by Steve Ahern
You can hardly drive through Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill without running into one of Sam and Virginia Emlen’s ancestors. The Emlen family, for whom Emlen Street in West Mt. Airy is named, is linked to a number of old Philadelphia families some of whose surnames can be seen on the street posts, historic sites and historic documents of Philadelphia.
In the 1680s, before any streets, courts or alleys of Philadelphia bore his surname or anyone else’s, and well before his direct and distant descendants married into old Philadelphia families, the progenitor of the Emlen family, George Emlen I, emigrated to Philadelphia alone. A Quaker, Emlen left England during the height of emigration when harassment of Quakers and other religious minorities had peaked, and when his aunt, with whom he lived, evicted him when he demurred to renounce his faith. He departed from England in a vessel around the time William Penn left to found Philadelphia.
By that time, Philadelphia was becoming a city of merchants, of whom Emlen was one. He learned the trade of vintner in London in his youth, and not long after his arrival opened a brewery not far from 5th and Chestnut streets, where he lived, across from a lot that would become the site of Independence Hall. He married and had eight children, the oldest of whom, George II, and his son, George III, continued to run the brewery after George I died. They sold it in 1752. The deed of sale, signed by Benjamin Franklin, hangs in the home of Sam Emlen’s parents, who now live in Berwyn.
“It’s a nice piece of history,” said Sam Emlen, the 22-year-old self-appointed family historian and 10th generation Emlen. “To have something of my family’s from that time and signed by Benjamin Franklin is pretty cool.”
George Emlen II was also one of 30 volunteers on the roster of Philadelphia’s first fire department formed by Benjamin Franklin in 1736, and according to a newspaper article published in the Philadelphia American in 1912, a charter member of The Library Company and a prosperous merchant. He constructed the family’s summer home, now the Emlen House, a historic site in Whitemarsh. In the autumn of 1777, General Washington stationed his troops there for five weeks before moving the headquarters to Valley Forge in the winter of 1778. Sam Emlen supposes that Emlen Street may have been named for George Emlen IV for the magnanimity he showed during war time or for Samuel “the seer” Emlen, a prominent and learned Quaker minister of his day, who traveled the world spreading the Quaker message. No information was found to corroborate for whom Emlen Street was named, and according to Robert Alotta, who wrote two books on the origins of Philadelphia Streets, streets increasingly were named for people who had made contributions to their communities, which the Emlens had certainly done.
“My favorite thing to think about when I look at this research is that there is a caring in my family,” said Sam. “Taking that extra step has clearly been the family tradition.”
When Emlen Street was opened in Mt. Airy, there already existed an Emlen Street east of Frankford Avenue in Kensington. In 1895, however, Philadelphia began surveying the minor thoroughfares of the city to eliminate duplication of street names. Emlen Street in Kensington was changed to Boston Street in 1896. (There was also an Emlen Court and Emlen’s Alley, which had been changed in the 1850s to English Street and Everett Place.) Emlen Street was cut out of a 100-acre parcel of the 500-acre Carpenter Estate, which prominent developer George W. Carpenter’s widow sold to other developers in 1893, who then created the Pelham section of West Mt. Airy there.
The Emlen family also has links to other Philadelphia families bearing street names. Their connection to the Logan family was forged nearly a century and a half before Emlen Street was laid, when Hannah Emlen, a second generation Emlen, married William Logan, son of the renowned statesman, scholar and mercantilist, James Logan, for whom Logan Street, Logan Square and the Logan neighborhood were named. James Logan completed a Georgian-style mansion in 1730 on 511 acres he named Stenton (for his father’s birthplace in Scotland) at North 18th and Cortland Streets in North Philadelphia. It still stands in Stenton Park on a six-acre plot of land. Stenton Avenue, situated to the west of Stenton Park, was named for the mansion. Hannah Emlen was known as the mistress of Stenton, according to Sam.
Roughly a century and a half later, in 1877, George Williams Emlen, a seventh generation Emlen, married Eleanor Cope. According to the Awbury Arboretum Association’s book on Cope Emlen, Emlen and his bride built a large home on what today is Awbury Arboretum — a 55-acre expanse of land in the middle of East Germantown, where Thomas Pim Cope built a summer home in the 1850s. Emlen’s son, George Williams Emlen Jr. built a second Emlen family home there in 1912. Tenth generation Sam Emlen says his grandfather, Benjamin Emlen, grew up on Awbury but opted to leave for a less socially intense existence at the bidding of his wife, Catharine Stokes.
Within the next three decades, the Emlen and Haines families came together when Samuel Emlen, eighth generation, married Marion Haines in1906. Haines Street, which runs east-west and along the southern perimeter of Awbury Park and Awbury Arboretum, was the first road to be referred to as a street in Germantown and was named for the Haines family, begun by Reuben Haines who, Alotta wrote, owned a large plot of land along the street until the late 1930s.
Reuben Haines married Margaret Wister and lived at the Wyck House, which still stands at 6026 Germantown Ave. Wister Street was laid in 1735, according to Alotta. The connections the Emlens have to historical sites, streets and towns in the Philadelphia area are seemingly endless and include Phillip Syng Physick, the “Father of American Surgery,” whom Elizabeth Emlen married in 1800; the Stokes (There’s a Stokes Street in Germantown) and the Norris family, who founded Norristown. Emlen’s sister, Catharine Emlen, is engaged to a Cadwalader. The Cadwaladers, whose descendants include General John and Colonel Lambert Cadwalader, were active during the Revolutionary War. Cadwallader Street (spelled differently for an unknown reason, perhaps a clerical error), is located between North 4th and West Oxford Streets.
Sam Emlen’s mother, Virginia Ambler Emlen, is also an eighth generation Ambler — the Montgomery County town named for Mary Amber, who in 1856 led the rescue of victims injured in a train wreck. Her family arrived in the Philadelphia area around the same time the Emlens and other older Philadelphia families did.
“George Emlen and Joseph Ambler, the progenitors of those two families in America, were neighbors in the late 1600s,” Sam Emlen said. “Ten generations later, my parents married and thus, provided me with an intricate and ever-unfolding history that I just can’t get enough of.”