Jonathan Hoppe

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A Brandywine Braintwister

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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.

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