cheltenham chamber of citizens
Wyncote is a small residential neighborhood in the western part of Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania, about ten miles northwest of the center of Philadelphia. A few Quaker farmers, descendants of the original William Penn settlers, nurtured the land for almost two hundred years before change set in. Gentle rolling landscape, a leafy green canopy of old trees, and diverse housing stock define the village today much as it did in the late 1880’s when the first popular subdivisions turned the former wooded estates of wealthy capitalists into attractive residences for a more ordinary population.
More than any other event, the coming of the railroad set the stage for the transformation of the land. Intended as a means of bringing coal and trade to the northwest part of the city, the North Pennsylvania Railroad was chartered in 1852, the route was laid out by the young but accomplished canal-builder Edward L. Miller in 1853, followed by construction through 1854. On Monday, July 2, 1855, the locomotive “Cohocksink” pulled a train filled with reporters and dignitaries from the docks of Philadelphia, through the “exceedingly beautiful country” known then as “Chelten Hills” to the temporary terminus in Gwynedd. It is no small cause for wonderment by today’s standards and modern governmental gridlock that a railroad could go from a paper idea to a functioning transport in less than three years. It helped that they, by state charter, could go wherever they wanted and take whatever land, except burial grounds. In some cases, it took the railroad several years to actually buy and settle on the land over which their trains made their way.
The railroad brought the first “gentleman” to the tract, William C. Kent, the first to buy land not for farming but for recreation. He realized the potential for the railroad to carry passengers and to transport them in a reverse route: from the city to the country. His country estate “Beechwood” overlooked the quaint Tookany valley and the woods on the other side. Fellow industrialists quickly followed Kent and the railroad and established their luxurious country seats in the area. Department store magnate John Wanamaker, bankers Abraham and Wharton Barker, sugar merchant Joseph Lovering, and dry goods merchant Charles L. Sharpless, were a few of the prominent citizens that called the country tract “home.” The end of the Gilded Age would bring even more wealth and fame to the area such as Curtis, Widener, and Elkins. One publicist opined that “here one may live in real country, yet share few of the disadvantages usually attending country life.”
In 1877, Kent’s home became a luxury resort on the hillside overlooking the small creek and thriving train station that served the hotel and the nearby village of Jenkintown. The hotel ushered in a new era of the tract as a resort with visitors also renting new homes to enjoy the pleasures provided by the sylvan surroundings. Familiarity with the beautiful area created demand for summer home rentals and Kent’s heirs eventually sold the main parcel on his hillside, now known as “Kent’s Woods”, for the first development of homes for an expanding upper-middle class. Woodland Road was the first street built to accommodate a residential development in 1885. A country store was constructed to meet the household needs of residents and a post office was added in 1887 with the unusual name of “Wyncote.” The new village was born. Successful businessmen such as the Cramp family of shipbuilders, America’s beekeeper William A. Selser, the inventor of the appendectomy Dr. John B. Deaver, appliance manufacturer Joseph Proctor, and a dabbler in the new sport of baseball who bestowed the whimsical name of “Phillies” on his team, attorney John Ignatius Rogers, moved to the burgeoning village. Then as today, they found a lifestyle that supported their professional and family goals. As one observer wrote in 1888, “the banker, the merchant, and the manufacturer, step from the afternoon trains, hurrying to the calm contentment and restful influences of country homes amidst the jumble of streams and rolling hills.”
With their business acumen and careful management habits, came a concern for the quality of life in the new village. Civic organizations quickly emerged such as the Wyncote Men’s Club, Wyncote Women’s Club, and Wyncote Civic Association, forerunners of the most recent organization, the Cheltenham Chamber of Citizens, which reflected the care and involvement that a healthy community required. Among their concerns and voluntary actions during the first years were the laying of boardwalks along the muddy streets to aid the pedestrian, the spraying of the roads to keep the dust down in the summer, the hiring of a night patrolman, and the fight to keep a milk depot out of the station area for fear of rats, smells, and noisy train traffic. The vigilance of those early citizens no doubt paid off in the quality of the diverse community we enjoy today.
The writer is our local Historian and Wyncote Resident, Thomas Wieckowski. Dr. Wieckowski is the author of “Making Marathon: A History of Early Wyncote.” To read more about the history of Wyncote, PA, go to: http://www.tomwieck.com/