(Partially) Reconstructing the Lost Death Records of the Chester County Home
On June 23rd, 1973, Hurricane Agnes roared through central Pennsylvania, causing inundating a huge swath of the Commonwealt causing widespread flooding and killing 50 people. In Harrisburg, 13 feet of water poured over the banks of the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, filling basements and spoiling millions of dollars of property.
In one of those basements sat the records of the old Embreeville State Hospital and its Predecessor, the Chester County Home and Insane Asylum. The home was founded in 1800, its first charge, the famed Indian Hannah, last of the Lenni Lenape in Chester County, being admitted in 1802. Through the years thousands of people were cared for there, and many hundreds died and were buried in its potters field. That the records were destroyed is most unfortunate; the graves in that cemetery are unmarked, or marked only with one of 201 numbered stones. Finding who was buried there would be a monumental task.
Some names could be found through newspaper clippings. One clipping from the October 18, 1875 issue of the Daily Local News shows that “Henry Miller, an old man of 70 years or more, well known in North Coventry and East Coventry as “the stone picker,” disappeared mysteriously on the 26th of July last, and his friends could not hear anything of him…Recently, however, some person wrote to the Steward of the Chester County Poor House, and made inquiries about him, and received a reply that Miller had been there some time, but that he had left only a few days ago—to be carried to the resting place in the grave. Poor old man–the “old sexton” has gather him in, and he will pick stones on the highways and by-ways no more.”
Others would be more difficult. Fortunately the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has partnered with Ancestry.com to digitize its death certificates through 1963. By narrowing the search to Embreeville or West Bradford Township, where the County Home was located, as the place of death, I managed to find nearly 200 names of those buried there. Vile murderers such as Ricardo Forte share the ground with veterans, the homeless, and those poor unfortunate souls locked away fro mental disorders and epilepsy.Unfortunately this only covers a portion (1906 – ca. 1940) of the Home’s history, and does not include those who died elsewhere in the county. But this is a good start, and perhaps one day an alternate source of information will be found.
One day you walk into the Kennett Square ReStore and lay your eyes on this:
What do you do? In my case, I bought it immediately. But why, you might ask? Because the instant I laid eyes on it I knew I had something special. As it turns out, this is a pine lift-top commode. Its name of course has been adopted by our modern times to refer to a different fixture, but the function is the same. The top lifts to store a wash basin and pitcher, the little drawer is for towels, and the bottom is for your, er, chamber pot. Golly gee willickers!
Opening the lid revealed it was detailed with milk paint, a not uncommon method for the early 1800s.
And the detail work was something to marvel at: dovetailed joints, a fine finish, and square cut nails? Everything pointed to it being something very special indeed.
All I had were indicators that the thing dated to the early 1800s, but when it spontaneously deconstructed itself carrying it inside, I made a startling discovery: the hinges were stamped:
As it turns out these hinges were made by the T&C Clark & Co., of Birmingham, England based on a patent from around 1840. But though the hinges were made abroad, the cabinet was not. The “TARIFF” stamp dates the box to sometime between 1846 and 1861. The Walker Tariff went into effect in 1846, stimulating through reduced duties the importation of iron from Britain, which drove prices for iron down substantially. The Tariff of 1857 further reduced rates, but the Panic of 1857 led to the adoption of the heavily protectionist Morrill Tariff in 1861. Neat! Almost makes
Some days, you see something that makes you do a double take and then send off an email to the Daily Local News. The next thing you know a few days later you’ve become a “passing resident.”
- Hello! ma baby
Hello! ma honey
Hello! ma ragtime gal
Send me a kiss by wire
Baby, ma heart’s on fire!
If you refuse me
Honey, you’ll lose me
Then you’ll be left alone
Oh, baby, telephone
And tell me I’m your own!
— Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson, “Hello! Ma Baby,” 1899.
Early in 1901, the pages of the Daily Local News were abuzz with word that a group of businessmen was attempting to lure the Sun Electric Manufacturing Co., of Philadelphia, to relocate to West Chester. The Sun Co. manufactured telephones, which were the hot new technology of 1901. Anyone who could wanted a piece of the action, and start-ups sprouted throughout the country to license and build the miraculous devices (a craze that would repeat itself in the 1970s and 1980s with home computers, which gave rise to one of West Chester’s most famous employers — Commodore International). The town was “too quiet,” one article opined, “and will be slower unless we get something of this kind.” Their pleas worked; by May, the contract to build a factory was let, and by October the factory was built at Franklin and Lacey Streets and employing about 40 people in the manufacture of many types of telephones and related equipment.
But it was not meant to last.
In the spring of 1848, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted a charter for the construction of a railroad from Philadelphia to the borough of West Chester via Media. It was a time of railroad fever in Chester County. The first railroads in the county had not yet been in operation even twenty years yet, but the symbolic possibilities of trade, prosperity, and a brighter future embodied by these ribbons of steel (to come to full realization as part of a Manifest Destiny in the 1870s) made the railroad a hot commodity.
