Once eyed as the nation’s capital,
Morrisville still is a vital transportation hub
The Calhoun Street Bridge has evolved from the first successfully completed bridge linking Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It crosses from Morrisville to the state capital at Trenton, N.J.
Morrisville is a town of “firsts.” It is recognized as one of the first settlements in what is now Lower Bucks County, a town originally organized by the Dutch West India Company, from 1624 to 1627.
Attempts to succeed as a trading post failed when conflict and violence with local Indians forced the Dutch and other European settlers to move on to more secure locations, farther away from the imposing Delaware River, which for more than two centuries presented transportation challenges for settlers who wished to promote interstate commerce (between what is now Pennsylvania and New Jersey).
Although there was no official name for the area at that time, correspondence between the trading company and the early Europeans referred to the area as Falls of the Delaware, adopted in part from the Indian inhabitants’ explanation of its unique river qualities. The area referred to as the “falls” has no waterfall; it is actually a topographical phenomenon that refers to a junction between mountain runoff from the north, and the terminus from the south where the Atlantic tidal influence ends.
The Delaware River just north of what is now Morrisville flows downstream; the water levels south of Morrisville are subject to tidal rhythms, and can vary greatly. This confluence put the area in a unique position where settlers could use the river for commerce and political favor. Ships could not travel north of Morrisville, so goods destined for the major ports of New York City or Philadelphia were transported to and from Morrisville’s central location.
The next “first” for Morrisville was initiated by Quakers, who settled in approximately 1679, when the town was known as Crewcorne, most likely a village in England where many of the settlers originated. It was considered a frontier town, and despite the Quakers’ peaceful presence, there were conflicts with local Indians. Conflicts with the local “tribes” thwarted development for a time.
Yet another first was the advent of ferry transportation between present day Morrisville and Trenton. James Trent operated the first known ferry service, beginning in 1726, between Penn’s Woods and what would eventually become the state of New Jersey. There were two locations for service at the time: north of “the falls,” approximately at the location of the existing Calhoun Street bridge, and about one half mile south, at the point where boats could still navigate deeper waters. Morrisville was then known as Colvin’s Ferry, named for the operator of ferry service on the Pennsylvania side of the river.
The earliest settler of an organized village of Morrisville was likely John Wood, a Quaker who established the area’s mills in approximately 1772-1773. The natural water power provided by the river’s unique tidal patterns enabled Wood to harness the energy for saw, grist, flour and other mills on the banks of the Delaware.
In 1789, Robert Morris, intent on capitalizing on the success of Wood’s endeavors purchased the mill properties. By then, after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, Morris had procured a prestigious place and reputation as the financier of the Revolutionary War. Morris had an impeccable reputation as a statesman, leader and visionary. He was a close confidant of Gen. George Washington, and hosted him in his Summerseat home between December during the gap between Washington’s attacks on Trenton (Dec. 25, 1776), and Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777).
Summerseat, later owned by another signer of the Declaration of Independence, George Clymer, is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is run by a nonprofit organization that offers tours and building rentals.
Another “first” for Morrisville is its distinction as the first incorporated borough within the County of Bucks, in 1804, named in honor of Robert Morris.
Ironically, Morris, once considered a wealthy patriot and confidant of President Washington was eventually jailed for failure to repay his business and property debts. He died in 1806 in a state of bankruptcy, despite all of his industrious endeavors that placed the area of Morrisville on the map.
Morris’s success was steeped in entrepreneurial and industrial investment. In addition to signing the Declaration of Independence (1776), he served as a United States senator, signed the Articles of Confederation (1778) and the United States Constitution (1787). He also established the U.S. Navy, and founded the Bank of North America. So it is sad to learn of the financial demise of one of the most esteemed Founding Fathers of our country, for whom many Colonial towns and cities – and even a university – are named.
And here is another milestone worth noting: The original and official turnpike linking Philadelphia and New York City got its start in Morrisville. The first bridge to span the Delaware was situated at Morrisville, built in 1804, and completed in 1806. Originally a covered bridge, it subsequently was modified several times, and while other bridges upstream on the Delaware River suffered catastrophic destruction from flooding over many years, the bridges situated in Morrisville survived.
Eventually in addition to the turnpike travel (now U.S. Route 1), railroad service between Morrisville and Philadelphia became what is today the most traveled corridor in the Northeast. Prior to construction of the existing railroad bridge across the Delaware, passengers on their way from Philadelphia to New York had to cross the bridge on foot in order to catch an additional train from Trenton to New York, because of weight restrictions of trains. Eventually, a steel bridge at Morrisville-Trenton could handle freight, thereby providing nonstop travel between the two cities.
U.S. 1, commuter rail and Interstate 95 pass through the area of Morrisville today. It remains a haven for residents who commute to Philadelphia and New York on a daily basis. But it also retains a rich sense of community within its local schools, athletic programs and civic organizations. Morrisville’s neighborhoods evoke a strong sense of local pride.
Morris once lobbied Congress to designate Morrisville as the nation’s capital. Its location seemed ideal for the Eastern Seaboard. Shy only by two votes, the effort failed, perhaps due to the politics of the southern influence, which likely included influence from George Washington, originally from Virginia.
One historian has sagely concluded that making Morrisville the nation’s capital would have ultimately had profound negative impact on the beauty and integrity of Bucks County.
Imagine a beltway running through and around Bucks County.