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Mapping East Falls History 



East falls development corp. website  history of east falls.





     The first residents of East Falls were the Lenni Lenape Native Americans. The Lenni Lenape knew East Falls as Ganshewahanna, which means “noisy waters,” and the villages of Metopcum, Nittabakonck and Wissakitkonck were situated around the Falls. The Native Americans hunted and fished from the waters of the Ganshewahanna. An early visitor to the area, Lutheran chaplain John Campanius, gave a description of their way of life.

“When the Indians go in the night a’ hunting, they fasten these insects (lightning bugs) to their hands and feet, by which they can see their way as well as in daytime. There is also (about the Falls) a large and terrible serpeant (sic) which is called the rattle snake. It has a head like a dog, and can bite off a man’s leg as if cut with an axe- these snakes are three yards long, and thick as the thickest part of a man’s leg.”



            In 1668, the first grist mill was constructed along the Wissahickon River, one of twenty-five mills built along the Wissahickon and its tributaries. The mill was used as a hiding place for the Doane gang, a group of outlaws that, during the Revolutionary War, robbed and sabotaged the rebels. In 1876 the Fairmount Park Commission bought the land as a way to expend into the Wissahickon Creek area and rented the mill out to fishing clubs. In 1902 the Philadelphia Canoeing Club bought the mill. The Robeson Mills were built in 1686 at Ridge Avenue. By the 1850s, there were many mills in the area, including a stonecutters and a drug and cotton mill.

Fort St. Davids was the first fishery established by European settlers in the Falls area. It was built in 1732, and was so well-known that the area was known simply as “Fort St. Davids.”  The Falls provided an abundance of fish for the fishermen, because the rock formations surrounding the Falls trapped fish. A particularly plentiful fish was the catfish. Author Charles Hagner said, “I have seen men, in one scoop of the dip-net, have it so full of these catfish as to be unable to lift them in the boat, but were obliged to take them out of it with their hands and other contrivances.”  This likely contributed to the popularity of catfish and waffle dinners in the area’s Falls Tavern, where Mrs. Robert Watkins made the well-liked dish.

            During the Revolutionary War, the men of Fort St. Davids joined the First City Troop, and when the British troops destroyed Fort St. Davids, the men rebuilt it. In the early 1800s though, the Fort caught fire, most likely because of Godfrey Shronk, and the men joined the Schuylkill Fishing Club. In 1822, the Schuylkill Falls were submerged by the building of the Fairmount Dam.

            After the war for independence, America turned toward domestic manufacturing, and East Falls’ economy changed with the times . In 1808, a glass factory was built, and a calico printing mill was also built. In 1835 the mill stopped operating because of competition from Washington Print Works, which printed patterns on silk, and was in operation until the Civil War. In the early 1800s, Dobson Mills was built, and it produced blankets for the Union Army during the Civil War. The Fairmount Parks Commission demolished the mill in 1872, but Dobson Mills relocated to Scotts Lane and flourished until the Great Depression.

            The Old Academy building was built in 1819, and was the first community center in Philadelphia. In 1932 it became the site of the Old Academy Players, a community theatre group. The Old Academy stage served as the launching point f Grace Kelly’s acting career.

            Powers & Weightman Chemical Company opened in 1848 along Ridge Avenue. The chemical company built homes for its workers along with a school for the workers’ children and a community center. William Weightman built the Ravenhill estate, a mansion that is now part of Philadelphia University’s campus.

            In 1834, Laurel Hill College was established on what is now Laurel Hill Cemetery. A Catholic college for men, Laurel Hill held church services for the Catholics in the area until the land was sold in 1835 and became a cemetery.

            On June 7, 1838, the Falls Baptist Church was created, with ten members. It met in the Old Academy, on Indian Queen Lane until December 5, 1852, when the Falls Baptist Church was done being built. Before the Church was built, many of the baptisms took place in the Schuylkill River, at the end of what is now Midvale Avenue. The Church sent out many missionaries to different parts of the world, including China, India, and the Philippines. Some time later, the Church moved to its present location on Indian Queen Lane, and its former sight is now used as a Baptist School.

            Falls United Methodist Church was formed in 1837, with services in the Old Academy and Sunday school in members’ homes. In 1851, the Church moved to Stanton Street, and in 1873, the church moved again to Indian Queen Lane.

