Using Philadelphia’s Detailed City Atlases to Research Development in the Upper Northwest

Would you like to see how the Upper Northwest or any other part of Philadelphia looked in the 1860s, 1890s, 1910s or some other pre-1930 time period? If yes, then you may be very interested in the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network’s interactive historic map site. (Link)

What can you do on the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory site? As an example, let’s look at Smedley’s 1862 Atlas for Philadelphia find out what Chestnut Hill’s map looked like in 1862? This screen shot shows the Index for Smedley’s Atlas.

Smedley’s 1862 Atlas Index Page shows the specific areas where detailed parcel level mapping was provided. We can look at the Chestnut Hill area that Smedley designated as Area 23.

Smedley’s 1862 Atlas – Plate 23 gives us a pretty good idea of the situation in 1862:

You can see that many of Chestnut Hill’s street names have been changed since 1862:

  • Germantown Ave was called Germantown Perkiomen Turnpike
  • Bethlehem Pike was called the Chestnut Hill – Springhouse Turnpike
  • Stenton Ave was called County Line Road
  • Chestnut Hill’s NW-SW roads were called 24th to 34th St compared to today’s Ardleigh St etc.

Let’s take a look at the RL Barnes 12-Mile Around Philadelphia Map to see how Chestnut Hill and Mt Airy were mapped 1867.

While RL Barnes’ 12-Mile Map is much less detailed than Smedley’s 1862 Atlas, it does show that Germantown was reasonably well developed and Mt Airy – Chestnut Hill were less developed in 1867.

You can see the extensive development in Germantown in GM Hopkin’s 1871 Atlas of the Late Borough of Germantown, 22nd Ward of Philadelphia. Just a reminder, Philadelphia County was consolidated with the original Center City, other districts, boroughs and township in the County to form the City we know today. Germantown Borough and Township were consolidated into the City. Hopkins 1871 Atlas only extends to Gorgas Lane, so it does not provide information on upper Mt Airy or Chestnut Hill developlement.

Atlases like the one above are excellent tools for determining when roads were actually built versus just paper streets and to see who owned the larger properties and the location of buildings. Critical information for those interested in historical development.

1895 was a big year in Atlas purblishing with both the Baist’s 1895 Atlas and the Bromely 1895 Atlas being published that year.

Here’s a small screen shot of the 1895 Baist Atlas for some of the Chestnut Hill – Mt Airy undeveloped lands. Notice that the Atlas shows both the Chestnut Hill East and West lines as well as the many properties of the Gowen and Houston Families.

Other important City Atlas map publishing years include: 1901 and 1910.

There were also a number of Ward Atlas maps that may be helpful in your research. is another tool for amateur historians. While the site charges a fee, it is a great resource for finding out what the newspapers were saying about Chestnut Hill or any other topic. For example, here are a few newspaper clips from the 1840 – 1869 period:

  • 1869 Planning for Chestnut Hill Hotel got underway. (Link)
  • 1862 Chestnut Hill Hospital opening delayed (Link)
  • 1854 Philadelphia Germantown Noristown(PGN) Railroad was extended from Market Square in Germantown to Chestnut Hill
  • 1857 Philadelphia Germantown Noristown(PGN) Railroad schedule showed 9 daily trains between Chestnut Hill and Philadelphia each way. (Link)
  • 1855 The Chestnut Hill Academy announced their winter, 1855 school session. (Link)
  • In 1840, the Chestnut Hill and Springhouse Turnpike Company declared a 4% dividend. (Link)
  • 1840 Chestnut Hill firemen save dwelling. (Link) can be helpful to provide background information on landowners, including obituaries and improtant family or business events for the names that appear on the Atlases as property opwenrs.

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