Yardley: An old town at near transportation crossroads
The Yardley Grist Mill has been renovated as office and retail space.
William Yardley struck a deal with William Penn for the purchase of 500 acres in 1682, sight unseen, for Quaker land along the Delaware River, in a fertile valley that would eventually become a jurisdiction of Bucks County.
He settled the general area, which became known as Yardleyville at the time. Misfortune struck the family during the years of 1702-1703, when Yardley’s heirs died from a smallpox outbreak.
Thomas Yardley, nephew of William, came to the United States in 1704 to settle his uncle’s estate. Rather than leave, he chose to establish what is now the town of Yardley.
Yardley quickly prospered, acquiring multiple business interests, including the local grist mill. He purchased properties that ultimately were profitable enough to become attractive to other businesses, creating a community unusual for its time.
Yardley, like many other Bucks County communities boasts that George Washington spent time in its town – most likely in order to discuss strategy for the Continental Army’s quest to defeat the British, across the Delaware.
In addition to its ferry service across the Delaware River, Yardley became a place of importance for trade.
Thomas Yardley purchased the grist mill, farmed several local properties, and capitalized on the ability to transfer goods across the Delaware. The man-made Lake Afton, now a local attraction year-round, was originally a water source for the mill that Thomas Yardley bought.
By the time the Pennsylvania Canal (Now Delaware Canal State Park), constructed between 1830-1832 made its mark on Yardley, the town had already begun to prosper as a mill town, producing lumber, grain and other specialty goods for the larger communities of Philadelphia and New York.
Yet, the building of the canal added more activity within the town. Boarding houses and hotels were constructed to accommodate the workers and their families. Taverns and a library were built. Banks were established, perhaps a reflection on prosperity soon to come.
Eventually, the railroad business, with service to Philadelphia and Trenton, N.J., further advanced the village’s importance in commerce for both sides of the river.
Meanwhile, in the years leading up to the Civil War, Yardley, and its abundant Quaker constituency provided refuge for slaves seeking freedom. Some buildings in Yardley still preserve evidence of the safety offered for people during a time that still confounds us today. Evidence of “safe” places has been found in homes, churches and places of business, such as busy taverns and stores. Quakers were abolitionists, and given their large constituency in the Bucks County area, were leaders in the Underground Railroad movement to provide slaves safe haven in their quest to move to “the North” for fundamental freedom.
An icon of Yardley’s historical role in the Revolutionary and Civil wars is the Continental Tavern, established in 1864, and now on Main Street. Although the tavern has its roots dating back to the end of the Civil War, its location is interestingly on the original site of the grist mill owned by Thomas Yardley.
Owners Frank and Patty Lyons explain that they have lovingly restored the tavern to its likeness when it was established, but they’ve also become amateur archaeologists. They have uncovered over 10,000 whiskey bottles, and many other articles of significance in their basement. Conjecture is that most of the bottles are from the period of Prohibition during the 1920s era, but they have also unearthed earlier historical evidence and fascinating artifacts, including tools, toys and flatware. Many of these items are on display in the tavern today.
A shift from canal commerce to rail commerce and travel eventually altered the personality of Yardley, a trend similar to other Bucks County river towns. Yardley, however, was in a unique position to continue to flaunt its location as both a canal town, and also as a rail town, which it continues to be today.
Rather than crumble under the effects of the canal demise, Yardley was able to enhance its position as a junction for travel between the Philadelphia and New York rails, via towns such as Trenton, N.J., and Langhorne, Pa. It remains a vibrant and attractive suburb for commuter travel between the two major cities.
Fortunately, Yardley Borough maintains a nationally recognized historic district, which requires new construction or other alterations to be approved by a board overseeing preservation standards.
According to the borough’s web site, the committee provides design assistance with everything from façade requirement to signage requirements.