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…bringing our past into the future

History of Delaware County

ByGuilio Gaspero

Apr 11, 2011

The History of Delaware County

The Beginning

Delaware County, presently consisting of over 184 square miles divided into forty-nine municipalities is the oldest settled section of Pennsylvania. The first major settlement occurred under Swedish rule by Governor Johan Printz who in 1643 established the first court, school, church and governmental offices on Tinicum Island. Equitable treatment of the Lenni Lenape Indians helped the European settlements to thrive and both races continued to farm on the banks of the Delaware.

The Delaware River Settlements after a brief period fell under the jurisdiction of England’s Duke of York. Twenty years later in 1681, King Charles II granted rights for a proprietary colony to William Penn which led to the founding of the Province of Pennsylvania under Penn’s control. The city where Penn first landed during 1682 in Pennsylvania is home of the oldest public building in the United States, The Old Chester Court House in Chester.

In Chester, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania met with Penn and on December 7, 1682 the Assembly adopted Penn’s ” Great Law of Pennsylvania.” The document granted the right to vote, citizenship, freedom of religion and trial by jury to all settlers. William Penn had implemented a form of government which established Pennsylvania as a haven for the oppressed of all nations, emphazing religous freedom, fair treatment of Indians and minorities with a democratic government. Major developments had began. Early settlements were at Marcus Hook, Upland/Chester, Tinicum and Darby.

During the first years under Penn’s rule the population more than tripled. Farm sites were established beyond the river and major roads still in use today (Route 252, 452, Springfield Road, Lansdowne Road, etc.) were laid out. Shipbuilding, which began under the Swedes escalated and an active coastal trade zone developed.

The Revolution and The Growth of a County

Trouble in the county and the colonies brewed due to the dictatorial rule of the British King George III and his parliament. With the subsequent American Revolution, Delaware County became a major battleground for along the Brandywine River, the largest land battle of the Revolution was fought on September 11th 1777. Nearly, 30,000 British and American Troops faced each other in a bloody battle. The American army led by General Washington retreated while the British marched on to occupy Philadelphia. There at Brandywine, Marquis de Lafayette of France then only twenty years old, began his service for the cause of freedom with the American Revolution and then later the French Revolution. When Delaware County split from Chester County in 1789, the seat of local government was retained in Upland/Chester. As the interior developed, complaints grew concerning the distance to the county seat and finally was moved to Media in 1850 with the beautiful Delaware County Courthouse being erected in 1889. Many major landowners on the river sold off their the farms and purchased property near the new county seat, thus opening the riverfront to major industrial development. From 1845 on, the riverfront became a heavy industry magnet. Several shipyards built vessels for international buyers and locomotives from Baldwin and other works were exported around the world.

In the middle of the century, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Main Line was built through Radnor Township in the northern part of Delaware County. Later the Baltimore, Ohio and Reading Railroads, traveling from North & South, were built through the southeastern part of the county. Between 1870 and turn of the century, nineteen boroughs were established, largely along the path of these railroads. West Chester Pike, constructed of planks and stones, provided a route for farmers to transport their milk and produce to Philadelphia. Resort hotels were built around Media and Newtown Square, as parts of the County became vacation areas.

The Success of The Twentieth Century

At the turn of the twentieth century, a third of the County’s population lived in Chester, and the waterfront area became a powerful industrial complex, contributing significantly to the needs of the country during both World Wars. On the waterfront were Sun shipbuilding and Drydock company, the oil refineries, The Baldwin Locomotive Works, The Ford Motor Company assembly plant, Westinghouse Electric Company, The American Viscose Company, which housed the world’s first synthetic fiber plant and Scott Paper.

In the eastern part of the County the 69th Street Terminal, completed in 1907, became a hub of transportation; subway and elevated trains from Philadelphia connected with the trolley cars of Delaware County which served West Chester, Sharon Hill, Ardmore and Media. After the First World War there was considerable residential development in Upper Darby, Drexel Hill, Havertown and Springfield which continued after the Second World War in such communities as Westbrook Park, Upper Darby Township and Marple Township.

The middle part of the twentieth century witnessed unparalled population growth as more and more families moved to the suburbs. Delaware County is the fourth most populous in the state even though it has the third smallest land mass. However, the county is poised to enter the twenty-first century complemented by some of the best educational institutions and medical facilities in the country along with cutting edge technology such as the Boeing Vertol V-22 manufactured in Delaware County. Delaware County has a great future thanks to its glorious history.


Source:  Delaware County Courthouse & Government Center

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