How the Philadelphia Suburbs Got Their Names
Many of Philadelphia’s suburbs have been around since before the American Revolution, and some are even as old as Pennsylvania itself (indeed, the land on which some of these places sit was purchased directly from colony founder William Penn). Like Philly, they’re rich in history, and many take their names from the settlers that claimed the land or the places those pioneers originally called home.
This list is extensive, but not complete. It doesn’t include municipalities that are designated as cities, most census-designated places that are not municipalities, Philly’s New Jersey suburbs, or a handful of other locales.
According to the township’s bicentennial history booklet [PDF], the name is “of English origin, being applied from so-called parishes formed more than 900 years ago in Northampton and Cambridgeshire, England.”
What used to be the village of Wissahickon was renamed in honor of Mary Johnson Ambler, a local woman who led efforts to rescue and care for the survivors of a nearby train collision—known alternately around the Philadelphia area as The Great Train Wreck, The Camp Hill Disaster, and The Picnic Train Tragedy—in 1856.
The community of Athensville (“a nod to the fascination with the Greek revival style movement of the time”), was renamed Ardmore in 1873 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, whose Main Line ran through the area. The suggestion for the name came from a local reverend and may refer to one of several places named Ardmore in Ireland.
Named by the town constable after his hometown in Oxfordshire, England.
While the township was founded just 10 years after the colony of Pennsylvania, the origins of its name are still up for debate. According to the township’s website, the “Salem” part appeared in land records as far back as its founding, while the “Ben” was tacked on later. The name is thought to mean “hill of peace,” “peaceful mount,” or “son of peace,” a possible nod to the pacifist Quaker William Penn.
Like Athensville, the former Reeseville had its name changed by the Pennsylvania Railroad. According to the local historical society, the new name came from “the Berwyn Hills overlooking the beautiful valley watered by the river Dee, Merionethshire, Wales, because the village overlooked from a commanding height the beautiful valley of Chester, and its position was popularly thought to be the highest point topographically along the Pennsylvania Railroad between Philadelphia and Columbia."
Named in honor of John Martin Broomall, a local lawyer who served in the Union Army during the Civil War before being elected to three terms in Congress.
Both the community and the college that it’s home to are named after the farm [PDF] owned by Rowland Ellis. Ellis led a group of Quakers to Pennsylvania to escape religious persecution in Wales and later served in the colonial government. The name derives from the Welsh term for “big hill.”
This Delaware County township was formerly known as Birmingham, but after years of being confused with the Birmingham in neighboring Chester County, residents petitioned the board of supervisors to change the name in 1996. The new name came from a colonial-era crossing point on the Brandywine River called Chads’ Ford, where John Chads operated a ferry service.
Named after Chalfont St. Giles, the English village where William Penn met his first wife.
Named by two of the town’s original settlers after their hometown in Gloucestershire, England.
A corruption of Derbyshire, England, the county that many of the area’s settlers came from.
Originally called Milltown because of the number of mills there. During the American Revolution, it became known as Downing’s Town, after the Downing family, which owned an inn and an industrial mill complex. The name was officially changed to Downingtown after the War of 1812.
Named for William Doyle, an early settler and owner of a tavern located at a then-major crossroads in the area.
Depending on who you ask, the community was either named by a local farmer after the English village he was born in, or by an engineer who helped lay out the railway through the area and gave it his mother’s family name.
Hatboro was known as the Billet (or Crooked Billet) in its earliest days as a small village, and both names seem to originate with an early resident. John Dawson, a hat maker from England, arrived in the village in the early 1700s and opened an inn while also maintaining his hat business. The first name came about either because the inn was named The Crooked Billet Inn, or was just called that by the locals because its sign was a billet, or chunk of wood, that hung crooked. The second name came from Dawson’s other line of work.
Haverford and Havertown
Both named for the town of Haverfordwest in Wales.
Named after the town in West Sussex, England.
The town gets its official name from what was then a village in Wiltshire, England, and its nickname, the “Mushroom Capital of the World,” comes from the fact that the area produces more than half of the country’s mushroom crop.
King of Prussia
The town is named after a Revolution-era tavern, the King of Prussia Inn. The name of the inn points to Frederick II (also known as Frederick the Great), who was—you guessed it—the king of Prussia at the time. The reason the inn was called that, however, is a little murky. It may have been named after Frederick for his assistance to the British during the French and Indian War, or a nod to his support of George Washington during the Revolution. An alternate theory suggests that the name was meant to attract the business of Prussian soldiers who were fighting in the war.
Named for Jeremiah Langhorne, an early Quaker settler who served in the colonial government and was later Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Derived from Merioneth, the Welsh county that many early settlers came from.
Named by a resident and descendant of an early settler for the borough’s central location in Delaware County.
Named after a town in Wales.
Named after the New Hope Mills, built by local businessman Benjamin Parry with “new and fresh hopes for the future” after one of his other mills burned down. Before that, the town was called Coryell's Ferry.
Named for Isaac Norris, who purchased the town’s original land from William Penn (though he never settled there, and instead lived in Philadelphia and served as mayor).
A corruption of the Lenape word Poekskossing [PDF] (“where the hickory nuts were cracked”).
Named after the local Phoenix Iron Works, a major producer of nails in the 1800s. The business’s owner, Lewis Wernwag, chose the name because the heat coming from the iron that made the nails reminded him of the mythical phoenix.
Named after founder John Potts.
Named for Radnorshire, Wales, where many of the township’s first settlers came from.
Named for the Roya family, who owned the land near a local crossing point on the Schuylkill River.
Named after founder George Schwenk.
Named for the Souders, a family of early settlers.
Named for the North Pennsylvania Railroad’s nearby Telford station, which was named for Scottish civil engineer Thomas Telford.
Named after the English home of Anna Gainer Pearce, whose husband George was granted land in the township by William Penn.
Named for a tavern in the early days of settlement called The Trap.
Named after the town in Wiltshire, in England.
Named after the town in Warwickshire, England.
Originally called Turk’s Head after a local tavern, it was changed when Chester County was split in two and the borough became the county seat. The “west” differentiated it from the city of Chester, which had been the old county seat and became the county seat of the newly formed Delaware County. (Chester residents, unhappy with the changes, tried to destroy the new county courthouse in West Chester with a cannon, but were stopped by a group of locals.) The “Chester” in the borough, city, and county’s names comes from the city of Chester in Cheshire, England, where many of the area’s settlers came from.
Named after William Yeardley, a Quaker minister who settled the area with his family.