chester county ghost town of fricks locks

DSC_7305Imagine it as the tour guides knew it growing up: a little village of charming gardens and close knit neighbors.  Children running on summer days from house to house, picking fruit where they knew it to be growing (berries, black cherries, apples, peaches).

A bull in a fenced in orchard named “bossy”.’

Double daring each other to be on top of the bridge when the locomotive went under.

Walking to school in the snow.

Hoboes arriving each summer via the freight train cars and their mother would set up a card table, feed them, and tell them about God.

The old lady across the street who gave them birthday cards and made them sweet treats.

DSC_7139This was Fricks Locks.

And then…they were all told to leave. Progress was at their door.

A little history courtesy of Preservation PA circa 2009:

The Girard Reach of Schuylkill Canal was constructed circa carry coal from the Anthracitic region to markets in Reading and Philadelphia. The two Locks 54 and 55 were constructed in the village to provide a lift of 18 feet. To guide traffic, a canal right-of-way,towpath, canal basin and aqueduct were constructed. A lock tender’s residence was also built on site. The small village— comprised of vernacular Federal style residential properties,agricultural properties, and retail structures—expanded to support
the booming transportation route. The extant Canal features and many of the associated properties contribute to the Fricks Lock National Register Historic District.

Today a friend of mine and I made the pilgrimage to the other side of the county from us, to East Coventry to go on a Fricks Locks tour. The tours run in pleasant weather months and will be open Saturdays in early fall — September 8th and 22nd, October 13th and 27th.  The tour times are 10 am, 11:15 am, 12:30 pm.  If they have to cancel, it is posted on the East Coventry website after 12 noon on the Friday prior to the scheduled tour.

Today we were joined by a little fawn I hope doesn’t get locked in the village without it’s mama:


Lee Ann Embrey photo

The volunteer tour guides are a bit strict, and slightly inflexible at times. And although you ‘may take photographs’ you aren’t allowed to stop and are instructed to keep moving. I mean REALLY instructed to keep moving. You also may not deviate from the path or go on the grass except where they expressly tell you to. And if you aren’t keeping up and are trying to get that perfect photo, be warned, you will be scolded.  One of the guides in particular reminded me of an old fashioned school librarian watching her watch, and tour takers for infractions.  The hideous and destructive spotted lantern flies were allowed wherever they pleased, however.

Although I see Fricks Locks videos all over You Tube, you are not allowed to take videos.  That was a real bummer because the history of the village we learned on the tour was super interesting and it would have helped to have been able to record it.

DSC_7151The Limerick Power Plant looms in the background the entire tour it is that close.  However, we were told repeatedly that it and the old train station which is now some grungy warehouse property was not part of the tour.  I beg to differ for the simple fact that they are very much part of the history.

It is this crazy feeling as you drive down Fricks Locks Road off of Sanatoga Road.  All of a sudden, while following the signs to Fricks Locks, there you are facing an abandoned village frozen in time.

As you stare at the houses and structures, in your mind’s eye (or maybe just my vivid imagination) I could swear as the tour guides spoke, I could hear the distant sounds of life as it once was in this sleepy little village.

While some buildings date from the American Revolutionary War era, the village name was a result of the “Schuylkill Navigation” canal. The canal required construction, in the early 1820s, of a set of locks at that point along the Schuylkill River.

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Locks #54 and #55 were built on farmland acquired from John Frick and the village became known as Frick’s Locks/Fricks Locks. The village thrived due to the economic stimulus of the canal. Eventually the commercial canal traffic declined toward the turn of the century and gave way to the railroad.

Fricks Locks had become the singular Frick’s Lock after the Pennsylvania Schuylkill Valley Railroad arrived and built a station with the latter name. The canal was filled in starting in 1942. While the railroad eventually declined after Conrail was formed on April 1, 1976, the village remained inhabited until near the end of the 20th century.

In the 1960s, the then Philadelphia Electric Company began Limerick Nuclear Power Station immediately across the river from Frick’s Lock. The station went on line in 1985.

PECO acquired all the land around the station site, which included Fricks Locks. There are possibly conflicting stories as to how the residents were bought out and relocated.  All of the buildings were vacated and simply boarded up.

Fricks Locks was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on November 21, 2003. In February 2011, East Coventry Township partnered with Exelon Corporation to preserve and protect the historic site.  A lot of this preservation occurred because of a gentleman named Paul S. Frick who died in 2014. I will also note that State Senator Andy Dinniman has been instrumental in getting the preservation of this very cool place this far.

Here is the history compiled by East Coventry:

Before European settlement, the lands of Fricks Locks Village were rolling hills covered primarily with mature woodlands of white and black oak, hickory and chestnut trees. The level lands were mainly floodplain areas extending along the Schuylkill River. The Schuylkill River was reported as having an abundant supply of herring, sturgeon and shad. The Lenni Lenape Indians of the Delaware tribe inhabited the region and trapped beaver along the river for their pelts as a valuable trading product. The advent of change in land use can be attributed to King Charles II of England awarding the lands of the future Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to William Penn in 1682.

The lands of Fricks Locks Village were additions to the neighboring Grumbacher farm in land grant parcels and land purchases of 1749 and 1764. The original 117 acres of the Grumbacher farm consisted of a long narrow parcel, located to the southeast of the two parcels that contained the village area. The lands were primarily agricultural served by the river and the wagon road (theorized as the Old Schuylkill Road alignments). Historical records indicated that farmsteads usually kept a portion of their property as woodlot. Historic tax records indicate the extent of lands, buildings and livestock of the property.

