History of Ambler

Ambler is the youngest community in the Wissahickon Valley Region. Unlike Whitpain and Lower Gywnedd, Ambler maintained its historical integrity in their community. It is bounded south of Lower Gwynedd, west of Upper Dublin, north of Whitemarsh, and east of Whitpain.


Before Ambler was incorporated into a borough in 1888, we have to go FAR back to the William Penn era in the early 1680s.

It all began with a Quaker named William Harmer who purchased 408 acres from William Penn in 1682, where he built the first grist mill in the area. He was a member of the Friends Monthly Meeting in Gwynedd.

Fun Fact #1: William was the first to lay out the roads on his new land:

"William Harmer was one of the first who, after the country was settled, advocated the laying out of roads or cart-ways in the new land. A petition to the Court, which bears his signature, states: 'for want of roads we labor under great difficulties and hardships, for what is more necessary than a convenient road to places of worship and to mills and market?'
It is presumed that he was unselfish by nature and did not seek a monopoly of business, as is evidenced by a petition to the court, asking to have a certain road confirmed. The petition read 'in order that the inhabitants might reach the mill of David Williams of Plymouth, the mill was built on a spring which neither the draughts of summer or the winter frosts hindered from supplying the neighbors with grinding when all or most of the other mills are dormant during the aforesaid extremities of weather. Our mill and others being so supplied in times of such necessity lays under great difficulties too frequent at said mill and desires that convenient roads to the mill might be settled by authority.'"

- Hough, Early History of Ambler, 1682-1888

The three main roads that still exists and in use are Mount Pleasant Avenue (confirmed in 1730), Butler Pike (1739), and Church Street (petitioned in 1744).

"The [Morris] Road was confirmed by the Court in the year 1763 as a public highway. As its course was laid out, it extended from Garret Clement's Mill in Salford Township to Samuel Morris' in Upper Dublin. Between the years 1734 to 1763, the Court refused several times to grant it, due to the petitions of other inhabitants who offered many objections. One outstanding objection made by those who opposed the laying out of this road was that it was unnecessary because the Skippack and Bethlehem Pikes were sufficient to meet the needs of the people. This protest sent to the Court was as follows:
'Whereas the petioners of sd. Twp. hath here set our hands craving the honorable Court to see into it concerning a Rd. that is lightly to go through our township: Whereas we think it needless and very troublesome to our township, for ye said Samuel Morris hath already a road laid out from his mill to ye great road of guined, and this not exceeding a mile and a quarter from ye great road of Skipac which run on the same course given, or 12 miles.'
This protest had twenty-seven signatures and was dated March 1734. In all the protests for this road which were sent to the Court in the years between 1734 and 1763, the end of its route was given as at Samuel Morris' mill. Although the road was not confirmed until after the sale of the mill to John Stevens, it was named for Samuel Morris because of the efforts he made to have it laid open to meet the needs of the inhabitants."

- Hough, Early History of Ambler, 1682-1888

As mentioned earlier, William built the first grist mill on his land. You're probably wondering why grist mills were important during that time, especially to the people in Gwynedd and Whitpain. People back then were dependent on grist mills for mostly food supplies.

William's grist mill, also known as "Plumley's Mill", was located on the corner of Butler Pike and Morris Road. The reason why his mill was located around there was simply because of the creek that's nearby. That creek we know today as the Wissahickon Creek. In order for mills to operate, water (creeks, or strong springs) was needed as a power source. The creek was considered the great resource for William's mill. Another reason he located his home and mill around there was because of the hillside. It was beneficial to have the sun exposure on the south side for his home and mill to stay warm for the winter seasons.

"His first effort was spent in the erection of his grist mill so that he could be provided with food, and in the meantime or until he could build a suitable place for his home, he lived in a cave carved in the hillside, as was frequently done by the early settlers. The diary of a contemporary said 'We settled in a cave on ye bank of ye hill till we could build.' We can picture in our minds the gratification of Wm. Harmer and his family when they chose this location for their home and grist mill because of these desirable features."

- Hough, Early History of Ambler, 1682-1888

Fun Fact #2: In 1887, Philadelphia resident Anna Jane Mercer purchased William's home and mill to demolish it. In her mind, the home and mill were considered "detrimental" to the beauty of the environment. In 1902, Ann Detwiler, a descendant of the earlier owners after William Harmer, purchased the property to destroy the water right.

A mapp of ye improved part of Pensilvania in America, divided into countyes, townships, and lots (1687), Philip Lea, Publisher

Mary Ambler and the Great Train Wreck of 1856

Mary Ambler (1805-1868)

Mary Ambler (1805-1868) came to the area after marrying Andrew Ambler in 1829, and purchased a property called the "Fulling Mill," which use to stand at Main Street and Tennis Avenue.

A description of Mary Ambler's personality:

"She was a frail woman and in weight never exceeded ninety pounds. She was much interested in the care of the sick, and for that reason made her home a temporary hospital at the time of the railroad accident in 1856. Her friends and neighbors always found her willing to help in times of sickness among them. These frequent aids which she rendered to those residing in the community and her response to the Macedonian cry for help at the time of the said accident, prove her worthy of the honor conferred on her by the officials of the railroad company, who, on July 20, 1869, one year after her death, changed the name of the station from Wissahickon to Ambler in her honor, a name later adopted by the village and post office."

- Hough, Early History of Ambler, 1682-1888

The North Pennsylvania Railroad was established in 1852, and was opened in 1855. During that time the station was named "Wissahickon" station before it was changed to what we know today as, "Ambler" station after Mary's death.

The Great Train Wreck of 1856 was considered one of the worst train disasters in Pennsylvania. The northbound "Shackamaxon" was carrying passengers, mostly children who attended a Sunday school at St. Michael’s Catholic Church, on a short trip from Kensington to Fort Washington. The passengers were on their way to a picnic outing until the southbound "Aramingo" collided with the "Shackamaxon" head-on between the Fort Washington and Camp Hill stations. It left 59 people dead, and 86 injured.

A description of the horrific accident:

"The steam train was 20 minutes late leaving by the time everyone was safely boarded. The driver knew that a passenger train was scheduled to be approaching from the opposite direction on the same section of single-track line, but he reckoned that he could make up the time so that the two trains could pass each other at a siding along the route. The driver of the passenger train also knew about the excursion and he had slowed down to 16 kph (10 mph) and was blowing his whistle continuously as he approached a blind curve at Camp Hill. The excursion train, however, was on a downhill run and travelling much faster when it rounded the curve and smacked straight into the other. In the head-on collision the boiler of one of the locomotives exploded – it was said that the explosion could be heard 8 km (5 mi) away – and the Sunday school train came off the rails. The children stood no chance in the conflagration that followed as flames engulfed the tinder-dry box cars."

- Devastating Disasters

Fun Fact #3: In 2016, there was a song that dedicates to Mary Ambler's heroism called, "The Great Train Wreck of 1856 (for Mary Ambler)" by John O'Hara. Listen below!!

Mary Ambler took over the Fulling Mill after her husband died in 1850. She got help operating the mill from her son Lewis until she died in 1868.

The Continuing Growth

It was 1881 when the trend of grist mills began to decline. It was that year when Dr. Richard Mattison and Henry Keasbey moved their plant from Philadelphia to the Ambler area. Thus, the industry Renaissance began.

It was Mattison who had the entrepreneurial vision to transform the village: he hired laborers from around central Europe and African Americans who migrated to Ambler from Westmoreland County, Virginia; he hired stonemasons and builders from different parts of Italy and they built homes that created the modern-day town.

As a result, 400 homes were built (80% are still standing) as well as streets and the Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church. Mattison also improved the water supply, introduced electric streetlights, and enhanced culture by building Ambler's first opera house (1890) and library.

The Ambler Theater became the landmark in 1928. The Ambler Theater was part of Hollywood's Golden Era from the 1910s to the 1960s. When Hollywood's Golden Era began to decline, so did the Ambler Theater, and it was due to the presence of television. The theater was sold to Reverend Harry Bristow and served as the borough's Christian cinema from the 1970s to 1997 when it closed. The Ambler Theater was reopened in 2003 and showed art films that became a major force in the revitalization of Ambler.

North Pennsylvania Railroad 1886 Philadelphia - Bucks - Montgomery Counties, Ambler; J. D. Scott, Publisher


"Fort Washington Great Train Wreck – 1856," Devastating Disasters (blog), https://devastatingdisasters.com/fort-washington-great-train-wreck-1856/.

Hough, Mary P. H. "Early history of Ambler 1682-1888.” A Celebration of Women Writers. Accessed December 21, 2020. https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/hough/ambler/ambler.html.

JD Thomas, "The Picnic Train Tragedy of 1856," Accessible Archives (blog), July 13, 2013, https://www.accessible-archives.com/2013/07/the-picnic-train-tragedy-of-1856/.

Lea, Philip. A mapp of ye improved part of Pensilvania in America, divided into countyes, townships, and lotts, 1687.

Quattrone, Frank D. Ambler. (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004): 7-8, 87, 90.

Scott, J.D. North Pennsylvania Railroad 1886 Philadelphia - Bucks - Montgomery Counties, Ambler, 1886.

Webster, Audrey. "The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Golden Age." Arcadia Publishing. Accessed December 21, 2020. https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Navigation/Community/Arcadia-and-THP-Blog/June-2019/The-Rise-and-Fall-of-Hollywood’s-Golden-Age.

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