Nancy Sullivan, Archivist
On Thanksgiving Day in 1950, just as families in Lower Providence were sitting down together to enjoy the holiday, a huge explosion occurred. Three thousand feet of a natural gas pipeline that ran from Texas to New York were destroyed in the blast. The Times-Herald reported the explosion on the day after (November 24) and quoted the superintendent of Fish Constructors, Inc., who was working on the pipeline at the time. He said he had “no idea” of the cause.
Although fire officials said anyone close to the blast would have been killed, no one was there because of the holiday. Two old buildings on the former Wetherill estate, then the Philadelphia Protectory for Boys (and now St. Gabrial’s Hall) caught fire and were destroyed. Nearby cornfields were scorched.
The boys at the Protectory were playing a football game only half a mile away. When they heard the blast, both players and spectators ran. Some boys were found miles away, according to the newspaper account.
The men who owned the property, brothers Joseph and Edwin Camiel were both knocked down by the explosion. The line was own by Transcontinental Gas Pipe Lines of Houston.
The paper describes the scenes “The huge mains, made of five-sixteenths of an inch in thickness, were scattered over farmlands in the vicinity of the line.”
The Protectory can be seen in the background
Earlier today I was scanning some photographs and came across a folder of photos of the Horhsam Fire Company. Along with the photos, I found a brief history of the fire company.
It seems the company was founded after the barn of the Quaker Meetinghouse burned down in 1913. Up until that time, Horsham didn’t have a fire company at all, so people began to talk about starting one.
According to our account, provided by Leroy Forker, when people were discussing the possibility at O. P. Smith's general store, Benjamin Parke claimed that neither he nor Leroy Forker would live to see a fire company in the community. It’s not clear if this was expressing opposition to the fire company or a disbelief that the people of Horsham could organize something. Forker, however, thought differently. He worked making deliveries for the general store, and when he went out that day, he talked about the issue at every house he stopped at. Jay Magargee gave him $10 towards the establishment of the company.
The 1914 groundbreaking for the new fire house
Later, according the Horsham Fire Company’s website, O. P. Smith donated the land for the fire house, which was built in 1914. According to a 1959 article by Edward Hocker, Midvale Steel Company of Philadelphia donated a steel locomotive tire to be struck with a hammer to alert the volunteers. This was apparently common for communities that couldn't afford a bell. Hatboro's fire company donated the group's first pumper.
Early headquarters of the Horsham Fire Company
The first truck was a second hand Oldsmobile, according to The Second Hundred Years.
Early fire trucks in 1967 parade
Readers of a certain age no doubt remember The Saturday Evening Post. Even readers born after the Post’s heyday, are probably familiar with some of its familiar Normal Rockwell covers. But, did you know of Montgomery County’s connection to the iconic American weekly?
Published in Philadelphia, The Saturday Evening Post goes all the way back to 1821, but it rose to prominence in the twentieth century under the direction of Charles Horace Lorimer. Lorimer lived in Wyncote, part of Cheltenham township. Much of his estate is now occupied by Ancillae Assumpta Academy.
Lorimer was also the author of the book Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son. While it’s not widely known today, it was a best-seller in the early twentieth century.
Cover from Letters from a Self-Made Merchant, from our collection
Lorimer left the Post in 1936, in part, according to the Saturday Evening Post Society’s website, because he felt out of touch with New Deal era America. The cover in our collection dates to 1949, when Ben Higgs was editor.
It shows a well-known corner of Montgomery County – Skippack Pike and 202 in Whitpain. Men run to the engin of the Center Square Fire Company on one side of the street and the recently closed Reed’s Store appears on the other side. The note for this cover claims that the artist, Stevan Dohanos, was looking to capture a small town fire company. It goes on to say, “Incidentally, four Post artists, long fascinated by that Center Square department store, have tried to figure out a theme for coverizing it, and failed.”
The Post continued to be an influential magazine into the 1960’s when competition from television led to the decline of print media. The Post’s parent company lost a major libel suit and the magazine stopped printing in 1969. Since then, it has been revived, most recently by the non-profit Saturday Evening Post Society.
Our hardworking trustee and volunteer, Ed Ziegler found a great map of the early days of Norristown this morning.