The first known building in the Frick Locks Village district was the 1757 farmhouse built by the Grumbacher-Engel household on the 119-acre parcel, purchased in 1749. Presumably a barn and outbuildings were also constructed at this time. Access to this residence was presumably from the Old Schuylkill Road via a primitive dirt road eventually becoming the alignment of Fricks Locks Road.

John Frick married Catherine Grumbacher in 1781. And shortly thereafter they moved to the Gruambacher property. Through marriage and bequethment upon the death of Catharina Grumbacher-Engel, John Frick acquired the lands of the future Village. John Frick died in 1822, three years before the canal system was completed and open to travel.

The Schuylkill Navigation Company was chartered in 1815 following the March 8th authorization by the Pennsylvania Legislature to “incorporate a company to make a lock navigation on the river Schuylkill”. Roads were rough and primitive during this era and open river navigation was plagued by falls, shallow areas, and fishermen’s weirs. The Schuylkill River navigation canal was originally intended to bring anthracite coal from the deposits above Pottsville into Philadelphia.

After a ten-year construction period, the navigation system was completed for approximately 110 miles and at a cost of about three million dollars. The entire system was composed of 63 miles of canals with 34 dams and 109 locks. The section of canal through Fricks Locks Village was located about 100 feet north of the 1757 farmhouse. The double lock was located about 250 feet west of the farmhouse. The canal contributed to the growth of Fricks Locks Village as it did with all its stopover points and trading locations.

John Frick’s heirs chose to see his lands at a public auction in the spring of 1826. Jacob Frick, the eldest son purchased a portion of those lands that contained the village district. Upon his death in 1852, the village district was divided among different heirs. Over the next hundred years, the immediate area of the Village had minor “improvements” added, mostly associated with the owner’s farming operations.

In 1832, the depth and width of the canals were increased to accommodate larger boats. (The original canal dimensions had not been followed per specifications.) The new supply of coal enabled more industrial operations along the river. The coal cost seven dollars a ton and was the cheapest fuel available. Canal boats could carry up to 80 tons of coals. The locks in Fricks Locks were an important stopping place in the areas. The village hosted a “convenience” store that stayed open 24 hours a day to supply the needs of the boatmen. Passengers on packet boats stopped in Fricks Locks to go ashore for dinner or stay overnight for a stagecoach connection. The Village became an important trade center. In 1849, a covered toll bridge, the Lawrenceville Bridge, was the area’s first dry crossing of the river. This improved connection (competing with the ferry service) to Montgomery County increased the trading opportunities and growth associated with the canal and the Village.

In the 1880s, the Pennsylvania Railroad located a station in Fricks Locks and the US government established a Fricks Locks post office in the 1890s.

The canal was drained and closed permanently sometime in the mid 1920s. Improved railroad service, better roadways and trolley systems contributed to the demise of the canal by providing faster, smoother and more efficient transportation services. Without the vitality of the canal stopover/trading function, the importance of Fricks Locks Village changed to isolated farming activities.

In 1969 and 1970, PECO obtained the separate parcels that encompassed the current Fricks Locks Village area as part of their property acquisition under federal regulations for nuclear generating stations. At the time of property acquisition, most of the buildings were boarded up and vacated. The federal regulations governing the operations of a nuclear generating station exclude certain uses (including residential) within a 2,500 foot radius of the nuclear facility. The recombination of parcels under single ownership along with restrictions on possible residential use and desirable land use has contributed significantly to preserving the integrity of the Fricks Locks historic area. Its isolation from major roadway and new development affords the potential to present a highly unique example of an extant canal-ear village in context with the agricultural activities of the Schuylkill River corridors’ past history.

Here are some old Fricks Locks photos I found mostly on Pinterest:

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Here is a video from You Tube of  a 1941 train accident  at Fricks Locks:

I had heard about this place but today was my first time visiting. A recent Philadelphia Inquirer article brought the village to life and made me want to visit.

Philadelphia Inquirer PENNSYLVANIA NEWS
A Chester County village was vacated for a nuclear power plant. Today, it’s a ghost town.
by Katie Park, Updated: August 3, 2018

Also on the topic:

Daily Local News: The abandoned town of Frick’s Lock tells story
Gene Pisasale Jan 1, 2012

Exelon honored for renovations to Frick’s Locks
The energy company has spent $2.3 million to preserve and restore the village.WRITTEN BY HOLLY HERMAN

Tour of Frick’s Lock Village showcases history
By Stephen Harris Jul 22, 2014

I will note that a problem here has been trespassing and vandalism over the years.  The local police can and will arrest you. (Read about one account here.)  People, there are tours. It is being preserved.  Take a tour. Don’t be a tool and trespass. Respect the efforts of the folks trying to preserve this place.

We loved our time in this historic village today. It was fascinating. It was also so oddly almost unnaturally still.  I wonder what all of the people who once called this place home over the course of time would think now?

I hope that the restoration continues.  I hope they will bring school tours in.  It is not suitable for small children in my opinion, but older kids should be fine.

Fricks Locks is also featured on the Iron & Steel Heritage website.

I wonder. I wonder if where some of us call home today, will end up like Fricks Locks tomorrow abandoned and all but forgotten for whatever reason?

If you go…bring bug spray. Wear a hat. Bring water. Wear closed toe shoes. I saw flip flops today even on some of the guides and this is definitely a closed-toe tour.

Enjoy my photos.

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