The Old Long Cabin Inn kept bears on the premises to attract visitors.

The Old Long Cabin Inn kept bears on the premises to attract visitors.

by Kevin Dicciani

In the mid-18th and early 19th centuries the Wissahickon Valley was home to a myriad of inns, where travelers and patrons alike could visit for a night’s rest or a strong drink and a hearty meal.

Back then, before it became known as Lincoln Drive, Wissahickon Drive was a busy route taken by those on horseback or those being pulled behind them in sleighs and carriages. Some travelers passing through were in need of sleep or nourishment, while others, including tourists on summer vacation, were simply visiting the scenic area for a famous Wissahickon dinner of catfish and waffles.

The creek was itself a draw for many visitors. In the summers, both the young and old could be found picnicking by the waterside, taking a swim, or floating atop it during a boating party. When the winters came and the creek froze over, skaters from near and far would glide around the ice before retreating to one of the inns for a warm beverage and a hot bite to eat.

A great deal of inns thus opened to satisfy the desires of a diverse clientèle, whose tastes varied as much as the social classes they belonged to. The inns began competing for their customers, with each one catering to a specific need and carving out its own niche.

For example,Wissahickon Hall, which is still standing but no longer in business on Lincoln Drive at Gypsy Lane, was said to have an aristocratic customer base, with a more expensive menu and elegant atmosphere than most of its competition, whereas the Maple Springs Inn was tailored more to the middle-class, where stuffed animals and lurid wood carvings welcomed customers when they stepped through its doors. Perhaps the strangest inn, though, was the Old Log Cabin Inn.

In 1840, during the presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, a log cabin was built for him across from Wissahickon Hall. Afterwards the log cabin was deconstructed and rebuilt as the Old Log Cabin Inn. It was located off the road and separated by the creek, and to reach it patrons had to cross a small wooden bridge, known then as the Log Cabin Bridge.

Proprietor Thomas Llewellyn sold ginger cakes for a penny and spruce beer and mead in large stone bottles for five cents, although this wasn’t necessarily what made the inn so famous. Like the ferry system he devised to attract customers, Llewellyn had other gimmicks to further lure patrons to pay his inn a visit, tricks that surely wouldn’t be as tolerated today as they were in the old times.

Inside the inn, Llewellyn constructed a mini-zoo. Live, wild animals were kept on display, such as owls, foxes and monkeys, among other small animals. They were there to provide amusement for customers, who could observe and feed them. However, as close as you could get to those animals, there were two others kept outside that onlookers surely would have given a wide berth.

Chained to an old passenger coach, near the inn door, were two large black bears. Llewellyn gave the bears mineral water and sarsaparilla to uncork and drink to entertain customers and advertise the inn the passersby. John R. Johnson, who made and bottled the beverages, was ordered by Llewellyn to fill the bottles for the bears with more carbonic acid gas than the ones he was selling to people in his inn.

Seeing this spectacle and the success it had in bringing customers in through the door, Joseph “Whittler” Smith, the owner of the Maple Springs Inn, which stood diagonally across the creek from Old Log Cabin Inn, decided that he too was going to try his hand at zoo-keeping. He brought in two bears to amuse passing travelers, with the bears trained to bite and yank out the string holding the cork in a bottle of mineral water. Once this was accomplished, the bears would chug the fizzy contents, much like their relatives across the way.

But the spectacle wouldn’t last. Both the Old Log Cabin Inn and the Maple Springs Inn closed in the 1870s. Once a law banning alcoholic beverages within Fairmount Park went into effect, the Maple Springs Inn was raided for operating as a speakeasy, and it wasn’t long after that it closed and was demolished.

As for the Old Log Cabin Inn, some 30 odd years after its inception it was also forced to close its doors. The building was eventually razed in 1872, and now there is little to indicate that it actually existed – no ground markings, no artifacts, barely any photographs, articles or first-hand accounts from former patrons to be seen, read or touched. For those that don’t know about its story, it is inconsequential, but for those that do, they will likely remember it for being yet another story where local history and the bizarre came together to form a surreal moment in a distant place in time.