Bristol

Oral History

First settled as Buckingham (for Buckingham, England) in 1681, the borough of Bristol is about 30 minutes north of Center City, Philadelphia. Bristol was founded as a port and is rich in shipping history. Shipbuilding yards operated on Mill Creek, at the southwestern edge of town and along the banks of the Delaware northeast of present-day Franklin Street. Shipwrights constructed a number of residences in town including the John Reed House at 921 Radcliffe Street, constructed in 1816. It is an excellent example of the work of these craftsmen.

Shipbuilding remained an important local industry well into the mid-1800s. However, Bristol’s greatest period of growth occurred between 1825 and 1855 due to its position as the southern terminus of the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal. Begun in 1827, and completed in late 1830, the Delaware Canal connected Bristol to the rich anthracite coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania and transformed Bristol into a bustling transportation hub. A large boat basin along the river’s edge was always full of canal boats filled with coal, lumber, iron, and other products of the industries along the Lehigh River.

The need to transfer goods to and from the canal boats at Bristol created a local real estate boom in the 1830s and 1840s. The demand for riverfront property suitable for the construction of wharves, docks, and warehouses soared. The prosperity that resulted from the presence of the canal also brought the railroad to Bristol. In 1834 the town’s first railroad depot opened at the foot of Market Street, in close proximity to the wharves along the riverfront.

The canal also brought new residents and buildings to Bristol. Wealthy and prominent people built their houses along Radcliffe Street, while longshoremen and other workers lived in modest frame row homes constructed in the northern portions of the original town and on new streets carved from farmland that bordered the northeastern edge of town.

The prosperity sparked by the canal was relatively short-lived. The completion of an outlet lock at New Hope in 1840 permitted canal boats to leave the Delaware Canal and cross the Delaware River to Lambertville, New Jersey, where they entered the Delaware & Raritan Canal. This greatly shortened the distance required to reach New York and other major northeastern cities and siphoned a great deal of trade away from Bristol. Bristol continued to prosper until about 1855, but the following five years were marked by economic recession.

Another economic boom accompanied the Civil War. A number of important industries were established along the Delaware Canal in Bristol during the 25 years following 1860, turning the town into the preeminent industrial community in Bucks County. The iron rolling mills, textile mills, carpet mills, and other industries located along the canal sparked an economic recovery in the community. They generated new wealth, attracted new workers, and are largely responsible for the growth and expansion of the town in the late 1800s.