the Schuylkill River on the south, along the center of Mill Creek (roughly 43rd Street) to about Baltimore Avenue, then just east of 41st Street, dipping south to Woodland Avenue to a point which would just about bisect Franklin Field, and thence to the river. It included part of the town of Maylandville (the rest of the town was on the west bank of Mill Creek in Kingsessing Township) and the present sites of the Woodland Cemetery, the Veterans Administration Hospital, the Philadelphia General Hospital, Convention Hall, Commercial Museum, parts of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science.
Kingsessing Township had the smallest area within University City, and qualifies for this history only because a small portion of it dipped below 44th Street to hit its Mill Creek boundary, and included most of Clark Park, the south depressed section of which was then a mill pond.
Originally published in 1963.
Reprinted with permission of the West Philadelphia Partnership.
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