1980 Area: 23.34 Square Miles
The township of Lower Merion is bounded by the Schuylkill River, the borough of West Conshohocken, Upper Merion Township, Delaware County, and the city of Philadelphia. The original size was reduced to the present 23.34 square miles when West Conshohocken became a borough in 1874 and Narberth in 1895.
First settlers of what was known as the Welsh Tract arrived in August 1682 aboard the ship Lyon, two months before William Penn. While still in England Penn had sold forty thousand acres to the Welsh Quakers for about ten cents an acre. They named their first settlement Merion, as many had come from Merionethshire. The Merion Friends Meetinghouse they constructed in 1695 is the oldest place of worship in continuous use in Pennsylvania. The meetinghouse and other early buildings, the Owen Roberts house in Wynnewood built in 1695 and the "1690 House" on Mill Creek Road, still stand, as do the house later named Harriton and the General Wayne Inn, both built in 1704.
Following the Welsh settlers came others of English, German, Irish, and Italian origin. The first German-Lutheran church school, erected in 1787, still stands. The site of the Lower Merion Baptist Church was donated to the congregation by Charles Thomson, secretary to the Continental Congress, in 1808. Lower Merion now has forty-seven religious institutions of various faiths actively serving the community.
Soil in most of the township consists of a dark surface layer about eight inches deep with a yellowish brown subsoil ranging from two to eight feet in depth above bedrock. Soils are mainly acid with variable permeability. Most early farms contained one or more springs, many of which are now piped underground. Mill Creek is the largest stream and lies wholly within the township. In its six miles from the source in Villanova to its mouth at the Schuylkill it drops 250 feet and once powered sixteen mills and factories.
A county inventory lists seventy-eight historic and cultural sites in the township. Many others are unlisted. Interest is maintained by the active historical society, founded in 1949.
Lancaster Pike, completed in 1796 from Philadelphia to Lancaster and the first road to be macadamized, passed through Lower Merion for 4 1/2 miles. In 1917 the township had fourteen miles of roadway to be maintained. In 1980 it maintained 212.4 miles of highways.
Although Lower Merion was an independent township in 1713, it did not become a separate voting district until March 31, 1806.
In the early 1880s the township had 1,508 taxpayers, 863 horses, 1,536 cattle; real estate was valued at $4,566,499. There were several businesses, fourteen schools, and ten churches. Soon after came new hotels, boarding houses, railroad stations, industries, and the construction of magnificent estates.
In 1880 Ardmore had only mud roads with an occasional oil lamp lighting wooden sidewalks. The telegraph office had opened in 1850, and by 1885 the first telephone switchboard was installed at Stadelman's Pharmacy, Ardmore. Two hundred customers had telephones in 1904. The Lower Merion Gas Company was organized by Martin Maloney in Ardmore in February, 1886. By 1898 gas lines extended to Bryn Mawr, Narberth, and Bala-Cynwyd. Of the first street lights installed, some were gas, but others were electric, provided by the new Philadelphia Electric Company in 1901.
In 1890 the first firehouse was begun in Ardmore; in 1980 six companies in the township depended on 265 volunteers. The Bryn Mawr Home News was founded in 1877, and today the township has two weekly newspapers: the Main Line Chronicle, established in 1889, and the Main Line Daily Times (1930), which became the Main Line Times, a weekly, in 1939.
When Lower Merion became a first class township officially in 1900, the first so named in the state, its jurisdiction included 23.34 square miles, with a population of 13,271. The commissioners immediately formed a police department, paying the chief fifty dollars a month, and each of six patrolmen forty dollars. They were mounted on bicycles and horses; the last horse was sold in 1911.
In 1904 there were thirty-six miles of sanitary sewers; in 1978 over two hundred miles. In 1913 the township started free garbage collection; in 1981 it was still free, though only once a week.
Several colleges, seminaries, and convents exist within the township. Bryn Mawr College, opened in 1885, was the first college for women that offered B.A. degrees and also gave instruction for graduate degrees in all departments.
The Board of Health was established in 1908, and polio was perhaps its worst problem. After a typhoid outbreak in 1921 milk control was organized, then relaxed in 1972.
Encouraged by a ten-thousand-dollar bequest from Algernon Roberts in 1909, the township began building playgrounds in 1911, accelerating from 1937 to 1940.
World War I saw the establishment of the first Main Line Red Cross in 1917, and Lower Merion became the Number One Draft District of the county, with draftees proceeding to Camp Meade.
The township in 1923 undertook a program of highway construction and broke ground for the township building, which was occupied in 1926. The original Lower Merion Zoning Ordinance was adopted in 1927 and a Shade Tree Commission was appointed in 1931 to regulate trees along public highways. The police department was reorganized in 1938 with a rigid code of discipline modeled closely on that of Scotland Yard. In 1942 the Township Manager plan was adopted by ordinance and a township secretary was appointed. Of prime interest to the township commissioners was encouraging industry to locate in the township. The largest industry was still the Autocar Company, begun in 1900.
After World War I more estates were subdivided; people had more money, more time for leisure. The Ardmore Woman's Club, founded in 1890, built its clubhouse in 1917 but was only the vanguard of the many organizations to come: for example, Main LineChamber of Commerce, 1921; Rotary Club of Ardmore, 1925; Main Line Lions Club, 1934. Now twenty-four institutional facilities and twenty-one quasi-public facilities offer services.
Bryn Mawr Hospital has been in the township since 1893; Lankenau Hospital since 1953.
Adult school night, started by volunteers in 1937, now offers night courses in 120 different subjects at the two high schools. Community Watch, which began in 1978, had 645 volunteers who tallied almost 100,000 patrol miles in 1981.
Suburban Square in Ardmore opened just before the stock market crash, and many businesses started before 1929 are still operating. Many more apartment houses appeared as the population increased.
World War II brought an increase in employment at the Autocar Company, to 2,300 employees. They constructed half-tracks and military trucks for the army. Civil defense and air raid wardens were organized and Lancaster Pike was used by military convoys. Citizens became accustomed to giving blood, food rationing, and drawing blackout curtains.
The years following World War II marked a boom in real estate and housing construction. The Schuylkill Expressway, a high-speed, limited-access highway following the Schuylkill from the Pennsylvania Turnpike's Valley Forge exit to the center of Philadelphia, was under construction, its location in continuous controversy from 1951 to 1968. Mini-malls, shopping centers, boutiques, offices, food specialists, and restaurants have sprung up everywhere. The "Golden Mile," office and retail buildings along City Line Avenue, comprises what may be the most valuable real estate in the county. After 1945 homes were being built wherever developers could find space. The Belmont racetrack (built for the 1876 Centennial) became Merion Park, containing hundreds of single homes. By 1950 building activity measured in dollar volume passed an all-time record. Permits were issued for $13,831,551 worth of construction. In 1967 aNeighborhood Improvement Program began, and twelve years later 513.76 acres were set aside for parks, playgrounds, and other purposes, as well as 184 acres of school land. By 1980 the market value of all assessed taxable real property was $1,558,823,500, third in the state after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The median value of a single-family house constructed since 1972 averaged $95,000. The recession of 1980, high taxes, and high interest rates slowed the building boom, but the "solar" house of the future was underway.
In the 1980s the township, adding condominiums and cable TV, was still beautifully residential and well managed.