Mansions Out of Mole Hills — A Family’s Rise in East Falls

Fallsers often use the term “mansion” to describe the Hohenadel place, which seems kind of a stretch. The property is grand, but hardly sprawling: 6 bedrooms, 3 baths, 3900 square feet. Grace Kelly’s childhood home on Henry is 56 square feet bigger, yet locals rarely call that a mansion.

No, the Italianate villa once occupied by our area’s most illustrious brewer was a “mansion” only relatively — in comparison to the Middle class community that it anchored. Because this part of East Falls has always been… scrappy.

rivers teaming industry pm 1884

East Falls in the mid-1800’s (VIEW MAP) was a world away from bustling center city Philadelphia or the moneyed estates of suburban West Philadelphia. Back then, the town was known as the “Falls of Schuylkill Village,” and our river & creeks were churning with industrial mills.

We had our grand estates — the Roxboro Houses, the Abbottsfords — but they were located above the Norristown railroad tracks, far away from the Schuylkill River’s dirty hub-bub. While today we think of waterfront property as highly desirable, in the 19th century you wanted to be as far away from the shoreline as possible.

polluted schuylkill man stick pm

Our poor Schuylkill, Wissahickon and other local streams would turn colors as textile mills dumped their waste water — different dye from different factories — mixing into various shades until finally the water ran thick and black.

How toxically artistic! And then, on top of those industrial pollutants, our waterways swirled with rotting sewage from homes, businesses & slaughterhouses. According to a city commissioners report from 1877, one of East Falls’ streams, Saw Mill Run, was so putrid that “all were obliged to hold their noses closed on account of the foulness arising from the place.”

the great stink PM Unfit

A newspaper account from the 1880s describes how Mifflin’s Run (today’s Midvale Ave) carried the “garbage and waste water of about 155 houses below the Norristown Railroad.”  And let’s not forget about horse pollution!

horses collage

As many as 7,800 horse-drawn vehicles could be counted daily over typical 19th century city thoroughfares. That’s a lot of poop! Carcasses were an issue, as well, because the average lifespan of an urban horse was only 2 ½ years. Street cleaners often waited days for dead horses to rot and stiffen cause they were easier to carve up & roll into the river that way.

miasma hankerchiefs 75 pm crop

Not surprisingly, a medical assumption of the time fingered fingered foul-smelling odors as a direct cause of disease and disability. Although completely incorrect — germs cause disease, not stank — “Miasma Theory” led to sanitation reforms that ultimately improved health and quality of life in the Industrial Age.

sanitation efforts PM

Meanwhile, wealthier residents occupied the highest ground possible to escape the refuse that meandered downhill through stone gutters, wooden pipes, streams, culverts and roadways toward the river.

So what was Hohenadel doing on that small plot of land just a few hundred yards from the river — with icky Mifflin’s Run practically right out their back door, yet?

The John Hohenadel who moved to 3617 Little Queen Lane in 1875 was not yet a “beer baron” — he made a decent but humble living with his local brewery and related enterprises. He built the new factory at Conrad & Indian Queen Lane, then died three years later of a lung infection. His wife, Mary, kept the family business afloat until their son, John, was able to take over.

HoHouse from Behind Additions PM

The house, too, has modest origins. An entire story, possibly, and a whole staircase plus some back rooms were added later. Most likely John Hohenadel, the son, expanded and embellished the house & grounds to reflect the family’s growing wealth as Hohenadel Beer came to dominate the local market from the early 1900’s until Prohibition.

beer truck plus billboard collage

Thus, these newly-prosperous Hohenadels occupied a unique niche in this working-class part of East Falls.

Falls of Schuylkill Baptist church photo old PM text

Indian Queen Lane below Cresson featured schools, several churches, and was home to a “mixed bag” of blue and white collar workers, civil servants, local business owners, and minor land-holders. A sampling of John Hohenadel’s neighbors* include:

*sources: 1875 Hopkins City Atlas plus city directories and Federal censuses

RUDOLPH LAAGER, Hotelkeeper/Tavernkeeper    Laager, a Swiss immigrant, lived directly across from the John Hohenadel Brewery.

