Bristol: Cultural pride in a riverside community


The Bristol Riverside Theatre produces shows throughout the year.

Bristol is the oldest incorporated town in Bucks County (1641). It is situated at the southernmost area of Bucks County, at a point on the Delaware River where the river’s commercial importance has been valued for more than 350 years.

To this day, the river continues to define its survival and personality. Bristol Township, including Levittown, surrounds the borough, which has two bridges across the Delaware, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Bridge to the north and the Burlington-Bristol Bridge to the south.

It is worth a visit to Bristol’s landmark sites to understand the depths of the borough’s significance, not only for the value of the Bucks County and Pennsylvania histories, but also to comprehend the impact it has had on other social issues, such as the Underground Railroad, labor laws, company housing development, and even the patriotic efforts for military support during World Wars I and II.

Bristol was founded by Quakers. Named after Bristol, England, the river area was established by a settler named Samuel Clift, who had received a land grant at approximately the same time that William Penn was becoming a real estate magnate in the remaining vast lands of what is now Pennsylvania. Philadelphia did not yet exist. Yet Philadelphia and Bristol’s futures would eventually collide.

Clift, like Penn, established a community of religious tolerance. In what is now Bucks County, it has been recorded that Bristol was home to many of the area’s first Catholic settlers, and other settlers of minority religions. This included Moravians, Mennonites and others. Despite those welcoming principles, though, Bristol still had to endure political struggles during the Revolutionary War. In 1776, for example, St. James Episcopal Church was burned down by American patriots, because of their apparent fear that the church was in allegiance to the King of England.

In “Bucks County, Pennsylvania,” a history of Bucks County, by Kathryn Finnegan Clark, a regular contributor to the Bucks County Herald, and also a native of Bristol, Clark notes that the peace of Bucks County was disrupted many times, particularly in Bristol during the Revolutionary War.

In what is said to be one of the oldest inns in the country, the King George Inn, Gen. James Cadwalader awaited instructions from George Washington. The inn is still operational.

Bristol is the terminus of the Delaware Canal, which most Bucks County residents and tourists know has played a major role in the history of Delaware River commerce and transportation. There is now a pleasant public park in Bristol, which used to be a commercial wharf. There are also elaborate statues honoring the Irish immigrants who toiled by hand to dig the canal, the Hispanic immigrants who have been part of Bristol’s culture, and there is a beautiful statue giving respect to Harriet Tubman, the African American woman who was a leader in the movement for abolition of slavery – much of which took place in Philadelphia and Bristol.

Bristol thrived during the Industrial Revolution, after the American Civil War. During World War I, Bristol became a major shipyard that manufactured entire ships for the Navy. Bristol citizens jumped into action for the war effort. Then, true in its spirit, Bristol once again became an industrial town during World War II; it manufactured airplane parts and fuselages for the U.S. military. In 1950, U.S. Steel, with the Fairless Steel Works, just outside Bristol, presented itself to the world as one of the largest steel manufacturers of all time – also supporting another war effort, in Korea.

The terminus of the Delaware canal (construction began in 1829) was in the town of Bristol. At the end of the construction process, many canal workers, mostly of Irish descent, settled in the area. Meanwhile, William Hulme Grundy settled in Bristol in the mid-1800s, and established the Grundy woolen mills, which in its peak production employed over 850 employees. William’s son, Joseph, would eventually go on to become a United States senator, who was known in political circles as “Mr. Republican,” with great power in the state and party.

Much of Joe Grundy’s power was centered in the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association – he was its president. He was considered congenial yet controversial – especially on his labor law opinions.

The home of Joseph and his sister, Margaret, is the landmark treasure, the Grundy Museum, on Radcliffe Street, on the waterfront. The Grundy Foundation operates the museum and the Grundy Library, an adjacent modern building. The affluent street in Bristol attracts thousands of visitors every year. It is part of a National District.

A casual drive through Bristol, today reveals that company “housing” became an incentive to work for a company of the caliber that Joe Grundy established in Bristol.

The town today houses a theater that produces Actors Equity plays and musicals and an ice rink. It is a pleasant place for walking and enjoying riverfront activities.

2017 © Bucks County Herald