1682 – 1800
In November 1682, Thomas Holme received a grant of 1,646 acres from William Penn on either side of Dublin (Pennypack) Creek to establish Wellspring Plantation. It wasn’t until 1790, when decedents of Holme family formally divided the land, that this 26-acre plot would become known as the Village of Holmesburg. The earliest building and mills were established along the creek and had long been used to identify the settlement that had formed around a 1697 bridge and mill. Lower Dublin and Upper Dublin Townships were officially established in 1701.
1800 – 1850
Change and growth were in the air. It was the turn of the 19th century and America was a proud, free, and independent new nation of growing cities and towns. In 1819, Fox Chase, Bustleton, and Holmesburg were Lower Dublin Township’s notable villages. All three grew around inns or public houses.
Two important local happenings would cause the name Holmesburg to stick. One was the new Lower Dublin Academy school house, built in 1798 to replace the old log school house. The brothers John and Thomas Holme, decedents of Thomas Holme, were among the Trustees and had attended the old log school house which it replaced. The second was the establishment of the Frankford-Bristol Pike in 1803. A toll gate was situated at the south end of the Pennypack bridge at the intersection of the road leading down to the old 1697 mill. This had long been a stopping point with a blacksmith shop and plenty of water for horses. The turnpike company paved the old King’s Highway and the growing village took on a new life and a new name; Holmesburg was here to stay.
More mills were starting up and the old settlement continued to expand. On an 1819 map, there were nine mills noted on Pennypack Creek down the length of the township. In the census of 1820, the number of inhabitants in Lower Dublin was 2,640.
In 1834, the Philadelphia & Trenton Railroad opened, running about a half-mile inland from the Delaware River. Ferries had been operating near the mouth of the Pennypack since the early Swedish settlers. Ferry Lane (today’s Pennypack St) had been built to access the Frankford-Bristol Road. It had become a well known spot for travelers and a popular summer boarding house.
Mills continued to drive the economy of much of Lower Dublin Township and Holmesburg in particular. The Mill Commons, powered by the mill race emanating from the dam just above the Frankford-Bristol Pike Bridge, now had three mills. The Rowland Shovel Works would become one of Holmesburg’s major employers during the 19th century and nationally recognized as among the best. Pennypack Village would form an extensive mill community along the creek.
1850 – 1900
Some notable features on an 1850 map are the blacksmith shops on the Bristol Pike at either end of town, the Liberty Fire Engine down the street from the Cliff Hotel, (aka the 1799 Green Tree), the Star Hotel located a block up, and across the Frankford-Bristol Pike the Risdon Hotel (aka the old Washington Inn). The Columbia School, Holmesburg’s first public school, was built in 1846 to accommodate 300 students.
After city consolidation in 1854, the townships of Oxford, Lower Dublin, Moreland, and Byberry, comprising Northeast Philadelphia, became the 23rd Ward.
Holmesburg continued to grow rapidly during and after the Civil War. There were stores and businesses on Main Street from Decatur Street to the Pennypack. The upstream mills, Rowland Shovel Works and Hartel Print Works were busy. Holmesburg finally had a train station on the Philadelphia-Trenton Railroad at Delaware Ave (today’s Rhawn Street). The Holmesburg Library opened in the Athenaeum Building in 1867.
The steam engine was replacing the water wheels that had powered the 18th and 19th century mills and the railroad was further diminishing the need for water access. State Road was opened in 1870 siphoning traffic from the Frankford-Bristol Turnpike and its tolls. Even as it vigorously matured, Holmesburg was experiencing a touch of seclusion.
On October 11, 1880, the grist mill that had initiated and defined the settlement of Holmesburg was destroyed by fire.
1900 – 2000
Elsewhere, Holmesburg was thriving. A number of substantial dwellings were built and the demise of the turnpike and the advent of the trolley brought change and with it prosperity. The center of the village relocated from Welsh Road and Frankford Avenue to Rhawn and Frankford Avenues, at the trolley intersection. The Holmesburg Prison, eventually to be named the “worst prison in the America,” opened in 1896. Pennypack Park was established in 1905 with its inaugural entrance at Frankford Avenue and the Creek. The Holmesburg Trust Company opened in the Athenaeum in 1906 and the new, Carnegie-built Thomas Holme Library opened at Hartel Avenue and Main Street in 1907.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, manufacturing in Holmesburg had been almost exclusively located on Pennypack Creek at the various mills. That changed in the 20th century as feeder tracks off the railroad were laid and factories expanded north along the Delaware River. By 1929, the area east of Edmund Street along the railroad and State Road was heavily industrial. However, the area east of the railroad tracks was seldom considered to be part of Holmesburg, though the factories provided many jobs for the local residence.
The State Road industrial corridor peaked in the 1950s and went into steady decline after the 1960s.
2000 – Present
Today the vast majority of the buildings that once hummed with activity are vacant or leased non-industrial. The one viable industry there today is waste recycling.