Bristol Borough, Pennsylvania

How did Bristol Borough, Pennsylvania get it’s name? This page provides a brief history about the naming of Bristol Borough, Pennsylvania, the people who settled it, and the industry rising within it.

Bucks County’s largest town and second county seat, located on the River Delaware, twenty miles northeast of Philadelphia and twenty-five miles southeast of Doylestown. It was erected into a borough November 14, 1720. It is the oldest borough, not only in Bucks County, but in the State, Chester and Germantown1 alone excepted.2 Bristol’s borough charter, granted and signed by Sir William Keith, Governor of Pennsylvania, provides that it. “shall be called The Borough of Bristol for ever.” The decisive tone of this wording may imply that controversy prevailed over the naming, but no information on that point has survived. The charter is equally emphatic that the town was “formerly called Buckingham.” It may be assumed therefore that before 1720 the town had no other names than Buckingham and, possibly, Bristol. Historian William J. Buck, quoting from the Records of Upland Court, called attention to a minute of that Court which shows that Peter Jegou, in a claim relating to the original title of Chygoes (Burlington) Island, says that. in 1668 he had erected a “house of entertainment” at Leasy Point and that two years later the settlement had been entirely wiped out by an Indian raid, Buck implies that Leasy Point was located “in this county at this place,” Bristol. This is incorrect, as a careful reading of the minute of the Court and investigations by other writers show that Leasy Point was on the opposite side of the river in New Jersey. General Davis says “the town was called ‘New Bristol’ down to 1714.” His authority for this statement probably was an Act of the New Jersey Assembly, passed March t 7, 1713, relating to a ferry “to the town of New Bristol.” Elsewhere it is shown that New Bristol was the name of the township and not the town. The original site of Bristol was a tract of 240 acres of land granted by Sir Edmond Andros, Governor of New York, to Samuel Clift in 1681. Sixteen years later (1697) the Provincial Council, in accord with a petition, survey and draft submitted by the inhabitants, ordered a town to be laid out, work along that line having already begun. A necessity for markets and fairs as a stimulus to trade was soon recognized by the people and in 1715 Anthony Burton, John Hall, William Wharton, Joseph Bond, “and many other inhabitants of the town of Bristol,” presented their petition for incorporation to the Provincial Council, but it was not granted until five years later. Markets were thereafter held every Thursday, but fairs were provided for only semi-annually, lasting two days. Buying and selling general merchandise and live stock brought crowds from the surrounding country on fair days, which were made the occasion for much merriment and hilarity, with horse racing and gambling as attendant features. Eventually town authorities became alarmed over disorders and crime attending these events, but, as the charter sanctioned fairs, they could not be suppressed without action by the Legislature. This was finally secured in 1796.3

Bristol Borough has been referred to many times as the county’s only seaport. It was, indeed, a center of much shipbuilding activity quite early, and again during the World War. In 1740 William Davis built a shipyard in the rear of Mill street, near Wood. The main structure was a low two and a half story building, with a long peaked roof, and built of hard black oak wood. It was lined with brick, double the size of the present-day brick. Its stack towered thirty feet above ground. Here Davis carried on shipbuilding for years, and he was the only shipbuilder on the Delaware above Philadelphia at that time. He was a noted mechanic and built fine schooners, sloops and smaller vessels, all celebrated for their swiftness. One in particular, Morning Glory, was rated as the fastest sailing craft on the river. The dates of launches at Davis’ yard were published far and wide and for miles around country people went by coach loads to see the interesting sight. In 1800 the shipyard passed into the hands of John Reed, who carried on the business for many years more. The old main building, which had been a landmark for 150 years, was finally bought by Frank Werk, who in the summer of 1891 demolished it to make room for modern buildings. The first steamboat touched Bristol wharf July 27, 1790. It was a John Fitch boat, but not his first. Three years before he had given his steamboat Perseverance, sixty tons, a trial trip from Philadelphia to Burlington, N. J. It covered the distance at the rate of six miles art hour. He was not satisfied with this boat, spent the next three years building and perfecting a larger and better one, and then, everything ready, he inserted the following advertisement in a Philadelphia newspaper:


Sets out tomorrow morning at ten o’clock from Arch Street Ferry, in order to take passengers for Burlington, Bristol, Bordentown and Trenton, and return next day.

Philadelphia, July 26, 1790.

