by Connor Grady
When I began my summer internship at the Chestnut Hill Historical Society in early June, I entered work under the impression that I knew Chestnut Hill’s history. Although I simply hoped to gain work experience, what I truly acquired was a deeper understanding of Chestnut Hill’s rich history and its development from a rural village to a suburban community.
One of the people I learned extensively about was Henry Howard Houston, who I had known of vaguely but had never recognized for producing much of Chestnut Hill’s growth. Houston’s work to develop the residential areas of Chestnut Hill consisted of purchasing large amounts of land and encouraging the directors of the Pennsylvania Railroad to extend into Chestnut Hill its existing line from Philadelphia to Germantown.
Although Houston played a pivotal role in Chestnut Hill’s mid-late 19th century growth, a lot of its development also stemmed from its location outside of downtown Philadelphia. While the yellow fever ravaged the city in the 1790s, Chestnut Hill quickly became popular as it allowed residents to escape the deadly conditions in the downtown area. Chestnut Hill was also popular among European immigrants from Germany and Holland, and eventually most of Chestnut Hill’s stonemasons were Italian immigrants.
Among Chestnut Hill’s early history, I am most astounded by how deep Chestnut Hill’s roots are; the community was first mentioned in the 17th century in papers relating to William Penn and the Frankfort Land Company. The Frankfort Land Company, represented by Daniel Pastorius, originally purchased 15,000 acres of land that became Chestnut Hill. In addition, Chestnut Hill’s modern roads began as Native American trails, though they improved over time as wagons became more prevalent.
With Chestnut Hill’s long, well-documented history available at the historical society archives, I strongly encourage everyone to do research on their house, street, or any other area they are interested in. There are a lot of great articles and photographs that can give you a look into a structure’s past and how that has impacted it today, and I recommend checking it out. Also, through the historical society, you can become involved in protecting Chestnut Hill’s buildings for the future.
Connor Grady is a rising senior at William Penn Charter School.