On the north side of Callowhill Street next to the entrance to the Gift of Life Family House sits an unassuming orange fire hydrant on the sidewalk several feet away from the curb. The odd placement of this plug, which appears to still be operational, reveals that a water main must pass beneath the sidewalk here in a north-south direction. Since water mains in Philadelphia are typically laid within the streets and not along sidewalks, this would indicate the presence of a road that once crossed Callowhill Street at this very spot. That roadway was Old York Road, and the hydrant must have been on the east side of the street, at the northeast corner of a long gone intersection.
Old York Road once ran from Philadelphia to New Hope, Pennsylvania. From there it crossed the Delaware River to Elizabeth, New Jersey and onward to its destination, New York City. Old York Road still exists in Philadelphia, running in tandem with Route 611 at the intersection of North Broad Street and Oak Lane before heading north out of the city through Cheltenham, Elkins Park, and into Montgomery County. The road was one of the earliest, most significant land routes in the mid-Atlantic region and was the first highway of any appreciable length built in America.
From Lenape Footpath to Colonial Freeway
In the late 1600s, William Penn directed his surveyor, Thomas Holme, to plot an overland route from Vine Street—the original northern edge of the city of Philadelphia—to a terminus near New Hope, Pennsylvania. Work began after a petition for the road was made to Pennsylvania Governor Charles Gookin. In 1711, workers cut the York Road began south from New Hope toward Philadelphia. By 1771, it reached Philadelphia County, running south through Northern Liberties and onto Fourth and Vine Streets.
York Road followed the course of a much older Native American footpath called the Lenni-Lenape Trail. (Ridge Avenue has a similar history, as it too was an old Native-American trail.) It is believed that the pathway existed for centuries, bringing Native Americans from northern points all along the East Coast into and out of the territory between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. The Lenni-Lenape Trail still exists in New Jersey as a link between Newark and Roseland.
By the time of the American Revolution, the York Road had become the interstate of its era, not only linking Philadelphia with New York City and carrying passenger and freight traffic between the two cities, but also connecting the various settlements and villages along the way. By 1827, there were three stagecoach runs each week between Philadelphia and New York, offering a two-day trip that cost only a few dollars. Stagecoaches continued until railroads replaced them by the 1840s.
The muddy route played a critical role in the War of Independence through its consistent use by General George Washington and his troops as well as British forces. From the mid-1770s until the end of the 1790s, members of the Continental and American Congresses from northern colonies and states traveled this way to and from Philadelphia, passing through the thinly settled backwoods of Northern Liberties on horses and in carriages. The road served as the main approach to the city, much like Philadelphia International Airport, 30th Street Station, and I-95 are serving as the main approaches to Philadelphia today.
The Marquis de Lafayette visited Philadelphia in 1824 while making a grand tour of the nation he had helped establish as a general and friend to General Washington. One of thirteen triumphal arches fabricated for the welcoming procession was erected over York Road at Vine Street. Thousands of men of the First and Second City Troops escorted Lafayette’s carriage throughout the streets of Philadelphia, packed with throngs of admirers. Artillery announced his approach and neighborhood kids sang as Lafayette passed through the area.
An 85 feet tall flagpole with the sizable Native-American figure perched on top was once at the triangular intersection of York Road, Fourth Street and Wood Street near Vine Street. With its bow and quiver, the metallic Indian figure was nine feet high from head to toe and the copper ball, on which it revolved like a weathervane, was sixteen inches in diameter. The Indian Pole was erected in 1819 to commemorate the last Lenni-Lenape council held in Philadelphia. Volunteer fire companies used the pole in competitions to test their engines by seeing if they could throw a stream of water to the top, eighty-five feet in height.
York Road eventually became “Old” York Road because another route to New York was established by way of the King’s Highway, assembled from various roads running parallel to the Delaware River. In the last fifty years, the construction of the Vine Street Expressway supplanted the roadway between Vine and Callowhill Streets, and the Callowhill East Redevelopment Project removed much of York Road from between Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets. Yet, there are still some vestiges of Old York Road in the barren Callowhill area of Northern Liberties.
A short unmarked segment of York Avenue, retaining its century-old Belgian block surface, intersects Willow Street midway between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Willow Street was built atop Cohoquinoque Creek, which York Road must have originally crossed by way of a bridge, as the stream was once navigable by small boats from the Delaware River for about a mile inland.
This spot is at the former junction of Willow, Lawrence (once called Crown), and Fifth Streets. A century ago the John Betz Brewery, one of the largest and most famous breweries in the nation, dominated this intersection. Betz brewery closed during Prohibition, but reopened afterwards and remained in business until 1939. The building was then abandoned and later torn down.
Another sliver of York Road remains from Vine to Wood Streets, fronting Fourth Street. This vicinity once hosted several famous Philadelphia taverns, including the Tiger Hunt, Sorrel Horse, and the Barley Sheaf. A plaque on the ground at Fourth and Wood draws attention to the start point—or rather, the end point—of the legendary route. The marker even mentions the Indian Pole.
Today, the memory of Old York Road is kept alive by the Old York Road Historical Society in Jenkintown.