The map was made in 1926 by Simon Cameron Corson, a man who knew Norristown inside and out. He was born in 1863 and attended Treemount Seminary (along with nearly every other male Norristonian of note). He trained as a civil engineer, and worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad for several years. He was one of the many engineers sent to rebuild the railroad after the Johnstown Flood. Ten years later, he was elected Borough Engineer in Norristown. In that position he improved the borough’s streets, storm drains, and designed Elmwood Park. After 33 years, he left that position to be the administrator of the park, a position he held until a few months before his death at the age of 85 in 1948.
According to his obituary, “it was an undisputed fact that he was the best informed of historical facts in Norristown.”
We have many of Corson’s drawings in our collection, and a few of them are of early Norristown. This one is interesting for several reasons. First, he added color, which just makes the map beautiful. Then there are the little details he added.
Here is William Smith’s house. Smith was the first provost of the College of Philadelphia (it would later merge with the University of the State of Pennsylvania forming the University of Pennsylvania). His house, as you can see, was located on Barbadoes Island. Although he was appointed by Benjamin Franklin, they were polar opposites politically. The map declares Smith a Tory. His biography on the University of Pennsylvania’s website suggests a more complicated story. Smith argued for the rights of the colonists but spoke out against revolution.
The map also shows a small Lenni Lenape village labeled “Turtle Munsey Delaware Tribes.” Munsee was one of the languages spoken by the Lenni Lenapi (or Delaware), and Turtle was one of the three clans of the tribe.
Finally, there’s a little bit of downtown. The only labeled intersection in this part of the map is Egypt (Main) and Cherry Alley (presumably Cherry St.), so we have a good idea of where this is today. The Norrington Inn is identified and dated to 1690. It's interesting to see what in in Norristown a few decades before the borough incorporated in 1812.
Since it's the dog days of summer, I thought we could revisit one of our earliest blogs. Ok, I'm super busy and our curator in on vacation, so we're running a repeat.
In 1875, Blasius Pistorius, a German priest on a visit to his brother in Norristown, was arrested for the murder of Isaac Jaquette. The trial caused great excitement in the county and was prominently featured in local newspapers. The Historical Society of Montgomery County holds the complete transcripts of Pistorius’s two trials. His trial was the first in the county to use a court stenographer.
The dispute between the two men involved Jaquette allowing his cattle to graze on Pistorius’s brother’s land (John Pistorius was also tried for murder, but he was not present at the time of the shooting and so was acquitted). On July 24, 1875, when a boy working for Jaquette, Henry Muloch, allowed the cattle to cross over to the Pistorius farm, Blasius Pistorius came out with a pistol and threatened to shoot the cattle if they were not removed. Muloch ran for Jaquette, who picked up two stones and threatened Pistorius with them. The two men exchanged some more threats before Jaquette lunged for the pistol. The pistol fired, killing Jacquette.
Pistorius’s lawyers argued that their client acted in self-defense and that Jaquette chose to undertake the risk of the gun firing when he attempted to take it from Pistorius. Nevertheless, the priest was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Since he was a subject of the German Empire, the German consulate stepped in, and his sentenced was change to life imprisonment. Pistorius died in Eastern State Penitentiary in 1888.
A few months ago, we received a small collection of letters from a woman named Barbara Cook. The letters had been found together in the Morris house in Adrmore. Two of the letters were very old and are now among the oldest documents at the Historical Society of Montgomery County.
They both date to 1683. One was written by Phineas Pemberton to Phoebe Pemberton and the other was from Ralph Pemberton to Phoebe Pemberton. I used the book Colonial Families of Philadelphia by John W. Jordan to learn more about the family.
Ralph and Phineas were father and son, and they came to North America together, along with Phineas’ wife Phoebe (nee Harrison). In their native Lancashire, Jordan tells us, the Pemberton’s were a prominent family in the parish of Wigan.
Ralph's letter to Phoebe
The third letter was a letter written to Phineas and Phoebe’s grandson, James Pemberton, author of a booklet defending pacificism called "An Apology for the People called Quakers." James lived in Philadelphia and was an organizer and later president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. James and his older brother, Israel Pemberton, Jr. were opposed to armed confrontation with the British. In 1777, both were banished to Virginia. His third wife, also named Phoebe, was left to take care of their property “The Plantation” (The land later became the US Naval Asylum in Philadelphia).
