Tuomi’s Time Machine: Defending the Drive

The first-annual Wissahickon Day Parade is shown passing in front of the Valley Green Inn, as published in the May 19, 1921, issue of the Germantown Independent-Gazette. It was published with the caption “The picture shows the head of the cavalcade, led by President W. B. Thomas and the other officers of the Riders and Drivers, passing the reviewing coach at Valley Green, on which are seated Director Tustin, Frederic H. Strawbridge and E. T. Stotesbury."

How a local turnpike became forbidden

For the first few years of the 20th century, automobile ownership was out of reach for much of our area’s population due to high production costs. However, with Henry Ford’s use of assembly lines, automobiles became much more affordable, beginning with the release of the Model T Ford in late 1908.

These automobiles were suddenly within reach of the middle class and 15 million were eventually sold by the end of 1927. This dramatic rise in automobile ownership had the potential to profoundly effect our area, particularly the Wissahickon Valley. In fact, the rise of the automobile led directly to the creation of the Wissahickon Day Parade.

Beginning in the early 1910s, the Fairmount Park Commission began to consider opening portions of what we now know today as Forbidden Drive to automobiles, including that stretch adjacent to the Valley Green Inn. Local residents and organizations saw this as an immediate threat to the well-being of the Wissahickon Valley, and they galvanized against the Commission’s efforts to open the Drive to automobile traffic.

Valley Green Inn. photo/video © Brian W. Schaller / License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

One of the first examples occurred in late 1910, when the Germantown and Chestnut Hill Improvement Association successfully thwarted Commission plans to open the Drive to automobiles. A similar plan was attempted ten years later and again, the community galvanized against the efforts. This time, a large protest was held in the form of a parade, on Saturday, May 14, 1921.

As the Germantown Independent-Gazette noted in its full-page coverage of the protest, “Not only was the turnout of riders and drivers of surprising proportions, but the fundamental purpose of directing public attention to the attractions of the Wissahickon region was splendidly accomplished.” It has been estimated that over 600 riders participated in the first event, with 12,000 spectators looking on.

Riders included Judge J. Willis Martin, representatives of Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore, and Thomas B. Mitten, the president of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. Members of the Philadelphia Riders and Drivers Association (later renamed the Riders of the Wissahickon) also participated; the organization was founded in 1920 to combat efforts to open the Drive to automobiles.

This protest would become known as the Wissahickon Day Parade, and part of its success in preventing the opening of the Drive to automobiles is acknowledged by the renaming of the Drive, which had been called Wissahickon Turnpike, Wissahickon Lane, and Wissahickon Drive at various points in its history, to Forbidden Drive. Forbidden Drive has been so named until the present day, as automobiles are forbidden from using it, largely a result of the protests which occurred on May 14, 1921.

As for the Parade itself, it has been held each spring with a couple exceptions. It was not held for several years during and immediately following World War II, and those parades of 2020 and 2021— the latter being the centennial parade— were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tentative plans are being made to celebrate the Parade’s 100th anniversary next spring.

NOTE: Period newspapers and scrapbook collections of the Germantown Historical Society informed the writing of this article, as did David R. Contosta’s “Suburb in the City“. Information about the 2020, 2021, and 2022 parades was obtained from the website of Northwestern Stables, Inc., at northwesternstables.com

About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at library@germantownhistory.org.


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