            St. Bridget’s Roman Catholic Church was built in 1855, to fill the need for a Catholic Church. In 1850, services were held at the Old Academy and also at members’ homes. In 1855, the church on Stanton Street was completed. In 1923, the church was moved to Midvale Avenue. St. Bridget’s Catholic school was built in 1888, and in 1949 was moved to its current location on Stanton street.  

            The First Presbyterian Church was established in 1855; like most of the Churches in East Falls, services were held in the Old Academy building on Indian Queen Lane. In 1868, the congregation found a suitable place on Ridge Avenue for their Church, and it was built within the year. In 1925, the Revered Cooke decided that the Church should move closer to its congregants, and the Church committee decided to search for a new location. The Great Depression squashed plans for a new Church until 1941, when the Church broke ground at another site. This was not meant to be either, because the United States entered WWII in December of 1941, construction had to be stopped because supplies were needed elsewhere.  In 1945, twenty years after the planning for a new church, the church construction was completed.

The Redeemer Lutheran Church started with services at the Old Academy Building on Indian Queen Lane. Initially a German-speaking Church, services were soon English only affairs. In 1904, the Church moved across the street from the Old Academy, and in 1909 the Church moved to Conrad & Midvale streets.

In the late 1800s many breweries opened in East Falls. In 1857 the Steppacher and Becker brewery was built, and in 1870 it was bought by Jacob Hohenadal, who renamed it Falls Park Brewery. In 1873 a brewery opened on Warden Drive along with a park at School House Lane and Ridge Avenue. In 1894, Hohenadal built another brewery at the intersection of Indian Queen Lane and Conrad Street.  The area of the brewery is now the site of Billy Murphy’s Irish Saloon and Cranky Joe’s Bar.

In 1913 the Falls of Schuylkill Library opened with the help of a grant from Andrew Carnegie. There had been a library in East Falls as early as 1901, but it was housed in the Old Academy Building.  It was built in the “English collegiate type” style to blend in with the surrounding buildings. The Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania opened in 1930 at the intersection of Henry avenue and Abbotsford Road. It was the first women’s medical college in the world. In 1929, McMichael Park was opened, named after Philadelphia mayor .

East Falls contributed to the war effort in WWI, WWII and The Vietnam War. Five hundred seventy-seven men and women were drafted from East Falls for the First World War, and East Falls residents sent over $18,000 of “comfort kits” for the soldiers stationed over seas. During World War Two, East Falls residents collected scrap metals and fats for war materials.

William Penn Charter School moved to East Falls in 1925, and Philadelphia University, then known as the Philadelphia Textile Institute,  moved to its present site in East Falls in 1949. East Falls celebrated the country’s 1976 bicentennial with concerts, carnivals and parades throughout the year.

In the 1980s and 1990s, East Falls continued to grow and change. 2003 saw the opening of the Arthur Ashe Tennis and Education Center. There was a movement to revitalize Dobson Mills, which is now the site of a luxury apartment and loft complex. Sherman Mills opened as a new type of community, with apartments, lofts, art studios and stores in an old mill. Capogiro, the gelato café has its corporate headquarters in the old MCP site. In 2008, the Youth Studies Center opened in the old Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute and recently, there have been plans to turn the  Bathey House into a restaurant. East Falls will continue to expand and transform as it goes into the future.


Works Cited

"Ashe History & Mission." Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis & Education ? Philadelphia, PA. Web. 18 Jan. 2010. <http://www.ashetennis.org/about-ashe/history-and-mission.html>.

"A Brief History of Philadelphia University." Philadelphia University "Power to Do" Philadelphia, PA. Web. 18 Jan. 2010. <http://www.philau.edu/about/aboutBriefHistory.html>.

Childs, Lois, and Fred Childs, eds. East Falls Three Hundred Years of History. Comp. Kathy Bandish, Florence Childs, Rev. Maurice Coombs, Bobby Daily, Joseph P. Kelley, Grace Lenahan, Walther H. MacIndoe, Judi Morrow, Rev. Dave Paterno, Elizabeth Ryan, Margaret Spino, Rev. Charles Sullivan, and Edward Wilson. Philadelphia: East Falls Bicentennial Committee, 1976. Print.

East Falls Development Corporation. Web. 19 Jan. 2010. <http://www.eastfallsdevelopment.org/html/history.html>.

"FLP - Falls of Schuylkill Branch - Branch History." Free Library of Philadelphia. Web. 18 Jan. 2010. <http://libwww.library.phila.gov/BRANCHES/history.cfm?loc=FAL>.

"History." William Penn Charter School. Web. 18 Jan. 2010. <http://www.penncharter.com/page.cfm?p=367>.