The Bristol Industrial Historic District is a significant collection of factory and mill complexes containing elements dating from 1875 to 1937. The principal resources in the district are five mill complexes constructed during the last quarter of the nineteenth century by the Bristol Improvement Company (BIC), a group of local businessmen intent upon attracting new industries to the community. The historical significance of the district stems from its associations with the BIC, whose activities played a crucial role in transforming Bristol from a transportation center into Bucks County's principal manufacturing center. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the mills and factories included within this nomination constituted the most important manufacturing district in both Bristol and Bucks County. The district is architecturally significant because the large number of industrial buildings it contains illustrate the evolution of late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial architecture. Many of the mill and factory buildings within the district are particularly large and handsome examples of stone construction. The district also contains several large examples of early reinforced concrete industrial buildings.
During the three decades prior to the Civil War Bristol's economic prosperity hinged upon the community's position as the terminus and principal transshipment point of the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal. The loss of significant portions of the canal trade to the Delaware & Raritan Canal, as a result of the construction of an outlet lock at New Hope in 1840, and the national economic downturns of the 1850s, brought a five-year period of economic decline to Bristol beginning in about 1855. The town did not recover from the loss of its status as a transshipment point until the Civil War.
During the Civil War Bristol's industries rejuvenated the community's economy. The Keystone Forge, the Bristol Woolen Mills, and the other industrial firms in the town prospered as a result of massive government purchases. After 1865, however, the town's economy again entered a recessionary period as wartime markets evaporated and none of these businesses fully recovered from the post-war depression. The Pennsylvania Railroad demolished the Keystone Forge complex in 1882. The Bristol Woolen Mill became a hosiery mill, but by 1910 the mill buildings were vacant. None of the buildings or structures associated with Bristol's Civil war period industries survived.
Joshua Peirce, a Bristol native who had spent several years in western Pennsylvania, returned to Bristol in 1868 and resolved to revive the town's depressed economy. In 1868 Peirce purchased forty-nine acres of vacant land, located on the outskirts of town between the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal and the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and established the Livingstone Mills, a factory for the manufacture of felt products from wool. In addition to operating his own firm, Peirce encouraged the establishment of other industrial enterprises in the vicinity of his property. These firms, which included the Bristol Foundry, the Sherman Planing Mill (later known as the Sherman & Peirce Planing Mill and the Peirce & Williams Planing Mill) and the Bristol Rolling Mills all contributed to the rejuvenation of Bristol's economy. None of the buildings and structures associated with these enterprises survived, with the exception of a portion of the Peirce & Williams Planing Mill, erected in 1891 after a fire destroyed the earlier plant. This building, located within the Bristol Industrial Historic District, is associated with a business enterprise partially owned by Joshua Peirce, the driving force behind the post-Civil War development of Bristol's industrial and manufacturing interests.
In 1876 Peirce and a number of other prominent local businessmen organized the Bristol Improvement Company, with the intention of offering "facilities to manufacturers desiring to locate here by erecting a building for their accommodation, thus encouraging the growth of manufacturing industries in the borough." As an additional incentive for relocation, all of the mill buildings were exempt from borough taxation for their first ten years of operation. Between 1876 and 1887 the BIC built five large mill complexes on portions of the forty-nine acre tract purchased by Peirce in 1868. All of these complexes, which were leased to manufacturing firms, were located within the confines of the Bristol Industrial Historic District. The remaining portions of Peirce's original tract were apparently sold off and developed by others, principally as housing for the workers who labored in the mills and factories.
The failure of the Livingstone Mills in 1887 bankrupted Peirce and forced him to sell, over the following two years, his real estate holdings. Peirce's personal and business collapse spelled the end of the BIC's dominance over Bristol's industrial enterprises and the company began to gradually divest itself of its properties, selling its land and buildings to its tenants. By 1911 the BIC retained ownership of only two of the complexes it had constructed. Peirce, however, remained an active participant in the community's industrial economy, as evidenced by his involvement with the Peirce & Williams Planing Mill in the 1890s.
Despite Peirce's personal failure, the innovative efforts of the BIC to attract industries to Bristol proved rather successful. Several firms with factories in Philadelphia relocated to Bristol, at least partially in order to remove themselves from the union organizing activities of the Knights of Labor. The mill and factory complexes located within the Bristol Industrial Historic District are the only extant complexes associated with this development, which, by 1910, had transformed the depressed canal town of the 1860s into the largest manufacturing center in Bucks County. In 1910 Bristol's mills and factories produced goods worth $12,000,000. The district's two principal industrial complexes, the Grundy Mills and the Bristol Carpet Mills were among the largest manufacturing concerns in the entire county.