John Fothergill by Gilbert Stuart, author of the letter?
The letter in our collection was written to James during the revolution by John Fothergill of London. There was a prominent Quaker named John Fothergill in London at the time. He was a physician and botanist, but there is no saying if it is the same man. In the letter, he exhorted James to keep his mind on what really mattered:
"Your part is a clear one. Be quiet, mind your own proper business. If your kingdom is not of this world, mind that only which we look for, and are taught by the highest authority to seek."
Later he repeats the same idea:
"Be quiet, and mind your own business, promote every good work – show yourselves subject to that invisible overruling providence…"
James and Israel stayed in Virginia for eight months before returning to Philadelphia.
The final item donated with the letters was an account of Morris family during the American Revolution. The account is undated, but probably from the nineteenth century. A little more digging through Jordan, and I found that James’ daughter with his second wife (Sarah), Mary Smith Pemberton married Anthony Morris. The Morrises were also Quakers, but during the Revolution several members fought aginst the British. So, through the connection of Mary and Anthony Morris, the papers came to be in Ardmore. They were apparently forgotten for many years, and we are very happy Ms. Cook saved them and brought them to us.
Visitors to our headquarters these past few weeks might have noticed a change to our meeting room.
The archivist has taken over.
In the summer, our programs tend to move outside to the cemetery taking advantage of longer days and warmer weather. Rather than let all that space go to waste, I moved the Corson family papers in. I have three more weeks to get it all foldered, boxed, and described.
Processing a collection like this is the meat and potatoes of archival work, and it’s fascinating to dig (sometimes in a very literal way) into people’s lives. The papers came to us from the Corson family when they sold the Maple Hill property, right on the border of Plymouth and Whitemarsh townships. They were created by three generations of Corsons – Dr. Hiram Corson, his son Dr. Joseph K. Corson, and his grandson, Dr. Edward F. Corson. I’ve wrote about Joseph a few weeks ago, so today I’ll focus on Edward.
Dr. Edward F. Corson in the army during World War I
Edward was born in 1883, the second child of Joseph and Ada Corson. His father was a U.S. Army surgeon and the family moved around to various posts in the West and the South. He was born in Missouri and educated at the Friends’ School in Washington, D.C. while his father was stationed there. In 1895, he enrolled at Germantown Academy while his father was stationed in Wyoming.
Don't worry, later letters show Edward enjoying his time at Germantown Academy.
After graduating in 1901, he went into the family trade, becoming a doctor. He specialized in dermatology. As a young man, Edward traveled quite a bit. We have some letters he wrote to his parents from the White Star Line’s SS “Arabic.” He even traveled to the Far East.
In 1917, Edward married Esther Bisler in Chicago and served in World War I. They had two children and lived in Philadelphia and Lower Merion before eventually settling at the family home, Maple Hill. He died in 1967.
Norristown didn’t have a Catholic Church until St. Patrick’s opened in 1834, mainly to serve Norristown’s Irish population. In the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe began coming to America, and Norristown became home to hundreds of newly arrived Italians. Although the word “catholic” means universal and Catholic services were conducted in Latin at the time, it was typical for immigrant groups to start their own parishes, staffed by priests from the home country.
Norristown was no different. For many years, Italians celebrated Mass at St. Patrick’s. Eventually, an Italian mission church opened in the basement, led by two Italian priests who preached, heard confessions, and gave spiritual support in Italian. In 1902, a new priest came to Norristown, Father Michael Maggio, who formed a committee, raised funds, and in 1903 built a small church on land acquired from the Good Shepherd Sisters of St. Joseph’s Protectory.
The first Holy Saviour Church, or Sanctissima Salvatore, was barely a full story high. In 1908 it was replaced by a larger, more typical looking church that would accommodate the growing parish. This was largely the work of Father Lambert Travi, Holy Saviour’s second pastor. Father Travi went on a decade later to build the parish’s first school. It in September of 1928 with 500 students. The parish continued to grow, with the school getting up to 800 students. The school was staffed by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, one to each grade, making for a student-teacher ratio of 100:1!
In 1948, the parish purchased a closed public elementary school, the James A. Welsh School, and moved in for the 1948-1949 school year. In the 1950’s, Holy Saviour’s pastor, the Italian born Father George Delia, expanded the church, doubling its size to hold up 1000 people.