In 1851, the Philadelphia & West Chester Railroad was officially organized, in part as competition to the West Chester Railroad that ran from West Chester to the Main Line of Public Works at West Chester Intersection (now Malvern—how’s THAT for a town name?) and the whole of the line surveyed and placed under contract in 1852. Construction began in earnest, and much of the heavy grading and construction was finished by 1854, though the section from Media to West Chester would not be opened until 1858.
In 1859, the railroad company established a small station on the Chester Creek, about two miles south of the Borough of West Chester, at the small picnic grove of R. Coleman Hemphill, which he called “Lecompton.” But the station soon became known as “Hemphill’s Station” in his honor.
By the 1870s, the station was handling the fewest passengers of any on the line—but that did not stop the company from investing in a number of improvements to the building and grounds—improvements that would sadly claim the life of a Civil War veteran, a survivor of the brutal campaign at Antietam, who was dragged to his death by a runaway horse.
In 1868, a young man named Chalkley Speakman, Jr. was appointed the station agent. Ten years later he married Ellen Jane Van Winkle. One senses a story here—Ellen Jane was a member of the illustrious Van Winkle family (the same Van Winkle family that had come over to the New World when New York was still New Amsterdam). But love, or so it would seem, conquered all, and together with her husband and two young children moved to the small station house in Westtown Township. It was to be a happy life—though it was set off to an inauspicious start. Soon after his appointment, Chalkley Speakman’s father paid a visit to his son. Waiting on the porch for his train, he promptly dropped dead from a sudden and massive heart attack.
For the next five years family settled into a nice routine; Chalkley worked as a carpenter and as the station agent, while Ellen tended to the children. But that year two benefactors would come into their lives. Wealthy Philadelphia industrialist James C. Smith and his wife Heloise Drexel Smith bought an old farmhouse on the road northwest of the station and began to convert it an its grounds into a fashionable Victorian mansionhouse, complete with manicured grounds, artificial lake, lookout and watertowers, which they named “Oakbourne”. They had no children of their own, and so they bestowed kindness upon the local community, including the Speakman family, for whom they provided for renovation and landscaping of their stationhouse.
Later that year, after petitioning from the surrounding community, the government established a post office at the station, with Mrs. Speakman appointed as postmistress on December 12, 1883. Before the days of rural free delivery, one can understand how beneficial such a stop would be! In 1885, the post office was officially named “Oakbourne,” after the Smith’s mansion.
The Smiths died in the 1890s, leaving their mansion to the Episcopal City Mission as a convalescent home for women. Shortly thereafter, an Epileptic Hospital and Colony Farm was established next door. Epilepsy was poorly understood at the time, and, thinking it a mental defect, and before the advent of medication for its control, those afflicted were often placed in such institutions. With the increased business brought on by these institutions, the station saw its headiest days.
Of course, the Speakmans faced their own trials and travails during these years; an armed-robbery, illness, marriage. But through it all Ellen Jane dutifully managed the mails, and Chalkley managed the station. But by all other measures it was a happy, harmonious life.
Chalkley Speakman died in 1926 at age 77. Ellen remained on, on the cusp of great changes. The Philadelphia Electric Company was building a line of high-tension pylons directly across the line from the station, and the railroad itself was in the process of electrifying the line. Electric commuter service began on December 2, 1928.
Just 10 days later, Ellen Jane Speakman officially resigned as the postmistress of the Station, having served in that capacity for 40 years exactly. Upon her retirement, the office was closed—its proximity to West Chester having rendered it obsolete. Thus, Ellen Jane has the notable distinction of being the first and only postmistress of Oakbourne.
Ellen suffered a stroke that year, and moved in with her daughter in West Chester. She died 6 years later at a ripe old age.
The station survived until the 1960, when declining revenue necessitated its closure. The building was demolished shortly thereafter. Today, little serves to attest to it ever having been there, except a telephone pole, a retaining wall, and an overgrown driveway. In its honor, the West Chester Railroad has affixed a small sign to a nearby catenary pole, and “Okabourne” once again graces the railroad.
In the early 1870s, the previously tranquil Brandywine Valley was introduced to the sounds of a massive construction project. The railroad was coming through, bringing the ideas of progress and commerce from Wilmington to Reading. From Chadds Ford up through Embreeville the Wilmington and Northern Railroad Ran up the West side of that great Creek.
It was here about that time that a Birmingham Township Farmer got a bright idea. According to the venerable Historian Arthur E. James in his “A History of Birmingham Township, Chester County” [(West Chester, PA: Chester County Historical Society, 1971), 43]:
“In the early 1870’s Frank Graff, a farmer in the Brandywine Valley near Pocopson, developed an ancient grove of white oak trees in his meadow into picnic grounds. The Wilmington and Northern Railroad played a major role in the success of this project. The picnic grounds were on the east side of the Brandywine and became known as Birmingham Park. The Railroad established a stop known as “Brandywine Park” on the west side of the Brandywine. A foot bridge over the Brandywine led from the railroad stop into the park. This bridge was taken up during the winter months to escape its destruction by flood water. For those coming to the park from the Creek Road there was ample space for parking horses and wagons.
