It's 1810. James Madison is President of a country that has 17 states. The population of Pennsylvania is 810,091. Of that number, 14,734 live in Delaware County. The entire population of Newtown Township is 576. Marple Township has a few more: 595. The population is largely Quaker farmers.
They are self sufficient - they grow their own food, build their own homes and barns and stables, make their own clothing. There are no factories - the Industrial Revolution is still around the corner - awaiting the perfection of the steam engine. There are some specialty trades that require more specialized skills, training, equipment and capital - blacksmiths, wheelwrights, shoemakers, tanneries for leather, and mills.
The mills are located along the streams - the source of their power - the "fuel" that turned a water wheel that then turned a large grinding stone - is the water that flows down the stream. The same gallon of water that powers Mr. Moore's sawmill then continues downstream and powers another dozen mills along the way.
Darby Creek, running through Newtown, Radnor, and serving as the border of Haverford and Maple townships, hosted a series of mills that provided the industry that could not be done on a small farm - saw mills to cut timber for construction materials, and grist mills to grind wheat, rye, oats, barley, or corn into flour.
As a farmer, after you planted and tended to the grain, you had to cut it, bundle it to get back to the barn, haul it back there, thresh it to separate the grain from the chaff, put the grain into an available container - perhaps a series of baskets, or a barrel, bale the chaff and put it up in the hayloft of the barn to use later as bedding - for livestock and the family - and then haul the grain to the miller to have it ground into flour.
And as you were hauling it to the miller in your horse drawn cart or wagon, you would most likely have to cross a creek or two to get there. After spending the entire spring, summer and fall tending to this precious cargo, you did not want to lose it by tipping over and overturning in high water at Darby Creek.
While streams can be forded easily when shallow, after a storm they can run high for days or weeks. You don't want the trip to the mill to be a gamble, but a certainty. Money in the bank. In an era of agricultural self sufficiency and barter, your grain and your flour were your money in the bank.
Newtown farmer Thomas Walsh knew about fords and crossing high water. In 1800 he lived with his wife and four children on a farm south and west of the place where St. David's road crosses Darby Creek - across St. David's road from where the Paper Mill House sits today. Any time he had to travel north - whether to St. Davids church, or Radnor Friends Meeting, or to reach the Darby Paoli Road that led to the Haverford road and on to Philadelphia, he had to start his journey by crossing the Darby Creek on St. David's road.
If he wanted to haul his grain to the nearest grist mill, he would have to cross the creek to find his way to Tryon Lewis’s grist mill near the intersection of Saw Mill road and Darby Paoli road. In bad weather, it was not an easy crossing. Walsh had petitioned the county to open up a new road – following what is currently Paper Mill Road and crossing the creek to Darby Paoli road.
His request was denied – though later the county would open that road. It was a frustration to Walsh, and he vowed to himself, if he ever had enough money, he was going to build a bridge crossing the creek near his property, to make his journey, and the journey of everyone else in Newtown and Radnor townships, less of an adventure.
Walsh was over 45 at the time - born about 1755 - which would have made him 21 when America declared independence from England on July 4, 1776. He may have fought in the war, or like many local Quakers, he may have been a pacifist, opposed to the war and separation from Britain.
There is room for the next researcher to dig this out of the local records. We do know that Thomas died in 1810, as his will is in the public records. And true to his vow, he bequeathed £150 ($400) to the Delaware County Commissioners to build a substantial stone bridge to carry St. David's road over Darby creek, upon the condition that the County contribute an equal amount, and build the bridge within six years.
The Commissioners were no fools - they promptly took Walsh up on his generous bequest, and a bridge across the creek was built in 1811. The bridge was not a flimsy wooden bridge that would wash away in the first big flood, but a large arched bridge made of stone - a bridge made to withstand high waters, 100 year floods, impervious to the logs and debris brought downstream in big storms, and the vicissitudes of Pennsylvania winters. Upon completion of the bridge, a carved stone marker was placed at the center of the bridge, noting Walsh's gift, the year he made it, and the year constructed.
