By Raina Regan:
If you’ve ever traveled the National Road from Greenfield to Indianapolis, perhaps you’ve noticed a sign or two marking the community of “Philadelphia.” Drive 9 minutes east of Cumberland or 6 minutes west of Greenfield and you’ll pass through Philadelphia. This small hamlet certainly owes its brief history to the development of the National Road, but owes its ultimate decline due to the waning mill industry of Hancock County. Let’s take a brief look at the history of Philadelphia, Indiana.
Sugar Creek Township was one of the first three townships established when Hancock County was organized in 1828. The National Road, which was surveyed across Hancock County in 1827, and opened in the north half of Sugar Creek Township in 1835, increased the settlement and development in the areas surrounding the Road. The community of Philadelphia was laid out on April 11, 1838, no doubt in response to the National Road traffic, with inns and taverns as one of the early businesses of the community.
On page 292 of J.H. Binford’s History of Hancock County, Binford notes:
“Philadelphia, named in commemoration of the city of brotherly love, is located four miles west of Greenfield, on the National Road. The P., C. and St. L. R. R. runs by it. It contains a two-story public school building, one saw-mill, a flouring mill, post-office, express office, daily mail, druggist, grocer, merchants, mechanics, physicians, and other necessaries to a village of her dimensions. Philadelphia was laid out by the records fail to show whom, on the 11th day of April, 1838, being about six months prior to the laying out of New Palestine.”
The construction of the Indiana Central railroad (later, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and St. Louis railroad) through Hancock County and Philadelphia in 1851 helped provide a second influx of commerce to the community during the 1870s and 1880s. The 1887 Atlas of Hancock County includes a map of Philadelphia at the height of its prosperity; most buildings are situated along Main Street (National Road, now U.S. 40), with one or two blocks of buildings located directly north and south of Main Street. The town remained relatively unchanged from its original plat, with only one addition by Clark in April 1864, located directly south of the original plat.
Binford (p. 294) also notes about Philadelphia: “Prior to the construction of the old Indiana Central R. R., there was a vast amount of travel and moving to the west in wagons, on the National road, and for a number of years the Dayton and Indianapolis stage passed east and west daily through this little burg, at which time the chief business of the place, like others of its kind along this main line of travel, was inn or tavern keeping. Relics of these old buildings, where the westward bound, weary traveler was nightly found, still remain, tottering, but telling monuments of an earlier stage of civilization.”
Early settlers relied on the Blue River, Sugar Creek, and other creeks and rivers to power mills throughout the county. The Indiana Gazetteer from 1833 noted the following about Hancock County: “The county is advantageously situated for mills; the streams passing through it afford a number of excellent sites for water works: it is also well supplied with springs of the purest water.” The earliest mill on Sugar Creek was founded in 1828, north of New Palestine, and consisted of a simple water mill. Dozens of saw and grist mills operated in the township throughout the nineteenth century, but most of these closed by the turn of the century. The mills played an integral role in the prosperity of Philadelphia and Sugar Creek Township during the nineteenth century. Several mills were opened and operated along Sugar Creek from New Palestine to Philadelphia, dating from the 1850s through the 1890s, relying on the railroad through Philadelphia for shipping. Philadelphia primarily served as a railroad town, with the height of business during the 1870s and 1880s. As the mill industry waned, so did the development of Philadelphia. In the 1916 history of Hancock County, author George Richman made the following observation of Philadelphia:
“…very few improvements have been made in the town during the past fifty years
and the older citizens tell us that it remains very much as it was from their earliest
Today, not much remains of 19th century Philadelphia. If you hop of US 40 to the north or south, you’ll see a few architectural reminders of this National Road community. A historic schoolhouse is to the north. To the south, the recently National Register of Historic Places listed Rufus and Amanda Black House is an excellently preserved Italianate farmhouse. This is the first and only property in Philadelphia listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This blog post includes research completed for the National Register nomination for the Rufus and Amanda Black House.
Binford, J.H. History of Hancock County Indiana from its Earliest Settlement by the “Pale Face,” in 1818, down to 1882. Greenfield, IN: King and Binford, 1882.
Griffing, C.E., B. N. An Atlas of Hancock County, Indiana, 1887. Repr. Kokomo, IN: Selby Publishing, 1999.
Richman, George J. History of Hancock County Indiana, Its People, Industries and Institutions. Greenfield, IN: WM. Mitchell Printing Co., 1916.
Scott, John. The Indiana Gazetteer, or Topographical dictionary: containing a description of the several counties, towns, villages, settlements, roads, lakes, rivers, creeks, and springs, in the state of Indiana. Indianapolis, IN: Douglass and Maguire, 1833.