A dancing pavilion, kitchen and restaurant were erected in the park. Among recreational activies available were baseball, bathing, boating, cricket, dancing, fishing, nutting, picknicking and tennis. The “Minnehaha,” a small steam powered boat, offered short trips up and down the Brandywine Creek for ten cents a ride. Excursion trains were run from Wilmington, Reading, and Coatesville to the park in the summer months. Crowds of one thousand people were sometimes present. In 1894 a Reading brewery sponsored an outing at which it was claimed that 3,500 people attended. Free beer appears to have augmented the attendance and possibly the count of those present.”
But in 1891, a short way upstream, another enterprise was at work. William M. Hayes, president of the West Chester Street Railway Co. and solicitor for the Wilmington and Northern Railroad Co., planned to have an electric trolley built to connect that railroad to West Chester. To lure in customers, the Street Railway constructed Lenape Park on a small strip of low-lying land near Sager’s Mill. By 1894, the park would come to feature a boardwalk, picnic ground, boathouse, carousel, dance pavilion, boat wharf, and other attractions.
The parks became a favorite place for photographers, who set up their booths to make a quick buck. Peter Houghey, an itiinerant photographer who plied his trade at Birmingham Park, picked up his stand and removed upstream to the bustling new park in the summer of 1894. His exit was part of a rapid decline of that once popular attraction. As Arthur James concluded, “[t]he development of Lenape Park, with both train and trolly connections, put an end to the popularity of Birmingham Park. The Brandywine Park Station on the railroad was discontinued in 1895. Thus, Graff’s meadow returned to its former role as a shady meadow where cows and horses grazed during the summer months.”
But trade at Lenape Park continued to grow —- as did a mystery. At some point in the 1890s, an itinerant tintypist named Lounsbury came to the park, and set up a studio at Downingtown. A tintype by this photographer, featuring his (or her?) stamp on a mass-produced paper mat, was found at auction; prior to this, no one alive knew this person was in Chester County.
But that is where the mystery begins. The censuses show no Lounsburys anywhere near Lenape Park at the time, nor have any records been found to indicate any presence of that business in Downingtown or Lenape — other than this photograph.
Whoever this Lounsbury was, he or she left very little behind.
Big things often start very small. They build over time and become something no one could have foreseen, and the story, whatever it may be, is found not in memory, but in the little bits that are left behind. Taken individually, these little bits, like brush strokes in a painting, don’t tell us much. But pieced together, they form important links in a big picture.
Such is the case of the Port Kennedy Station waybills.
Port Kennedy was a village located on Trooper Road near the Montgomery-Chester County border, where what now US 422 crosses over the Schuylkill River. The village was more or less demolished to make way for it, leaving only a few buildings standing. One of these is the old Philadelphia & Reading Railroad station.
The P&R was built in the late 1830s and early 1840s to haul coal from the anthracite regions of Schuylkill county directly to the Philadelphia markets (in a tremendous “dick move” to the Schuylkill Canal, finished just as construction was ramping up on the railroad). Along its route along the river up from the Belmont Inclined Plane, a number of villages sprang up, including Port Kennedy, which acted as a station for the large lime-producing industry in the area.
At the close of the 19th century, another industry was founded in the area that would dramatically alter the landscape of the area: the Ehret Magnesia Manufacturing Company. Founded in 1897, the company, in spite of its name, quarried the surrounding hills to produce what was then the miracle fireproof material: asbestos. The fibrous silicate mineral was used in many applications, from fireproof shingles to electrical and pipe insulation, and though it was observed even in the 19th century that it could be hazardous, nothing was changed for many years.
Ehret shipped many carloads of asbestos-containing materials out of Port Kennedy, through the village’s combined passenger and freight station. Built in 1904, the station served the village through 1966. Though refurbished a decade later for SEPTA’s short-lived service to Pottstown, a disastrous wreck and fire put an end to such service in 1981. The station, then renamed Valley Forge Park, was boarded up and closed, and has sat idled ever since.
By 1997, it became clear that Ehret and its successors had polluted the area with tons of asbestos, creating a tremendous health hazard. Cleanup only began just a few years ago, and some work in the remains of Port Kennedy is still ongoing.
But the Station itself still had its secrets. Somebody broke into the station recently and scattered some of its contents to the wind, where I happened upon them while jogging along the old bridle trail. Included among them: waybills for the delivery asbestos to Ehret, evidently for disposal in the park — which got the official O.K. at the time from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Even in the span of a month, which these cover, several thousand bags of fiber were delivered. When one considers that these practices continued over decades, it is a truly frightening prospect.
These little waybills, scattered about, tell us nothing if we cannot piece together the larger story. With the resources available to us at the end of a few keyboard strokes, such things are indeed possible.
ADDENDUM: As it so happens I had a nice talk with the folks from the National Park Service, who politely informed me that not only is the structure on Federal land, but anything found thereon, even if it was grandfathered in, belongs to the Federal Government. Though well-intentioned, my efforts were against the law. No harm no foul in this case, the waybills have been given to the archives at Valley Forge and I have learned a most valuable lesson. I hope you all shall too — if you ever chance upon any similar situation, or find something in a National Park, find a Park Ranger and report it, or give him or her what you’ve found, they will be most thankful!