Moving On Up in East Falls

Upper East Falls? Lower? What does that even mean? A look at our history provides a peek at our future. 

Uppers? Lowers? Some Fallsers will take offense at the terms but historically, East Falls has always defined itself in relation to our river and railroads. In the past, class lines tended to run along geographical ones, but as luxury condos populate Kelly Drive and Ridge those old distinctions are blurring.

Still: East Falls remains a mullet of a neighborhood. Urban & leafy. Students & families. “Ridge rats” and “90210.” Shiny new tech amid the bones of an old mill town. Our split personality goes way back…

Originally settled as a colonial fishing resort, we quickly attracted industry: textiles, pharmaceuticals, glassworks, breweries, you name it. Back then, we were “The Falls of Schuylkill Village” — such a bucolic name belied the smoke-stacked mills that churned along the riverfront, where rows of bare-bones employee housing hugged hillsides nearby.

Make no mistake, we had grand estates — Roxboro House, Bella Vista, Ravenhill — but they were located above the railroad tracks, far away from the Schuylkill river’s dirty hub-bub. And boy was it dirty. People today pay top dollar for waterfront property, but in the old days you wanted to be as far away as possible from the shorelines.

Our poor Schuylkill, Wissahickon and other local streams would turn colors as textile mills dumped their waste water — different dye from different factories — mixing into various shades until finally the water ran thick and black. This pollution wasn’t just hard on the eyes, you had to have a handkerchief at the ready for your riverfront stroll to stifle the odor of rotting sewage from homes, businesses & slaughterhouses emptying into the river.

According to a city commissioners report from 1877, one of East Falls’ streams, Saw Mill Run:

“…carried all the drainage from the factories, slaughterhouses, and houses in the vicinity and Nicetown into the Schuylkill.  At the mouth of this sewer, all were obliged to hold their noses closed on account of the foulness arising from the place. It would be hard to conceive of a filthier spot.”

Newspaper accounts from the 1880s also state that Mifflin’s Run — where Midvale Avenue sits today — carried the “garbage and waste water of about 155 houses below the Norristown Railroad.”

No wonder those who made their fortune bolted for the high ground at the first opportunity! Probably stepping carefully around the refuse that meandered downhill through stone gutters, wooden pipes, and muddy culverts toward the river.

From East Falls 300 Years by Lois Childs

Case in point? The Hohenadel family and their house on Indian Queen Lane, a mansion now but first built as a modest home within sight of polluted Mifflin’s Run.

An entire story, possibly, and a whole staircase and back rooms were added later, after the senior John had died a humble business owner. His son John later expanded and embellished the house to reflect the family’s growing wealth as Hohenadel Beer came to dominate the local market from the early 1900’s until Prohibition.

After selling the company in 1937, the Hohenadels moved uphill to the leafy district along Henry & Schoolhouse where Captains of Industry built lavish estates, many since repurposed as administrative buildings for PhillyU. The brewer’s Colonial Revival estate is now known as “Timmons House” on Penn Charter’s campus, and is a posh venue for parties and events.

These days, Indian Queen Lane is pretty fancy, too, with restored historic rowhomes in splashy colors leading down to a nice clean river. If the Hohenadels were alive today, they probably wouldn’t be in such a hurry to become “Uppers.” They might’ve waited to see how the area changes, with all the new families & professionals moving in along the Schuylkill.

As our neighborhood develops, terms like “Upper” and “Lower” East Falls will likely take on different meanings. Maybe “Upper” will mean University students and “Lower” will be office workers? Or “Upper” could be parklands and “Lower” public transit. Old money/New money? Yuppies/Hipsters? Who knows how we’ll shake out?!

As we head into 2017, let’s cut each other some slack as Uppers, Lowers, Fallsers, Squatters,  Whatevers — and not take these labels too seriously. Wherever you are in the Falls, you’ve got awesome neighbors no matter what you call them.

(More local history at EastFallsHouse.com)

One Comment

  • Kathy Carroll

    Ha…I remember my Mom telling people she lived in “East Falls, you know, where Grace Kelly lived” and we would laugh. Mom was of course “lower falls” and Grace Kelly was “upper falls”.

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