Monsignor Peter J. Cavallucci with the Norristown Exchange Club at Holy Saviour School
The school has been closed, and students from the parish now attend Holy Rosary Regional School in Plymouth. However, Holy Saviour parish is still a vital part of Norristown’s culture, celebrating several feast days a year. The parish also has a mission church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Black Horse section of Plymouth.
Source: Basile, Joseph M. Holy Saviour Parish - Norristown, Pennsylvania: 1903-2003, 2001
Joseph K. Corson in uniform
Born in Maple Hill in Whitemarsh Township in 1836, Joseph K. Corson was the son of Dr. Hiram and Ann (Foulke) Corson. He followed his father (and many other members of his family) to the University of Pennsylvania Medical Department. He was studying there in 1861 when the Civil War broke out, and he enlisted as a 90 day volunteer in the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment in Norristown. He was discharged in July of the same year and returned to medical school.
Corson was appointed a medical cadet at an army hospital in Philadelphia while he finished his studies. He graduated in March of 1863 and re-entered the army as an assistant surgeon. He was at several battles including Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Spottsylvania. At the Battle of Bristoe Station on October 14, 1963, Corson, with another man, went back under heavy artillery fire to rescue a wounded soldier and bring him to safety. For his heroism, he was awarded the National Medal of Honor.
After war, he practiced medicine with his father Hiram Corson for a short period, but in 1867 he went back into the army as an assistant surgeon. Over the next decades he was stationed all around the country from upstate New York, Alabama, and out west.
Mary Ada Corson, heartbreaker
While he was stationed in Wyoming, he married Mary Ada Carter, the daughter of Judge William Carter, originally of Virginia. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article from April 12, 1964, Joseph had competition for Ada’s hand in the form of Captain Arthur MacArthur (eventually father of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and also a National Medal of Honor winner).
The Carter home in Wyoming, where Ada Carter broke Arthur MacArthur's heart
The Corsons had two children. Their daughter, Mary Carter Corson was born at Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama in 1876. Her parents sent her to school in Philadelphia. In 1890, she was returning to her parents after having been away for a year, when her train went over an embankment and she was killed. Their son, Edward F. Corson was born at Jefferson Barrack in Missouri in 1883. He, too, attended the University of Pennsylvania and became a doctor.
Joseph Corson and his two children. Mary died at the age of 14.
Joseph K. Corson died in 1913 and was buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Joseph, Ada, and Edward on vacation in Atlantic City
Recently, we received a group of unidentified photos at our back door. They were left anonymously, so we don’t know much about them (again, please don’t anonymously leave things at our back door). But three of the photos interested me particularly because summer officially begins this Friday, and they show the classic summertime activity - baseball.
The photos show boys participating in the Atlantic Baseball School, a kids’ program run by Atlantic Refining Company. The boys could be at Roosevelt Field (the other photos are clearly Norristown), but the time was hard for me to pin down. Atlantic Refining was founded after the break-up of Standard Oil in 1911 and headquartered in Philadelphia. It lasted until it merged with Richfield Oil to form ARCO in 1966. The make of truck in the photos suggests it was taken after 1930 or so.
Clothes are often a good way to date photographs, but it’s difficult with children. The boys are not in their Sunday best, and many are wearing the baggy knickers typical for professional players in the first half of the century. Their hair tends to be longer than what I would expect in the 1950’s. There aren’t many crew-cuts.
I decided to look more closely at the truck. I had looked at the photograph several times before I noticed the straw hat sitting on the bumper. This, also dated the picture to before 1950, although the gentleman at the microphone is older, and might not have kept up with the latest fashion. The hat does place the photo in the summertime, but I had already guessed that. Finally, I looked more closely at the license plate, where you can see a small “40” in the upper, left hand corner. Turns out, license plates used to be issued annually and showed they year they were issued. So, the answer had been there all along.
Does anyone remember the Atlantic Baseball School? Atlantic Refining had stations all up and down the East Coast, including this one advertised in the Norristown sesquicentennial book (1962). The company was a long-time sponsor of Major League Baseball in Philly. Perhaps their baseball school was an outgrowth of that involvement.