The Beginning of Phoenixville – A Brief History
Ryan J. Conroy, President, Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area
The first inhabitants of Manavon, which would later become the Borough of Phoenixville, were the Lenape American Indians. Their Tribe inhabited the land for 10,000 years, at a time when the French Creek was called Sankanac and the Schuylkill River, Manaiunk. They lived in long houses along the river and in the hills of Black Rock. They had an abundance of food from fishing in the river and creek, hunting in the forest on what is now the North Side of Phoenixville, and later growing crops.
In the late 1600s, not long after Philadelphia had been settled, Charles Pickering, an Englishman who crossed the Atlantic with William Penn, came up the Schuylkill River in search of treasure in Chester County. Upon arriving in the stream which now bears his name, Pickering discovered what he believed to be “traces of silver.” Thinking he could make a fortune on this finding, he returned to Philadelphia and purchased a land grant from William Penn for several thousand acres. Pickering returned to the area with a friend named Tinker who had mining experience. Together they dug a cave in the side of a hill, made a roof and laid a stone floor, and began mining the metal. This cave would become the first dwelling built by a European settler in our area.
Not long after his venture, Charles Pickering died and his land, which consisted of 5,386 acres known as the Pickering Tract and Mine Hole Tract, was divided between 16 of his friends. The naming of the earliest neighborhoods derived from Pickering, including Charlestown, which originally included present-day Charlestown and Schuylkill Townships, and the Borough of Phoenixville.
One of the separations of Pickering’s land became the Manavon Tract in 1713, named by its owner David Lloyd, the first justice in Chester County and later Speaker of the Assembly. Manavon, whose name is believed to have originated from Lloyd’s home parish in Wales, was 1,000-acre piece of land that straddled French Creek. When Europeans first arrived at Manavon, a village of the Lenape long houses still stood on the low land near the river. Trails connected all the main areas in Chester County to Philadelphia, one of which would become what we now know as Route 23.
The first settler upon the Manavon tract was Francis Buckwalter, a German immigrant, who purchased 650 acres from Lloyd in 1720. In 1731, Moses Coates purchased 150 acres of land of land on what is now North Phoenixville, and built a small house. Not long after Coates arrived, he talked his friend James Starr into coming up from New Castle, Delaware. Starr and his two sons bought land and erected a dwelling and a grist mill, the first business in what would become the Borough of Phoenixville. The grist mill was built upon the French Creek; its waters powered the mill. This property would later become the site of the Nail Works, and then the Phoenix Iron Company. The Starr house, built in 1732, still stands at 10 Main Street and is the oldest structure in Phoenixville.
From dedicating two companies of Militia to the cause to building and churches serving as field hospitals for Washington’s Army, the Manavon Tract and its residents played a role in the American Revolution. Several men served in the Battles of Germantown, Brandywine and the encampment at Valley Forge. The British Army was encamped along Route 23, reaching the intersection of Bridge Street and Nutt Road, in front of the old Fountain Inn in September 1777, making it the farthest inland point reached by the British Army during the Revolution. The Fountain Inn was also used as a headquarters by British General Howe. Multiple skirmishes between the Americans and the British/Hessian Armies took place all around what would become Phoenixville Borough.
In 1785, Benjamin Longstreth renovated Starr’s old grist mill and added a small dam across the French Creek. In 1790, he opened the French Creek Nail Works. Not long after, the company started using the newly-discovered Anthracite Coal from northeast Pennsylvania which resulted in their nail product becoming a hot commodity. At one point, the company was the largest producer of nails in the United States.
The first church in what was to become Phoenixville was constructed by the Mennonite congregation at Church and Main streets in 1794. That property is now the site of the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area.
In 1813, German engineer Lewis Wernwag bought the Nail Works and renamed it the Phoenix Iron Works after seeing the resemblance of a Phoenix bird come out of the furnaces, as well as a symbolism of the company’s rise from the ashes. By 1827, Wernwag recognized the town had become much more established with residents and businesses, and proposed it separate from Schuylkill Township to become its own borough named Phoenixville.
Phoenixville is a town built by many immigrants. Some of the earliest to arrive were the Irish, the first of whom came from Country Donegal and lived along the river is an area which became known as Sceilp (pronounced Scape) Level, an Irish word meaning water flowing over rocks’ edge. This community, established around 1814, would blossom in the 1830s, when many more Irish would arrive in Phoenixville to dig the Schuylkill Canal, then the Black Rock Tunnel for the Reading Railroad. The community grew up the hillside, giving Phoenixville’s North Side the nickname Tunnel Hill, which is still used today by people who grew up on these same streets. By 1860, 45 percent of the town’s population was Irish; the Black Rock Tunnel, which was built by those Irish is the second-oldest, continuously-used tunnel in the US.
