Header:Philadelphia History

Bethlehem Pike

From The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Bethlehem Pike is probably the oldest road in the country, for it antedates the discovery of America. When William Penn came to Pennsylvania the primeval wilderness lay before him, unmarked save by the foot of the savage. But the savage had already laid out certain trails, not from Philadelphia then unborn, but from the tidewater to the North and West. The North route was known as the "Minsi Trail,' trodden out of the forest along the waterways of the Wissahickon, the Saucon and the Leigh.

It was along this trail, now become a well defined path, that David Nitschman and his party cam on foot to Bethlehem and Nazareth, in December of 1740, the servants leading pack-horses with all the worldly goods of the little group strapped upon their backs.

In December, 1741, a second party joined the first, traveling over the same road. The second party included Count Zinzendorf and his suite, who visited the pioneers in the log cabin on the banks of the Monocacy, and on Christmas Eve conducted the famous love-feast service which christened the new settlement "Bethlehem."

With the rise in the number of settlements along this route come a constantly increasing use of the road. From an indefinite Indian trail it became a Colonial Highway leading from the capital to the frontier, and was known as the "King's Road."

Over this road the first trip b "stage wagon" was made by George Klein on September 10, 1763. After that he ran regularly between Bethlehem and Philadelphia making the round trip weekly.

He started on Monday mornings from the Sun Inn, Bethlehem, and on his return he set out from the "King of Prussia Inn," Race Street, Philadelphia, on Thursday. The "King of Prussia" was at Second and Race Streets, not far from Benjamin Franklin's printing shop, and the Bethlehem stage rattled away at a very early hour, turning up Front Street, then a beautiful river road. Crossing Poole's bridge over Pegg's Run, it went on by Isaac Norris' country house and garden.

Crossing the Northern Liberties, as the settled country north of the city was then called, the little hamlet of Rising Sun was reached, where the Old York Road branched off. Legend says that at this cross-roads, Tammany, the great Native American Chief, presented all lands within vision to the young Germans, of whom his tribe had become very fond. The gift was from the tribe "until the Great Spirit shall call them to the 'Eternal Wilderness.'" As the three stood there concluding this arrangement the sun rose superbly and the young men named the spot "Aufgehende Sonne" or Rising Sun. The inn of that name was opened in 1746.

From this inn the stage went to Stenton, the home of James Logan, secretary of William Penn. Beyond Stenton lay Germantown, boasting one long street, then Main Street, now Germantown Avenue. Up through Market Street and past Pastorius' Green Tree Tavern, the road stretched away to the north. Green Tree Tavern was built in 1748 by Daniel Pastorius, and old-time driving and sleighing parties gathered there for the meal which made the hostelry famous.

At the foot of the long hill near the beginning of the present pike, is the wheel Pump Inn , where British officers frequently gathered in the days when their army faced the Colonials at Whitemarsh. Further on is Church Lane, leading up to Old St. Thomas' Church. The hill on which this church stands was one of the hills in the Whitemarsh Valley where Washington held Howe at bay, and became famous in history as Church Hill.

This entire section is filled with memories and souvenirs of the patriot army, which encamped here until December 11, 1777, when Washington moved on to Valley Forge. The story of Lydia Darragh is a typical anecdote brought down from the early dwellers in Whitemarsh. Lydia lived in Philadelphia, and on the evening of December 2, 1777, a group of British officers used her house for a consultation. She his in a closet and overheard the details of their plan for a surprise attack on Washington's army. Lydia obtained a pass out of the city to visit a flour mill at Frankford. She went to the mill, but hurried thence on to Rising Sun Tavern, where General Boudinot was dining. Fearful of spies, she did not try to speak with the general, but secretly passed him her old needlebook, in which she placed a piece of paper containing he information. Boudinot realized its importance and hurried with it to Washington. When Howe advanced according to plan, he found effectual preparations against him and was compelled to fall on Chestnut Hill.

Fort Washington lies just around the hill from Camp Hill, and the earthworks of 1777 can still be distinguished along Fort Hill. The road runs on to Ambler. Beyond, near Springhouse, is the Foulke mansion at Penlynn, where Sally Wister wrote her vivacious journal.

A few miles beyond is Montgomery Square, originally called "Baptist Meeting." Montgomeryville, beyond Montgomery Square, possesses the Walker Inn, a house more than a century old.

The list of old stage stations gives "Benjamin Davis" as the next stop. The weather-beaten old tavern here has helped to make history. During the Fries Rebellion in 1709, when Bucks to Northampton and adjacent counties were completely disorganized by the excitement stirred up by John Fries in opposition to the house tax law, this tavern was the headquarters for the militia.

From here the pike crosses the upper corner of Hilltown and enters Rockhill township, where the combined armies of Pennsylvania and New Jersey militia in 1799 listened to Judge Richard Peters, a member of the Colonial Assembly, who accompanied them to rule on legal questions which might arise. At Sellers' Tavern, now Sellersville, they camped. This was a place of considerable importance, and Samuel Sellers, who established the tavern, was the leading of the rebellion.

As the stage driver of old drew near the end of his journey, he whipped up his horses and rounded the end of South Mountain, crossing the stone bridge over the Saucon at Iron Hill. The Bethlehem Ferry now lay before him, a difficult matter in unfavorable weather. But the Moravian brethren who operated the ferry were brawny of arm and strong of back and generally contrived to get coach and horses and passengers safely to the other side. The run was finally completed with a flourish at the Sun Inn, on Bethlehem's main street.

During the Revolution the pike and the ferry saw busy times, for Bethlehem was crowded with the delegates to Congress, with officers and civilians, with soldiers and prisoners of war, and the heavy baggage and wounded of the army. The Marquis de Lafayette arrived this way by carriage from Bristol in September, 1777, and drove directly to the inn, where he lodged in the infirmary, to care for his wound, later moving to the residence of George Frederick Beckel, the farmer-general. Here Sister Beckel and her daughter were his nurses for six weeks.

On September 13, 1777, there was great excitement in Bethlehem because of the retreat of the patriot army from Philadelphia. Then a letter came by express courier from David Rittenhouse announcing that all the military stores of the army, in more than 700 wagons, were being sent north over the Bethlehem Pike. Even the church bells were sent away for safekeeping, and also the bell that has since become a sacred relic, the State House bell, known now as the Liberty Bell.

The farm wagon bearing the Liberty Bell broke down in Bethlehem. The entry in a diary under date of September 25, 1777, says: "The bells from Philadelphia brought in wagons. The wagon with the State House broke down here, so it had to be unloaded. The other bells went off."

The breakdown occurred on Seminary Hill, two blocks below the Sun Inn. The exact spot was somewhere between the entrance to the Moravian Seminary campus and Luckenback's flour mill. Eventually the wagon was repaired and the bell went on to Allentown, where it was hidden in the cellar of Zion reformed Church, on Hamilton Street, until all danger was over. The broken wagon was repaired by the Moravian wagon master, Frederick Beitel, whose descendants are still living in Bethlehem today.