This piece appeared in the Powelton Post in October, 2009.
Before 1860, the area we now call Powelton was a combination of farm land, pasture and forest with few buildings. The southern part was owned by the Powel family and the northern part by the Bingham-Baring family. It wasn’t until the 1850s that the estates were sold and the area was surveyed and parceled and roads were paved. We get glimpses of this past from a few contemporaries.
In 1809, Hare Powel was considering buying the Bingham holdings. Elizabeth Powel (his adopted mother) discouraged him writing:
“The front on the old Lancaster Road is very small – not more than four Acres, and even that will I believe be very soon lessened by a publick Road that is at this Moment intended to be run at the West end of Powelton [probably 35th St.]. It is a large Tract of at least One hundred Acres – the Land bad, – broken and generally uncultivated, worn out and has never by Mr. Bingham been replenished with Stable or other Manure – it is remote from the Roads on which improvements are at present contemplated.” In contrast, the Powel estate included improved farm land and was along Lancaster Ave.
In 1840, H. S. Tanner briefly noted “Powelton, a new village between Philadelphia and Mantua....” He was apparently referring to a small cluster of buildings on the north side of Market St. near the bridge and along the north side of Lancaster Pike to about 35th St. One of the houses was built by Hugh McIlvain on the north side of Market about 1805. It was 38’ by 34’ and two-stories tall. By about 1840, there were also two large taverns near the Market and Mansion St. (32nd St.) and at Butcher’s Lane (35th St.) and the Lancaster Pike.
In the 1840s, there were still no paved roads through the area. Between Bridge St. (Spring Garden) and Lancaster Ave. and Market St., there were only Hamilton and Baring Sts. and Powelton Ave. which were dirt roads without sidewalks. There were no houses on Baring or Hamilton in 1850. North-south travel was limited to Bridegwater St. (31st St.) and Butcher’s Lane (now 35th St.).
Martha McIlvain Eastwick (1855-1935) grew up in the neighborhood and her family was central to the area’s development. She wrote that about 1850
“West of the Powel home [near 32nd St.] on what is now 35th St., was the home of [Thomas] Tyson Butcher built about 1845.... Hence between the Tyson Butcher house on 35th St. and the Pennsylvania R.R. at 30th and Market Streets, there was nothing but fields where were pastured the mules used by the Penna. R.R. [which bought the land in 1852.] A few years later other houses were scattered here and there... the neighbors were almost afraid to visit each other after dark, as wolves sometimes wandered through the Streets, some of the older persons thought they might have been large dogs.” Some blocks were still heavily forested in the 1880s.
These brief descriptions offer a picture of an area that was wide open and ripe for development in 1860 with easy access to the two main bridges over the river.