Historic New Hope, PA
By Terry A. McNealy, a Director of the New Hope Historical Society
Note: This article appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Bucks County Town & Country Living. The Greater New Hope Chamber of Commerce is very grateful to its editor, Bob Waite, for receiving his permission to reprint Terry McNealy’s article on our web-site.
Change is inevitable. Anyone who likes history is keenly aware of this. Change can be slow or fast-paced. It can be subtle or drastic. Local communities experience such changes all the time. If local industries go out of business, a small town can be devastated. But not necessarily. The borough of New Hope provides an example of how an old town whose economy was based on industry has morphed into a community that draws its strength from the arts, tourism, and a unique spirit of independence and nonconformity.
Today, New Hope has the image of a tourist town with a heritage profound in its roots in theater, art and the antiques trade. It was not always so.
A hundred years ago, New Hope was an industrial town, with mills that employed its few hundred citizens. Around that time, a few artists moved into the neighborhood, attracted by the beauty of the Delaware River valley, the old stone farmhouses, barns and mills. Few of the people who worked in the mills probably noticed. They were busy grinding grain, manufacturing paper, or quarrying stone. The products of their work found their way into the wider world by means of canal boats or the railroad.
Today, the gristmills are ruins or registered historic buildings, the paper mills have been converted into condominiums and shopping areas. The canal is a state park that is ever more difficult to maintain, and the railroad carries mostly excursionists.
New Hope got its start because of the two things that drove its economy throughout its first two centuries: transportation and water power. Indeed, during the time of William Penn, a thousand acres of land were surveyed for a man named Robert Heath in 1700, covering the site of present-day New Hope. This large tract of land was divided into two 500-acre parcels. One became known as the “Mill Tract,” and the other as the “Ferry Tract,” anticipating the economic future of this locality for the next two centuries. In the early years of the eighteenth century, Solebury Township was just beginning to be divided up into land grants that were settled by pioneer families that were mostly of English origin and members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. The same was true of those who were settling across the Delaware River in New Jersey. Robert Heath may well have chosen the location of his land grant because it included a stream that came to be known as Ingham Creek (from the name of a prominent landowner a century later), which provided a strong enough flow to power mills. Even in the earliest years of settlement, sawmills were needed to assist in the clearing of the virgin forest and make the building materials that were in great demand.
Likewise, as soon as the land was cleared, farmers began planting fields of wheat and other grain crops. This required gristmills that ground the grain into flour, both for the subsistence of the pioneer families themselves, and as the beginning of a cash crop that could be marketed in cities like Philadelphia. Overland transport was primitive, and roads were little more than trails through the forest. Wagons and carriages were a fond memory of the old country, but few existed in rural Pennsylvania. A local road leading to Heath’s mill is still called Sugan Road, so called for the “suggans” or saddle-bags used by farmers riding on horseback to carry their grain to the mill for grinding.
Robert Heath died in 1710. His son Richard’s heirs sold the Mill Tract in 1712 to Jacob Holcombe. The potential of the creek as a power source continued to attract attention, and in 1717, Holcombe sold to tract to Thomas Canby and two wealthy Philadelphia investors, Morris Morris and Richard Waln. Canby held the majority share and ran the mills. A shrewd businessman and an ambitious developer, he used his political skills to get road laid out and other improvements to get better access to his mills.
Philadelphia rapidly grew to be the largest city in the British colonies in North America, and New York was also growing apace. It was natural that overland communication between these two urban centers became increasingly important. The old King’s Highway led from Philadelphia through Bristol to the ferry that crossed the Delaware at Trenton and on to the ferries that provided the last leg of the journey to Manhattan Island. A new, alternative, route might prove to be advantageous. In 1710 a new route was proposed, but the new highway proved to be a matter of much strife. Today we still have two old highways, the Upper York Road and the Lower York Road, also called the Old York Road. These names today seem quaint, but they represent an early example of two neighboring governments not to communicate very well, something that is not at all unfamiliar today. Pennsylvania’s authorities laid out the road so that it came to the river at Centre Bridge. New Jersey surveyed the road to a landing at the place we know today as Lambertville. The embarrassed Pennsylvanians, perhaps prodded by Thomas Canby, revised their plans to match up with those of their counterparts across the river. The upper road, neglected for many years, survived, although it never became as significant as the crossing a few miles downstream.
The establishment of the new highway brought with it the need for a ferry to cross the Delaware and for an inn to shelter those waiting to make the passage. John Wells bought the Ferry Tract in 1717, and two years later got a license to operate a tavern there. Within another two years an act of the Pennsylvania assembly gave him the exclusive right to operate the ferry. Wells had to carry out a protracted political struggle with his rival Thomas Canby in legislative debates and court cases to gain his victory. The tiny village at the crossing place was known for years as Wells’ Ferry. When Thomas Canby died in 1742, his son Benjamin took possession of the mills. As another enterprising businessman, he bought the ferry from Wells in 1745, and tried out another line of making a profit by setting up a forge for manufacturing iron on the mill tract, which continued operating for several years after his death in 1748.
