The Homes on Railroad Avenue

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

Every time I drive on the way to Wissahickon High School, I always come across these homes along the SEPTA Railroad tracks. My first question was this:


"Why did people built these homes where residents could not get a good night sleep while hearing the trains come by?"


This question lead me to do some research on these homes.

Thompson's Mill


Based on viewing historical maps, it seems that the housing developing didn't start until the early 20th century. Prior to the development, there was nothing. Whitpain was known for huge plots of lands owned by wealthy farmers. During the late 19th century, this part of the land was owned by the Thompson family who operated a grist mill and farm. It was Thomas Thompson (1807-1891) who came to Philadelphia in 1829 with his parents, and spent years operating a saw mill along the railroad tracks since 1837. He added a grist mill with the saw mill on his property.


His son John Gilbert Thompson (1861-1914) became his partner. In his education, he attended the Shady Grove School and later at Miss. Knight's Sunnyside School while working with his father at the grist mill. He later took a nine month courses at the Pierce College of Business. As his father was aging, John took over his father's business in 1888. John operated the mill until in the 1890s when Keasbey & Mattison Company purchased his property. In 1899, he disposed the water from the Wissahickon Creek right into the Ambler Spring Water Company which Keasbey & Mattison Company owned until 1937.

"In the year 1872, an item in the Lansdale paper said that Thomson's mill was one of the best flour mills in the locality. It completed its many years of service to humanity twelve years later, and its former existence is almost forgotten in the present day."

- Mary Hough, Early History of Ambler, 1682-1888


The old saw mill the Thompsons owned that supplied flour and feed to the residents in Ambler was abandoned. As a result, Dr. Richard Mattison demolished the old mill.

"The dam was repaired to act as a reservoir and a twenty-four inch pipe was laid to the Keasbey and Mattison buildings. Several feet of this pipe was laid twenty feet under a house on Butler avenue. In the summer months the K. & M. Co. would have a shortage of water, but with this additional supply they had unlimited quantities.
The water supplied by this dam was not used by the Ambler Spring Water Co. to furnish water to the inhabitants, but only as a reservoir for the requirements of the Keasbey and Mattison Company.
The dam which furnished the race with water used by the Thomson mill, when it was operated, was located about 1/4 mile above the site of the mill, and was called 'Tommy's Dam' by the boys with whom it was a favorite swimming pool in summer and skating pond in the winter season. It was frequently much damaged by muskrats which were numerous on its banks."

- Mary Hough, Early History of Ambler, 1682-1888

Atlas of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, 1871, Page 031; G.M. Hopkins & Company, Publisher
Montgomery County 1893, Whitpain and Worcester Townships, Bethel Hill, Fairview, Cedar Hill, Washington Square, Broad Axe Left; J.L. Scott, Publisher
Atlas of the North Penn Section of Montgomery County, Pa., 1916, Plate 27; A. H. Mueller, Publisher

The Tale of the Homes on Railroad Avenue


Ever since Keasbey & Mattison Company came into Ambler, they began to develop different parts of land around the Ambler area, including around the railroad crossing that goes through Mount Pleasant Avenue.


Based on the historical maps and scanning through the Ambler Gazette archives, it seems that the housing development began some time during the 1910s. There were people living in this area during the 1910s. Many people were living on the east side of Mt. Pleasant Avenue.


The houses in West Ambler has a variety of different styles and structures. Based on the 1916 map, most of the homes along the railroad tracks are frame buildings while few other are stone and brick buildings. There's one Victorian twin home, row homes, Gothic-style homes, and a house with a stone gateway.


The other homes on the other side of Mount Pleasant Avenue are very mixed with different style architecture that were built some time before the 1950s, and others probably built after the 1950s.

Atlas of the North Penn Section of Montgomery County, Pa., 1916, Plate 26; A. H. Mueller, Publisher
Montgomery County 1927 Reading Main Line Vol 1, Plate 031 - Ambler Borough 1, Upper Dublin Township 1; Frank H. M. Klinge, Publisher

The housing development continued to grow to the west side of Mt. Pleasant Avenue during the 1930s. Based on the 1935 map below, I looks like the North Street Realty Company were in charge of the real estate of this housing development.

Atlas: Montgomery County 1935 Vol B, Plate 7, Franklin Survey Co., Publisher
Source: Google Maps

Archive News Surrounding Railroad Avenue

Clipping from Ambler Gazette (April 11, 1912): Page 1
Clipping from Ambler Gazette (January 24, 1929): Page 5

Conclusions


It's easy to understand why developers built homes in undesirable places like the railroad tracks. It's cheaper to buy homes that are located along the railroad tracks.


Even many people online were asking each other why people are buying houses that are next to the railroad tracks. There's no definite answer to this, but I would say that if people want to buy a cheap home, then they should be allowed to buy those homes, no matter if it's in a bad area.


I find it surprising to see different types of architecture around this road. Especially seeing the differences from both sides of Mount Pleasant Avenue. At first when looking at the west side of Mount Pleasant Avenue I thought all of the homes were built in the early 2000s. But by taking a closer look at each home, it looks like they were from earlier than the 2000s.

Bibliography


Franklin Survey Co. Atlas: Montgomery County 1935 Vol B, Plate 7, 1935.


Hopkins, G.M. Atlas of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Page 031, 1871.


Hough, Mary P. H. "Early history of Ambler 1682-1888.” A Celebration of Women Writers. Accessed January 27, 2021. https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/hough/ambler/ambler.html.


Klinge, Frank H. M. Montgomery County 1927 Reading Main Line Vol 1, Plate 31, 1927.


Mueller, A. H. Atlas of the North Penn Section of Montgomery County, Pa., Plate 26 & 27, 1916.


Roberts, Ellwood. Biographical Annals of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Containing Genealogical Records of Representative Families, Including Many of the Early Settlers and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens, Volume 2. (New York, Chicago: T.S. Benham & Co. and The Lewis Publishing Co., 1904): 317-318.

Smith, J. L. Montgomery County 1893, Whitpain and Worcester Townships, Bethel Hill, Fairview, Cedar Hill, Washington Square, Broad Axe Left, 1893.


"WATER FACILITIES." Borough of Ambler. Accessed January 27, 2021. https://boroughofambler.com/departments/public-utilities/water-facilities/.


"Wissahickon Valley Public Library's Ambler Gazette Collection." POWER Library: Pennsylvania's Electronic Library. Accessed January 26, 2021. http://digitalcollections.powerlibrary.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/wivp-gazett.


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