Main Line Times Column – Places We Love – Mills of Mill Creek
One of the things that makes our region special is its incredibly rich history. When I first moved to the Philadelphia region I was struck instantly by the long history and the prominence of elements in the landscape that tell the stories of the past. One of my favorite stories is that of the milling history. Its impact is far reaching, influencing the names of many streets, driving the pattern of development and so much more. This week’s place we love is the mills of Mill Creek located in Lower Merion Township.
Moments after William Penn was given his American holdings in 1681, the 40,000 square miles that was to become Pennsylvania, settlers began arriving in the region. These included a large number of Welsh Quakers seeking religion freedom, many of which settled in Lower Merion. One of the first things the settlers needed to do was establish industries to provide goods such as grain, paper, yarns, and sawn timber, hence the birth of milling on Mill Creek.
Twenty-two mills hummed along Mill Creek from 1684 until 1956, with water-powered milling ending in 1893 after an intense flood. The most upstream mill was located on the Harriton Farm in Bryn Mawr with 21 other mills located downstream until reaching the Schuylkill River. The watershed offered great conditions for milling due to its clean water and natural dramatic topography. Limestone streambeds posed challenges to industries such as papermaking.
John Roberts built the earliest mill soon after his purchase of 500 acres from William Penn in 1682. He arrived in America aboard the second ship of Welsh Quakers, the Morning Star, in late 1682. The 1690 log cabin near the intersection of Old Gulph Road and Mill Creek Road is assumed to have been Roberts’ first home, with the property across the street at the intersection with Dodds Lane being his permanent home. Both properties serve modern families and have retained their historic character. Later his grandson John Roberts III built a new mill, a grist or grain mall, in 1746. The remnant wall and historic marker can be seen along Old Gulph Road just before the intersection with Mill Creek Road.
The most upstream mill, the Harriton Mill, was built by Levi Morris, the husband of one of Charles Thomson’s descendants, Naomi McClenachan. The mill produced grain, timber and plaster. The miller’s house and barn still exist as private residences along Old Gulph Road but the mill was gone by 1908. You can also see where Morris Avenue got its name.
Just down from the Harriton Farm, are the mills associated with Dove Lake. In 1748, German papermaker Conrad Scheetz established Lower Merion’s first paper mill. Benjamin Franklin advised Scheetz to add powdered Wissahickon schist, a local stone that sparkles with mica, to his paper used to make Continental currency as an anti-counterfeit device. Later, this mill was bought by Swiss miller Thomas Amies, who renamed the mill Dove mill. This paper had the dove and olive branch watermark and was used for American currency and a special reprinting of the Declaration of Independence. The Amies mill closed in 1839 and burned in 1855.
The Gladwyne Library has four seasonal paintings of the mill ruins painted in 1872. In 1873, another miller, Samuel Croft, constructed a dam on Mill Creek to get more power downstream. The famous painting by Thomas Eakins, “The Swimming Hole” was painting in 1885 and shows the ruins of the Dove Lake mill along the banks of the newly formed Dove Lake resulting from the construction of the dam. Currently, only a few ruins exist from this mill on private property. Downstream you can find some ruins from the Scheetz ‘lower mill’ right near the ford. This mill produced basic brown paper. Also adjacent to the ford is the historic 10-mile stone noting that we are 10 miles from Philadelphia.
Moving along downstream, you pass Samuel Croft’s rolling mill that produced sheet metals including brass, German silver and zinc. Next comes the Evan Jones Mill, also lovingly cared for as modern homes but retaining their milling history. The home near the tight ‘Z’ bridge on Mill Creek Road was the site of the Merion Flour mills.
Once you pass over Conshohocken State and wind down into the valley along Mill Creek Road you pass the site of a number of mills and the remnants of tenement housing in the woods of Rolling Hill Park. The largest mill reminder in the landscape is the Barker Mill at the foot of the park. This mill was built in 1808 by gunsmith J. Abraham Nippes who made rifles here for the war of 1812. Later the mill served as a carpet yarn mill for Booth and Barker. This mill survived the major flood of 1893 having just converted to steam power and kept its doors open as a mill until 1956. Currently, the Barker Mill awaits its next chapter as a residential property.
The landscape has many more stories to tell—the dovecote from the Gladwyne Colony or the gates of the Percival Roberts estate on route 23. Considering the number of elements from our rich industrial past that we can see every single day, I often think about how this fascinating story has shaped the landscape of this place we love. As we manage change moving forward in our community it will be essential that we find ways to build upon this incredible fabric and allow it to continue to shape our future.
Information for this week’s place we love was drawn from the Lower Merion Conservancy’s ‘Mill of Mill Creek’ publication put together by Mike Weilbacher and Jean Wolf with assistance from Bruce Gill, Christine Jones and Jerry Francis.
Patty Thompson is the Executive Director of the Lower Merion Conservancy and can be reached at email@example.com