May of 1896 witnessed one of the worst tornado outbreaks in American history. It lasted about two weeks and spawned tornados all over the south and Midwest, including three F5 tornados (the more severe category). On the final day of the outbreak, an F3 tornado touched down in Jarrettown then cut a path 35 miles east into New Jersey.
A photo of Judge Knight with his parents from about 1919
I hadn’t heard about this tornado until one of our volunteers, Rita Thomas, told me about some newspaper clippings she had found in Judge Harold Knight’s diary of 1956. I was excited to learn more, but disappointed to see that our collection of the Ambler Gazette on microfilm starts in 1898. Luckily, you can find the paper from 1896 on PA Power Library through the Wissahickon Valley Public Library. The Weekly Herald of Norristown covered it, too, but the Gazette had this sketch of Alexander Knight’s house, one of the oldest in the borough of Ambler.
Here’s a photo from our own collection of the house taken in 1971. Alexander Knight was Judge Harold Knight’s father, and this was his home as well.
The Gazette article focused on the damage from the storm. Two men were killed inside the carriage barn of the Jarrettown Hotel when a wall collapsed. They were Winfield Ensley and Alfred Moffit. Several others were injured. The Jarrettown Public School was badly damaged as was the Jarrrettown United Methodist Church. Both of those buildings had to be rebuilt.
The Weekly Herald of June 1st, focused on the sightseeing, claiming “Effects of the Cyclone Must be Seen to Be Appreciated.” The article estimated that 4,000 people had already come to see the damage which included several collapsed barns and many uprooted trees.
The Faust Tannery of Ambler operated for over 100 years. It was founded in 1790 by Jonathan Thomas at intersection of Bethlehem and Butler Pikes, when that area was known as Gilky’s Corner (now sometimes called Rose Valley).
Look carefully, and you can find the tannery on this map from 1871
Thomas was a Quaker, who ran the business until his death in 1808. In 1810, Thomas’s son sold the property to James Rutter, another Quaker, who also bought the 35 acre farm that was next to the tannery.
In 1841, Rutter took on Alvin D. Faust as an apprentice. Faust was a native of Lehigh County and a Pennsylvania German. Alvin’s son, Alvin B. Faust wrote a remembrance of his father and the tannery in our Bulletin in 1942. He described his father as “a hustler….From his early youth he had learned to work hard and long.” After a few years of working for Rutter, Faust returned to his family farm in Lehigh County. Alvin B. writes that Alvin D. had to make trips to Philadelphia for supplies, and he sometimes stopped at Rutter’s farm for an overnight stay.
In 1850, Faust bought the tannery from the aging Rutter. He also bought 7 acres of land and a frame house on the south side of Bethlehem Pike. In 1867, he tore the frame house down and replaced it with a brick house. There is a brick house on the site today, which might be that that house (Alvin B. says it was still standing in 1942). When Faust moved in, his wife had never seen the place. The original frame house had once been used to raise silkworms during the decades when the northeast had a bit of a silk craze. Abandoned cocoons had to be cleared away before the family could move in.
Faust Tannery at the time it was sold
Up to Alvin D. Faust’s death in 1884, about half the tannery’s business was making leather for boots and shoes. Around that time, Faust’s son writes that leather top boots were growing rarer, and it proved to be unprofitable. After that point, Faust Tannery specialized in leather for harnesses.
It was important for the business to be on the road to Philadelphia, but also important was the stream running by the land, now known as Tannery Run. Originally, the water powered the bark mill run by the tannery (more about bark in a second). In 1862, Faust installed a 10 horse power steam engine for power. The water source was still essential to the tanning process, however. Tree bark was used in the process of tanning. The tannery bought ground bark by the ton. It was put into large vats of water for leeching. The hide was soaked in this liquid for eight to nine months. Until 1910, the used liquid was run into the creek (after 1910 that was prohibited by the state).