The Grundy Mill Complex, which contains the first building constructed by the BIC, was originally known as the Bristol Worsted Mills. The mill, first leased in 1876 to the Philadelphia-based firm of Grundy Brothers & Campion, became a major manufacturer of worsted yarn. The firm expanded during the 1880s, and in 1911 purchased the former Bristol Rolling Mills complex, demolished the buildings, and in 1915 the Grundy Mills employed over 850 workers, making it the largest employer in Bucks County.
The Grundy Mill Complex is also closely associated with the career of Joseph R. Grundy. Grundy, the leading industrialist in Bristol and a powerful U. S. Senator, became the sole owner of the Grundy Mills in 1900, and purchased the complex from the BIC in 1904. In the Senate Grundy consistently lobbied for high tariffs and legislation designed to protect manufacturing interests, including his own. He ardently supported the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1931, the highest in the country's history. Grundy did not neglect his hometown for the national scene. He was the dominant force in Bristol throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, serving on the Borough Council and contributing large sums of money for civic improvements. He personally offset deficits in the town budget, paid for completion of a sewer system, and financed construction of the Borough Hall.
The Bristol Carpet Mills, operated by another Philadelphia-based firm, Thomas L. Leedom & Company, produced the finest Wilton rugs, a type of close, short, cut-pile carpets, manufactured in the United States. Thomas L. Leedom vertically integrated his operations after relocating to Bristol, incorporating weaving, dyeing, yarn spinning, and, eventually, wool preparation under a single roof. The Bristol Carpet Mills were Bristol's second largest employer, after the Grundy Mills, throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century.
The smaller mills erected by the BIC never attained a level of industrial importance or economic power similar to that of the Grundy and Leedom operations. The Keystone Mill, which started as a fringe manufacturing plant operated by L. M. Harned & Co., became a warehouse for the Grundy Mill in 1885. In 1903 Edward T. Steel & Co., a manufacturer of men's worsted cloth that had taken over the Livingstone Mill in 1887, purchased the property and incorporated the building into its worsted mill. The Star Mill passed through the hands of three owners before being annexed to the adjacent wallpaper mill in 1891. The wallpaper mill operated intermittently, under the control of at least four different firms, throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several of these firms simply held the mill in reserve, preferring to operate other plants in other locations. By 1919 the D. Landreth Seed Company, a prominent local company, had taken over the complex.
The mills and factories in the district constituted the backbone of Bristol's industrial economy well into the twentieth century. All of the various complexes, with the exception of the vacant Bristol Carpet Mills, are still used for industrial purposes. At present the district includes the oldest extant industrial buildings in Bristol and constitutes the largest concentration of industrial buildings in the community. As an entity, therefore, the district is representative of Bristol's role as Bucks County's most important manufacturing district.
Architecturally the district is significant for its large collection of industrial buildings that illustrate the evolution of industrial architecture throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The earliest buildings in the district, those constructed by the BIC, are important large examples of stone masonry industrial construction. All of these buildings are constructed using a similar palette of materials. The walls are of Delaware River sandstone, presumably quarried upstream and barged down the Delaware Division of the Pennsylvania Canal to the building sites. Common red brick is used for the segmental arches above window openings and for the cornices. Built between 1875 and 1885, the BIC buildings are rather late examples of stone industrial buildings and, in a sense, relate more closely to antebellum industrial architecture than they do to their contemporaries, which were generally constructed of brick. The BIC's consistent use of sandstone and brick lends the district a strong air of architectural cohesiveness, despite the use of other materials for later buildings and the stuccoing of several of the BIC buildings.
The twentieth century additions to the Grundy Mill Complex reflect the rapid evolution of industrial architecture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These additions, constructed only twenty years after the last of the BIC's traditional stone masonry buildings, abandoned those traditional building materials in favor of reinforced concrete. Erected in 1910, the seven-story warehouse and spinning mill, and the 168-foot tall clock tower are among the first reinforced concrete industrial buildings constructed in Bucks County. Local landmarks, visible from a considerable distance, they symbolized the continued vitality and power of Bristol's industries. Along with the mill's massive powerhouse, erected in 1915, the Grundy Mill Complex's reinforced concrete buildings reflect the rapid evolution of industrial architecture and construction techniques that occurred in the United States during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. They stand in striking contrast to the traditional stone and brick mill buildings that comprise the majority of the district's resources.
The five large mill complexes that comprise the majority of the Bristol Industrial Historic District are the products of a concerted local effort to attract industry to the community by erecting the buildings required by manufacturers. This promotional effort proved successful, transforming Bristol from a declining canal town into Bucks County's leading manufacturing center during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The Grundy Mills and the Bristol Carpet Mills became the borough's largest employers and ranked among the largest employers in the entire county. This collection of industrial buildings illustrates the evolution of industrial architecture in the United States. It includes both massive stone masonry buildings, whose architectural origins may be traced to the period prior to the Civil War, and important examples of early reinforced concrete construction that are representative of the course taken by industrial architecture in the twentieth century.
Canal Street • Jefferson Street • Prospect Street • Washington Street