The Lenni-Lenape people inhabited the Schuylkill watershed, including present-day Phoenixville, when the European explorers arrived. They were labeled the "Delaware" by the settlers, in 1686, after the European name for the river alongside which they lived. They were a part of the Algonquin language group, and were under the political influence of the Iroquois Confederation. By and large they were a peaceful people. They were typical hunters and gatherers, although they also practiced farming, raising corn, beans and squash as staples of their diet.
Many of the first European settlers to this part of Pennsylvania were religious refugees from the old world. These determined men were truly pioneers in a wilderness. One of the first, Moses Coates, spent most of 1730 scouting the area and sleeping with a gun because he was so fearful of the Lenni-Lenape Indians along French Creek.
In 1731 Coates induced a friend, a miller named James Starr, to buy land on the south side of the creek. The entire region at the time ? 1,000 acres of forest along French Creek - had been patented to a Chester County political figure named David Loyd, who called it the Manavon Tract after his birthplace in Wales.
Starr cleared his land for agriculture use and built a grist mill. Farmers from neighboring Charlestown Township could now use Starr's mill instead of transporting their grain down river to Plymouth (now Plymouth Meeting).
Thanks to the efforts of a Philadelphian, Samuel Nutt, who owned a forge in Coventryville, a road was laid in 1735 between Philadelphia and Coventryville which ran through Starr and Coates lands. Originally known as Nutt's Road, that portion of Route 23 that runs through the Borough still bears the name Nutt Road.
Slowly a settlement grew up around the mill area. The property changed hands many times. During the French and Indian Wars the village of Manavon still was enough of an outpost to suffer random attacks from small bands of Indians. Fifteen volunteers from the area fought under General Braddock in 1755.
By the time of the American Revolution, the population of the vicinity numbered about 450, among 66 households. Many were Mennonites and Quakers. The subsequent history of Phoenixville is largely that of the growth of its industries.
The region began to develop and the land was clear-cut to satisfy the demands for lumber in the 1800's. Ice dams were common on the Schuylkill and its tributaries. Convenient transportation made the area into a major supplier of ice on the eastern seaboard. In 1790, a new owner of the mill dammed French Creek to increase water power and erected a rolling and slitting mill for the manufacturing of iron nails. The nails were laboriously hammered out by hand until 1809, when a newly-invented machine was installed and the first machine-made nails in the country began to be produced. In 1813, "French Creek Works" introduced a new manager, an ambitious German named Lewis Wernwag. Since the iron nails were created from fiery beds of coal, the new manager changed the name to "Phoenix Nail Works".
The iron and steel dynasty was run by two families, the Whitakers and the Reeves, with the Reeves ultimately remaining to influence generations to come in Phoenixville. In 1837, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad came through Phoenixville, and the Nail Works expanded rapidly to include railroad structured iron. In 1855, with David Reeves as President and the gifted inventor John Griffen, the plant made the Griffen Gun for the Union armies during the Civil War. The gun was credited with giving the North a decisive military advantage. Sixty two are still on the field of Gettysburg National Park.
In the next decades, a relatively light structure of wrought iron, known as the Phoenix Column revolutionized bridge building around the world. Still with Reeves and Griffen at the helm, the Phoenix Bridge Co. was formed and airy iron railroad bridges began to transform the face of America. By 1888, the Phoenix Bridges spanned almost every major river in the U.S. and Canada. The International Bridge across Niagara Falls, and bridges destined for Scotland, Japan, Russia, and Africa were built right here in Phoenixville.
Another Phoenixville product that became known around the world was a delicate colored majolica ware made from a local clay and now prized by collectors everywhere.
Coal and steel still were partners in driving the region's economy during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. After World War II the local industry did not invest heavily in modernization and quickly fell behind foreign manufacturers in productivity. Little remains of the once dominant mills of the area. Their history is memorialized, however, by the Steel Industry Heritage Corporation, founded by an act of Congress in 1989. The Phoenixville Renaissance Mural, illustrates the importance of the iron and steel industry in this region. Phoenixville and surrounding areas are also known for covered bridges that date back as far as the early 1800's.
Today, Phoenixville has become the medical center of Northern Chester County and has an exceptional hospital. The Phoenixville Hospital is part of the University of Pennsylvania Healthcare System. Phoenixville's population has grown to 16,000 and residents still enjoy the countryside and suburban lifestyle, but with the amenities of a new million-dollar YMCA facility.
Phoenixville sits only 4 miles north of Historic Valley Forge National Park. The park is truly for all seasons and features hiking, biking and walking trails, fields for kite flying, and an area for winter sports. The Visitor's Center houses a collection of Revolutionary War memorabilia from the time of George Washington's army encampment
Every year, Phoenixville plays host to the annual Dogwood Festival. The festival begins in April with the crowning of the Dogwood Queen and the annual Dogwood Pageant. In the weeks following, a celebration for newly crowned Queen and her court occurs as the public is invited to join in at the Dogwood Ball. The fair is full of carnival rides, food vendors, and local entertainment and attracts over 90,000 individuals every year. To cap off the festival, Saturday brings the community together for the annual Dogwood Parade, the largest parade in Chester County.
The revitalization of downtown includes an arts and entertainment economic development strategy. This includes an annual music series. In addition to music and street performers, this year will feature non-food vendors as well as a 'soapbox' which will allow people to voice their opinions on any and everything.
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