Tannery Run today
In 1876, Faust Tannery won a medal at the Centennial Exhibition. The business worked with other companies throughout the northeast, as far away as Chicago.
Alvin B. writes that the business was prosperous until after World War I, when trucks and automobiles replaced horse drawn vehicles. They stopped ordering new hides in 1920, and the business closed down in 1925. In 1940 all of the equipment and the building was sold off.
A view of Ambler from the 1871 atlas by G. M. Hopkins.
The European settlement of what would one day be Ambler began when a Quaker family named Harmer bought the land along the Wissahickon from William Penn. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a mill town, known as Wissahickon had developed. By 1855, the settlement was prominent enough that the North Penn Railroadbuilt a station in the town. The station was also called Wissahickon.
About one year later, on July 17, 1856, the north bound Shackamaxon crashed into the south bound Aramingo between Fort Washington and Camp Hill. Fifty-nine people died in what was then the deadliest train wreck in history and 86 were injured, according to Frank D. Quattrone’s book Ambler. Some bodies were never found and some were unidentified, so the exact number of dead might be higher. It was known as the “Picnic Train Tragedy” because many of the riders on the Shackamaxon were day trippers up from St. Michael’s in Kensington, and the train may have been overloaded.
A newspaper drawing imagining the wreck.
The rail line curved near Camp Hill and neither engineer could see the other. The Shackamaxon may have left Philadelphia early, further confusing things. When the locomotives hit head on, the explosion of the boilers could be heard for miles around and the fire that followed could also be seen for some distance. It was the fire, and not the collision, that seems to have claimed the most victims.
Volunteers from nearby homes and farms arrived as quickly as they could. Most prominent among them was Mary Johnson Ambler, a Quaker widow who lived two miles away in Wissahickon. She gathered medical supplies and walked the two miles to the wreck. Once there, she calmly attended the wounded.
After her death in 1868, North Penn Railroad decided to honor her work at the accident site by renaming the Wissahickon train station in her honor. When the borough incorporated in 1888, it took the name Ambler.
Postcard showing the Ambler train station
Do you recognize any of the children in this picture? The picture captures what was known as "Garibaldi's Row" in Ambler in 1961, just before it was demolished. Nineteen-sixty-one was quite significant in the demolition of residential structures and the West Chestnut Street properties associated with Keasby & Mattison Industries of Ambler.
The above map is from a 1916 North Penn Railroad atlas and shows the area Keasby & Mattison developed.
The history of Keasby & Mattison with its Ambler residential development is a fascinating one dating back to the 1890's after the company relocated from Philadelphia. The firm began with the manufacture of asbestos paper and mill board as insulation products, according to the book Early History of Ambler by Dr. Mary Hough.
According to various reports Dr. Richard V. Mattison, the partner of Henry J. Keasby, chose Ambler to develop what became the major asbestos product manufacturing company of the United Sates. As the doctor expanded the Keasby & Mattison plant, experienced Italian stoneworkers and laborers were recruited and urged to settle and build in Ambler. Thus, approximately 400 residence were built, including row homes for factory workers as well as more upscale homes for the managers and executives. This development included Dr. Mattison's estate, known as Lindenwold, which was built in the 1890's and expanded in 1917.
This photo shows Dr. Mattison's house Lindenwold.
It was during this building period that row homes such as "Garibaldi's Row" and West Chestnut area homes were constructed. However, by 1961, due to serious health and social concerns and other deteriorating conditions in the neighborhood, the local government made the decision to tear down these structures. The decision included the creation of a park and recreation area as a replacement. Many saw this as a positive outcome as the neighborhood was described as a "blighted area" with poor sanitary facilities subject to flooding.
The row houses did not have plumbing, as shown by this photo of outhouses.
August 10, 1961 was targeted to resettle the effected families and subsequently demolish the homes.
With this demolition, it seems many found and cherished memories of over seventy years has faded into the history of dear old Ambler.