Skip to main content

Ten interesting aspects of West Chester history

Apr 07, 2014 05:04PM, Published by Kerigan Butt, Categories: Local History





(Editor's note: This article first appeared in our Spring 2014 issue)

By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

West Chester has a rich and diverse history. It was established on land that was originally part of three contiguous land grants from William Penn. Initially, there were no major roads through these tracts of land, but in 1735 a Philadelphia road running east-west changed that, followed in 1745 by a Wilmington road that ran north-south. Once that second road was in place, the area was situated at an important crossroads and was destined to grow. West Chester & Chadds Ford Life decided to select ten interesting aspects of West Chester history. We then reached out to Dr. Jim Jones, a history professor at West Chester University, for some insights about these people and events that shaped West Chester’s history.

1. Turk’s Head Tavern:

Once the area was situated at a major crossroads, it was inevitable that a tavern would be built to serve the needs of travelers. The Turk’s Head Tavern was originally constructed by Phineas Eachus on a plot of land that was south and east of the intersection of the two main roads.

Jones said that travelers heading to and from Philadelphia or Wilmington would have been looking for a place for food and shelter for the night, as well as for a stable for their horses.

The Turk’s Head Tavern “was just the right distance from Wilmington and about a day away from Philadelphia,” Jones said.

The historian noted that John Hoopes erected a new Turk’s Head Tavern, this one made of brick, on the northeast corner of present-day High and Market streets in 1769. The area was still largely a farming community at the time, and when local farmers were asked where they lived they would reply, “near the Turk’s Head Tavern.” The town that grew up around the tavern was eventually named Turk’s Head.


2. Turk’s Head becomes the county seat:

In 1784, the decision was made to move the county seat from the city of Chester to Turk’s Head—this would turn out to be a major development in the evolution of the borough.

West Chester was more centrally located than Chester,” Jones explained, making it more convenient for people who needed to transact business with the courts, file paperwork with the recorder of deeds, or utilize other county services.

New county facilities were built over the next few years, including the new courthouse that was completed in the fall of 1786. The local economy became very dependent on the business that was associated with the operations of county government. During a time when people still travelled by horse, West Chester became a popular stopping point for weary travelers. Jones noted that at one time there were seven hotels in town. Today, West Chester’s status as the county seat is no less important, and the borough remains a hub of commercial activity.


3. The Battle of the Brandywine:

In the aftermath of the September 11, 1777 clash between the American Army led by Gen. George Washington and the British Army led by Gen. William Howe, the biggest concern among residents in the West Chester area was that the British troops would take crops and other supplies as they marched toward Philadelphia. Jones noted that in early September, that year’s crops were being harvested, and the loss of those crops would have been devastating to local residents. Fortunately, they were spared that fate.

Many years after the Revolutionary War, on July 26, 1825, General Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who served as a general in the American Revolution, visited the borough for a ceremony that drew what was then a record crowd for West Chester.

4. A new name and incorporation as a borough:

Being named after a tavern was not ideal for a town that was going to serve as the county seat—so the name was officially changed to West Chester in 1789.

A decade later, as the community continued to grow, West Chester was officially established as a borough. The State Legislature approved the designation on March 28, 1799. The boundaries of the 1.8-square-mile borough remain the same today.


5. William Everhart opens a store on Gay Street:

There have been many instrumental business people in the history of West Chester, and Everhart was one of the first. In 1824, he opened up a store on Gay Street. Jones explained that Everhart purchased one of the five original farms that comprised what is today West Chester and the surrounding areas. Everhart divided up the 110-acre Wollerton farm and spent a decade selling off lots. He laid out several streets, including Miner, Barnard, and Union, and extended Church and Darlington streets.

The whole southwest part of town was developed by him” Jones explained.


6. West Chester and the Underground Railroad:

If you were a slave hoping to escape to the north for the freedom that it offered, West Chester was not along the path that you wanted to follow. West Chester’s status as the county seat meant that there were plenty of constables in and out of town, making it harder to avoid detection.

While there were plenty of West Chester residents who would have been willing to help the escaped slaves, the borough did not become a main stop on the Underground Railroad.

Kennett Square was the real hot-bed of the Underground Railroad,” Jones explained.


7. Rachel Harris’ escape:

While runaway slaves might have sought out other routes to reach Philadelphia and points further north, there is at least one interesting story about an escaped slave being tracked by the authorities through town. A runaway slave named Rachel Harris temporarily settled in West Chester, living peacefully in a house on West Miner Street. At the time, if a slave owner could prove ownership of a slave, the runaway slave legally had to be turned back over. There was a reward for Harris’ return, and this apparently motivated a townsperson to reveal Harris as an escaped slave. Constables took her in front of a judge, but she managed to escape over a fence and dramatically avoid capture for the rest of the night and the next day. With the help of a kind West Chester resident, a disguised Harris was transported out of town and transported to Canada. She reached the destination safely and thus avoided capture.


8. Athens of Pennsylvania:

During the first half of the nineteenth century, West Chester earned a reputation as the “Athens of Pennsylvania.” Greek Revival architecture became a trademark of the borough, and West Chester became the home of numerous schools and several learned societies, including the West Chester Library Company, The Chester County Athenaeum, the Chester County Medical Society, and the Chester County Horticultural Society.


9. West Chester University and the schools that preceded it:

West Chester University can trace its roots to a school that existed from 1812 to 1869. As early as 1857, West Chester was selected by the Commonwealth as the site of a Normal School. Jones explained that Pennsylvania officials divided the state into 12 districts and the State Legislature authorized the Normal Act which would establish institutions of higher learning to educate teachers. The Civil War derailed the plans so it wasn’t until 1869 that a group of prominent citizens started making plans to open the school. In order to qualify as a Normal School, Jones said, the institution would have to meet certain criteria, including having at least six professors plus tutors and assistants. The West Chester Normal School opened in 1871 with approximately 160 students. The school became the West Chester State Teachers College in 1927 and then West Chester State College in 1960, with liberal arts programs being added. West Chester became one of the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in 1983. Through the years, the school has always been a vital part of the community, and an engine for economic development.


10. Commercial growth:

When West Chester celebrated its centennial in 1899, the town’s population had grown to 9,500—which was ten percent of the county’s population at the time. The 20th century was a time of more residential and commercial growth for the area. West Chester’s industrial base expanded with companies like Wind Turbine, Wyeth Laboratories, and Denny Tag Company.

Jones said that penicillin manufacturing became a big business in the area. Why was West Chester a natural place for large-scale penicillin manufacturing? Because of the borough’s proximity to all the mushroom houses in the area--the antibiotic is derived from the fungi.

Another major business to call West Chester home, Jones said, was Schramm, Inc., which is a manufacturer of drilling equipment. The historian said that West Chester has always benefited economically from its proximity to Wilmington and Philadelphia, and that remains true today as there is as much promise in West Chester’s future as there is richness in its past.

(Editor’s note: Dr. Jim Jones served on the West Chester Bicentennial Commission in 1999 and has written two books about West Chester history: “Made in West Chester: The History of Industry in West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1867 to 1945” and “Railroads of West Chester.”

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com


Like what you're reading? Subscribe to West Chester & Chadds Ford's free newsletter to catch every headline