ALEXANDER KRAIL, Coal merchant   This could be the same Krail for which the East Falls street is named. Krail owned several plots of land in the immediate vicinity of Indian Queen Lane.

THOMAS SHORT, Police Inspector    In the 19th century, the modern “police department” was a recent innovation, focused more on public service than crime control. In Philadelphia, the title of “inspector” was the 2nd highest position an officer could achieve without an appointment from the mayor (still is).

CATHERINE SORBER, Widow     Mrs. Sorber was a neighborhood nurse, widely known for her kindness to the poor of the community.  A family story recounts how the Mifflin Mansion sent a carriage to bring her back to attend to the Governor’s wife. But Mrs. Sorber refused to go — a local woman with limited resources had sought her out first. Rather than turn back on her word, Catherine Sorber turned back the carriage to help a neighbor in need.

Both Catherine and her husband Joseph E., who died in the smallpox epidemic of 1872, were descended from the first settlers of Germantown. Joseph’s father moved to the Falls in 1803 and established the area’s first grocery store and carriage factory (at the intersection of Indian Queen Lane and Ridge Avenue).

One of the Sorber’s sons, William, later died of lead poisoning, contracted from the business of carriage painting.  The Sorber’s carriage shop on Ridge was demolished in the 1920’s.

RACHEL MILLER, Storekeeper Unfortunately, records don’t list what kind of store, only that the value of Miller’s estate in the 1880 census is listed as $5.

BENJAMIN MARLEY, Carpenter Started a carpentering business in the Falls where, according to the Chadwick Papers, he “became extensively known as a reliable and conscientious master builder.” Later in life, he was baptized into The Falls of Schuylkill Baptist Church, eventually becoming senior deacon, a position he “filled with fidelity throughout his useful life.”

JONATHON KNIGHT UHLER, Physician Uhler owned the Smith Estate (Plush Hill), which he purchased from John Dobson in 1869 (no records yet, though, show Dobson actually living there). In the 1850s, Uhler worked with a group of physicians, including Lecky Service, to correctly diagnose that a “spotted fever” epidemic in the Falls was actually cerebral meningitis.

And smack dab in the middle: HOHENADEL HOUSE, a dwelling as cobbled together as this patchwork neighborhood of craftsmen, professionals and proprietors. As the family prospered, they became a lavish example of the new, upwardly-mobile Middle Class rising.

For the Hohenadels, this area was a “way station” while they worked for the wealth that could lift them higher, above the rivers, above the railroads. In 1937, John Hohenadel moved to the landscaped district along Henry & Schoolhouse where Captains of Industry built lavish estates like Bella Vista, Ravenhill, and White Corners. His Colonial Revival estate is now known as “Timmons House” on Penn Charter’s campus, and is a posh venue for parties and events.

Timmons house profile PM

But the Indian Queen Lane place represents Hohenadel history more authentically — reflects an East Falls family’s growth, change and resiliency through generations working hard to further their common success. Which is, pretty much, the story of most of these homes lining our neighborhood’s oldest byway.

We’ve only touched on a few local snapshots, but for a street as old as Indian Queen Lane, there are multitudes.

Recognize any names? Can you add some of your own? Contact us at or just leave comments below.



6 thoughts on “Mansions Out of Mole Hills — A Family’s Rise in East Falls

  1. I am the 2g grandchild of John Dobson and his wife Sarah Schofield…who with his brothers William and James established the Dobson Mills in East Falls…

    I have begun to research the impact that my family had on the East Falls of the Schuylkill…and south east PA from the 1850s on..

    I would very much like to meet you…when I come to East Falls in a week or two..


    1. Elizabeth!

      Let me buy you a large drink the next time you are in NYC. Or in Roxbury, Connecticut, where I spend most of my time now. Jes a few miles south of the Gunnery.



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