General George Washington and thousands of American troops were camped in Gulph Mills in December of 1777. They arrived in Upper Merion Township after having crossed the Schuylkill at Swedes Ford (today’s Norristown).
The troops initially had planned to cross the river at Matson’s Ford (today’s Conshohocken) but were driven back across the Schuylkill by British troops that controlled the high ground on Rebel Hill and other locations in today’s West Conshohocken and Lower Merion Township.
By tradition, it is stated that General Washington and his troops marched under the Hanging Rock in Gulph Mills on their way to their winter encampment at Valley Forge. While there is no written record at that time confirming that as fact, given that traveling on the main roadway – Gulph Road – from Gulph Mills to Valley Forge would have required some of the troops, if not all of the troops, to go underneath the Hanging Rock, the tradition is likely correct.
For many years, “Gulph” was also spelled as “Gulf”. Thus, it was “Gulf Mills”, “Gulf Creek”, and “Gulf Road”.
In earlier times, the name of the outcropping of shale rock was also called the “Overhanging Rock” and the “Gulph Rock”.
Interestingly, the rock also had the name of “Toll Rock”.
According to a news article in The Philadelphia Inquirer dated January 16, 1904, “On moonlight nights when the youths of the surrounding country take their lady lovers driving, it is the legend that upon passing this spot, they are allowed the toll of a kiss.”
The top photograph shows what the Hanging Rock looked like in this undated photo that appeared in that newspaper article in 1904. This is possibly what the Hanging Rock looked like in 1777 – prior to the common usage of automobiles and other motor vehicles throughout the Freedom Valley and prior to the “trimming” of the rock through the years by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT).
Through the years, there have been efforts to remove the Hanging Rock from the landscape of Upper Merion Township. The Reading Times reported in a news article dated July 7, 1917, that “agitation was started here [in Norristown] today [July 6th] to demand of the State Highway Department that it spare the big overhanging rock in Gulph Mills, which the department intended to remove in connection with improving the highway.”
On the same date as that news article, the Pottsville Daily Republican confirmed that “Norristown citizens petition to stop the state from dynamiting Hanging Rock near Gulph Mills during the building of state road.”
The Evening Sentinel of Carlisle reported in a news article dated July 13, 1917, that “District Attorney [J. Aubrey] Anderson has been advised by the State Highway Department that the opposition which he headed against the department’s move to demolish the historic Hanging Rock at Gulph Mills has proved effectual. The rock will not be removed because of its historic connections.”
(Mr. Anderson later became the solicitor of the Borough of Conshohocken. According to a news article in the Lebanon Daily News on February 15, 1918, Mr. Anderson had been elected as Borough solicitor to replace a gentleman who was serving in the United States Army.)
The Allentown Morning Call printed a headline on its front page on September 8, 1924, that there was “Protest Against Gulph Rock Removal”. The news article stated that the State Highway Department was again threatening to destroy the “Gulph Rock”. “Telegrams of protest and criticism hurriedly composed and speeded over the wires…They referred to the proposed removal of the historical rock as ‘departmental vandalism’.”
It appears that the renewal of the efforts of the Commonwealth to dynamite the Hanging Rock caused a change in ownership of the property that contained the geological formation.
The Saint Petersburg Times in Florida printed a news article on December 7, 1924, that the “Historic Rock To Be Permanently Saved” through actions of the members of the Montgomery County Historical Society. The article detailed that “the old rock was saved from being blasted away.”
To minimize the likelihood that the Hanging Rock would be disturbed in the future, about one-half acre of land that includes the Hanging Rock was provided to the Valley Forge Historical Society. Montgomery County Property Records indicate the land transfer took place in 1924.
To this day, according to Montgomery County, the Valley Forge Historical Society remains the owner of about 24,000 square feet of land that includes the Hanging Rock.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in a news article dated July 12, 1995, that the donor of the land to the historical society was the property owner at the time – none other than Mr. J. Aubrey Anderson, the former District Attorney, and his wife, who had led efforts to save the Hanging Rock from destruction by the State Highway Department in 1917.
There is a discrepancy in facts since this news article – and other news articles – credit Mr. J. Aubrey Anderson for the donation of the land, while other news sources confirm that it was Mrs. J. Aubrey Anderson – the former Miss Lidie Walker McFarland – who actually bought the land that included the Hanging Rock and then donated the real estate to be preserved for future generations.
A news article dated December 17, 1924, in The Evening News of Harrisburg noted that the donor of the land was Mrs. Anderson, not Mr. Anderson and not Mr. and Mrs. Anderson. The Evening News reported in that news article that the Hanging Rock was to be protected “owing to the purchase of the tract of land including the rock by Mrs. J. Aubrey Anderson, of Gulf Mills, who had arranged for dedication exercises to be held next Friday.”
In the news article in The Philadelphia Inquirer dated July 12, 1995, Mr. Anderson was quoted from a presentation he made on December 19, 1924: “No man-made monument can surpass it in beauty or equal its power to arrest attention and fire the imagination…To destroy this marker would be to defame ourselves. It would convict us of forgetfulness of sacrifices made for us by our forefathers.”