A new era began in 1764, when John Coryell bought the ferry from Benjamin Canby’s heirs. The Coryells had operated the New Jersey side of the ferry for years, and now they controlled both sides of the enterprise. They continued to do so throughout the period of the American Revolution. John Coryell was a colorful character, devoted to horse racing and other activities. In and out of debt, he often depended on his friends to keep him out of the clutches of the sheriff. On a couple of occasions his tavern license was revoked, but every time he was able to convince the county court to reinstate it.
Coryell was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution, as most tavern-keepers were. Troops protected his ferry even before the fortunes of war brought the conflict to his doorstep in December 1776. Washington’s forces had been defeated in several encounters around New York, and the Americans were obliged to retreat through New Jersey and seek refuge in Pennsylvania, wisely collecting all the boats along the river on the west bank. When General Charles Cornwallis and his troops came up to the New Jersey side of the ferry and found it impossible to cross, Coryell no doubt felt some pride in making sure that the British could not make the crossing that he had made so many times. Tradition says that the British soldiers fired across the river in frustration.
Coryell had other things to occupy his mind. The Americans around his tavern were German-speaking troops from Pennsylvania and Maryland commanded by Colonel Nicholas Hausseger. Soon a new commanding officer arrived from France, Mathieu Alexis Roche de Fermoy, whose lack of command of the English language was a frustration to General Washington. New Hope, it seems, encountered its first encounter with multilingual difficulty.
The events that followed were some of the most dramatic in the entire history of the Revolution. At a time when most military commanders would have settled into winter quarters, Washington braved the winter weather to cross the Delaware at McConkey’s Ferry, several miles south of Coryell’s, and stormed the outpost at Trenton, which was occupied by Hessian mercenaries in the employ of the British. This success, along with that at Princeton a few days later, insured the continuation of the American revolutionary cause, and saved Washington’s reputation.
The victory at Trenton saved Coryell’s Ferry from any further direct threat of British assault, but the crossing remained important throughout the war. Messengers, war supplies, and military detachment crossed the river here on many occasions. For a time in 1777 Benedict Arnold commanded the post here, not long before he decided to turn traitor to the American cause.
The American army crossed the river at Coryell’s Ferry later in 1777, anticipating the British attack on Philadelphia, and again in 1778, after enduring the winter at Valley Forge.
An enterprising young businessman named Benjamin Parry came to town around 1781. He owned mills on both sides of the river. One of them was called Prime Hope Mills, near Lambertville. That mill burned down in 1790, and Parry built a new mill at the mouth of Ingham Creek shortly afterward, calling it New Hope Mills. The name had power, and attached itself to the town that was beginning to grow up around the ferry and the mills. His home was the Parry Mansion, which remained in the family until 1966. It is now preserved as a museum by the New Hope Historical Society, and is open to the public for tours.
Parry promoted the town like no one before him. He helped organize the New Hope Delaware Bridge Company, which built the bridge to Lambertville in 1812. It was the second bridge built across the Delaware, preceded only by the one that united Morrisville and Trenton. Parry was also a prominent figure in bringing another engineering achievement to New Hope, the Delaware Canal. Actually, the Delaware Division was only one part of an ambitious system of canals and related transportation links intended to connect the state’s natural resources, such as coal and iron, to manufacturers and markets. Construction of the Delaware Division took place between 1827 and 1832. The decades that followed were boom years for New Hope, as boatyards, stores and hotels thrived, new mills were built, and canal barges streamed through town, laden with coal, lumber, building materials and other cargo. An outlet lock was built to allow canal boats to cross the river to Lambertville, where they could continue their journey on the Delaware and Raritan Canal across New Jersey toward New York.
Inevitably, the canals succumbed to their great rival, the railroads. Traffic on the canal dwindled, and it became a picturesque but outmoded curiosity. A railroad line to New Hope opened in 1893, but it was not a major route, though it did provide local farmers will easier access to Philadelphia markets.
Around this time, a group of artists began to settle along the river, such as William L. Lathrop, Daniel Garber and Edward W. Redfield. Although their homes and studios were scattered along the river valley in places like Lumberville, Centre Bridge, and Phillips Mill, their group became known as the New Hope School, and the town acquired a reputation as an artists’ colony.
Another new era began in 1939, when a group of people interested in the arts purchased the old Parry gristmill and transformed it into the Bucks County Playhouse, which thrived in the heyday of summer-stock theaters, bringing many prominent actors and actresses to its stage. Many plays were tried out here before moving on the Broadway. The town settled into its new role, not as a mill town but as a destination for tourists, antique collectors, theater audiences, and art aficionados. One of the newest additions in as branch of the James A. Michener Art Museum, bringing new attention to the century-old heritage of the painters and other artists who put New Hope on the map in a way that few other small towns can hope for.