Roadhouses of the Wissahickon

Take a hike through history!

 The Road House Era lasted about 75 years.  Before 1826 there was no road into the Wissahickon gorge from Ridge Avenue near the mouth of the creek.  Access to lower valley was from Hermit’s Lane, Gypsy Lane, Rittenhouse Street, or Shurs Lane & other roads down to mills.   Before 1822 the only foot path into valley from Ridge Ave had to go over rocky ledge.  But in the 1820’s and 30’s things began to change. The Fairmount Dam at the art museum was constructed in 1821, covering the falls of the Schuylkill and making the lower Schuylkill navigable.

A steamship line soon operated from Fairmount to Manayunk .  This was the beginning of demand for access into gorge and the beginning of many phases in the construction of narrow dirt roads along the Wissahickon.  We now call these roads Lincoln Drive and Forbidden Drive.

In the 1830’s several writers publicized the beauty of the Wissahickon Gorge and it became a popular destination.  Inns called roadhouses were constructed.  Between 1840 and 1916 seven inns flourished,  not all at the same time.  They specialized in catering to different clientele.  Most of the inns served alcoholic beverages.  When the Fairmount Park Commission established the Wissahickon Park, alcohol was prohibited within the park boundaries.  The roadhouses along the lower Wissahickon soon closed.   Two new roadhouses opened on the edges of the park, but when the park boundaries were expanded in 1916, they also closed.   Today only Valley Green Inn remains open for business.

Just in case you are tempted to yearn for a more idyllic time, look at this description from an 1884 pollution survey.   It reported that the most offensive polluters were not the mill ruins but were the 4 hotels operating along the creek. They “drain all wash & waste water directly into the creek and 2 have privy drainage…Much kitchen waste is scattered by picnic parties” (Moek, Moek & Baldwin,  “The Wissahickon, A place to heal both mind & body” Chestnut Hill Local, December 13, 1990,  p 75)

The First & Second Indian Rock Hotels

This Indian Rock Hotel was built at the intersection of Rex Avenue and Forbidden Drive by Reuben Sands after the civil war. Because Reuben Sands was a widely popular inn keeper, it drew trade away from Valley Green Inn where the innkeeper was not well liked.  It closed in 1887 when the Fairmount Lark Commission took over the land and serving liquor within park boundaries became prohibited.

Patrons of the first Indian Rock Hotel enjoyed climbing to a high ledge above the creek, “Council Rock”, the legendary meeting place for Lenape councils.  In 1856 Joseph Middleton of the Wissahickon Turnpike Company put up a gaudy wooden statue to mark the ledge.  The current permanent limestone statue was built in 1902 by Mr. & Mrs. Charles Henry.  Designed by J.Massey Rhind, it was restored 100 years later by the FOW in 2002

The Second Indian Rock Hotel was opened by Catherine Sands, the widow of Reuben Sands. It was constructed at Monastery Avenue & the Wissahickon turnpike after 1887, right on the edge of the park where the liquor prohibition didn’t apply. It operated until 1916 when it was also taken by the park as the park boundaries were expanded.

Lotus Inn

The Lotus Inn was constructed in the 1880’s using materials from the demolished Megargee Mills.   Parties came from the city to stay or to dine on catfish & waffles.  Located at the foot of Shur’s Lane it was on the major bypass route around Philadelphia.  The Crawford stage coach line ran past it.  It was described as having a honeysuckle covered balcony overlooking the stream.  Horsemen stopped there for refreshments.  In winter sleigh parties arrived for Catfish & waffles.   It operated until 1916 when the Wissahickon Park was expanded.  Until then it lay just outside 1869 park boundaries and could continue to serve Liquor.

The Log Cabin Inn

This was the first of the Wissahickon roadhouses.  It was built on land belonging to Nicholaus Rittenhouse III around 1840 as a place for his political club, the Whig party to meet during 1840 campaign of William Harrison.  Of all the roadhouses, it had the most unsavory reputation.  During the 1840 campaign a Manayunk gang attacked the Harrison supporters in a partisan row and drove them away, but the Harrison supporters returned to drive off the Manayunk gang.   Rival volunteer firemen’s groups met there.  Trained bears kept on the site pulled corks from bottles spraying the contents over anyone close by.  In 1841 a second inn, the Hermitage, built on other side of creek with a near by picnic pavilion.   A rope ferry near Hermit’s Lane Bridge took patrons across the creek.   The site of the Log Cabin Inn is marked by the Leonidas Springs Memorial Fountain, built 1899.

The Maple Springs Hotel

This hotel was located half way between Wissahickon Hall and the Leonidas Springs Fountain.   It was built after the Civil War with timbers from an old Germantown Hospital.  It catered to the middle class.  Its colorful proprietor Rooty Smith was skilled at carving gnarled roots into grotesque animal figures. He also made rustic furniture for the hotel.   The second floor stained glass windows looked out onto cascading water.  The Inn continued to operate into the 1870’s after liquor was forbidden by FPC park rules, but it went out of business after being raided for serving alcohol.

Valley Green Inn

Old maps show that before 1850 there was no building on this spot.   In 1850 Edward Rinker obtained a lease from Thomas Livezey on 3 acres upstream from Livezey Mill. He received permission to build a small temperance hotel & have boats on the stream nearby.   The Wissahickon turnpike had not yet reached this locale but would soon.  Patrons could reach the Inn from Wise’s Mill Road.  After a few years Edward Rinker ran off with another woman, but his ex-wife then married Edward’s bother and continued to operate the inn.   Patronage at inn was related to the personalities of the innkeepers.  During the 1860’s the inn keeper was not well liked so patrons drove past to Indian rock Hotel upstream.    

Fairmount Park acquired land in 1873, but as a temperance inn, Valley Green was not affected by the prohibition against liquor.  The Fairmount Park Commission hired the managers, but by 1899 inn was in very bad condition.. The Park engineer recommended tearing it down since necessary funds were not available.  A committee under leadership of Charles W. Henry raised the $1221.59 necessary for the repairs.  In 1901 a committee of dedicated Chestnut Hill women applied to the FPC to manage the inn and did so until 1930’s when repairs were again needed.  A committee again raised the needed $30,000.  When repairs were completed in 1937 the inn came under the care of Friends of the Wissahickon which has continued to raise funds for repairs & renovations in 1987 and again in 2000. Valley Green did not serve alcohol until the 1980’s when it was granted a liquor license.

Wissahickon Hall 

This roadhouse was built by Henry Lippen in 1849-50.  This elegant inn catered to wealthy patrons who arrived in sleighing & carriage parties.  Close to the inn a cable ferry took patrons to the north side of the creek for a 5 cents fare.   Wissahickon Hall went out of business before 1900.   It was extensively repaired in WPA era and now serves as the 92nd police district headquarters.

Written by Sarah West, FOW Trail Ambassador and former FOW Board Member.

The historical photographs included in this article were provided by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society with the assistance of Rosemary Lord.

Check out this Google Map to explore this and other unique historical points of interest, and become acquainted with the many trailheads in Wissahickon Valley Park!

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You probably don’t need us to tell you how special Wissahickon Valley Park is. It’s 1800 acres provides habitat to wildlife, refuge & recreation to over a million visitors per year, and protects the drinking water for one third of Philadelphians. The park can’t take care of itself, however. It needs responsible park users and stewards to keep this special place clean and sustainable for generations to come.