Thursday, March 30, 2017

How Far Has N-Town Come In 205 Years?

Tomorrow is Norristown turns 205 years old, so today I’m resurrecting part of an old Diary entry from 2014, telling of our town’s founding, updated for this year.

In 1681, King Charles II of England gave a New World land grant to William Penn. Penn named the land "Sylvania." The king called it Pennsylvania, after Penn's father, who'd been an admiral and who'd also lent Charles loads of money. Pennsylvania was the king's way of paying back the debt to the family, and also of getting rid of William, who was a Quaker and considered a troublemaker.

Penn set aside land parcels for his family and friends. His son, William Jr., received 7,000 acres, roughly from what we today know as Saw Mill Run, up the river past Barbados Island (West Norriton Township), inland to include what today is East Norriton. Junior never lived on this land, in fact, he seems to have sold off the parcel fairly quickly.

Isaac Norris, Jr.
The next owners were Isaac Norris and William Trent, who set up a plantation and reaped the profits. Trent sold his share to Norris so he could go off to New Jersey to found Trenton. Norris passed his land down to his sons. His son Charles got the 500+ acres that’s now Norristown’s downtown. On his death, Charles’s widow put the land up for public auction and the University of Pennsylvania bought it. 

So, for more than its first hundred years, none of the owners of the lion's share of Penn Junior’s land lived on it. That's right, Norristown was begun by absentee landlords.

When the Pennsylvania legislature decided to split Philadelphia County and call the northwestern part Montgomery, the UPenn parcel was perfectly situated for a county seat, so the university's provost sent his son, William Moore Smith, to design the community in 1784. He laid out the first streets, plotted out where the courthouse and public square would go, and called the place "The Town of Norris" (after Charles or Isaac, or the whole family, or maybe simply because the area was called Norris Plantation). William Moore Smith is the closest thing to a real founder that we have, but no one remembers him for that.

Apparently, everyone thought the town name was too pretentious or too long. They called us Norristown. We applied to the state to become a borough and the governor signed the incorporation charter on March 31, 1812. Why that date? Possibly that was just when the charter ended up on his desk. It was a Tuesday, if anyone cares.

The first council was elected May 1st--8 members named Swaine, Coates, Hahn, Schrack, Hamill, Thomas, Holstein and Winnard (an interesting mix of English and German names—I wonder if THEY had squabbles about which nationalities belonged here and who didn’t). One would assume some or all of these men were involved with sending the charter to the governor, so they could be called founders, too, but we don't remember them either.

So, Norristown essentially began with absentee landlords and other outsiders, who made most of the decisions that would effect the residents and shape our town.

In some ways, we don't seem to have evolved much beyond that in 205 years.

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