A Trip to Smedley Park

Its been a while since the last entry in this series, but this week I started looking into Smedley Park, the township’s largest park. Smedley Park was established as a small park known as “The Hemlocks” in 1937 from two tracts of land before soon being named Smedley Park. Over the decades the county has added many more tracts to the park to create the large park we have today.

Who was Samuel L. Smedley?

Samuel L. Smedley from the Chester times 20 Sept. 1946

Samuel L. Smedley was one of the creators and primary drivers of the Delaware County Park and Recreation board for the first 14 years of its existence. He was born in 1861 and he grew up and died at his family farm, Twin Ash Farm in Edgemont. However, from 1882 until his retirement in 1917, he lived and worked in Philadelphia as a surveyor and wallpaper manufacturer. In 1895 he got into real estate where he developed the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia. His uncle (confusingly also named Samuel L. Smedley, as was Samuel L. Smedley’s son) was instrumental in the creation of Fairmont Park, which his obituary claims was the inspiration for his later work.

It’s clear from his life that he was a devoted Quaker. He was active in the Middletown Meeting after his retirement during which time its membership grew tenfold. He served on the board of Cheyney State Teachers College, a HBCU, for 50 years and was President of the board at the time of his death. There are numerous articles about his efforts to organize Camp Sunshine, a summer day camp for “underprivileged boys”, which served from dozens to hundreds of children.

Letter to the Editor, Chester Times, Mar 9, 1939

Mr. Smedley seems to be best known for the creation and building of Delaware County’s Parks system. He advocated for it for 5 years and was the first one appointed to it in 1932. In addition, he also served on Westtown School’s alumni association on the “Committee on Improvements Not Designated”, he served on the Pennsylvania Forestry Association and as a enthusiastic trout-fisher, he helped establish the Poconos as a resort, founding Pocono Manor. And he represented Delaware County on the Park Committee of the Tri-State Regional Planning Federation.

Mr. Smedley’s wife died in 1933, and his son seems to have taken on the running of the family farm. Most of what Mr. Smedley accomplished started when he was in his 60s. He gave many speeches to organizations throughout the county promoting the needs for parks for recreation as the county turned from farmland into suburbs. To celebrate Edgemont’s declaration of Arbor Day in 1930, he gave a speech titled, “Every Tree Writes Its Own Life History”. They planted 50 trees to mark the occasion. Mr. Smedley died in 1946 and his obituary ran on the front page of the Chester Times.

History of Smedley Park

Smedley Park is sufficiently big that Walt Cressler has written a historical account of it in his book about the Crum Creek. The original 10.5 acres that formed the park in 1937 came from two unrelated families named Lewis. Mordecai Lewis owned the Victoria Plush Mills on the other side of Baltimore Pike and the house that the Penn State Extension Service occupies at the park was his home before they moved. The other Lewis, J. Howard Lewis took over the Franklin Paper Mill in 1868. That mill was originally built in 1826 by John Pancoast. It was bought by Elizabeth Lewis in 1833 and kept in the Lewis family until the family incorporated it as Paper Products Manufacturing in 1918. It operated under various names until closing in the 1960s. Cressler says it closed in 1965, but a Delco Daily Times article in April of 1964 marks its closing (it was owned by Cellu-Products at that point).

The paper mill burned down twice, in 1882 and in 1883. The 1883 fire was particularly calamitous and a man died. Cressler lists him as Thomas Morrissey but the 1883 news article in the times says otherwise,

J Howard Lewis, from Cressler’s “The Flow of History along Crum Creek”

New horror was added by the blowing up of a boiler, which exploded with a loud report, sending bits of timber, bricks, mortar and other missiles in every direction. An inspection revealed the fact that a man named Marsh was killed outright, J. Howard Lewis, Jr. was painfully, though not seriously injured, J. Howard Lewis, Sr. was hit on the head, and other parties received slight scratches.

Chester Times, Aug. 22, 1883

Both times the mill was rebuilt. There was a mill there until PENNDOT demolished it after using it as storage for the Blue Route construction in 1991. Cressler’s book has pictures of the derelict mill buildings in the 1980s. The mill stood where the ball fields are on the Nether Providence side of Smedley Park. PENNDOT’s funds were used to restore Mordecai Lewis’s house and build the redwood timber environmental center.

Nether Providence and Swarthmore groups fought the Blue Route to the very end. From the DelCo Times, Nov. 14, 1988.

By 1944, a newspaper article notes that the park had already grown from its original 10 acres to 80 acres. The original 10 acres near Pine Ridge were given to the County by the Integrity Trust Company. In 1939 the county purchased a further 36 acres from the Fidelity-Philadelphia Trust Company near Baltimore Pike. The Crum-Martin section of 33 acres north of Paper Mill Rd. became part of the park when Dr. Martin, president of the Philadelphia Board of Education, donated it to Swarthmore College for use as a park. I believe its still leased by the county from the college.

The park was further expanded when the Blue Route went through, the state purchased additional land for the county to offset the loss of land caused by the Blue Route. In 1987, the county and state reached a deal to acquire 10 acres in the Lawton and Penza tracts. However, the state refused to buy the Walsh tract nearby in Springfield, which was also available at the time. These purchases only account for about 2/3 of the park today, so likely other tracts were added by the county between the 40s and 80s.

On January 30 of 1987 the DelCo Times has an article, “Chemical waste dump in Blue Route’s path”,

PENNDOT has found another possible toxic waste dump in the path of the Blue Route, with a cleanup pricetag ranging from $1 million to $12 million, state and federal officials confirmed Thursday…

Investigators not only found the drums – 40 of them containing solvents and contaminated dirt – but four lagoons of chemical waste, each measuring 30 by 60 feet said EPA spokesman Ray Germann.

Smedley didn’t seem to be mentioned after that, so more research will have to be done to determine what the EPA’s findings ended up being. The article does mention that PCBs were found in the soil. The lagoons contained cadmium, lead and mercury.

Smedley Park Today

The park remains in heavy use by a variety of groups. The Pennsylvania Extension Service operates a variety of programs out of the two buildings mentioned above and has several native plant demonstration gardens around its buildings. The Friends of Smedley Park was re-established a few years ago and has a nice website dedicated to the park. Nether Providence and Delaware County also maintain pages about the park.

The park has two playgrounds, soccer and baseball fields, several hiking trails (often used by bikes as well), a trolley stop (the 101 line between Upper Darby and Media) and some old covered picnic areas in need of repair. The park has new signage, showing extensive trails in the area, but it seems the county has not updated their website showing these. The Friends of Smedley have a link to Trailforks, which does seem to show more of the trails.

Categories: History