A Brief History
Ever since people inhabited the Delaware River Valley, Bristol Township has been at a crossroads of history.
Before the Europeans settled in Bucks County, the Lenni Lenape Indians used the Delaware River - their name for it was the “Great River” - as one of its major highways. And many of our roads today are trails of history. Those histories involved the Lenni Lenape culture, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the birth of Levittown. Each of these histories has left a mark on part of Bucks County and Bristol Township’s history.
Today, Bristol Township, Bucks County’s largest municipality, (1990 census) still stands at a crossroads. With the major highway links of Route 13, Route 413, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and Interstate 95, traffic to and from the megalopolis (cities from Boston to Washington, D.C.) flows through Bristol Township. River traffic still flows by the Delaware’s banks in Bristol township and passenger and freight trains ply the mainline of Conrail and Amtrack in our township.
It’s no small wonder that the early settlers chose this area to develop. The Indian trails and the proximity of the river made it an ideal location. Hundreds of years later, William J. Levitt would build his suburban community because of our transportation system and industry.
As we know from our history books the first Europeans to settle in Pennsylvania were the Swedes and Dutch (The first recorded settlement in the township is a Dutch family in 1625). The English took possession with William Penn’s land grant from the King in payment of a debt to Penn’s father.
Bucks County, one of the Commonwealth’s first counties, is named for Penn’s home in England - Buckinghamshire. Bristol Township takes the back seat to Bristol Borough, our state’s oldest borough, as the first formal settlement founded in 1681.
Bristol Township was incorporated in 1692 as Buckingham Township. The name was later changed to Bristol in 1702. Two other townships, Bensalem and Falls, were also incorporated in 1692, and all three marked their 300th birthday in 1992.
By 1701, Bristol Mills and Mill Pond (now Silver Lake) became industrial areas. Then in 1720, the springs at Bath attracted the wealthy from Philadelphia to its water and the resort of Bath was developed. It’s believed that Lower Bucks County Hospital sits on the site of the famous spa.
The next significant part of our history concerns the American Revolution. Many residents fought in the Revolution and Route 13 - then known as the King’s Highway - had troops, patriots, and famous persons use it regularly. Before the Civil War, the spas at Bath lost in popularity to those in Saratoga, New York. It was in 1831 that the Delaware Canal was built through the township. The canal carried coal, steel, goods, and people from Bristol to Easton, some 60 miles distant. Today, the canal is a National Heritage Corridor and a National Historic Landmark.
Some of our other famous landmarks are: Landreth’s seed farm, now Bloomsdale, established in 1784 on 540 acres between Bristol and Edgely, which was one of the largest seed producing establishments in the world in the nineteenth century.
Other landmarks include Sunbury Farm, the estate of Caleb M. Taylor along the Neshaminy Creek, now the home of Bucks County Head Start Program. Taylor, a member of Congress, was the only delegate from Pennsylvania to vote for Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Taylor was the grandson of George Taylor of Durham, Bucks County, who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Perhaps the best known - the Bolton Mansion (Pemberton-Morris House) was built by Phineas Pemberton in 1687, after he moved from an earlier house near Biles Island in Falls Township on land granted by William Penn, a close friends. The farmhouse was enlarged in 1790 by Anthony Morris, who unofficially represented the United States in Spain and initiated the purchase of Florida under President James Monroe. This home is now owned by the Friends of Bolton Mansion, Inc.
Until World War II, the township was a haven for truck farms and other agricultural endeavors. After the war, industry moved into the township with the construction of U.S. Steel’s Fairless Works in Falls Township in the 1950’s - the boom was off and running.
To meet the housing demand for returning GIs and the steelworkers, William J. Levitt conceived his plans for a suburban development. Today, Levittown comprises parts of Bristol Township, Falls and Middletown Townships, as well as part of Tullytown Borough.
It was after this growth that Bristol Township went from a Second Class Township to a First Class Township under Pennsylvania law. It is the only First Class municipality in Bucks, and the township has ranked as the 10th largest municipality in the state.
Over the years industries like Thiokol, 3M, and Rohm and Haas used the highway and rail network to build industries in the township. By the 1980’s, most of the township was developed and Levittown was experiencing a second generation of homeowners.
And it was in the 1980’s that the township’s form of government was changed from an 11 Commissioner ward government into the current five person council with a mayor/executive.
As the third century of Bristol Township dawns, redevelopment, attraction of new industry, and a rebuilding of the infrastructure are on the agenda for the future.
(Part of this history was written for the Bristol Township School District Calendar)
Bill Wilson has served in numerous local and state government capacities, and is a former Bucks County Courier Times City Editor. He lives in the Heddington Section of Bristol Township.
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