Jonathan Hoppe

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From the Archive: The Forgotten Family of Oakbourne

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.

A marker on the railroad near West Chester, placed in 1854 to commemorate the completion of a section of the railroad.

A marker on the railroad near West Chester, placed in 1854 to commemorate the completion of a section of the railroad.

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.

Oakbourne Station, with Mrs. Ellen Jane Speakman, ca. 1926.

Oakbourne Station, with Mrs. Ellen Jane Speakman, ca. 1926.

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.

A West Chester Railroad train passes by the site of Oakbourne Station.

A West Chester Railroad train passes by the site of Oakbourne Station.

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