The trip was a success and at every landing crowds had gathered to see the novel craft. The boat had proceeded gently up the river at the rate of seven and a half miles an hour. Passengers were delighted with its speed and smooth motion. The return trip next day was equally propitious and the boat continued to make regular trips during the rest of the season. In 1878, and for some years before and after that date, two large passenger steamboats, the Columbia and the Twilight, made daily excursion trips from Philadelphia to Bristol, fare 40 cents round trip, 25 cents one way. The Twilight left Chestnut Street wharf at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m.; returning, left Bristol at 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. The Columbia made trips only in the afternoon, leaving Chestnut Street wharf at 2 o’clock, and, returning, left Bristol in time to reach the city at 6 o’clock. The mammoth passenger steamship Republic also stopped at Bristol. The following description of Bristol in 1832 from Gordon’s Gazetteer of Pennsylvania may be of interest to residents of the borough today: “At present Bristol contains 200 dwelling houses, a church, a Quaker and a Methodist meeting, a Masonic lodge and a bank, four taverns and six or seven stores. Some of the dwellings are very neat and commodious, and the bank, erected as a country residence by Mr. Craig, of Philadelphia, is a tasteful imitation of Grecian architecture. The Delaware canal commences here and communicates with the Lehigh canal at Easton. A spacious basin has been made at Bristol for the reception of boats and produce, and the coal and other trade which will pass this town by means of the canal will probably contribute much to its prosperity. The Bristol and Trenton turnpike road passes through it, on which a daily mail travels, and three steamboats on the way to and from Trenton every day. A small creek branches north of the borough and insulates it. The projected railroad will run through the town. The Farmers Bank of Bucks County, the only one within the county, was established under the general Act of Assembly of March 21a, 1814, and was originally located at Hulmeville, but has since been removed to Bristol, where it continues. In 1830 its capital was $60,000; notes in circulation, $76,228; deposits and unclaimed dividends, $30,454.44; bills discounted, $101,686.99.” Bristol’s modern industrial development began with the organization of the Bristol Improvement Company, chartered December 18, 1876. This company was designed to encourage the growth of manufacturing industries by the erection of suitable buildings and renting them to acceptable and responsible parties at ten per cent of their cost. Joshua Peirce, a successful business man, who subsequently went to Tacoma, Washington, is credited with having conceived the plan. From 1876 to 1898 this company erected the Bristol Worsted Mill, Keystone Fringe Mill, Star Woolen Mill, Wilson & Fenimore Wall Paper Mill and Bristol Carpet Mill. Subsequently these buildings all passed into the hands of private corporations. Today Bristol is the largest industrial community in the county.


MacReynolds, George. Place Names in Bucks County Pennsylvania, 2nd Edition. Doylestown, PA: The Bucks County Historical Society, 1955.

  1. Pa. Archives, 1st ser., Vol. I, p. 111-113. []
  2. In making this statement, the question whether Philadelphia ever had borough government is excluded. By inference it may have been a borough for a brief period, but the evidence is meager, leaving the matter in doubt. Minutes of the Provincial Council for the 26th of 5th mo., 1684, show that Thomas Lloyd, Thomas Holme and William Hague were appointed “to draw up a Charter for Philadelphia to be made a Burrough, Consisting of a Majr and six Aldermen. & to call to their Assistance any of ye Council.” Whether anything was actually done along that line does not appear by any record, except that William Penn says in the preamble of the first city charter (1701) that he had “by virtue of the King’s letters patent, under the great seal of England, erected the said town into a borough, and by these do erect the said town and borough of Philadelphia into a city.” However, it does not appear that a charter for a borough was ever issued. []
  3. The establishment of Bucks County’s first borough provides an opportunity to say something about the borough form of government. New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are the only States that have this borough system. Bristol, it is interesting to note, was selected by William P. Holcomb as a “fair type” of seventeenth and eighteenth century boroughs to illustrate his treatise on Pennsylvania Boroughs (1886). In search for the origin of our borough idea, it is necessary to go back to the charter from Charles II granting the domain of Pennsylvania to William Penn. which authorizes the Proprietary to “divide the country into Townes, Hundreds and Counties, and to erect and incorporate Townes into Boroughs, and Borroughs into Cities, and to make and constitute ffaires and markets therein, with all other convenient priviledges and munities.” Quite soon after his arrival in this country Penn proceeded to put into effect this charter provision. Towns and boroughs were established in slightly modified form on the lines of those in old England and our borough government of today is essentially unchanged. In the case of Bristol, as already stated, the inhabitants laid out their town in 1697 and “projected the same into ways and streets, having regard to divers men’s Land by sd streetts.” Then followed the application for a charter, which was granted. The charter defined the town’s boundaries, located streets and provided regulations for them. Provision was also made for the election of two burgesses, a high constable and other officers necessary to keep the peace. Treasurer, poundkeeper, regulators of streets and overseer of the poor. the last named then an important officer, were appointive. No legislative or administrative body was provided. This was added later in the form of a Common Council, possibly suggested by a similar body in the Philadelphia city government. []

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