It wasn’t until 1849 that Phoenixville would become officially incorporated as a borough, due to the efforts of Isaac Pennypacker who would later become the town’s first mayor. Much political opposition to Phoenixville becoming its own borough delayed the process. At the time, the original families – Pennypacker, Anderson, Vanderslice, and Buckwalter – were living amongst the large population of Irish and German immigrants who were working in the Phoenix Iron Company which was producing its first big product: rails for the expansion of the railroad across America.
In 1848, the population of the town was 3,337 residents and growing, and in the years that followed, two major events took place that catapulted the Iron Company top of the industry. The Griffin Gun, more properly known as the 3-inch ordinance rifle, was produced in Phoenixville from 1861 to 1864, making an estimated 1,200 cannon barrels. At the Battle of Gettysburg, 45 percent of the Union Artillery were using the cannons, and it became known as the most accurate and well-made cannon during the Civil War.
During the war, Phoenixville supplied a large amount of men and women to the Union cause. A group of Irishmen from St. Mary’s Catholic Church would have its own company in the war, along with many other regiments like the PA Bucktails and PA Reserves. Phoenixville native Sgt. Everett Anderson, who is buried at Morris Cemetery, received the Medal of Honor for his single-handed capture of a Confederate General. Sgt. Anderson is the great-great-grandson of the Rev. James Anderson, the first resident of what is now Schuylkill Township.
Around this same time, the Phoenix Iron Company, which was then owned by the Reeves family, invented another product which became the most widely-used thing they would ever make.
The Phoenix Column was patented in 1862 by Samuel Reeves and used in high rise buildings, bridges, viaducts, and elevated rail lines across the country, and the company was involved in the building of about 1,400 bridges around the world. The structural support in the Washington Monument and City Hall in Philadelphia are two of the many famous structures which used Phoenix Columns.
Phoenixville was home to several internationally-known products, including Etruscan Majolica. Majolica, a type of pottery which originated in England and Germany and made its way to the US via immigrants, was popular during the Victorian period. The company, which was started by three men, Griffen, Smith & Hill in 1879, made some of the most beautiful Majolica due to the local clay they used, as well as their unique glaze colors and patterns. They continued to produce Majolica at their kilns on Starr Street between Church and Prospect Streets until 1890, when the buildings were almost completely destroyed by fire.
In the late 1800s, Phoenixville would see its next large wave of immigrants come to work in the Iron and Steel Company, silk and cotton mills, and other factories which populated the borough. They came from European countries such as Poland, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine, and other small countries in that region. The immigrants would make Phoenixville their home, establishing churches, social clubs, stores, and communities, some of which still exist today.
Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker was born in Phoenixville on April 9, 1843, and served as Pennsylvania’s Governor from 1903 to 1907. As governor, he enacted a number of progressive reforms including the creation of the Pennsylvania State Police, the Pennsylvania State Museum, the Pennsylvania Departments of Health, Highways, and Mines and Fisheries. He signed into law the Child Labor Act of 1905, which set a minimum age and standard hours for young workers. He oversaw the completion of the new state capitol building in Harrisburg, and he approved the state’s purchase of more than a half-million acres of land for state forests and tree nurseries, as well as the state’s first 12,000 acres of game lands. Later in life he served as President of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and when he died in 1916, had a collection of over 10,000 items pertaining to Pennsylvania history.
In 1949, the Phoenix Iron Company was renamed the Phoenix Iron and Steel Company, and in 1955 the name was changed again to the Phoenix Steel Corporation. Phoenix Iron Co. employed up to 2,500 workers during the two World Wars. After World War II, the company began to decline due to increased domestic and foreign steel competition, and as well as competition from aluminum and reinforced concrete products. Phoenix Steel Corporation eventually closed; the last heat was on November 18, 1976, and the company closed for good in 1987.
The closure of Phoenix Steel and other smaller manufacturing firms led Phoenixville to experience some difficult economic times, but now that Phoenixville is back to where it belongs, we can officially say the borough has lived up to its name and risen from the ashes.
For those interested in supporting the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area as a business we welcome you to join as a business member for a minimal yearly fee. This helps our organization as we are an all-volunteer, non-profit group that depends on the support of the community and the new/old businesses and residents of the borough. As a business member you will have access to our archives and special events. Our vast photograph and document archives is sure to provide information of your storefront, restaurant, brewery or other place of business. We also provide advertising to our membership which are always looking for new places to explore. We appreciate your support and helping our community to continue to rise like the Phoenix it was named for.