According to a news article dated November 20, 1953, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, a plaque was dedicated at the site on December 19, 1924. The plaque bore the inscription “General Washington and the American Army passed under this rock on the march to Valley Forge December 19, 1777 – The overhanging rock was presented to the Valley Forge Historical Society for Perpetual Preservation – December 19, 1924.”
(A subsequent news article dated February 10, 2002, in The Philadelphia Inquirer indicated that the plaque had been stolen some years earlier. The theft took place sometime after May 30, 1976, because on that date, The Philadelphia Inquirer printed a news column from a resident of Wayne who experienced “traffic troubles” at the Hanging Rock and noted the plaque at the site.)
The news that the Hanging Rock was saved was national news.
On September 25, 1925, the Carbondale Free Press of Illinois reported on its front page that “Famous Rock Not To Be Destroyed”. On September 18, 1925, the Record-Eagle of Traverse City, Michigan, wrote in its headline that “Historic Rock Saved From Blasting”.
The efforts to remove the Hanging Rock did not end, though.
The Automobile Club of Philadelphia – AAA advocated the removal of the Hanging Rock, according to a news article dated April 3, 1952, in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The newspaper quoted a statement from the AAA: “Today, with thousands of vehicles disgorged from the Schuylkill Expressway onto Route 23 bound for Philadelphia and the South, and other thousands of trucks headed for the turnpike, its [the Hanging Rock’s] continued presence cannot be justified.”
The Newark Advocate of Ohio published a news article under the headline “Historic Hanging Rock Called Traffic Menace” on August 25, 1955. The newspaper stated that the Automobile Club of Philadelphia (AAA) has “conducted a strong campaign to improve conditions because it regards the rock as a road hazard.”
This newspaper article also stated that some have indicated that “the rock can be chipped away to make it safe.” The Rev. Dr. John Robbins Hart, secretary of the Valley Forge Historical Society and the Rector of the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, was quoted as stating that “Total removal is not necessary, but the stone could be hewn away for safe driving.”
On January 15, 1970, The Philadelphia Inquirer printed a letter to the editor from Mr. Paul Thomas, District Engineer at the State Highways Department. In his letter, Mr. Thomas stated that “The department hopes to come up with a scheme which will eliminate the hazard and at the same time, preserve the rock because of its historical significance.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in a news article dated January 31, 1971, that the Greater Valley Forge Chamber of Commerce “has approved the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s plans to resculpture the famous hanging rock on Gulph Road.”
On July 1, 1971, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that an agreement had been reached between the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Valley Forge Historical Society to “trim” the Hanging Rock from 4 feet to up to 10 feet.
A columnist wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer in a news column dated September 8, 1974, that PennDOT intended to start “chiseling the rock beginning in January [of 1975]”.
Twenty-one years later, discussions were still underway regarding the Hanging Rock.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in a news article dated July 12, 1995, that PennDOT was still determining whether to “trim” the Hanging Rock. The quote from one PennDOT official was “We are in the very, very early stages of the project.”
In 1996, PennDOT released a study that stated that the Hanging Rock has “no historical significance.”
That statement caused others to move forward with efforts to confirm the historical significance of the Hanging Rock.
On September 9, 1997, the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Board voted to nominate the Hanging Rock to the National Register of Historic Places, according to a report from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The Daily News of Huntingdon in Pennsylvania published a news article on January 10, 1998, that stated that the Federal Government acted to protect the Hanging Rock on December 24, 1997.
On Christmas Eve, 1997, the Secretary of the Department of the Interior placed the Hanging Rock on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to a news article dated February 10, 2002, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, PennDOT announced in February of 2002 that PennDOT “will henceforth give the rock a wide berth.” An official with PennDOT was quoted as stating that “The rock won’t be touched.”
The Hanging Rock has been carved back through the years to allow easier movement of motor vehicles. This is what the Hanging Rock looked like in 2017. The Gulph Creek is seen to the left. The Norristown High-Speed Line – not seen in this photo – is located beyond the trees on top of a section of the Hanging Rock to the right.
This is an aerial view of the location of the Hanging Rock in Gulph Mills. The yellow dot designates the Hanging Rock. Gulph Road and Gulph Creek are located underneath the trees near the yellow dot. To the right is the Norristown High-Speed Line. As people travel between Norristown and Upper Darby, passengers travel right over a section of the Hanging Rock – a section that is not hanging over Gulph Road.
The top photograph of the Hanging Rock appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1904.
The photograph of the Hanging Rock in 1917 is provided courtesy of Old Roads Out Of Philadelphia, a book written by Mr. John Thomson Faris, 1917.
The photograph of the Hanging Rock in 1961 appeared in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on September 15, 1961. This photo is courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographic Collection of the Special Collections Research Center of Temple University Libraries.
The photograph of the Hanging Rock in 2017 is provided courtesy of Google, 2017.
The aerial photograph of the location of the Hanging Rock is provided courtesy of Google, 2017.
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© 2018 Richard McDonough