The bridge over the Darby creek was a major convenience to the local farmers of Newtown and Radnor - it gave them easier access to more roads and more markets for their goods. When road improvements are made today - the Blue Route, the Pottstown Expressway, new interchanges at the Turnpike - it spurs growth at those locations.
The same thing occurred in the early 1800's. A good stone bridge meant the assured safe passage of people and goods at this location. And so Mr. Crossley built his woolen mill at this location in 1828; and Mr. Moore would build his paper mill nearby as well. By 1860, the largest concentration of population in Newtown, over 100 residents in a township of 841, were here at the Darby creek, living and working in the various mills along the creek.
The mills, not built of stone like Walsh's bridge, were susceptible to flood and fire, in addition to the economics of the underlying business. By the end of the 19th century, none of the mills were operating at that location. The once bustling industrial center was reclaimed by the woods; the ruins of the mills and factories remained.
The shanty homes that lined the banks of the creek disappeared as well. The old stone building at the road that once housed a thriving general store for the mill community and housing for several families, was used as a home through the early part of the 20th century, and then fell vacant, abandoned and neglected.
In 1976, the United States celebrated its 200th birthday - the Bicentennial - a nationwide celebration with a large focus on Philadelphia and Valley Forge. Thousands of us gathered at Valley Forge gathered to watch the presidential helicopter descend from the clouds, and President Gerald Ford spoke there about the history of the country. A lot of imaginations were fired in Newtown township - historically minded people who knew that Newtown - one of the earliest inland towns planned by William Penn - would have its 300th birthday in 1981. And so they planned a tricentennial celebration, held a four hour parade that year, and the momentum of enthusiasm reached down to Darby Creek, where a generous neighbor gave the Paper Mill House and grounds to the Township, and several volunteers labored for years to secure it, restore it, and then fill it with local history. The result is our Paper Mill House and Museum, overlooking Darby Creek along St. David's Road.
To get to the Paper Mill House, you need to cross Darby creek. And you still do so on the bridge that was built through the public minded generosity of Thomas Walsh. The bridge had been maintained periodically over the years - the deck widened, the approaches lengthened, the fill between the stones replaced from time to time, and ultimately covered with an ugly gunnite filling that hid the beauty of the stone construction.
But the bridge was not built with 21st century traffic in mind, the Darby creek has been patiently working to undermine the foundation for 200 years, and PennDot had declared the bridge structurally deficient. In years past, that would mean that the old bridge would be demolished - cast aside - and a new bridge built with modern steel and concrete, on designs that favored low cost rather than aesthetic appearance.
But wiser heads prevailed. The old bridge was not demolished. Instead, PennDot has just completed a wonderful renovation of the bridge, rebuilding the deteriorated bridge walls; reinforcing the decking; reinforcing the foundation underneath the support abutments; performing masonry repairs and installing new guide rail. The work was done by the firm of J.D. Eckman, Inc. of Atglen, Chester County as the general contractor. The bridge that was built for about $800 in 1811 was repaired at an estimated cost of $454,000 in 2012.
The bridge was closed to traffic from July 16th till December, when it was re-opened without any general acclaim. Which is a shame. We should remember Mr. Walsh. We should thank PennDot for keeping the bridge rather than discarding it. We should appreciate the beauty of the stone work done by J.D. Eckman and its workers. If we neglected to do so then, we can do so here - we can carve our appreciation into the stone of the digital age. Thank you, Thomas Walsh, PennDot planners and engineers, and the craftsmen of J.D. Eckman who worked to renovate this old bridge.
If you are in your car in 2013, listening to your radio, you may cruise across the bridge without even knowing you are passing over a body of water. As Thomas Walsh can attest, that was not always the case. Crossing it before the bridge was built, you took your life into your hands at times.
The bridge has its own dangers today - if you walk across it, you take your life in your hands, as the traffic coming down the hill from Newtown, and up the hill from Radnor, comes at you fast, and does not expect you to be there in the middle of the bridge. But why on earth would you be walking across that bridge today anyway? Perhaps to see the original carved stone marker, the one paid for with funds given by Thomas Walsh in 1810, carefully re-installed in the middle of the bridge by PennDot, that says: