The official date for the founding of the Borough of Swarthmore is 1893, but its history begins earlier with its development as a college town and commuter suburb. Access to good roads and public transportation encouraged the development of its residential and business community in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The 21st century finds Swarthmore to be the home of one of the best liberal arts colleges in America, part of an award winning public school district and ideally situated in an area convenient to interstate highways, the airport and public transportation, while retaining its residential character and strong sense of community.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, the area which became Swarthmore was a section of Springfield Township. It had been settled since the late seventeen century by Quakers, who originally were granted the land by William Penn. In the first half of the nineteenth century, it remained rolling farmland, best known as the traditional birthplace of America’s first internationally famous artist, Benjamin West. In honor of the artist, the area was informally known as Westdale or West Dale. In 1854, train service between Philadelphia and Media, the county seat of Delaware County, was initiated. It included a flag stop at Westdale.
This bucolic setting began to change when Swarthmore College was founded in 1864. In the years just before the Civil War, members of the Hicksite branch of the Society of Friends were seeking a location to build an institution of higher learning to serve their children. After much debate, they decided on Westdale which offered the convenience of the train while remaining outside the immediate influence of the City. In 1866, the cornerstone was laid for the main building (now Parrish Hall), and classes began in the fall of 1869. In 1876, the name of the train station was changed to Swarthmore.
Properties adjacent to the College were soon purchased by the persons associated with the College or attracted to the “Friendly” atmosphere. Swarthmore’s first real estate company was incorporated in 1878 to develop the tract north of the railroad. In the early 1880s, the rail line was improved, and commuter suburbs began to spring up all along the “Media Local” line. In 1886, development companies were established to build homes in several tracts which lay south of the railroad in present-day Swarthmore.
The business district began to grow after residential areas were established. In 1891, the College sold a tract of land bounded by the railroad, Chester Road, Princeton and Harvard Avenues; the College Tract includes the present business district with the exception of the railroad station. Park Avenue was opened in late summer of 1891 (after the wheat was harvested!), and Dartmouth opened in late 1892. The first stores on the corner of Park Avenue and Chester Road opened before the end of 1892.
By 1892, a community with a distinct identity had evolved around the College on the Hill, complete with a post office and train station, schools, churches and real estate companies. Telephone service was connected in 1886, and in 1891 an Improvement Society was created for civic improvements including sidewalks and lighting. By end of the 1892, an application for incorporation as a Borough was filed with the State of Pennsylvania. The Borough of Swarthmore was incorporated on March 6, 1893.
With the incorporation, an independent school district was formed. The Swarthmore and Rutledge School Districts were merged in 1955, and in 1971, the Swarthmore-Rutledge District was merged with adjacent Nether Providence School District to create the Wallingford-Swarthmore School District.
By 1931, the present boundaries of Swarthmore were established with the annexation of the area south of Bowdoin and north of Michigan and Fairview Avenues. On November 14, 1931, the Chester Road underpass was completed, replacing the crossing guard at the intersection of the railroad and Chester Road. In the 1930s and 1940s, the landscape of Swarthmore was transformed from a rural village to a suburban college town with the installation of sidewalks and curbs throughout most of the Borough. Springfield Mall was built just north of the Swarthmore in 1971, and in 1991 Interstate 476 opened, connecting Interstate 95 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Written by Susanna Morikawa, adapted from Swarthmore Illustrated and an introduction for League of Women Voters booklet. June 27, 2003