Chester, Pennsylvania

Chester is a city in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, United States. With a population of 33,972 at the 2010 census it is the largest city in Delaware County.[4] Incorporated in 1682, Chester is the oldest city in Pennsylvania[5] and is located on the western bank of the Delaware River between the cities of Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware.

Chester, Pennsylvania
Downtown Chester at 5th and Avenue of the States
Location in Delaware County and the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.
Location of Chester in Pennsylvania
Chester (the United States)
Coordinates: 39°50′50″N 75°22′22″W
CountryUnited States
  MayorThaddeus Kirkland
  Total6.00 sq mi (15.55 km2)
  Land4.83 sq mi (12.52 km2)
  Water1.17 sq mi (3.04 km2)
69 ft (21 m)
  Density7,050.90/sq mi (2,722.16/km2)
Time zoneUTC-5 (EST)
  Summer (DST)UTC-4 (EDT)
ZIP code
Area code(s)484, 610
FIPS code42-045-13208
FIPS code42-13208
GNIS feature ID1171694
DesignatedOctober 13, 1947[3]


Early history

The Indian tribe that owned the land where Chester now stands were the Okehockings, removed by order of William Penn in 1702 to other lands in Chester County.[6] The original Indian name of Chester was Mecoponaca.[7]

The first European settlers in the area were members of the New Sweden colony. The settlement that became Chester was first called "Finlandia" (the Latin name for Finland) and then "Upland" after the Swedish province of Uppland. The New Sweden settlers built Fort Mecoponacka in 1641 to defend the settlement.[8]

In 1644, the present site of Chester was a tobacco plantation operated by the New Sweden colonists.[9]

By 1682, Upland was the most populous town of the new Province of Pennsylvania. On October 27, the ship Welcome arrived bearing William Penn on his first visit to the province. Penn renamed the settlement after the English city of Chester.[10]

18th century

Chester County originally stretched from the Delaware River to the Susquehanna River from its founding in 1682 until 1729 when Lancaster County was formed from the western part.[11] Chester served as the county seat for Chester County from 1682 to 1788.[12] In 1724, the Chester Courthouse was built to support the legal needs of the county.[13]

Chester played only a small role in the American Revolutionary War. Throughout 1776 and 1777, there were significant forces stationed in Chester and nearby Marcus Hook.

In April 1776, nearly 1,000 men were stationed in Chester under Colonel Samuel Miles in preparation for the defense of Philadelphia. However, Colonel Miles led the troops to New York City in July 1776 when it became clear that the British Fleet was threatening New York rather than Philadelphia.[14]

In 1777, the Continental Army led by George Washington passed through Chester on the way to meet the British Army led by General Howe at the Battle of Brandywine. John Armstrong was ordered to take command of the militia stationed at Chester. The Continental Army fled back to Chester after defeat at the Battle of Brandywine. A portion of the British force occupied Chester as they chased the Continental Army fleeing to Philadelphia.[15]

In 1788, the Chester County seat was moved from Chester to West Chester.[12] In 1789, Delaware County was formed from the eastern part of Chester County, and Chester became the new county seat.[16]

On March 5, 1795, the borough of Chester, which had been governed under the charter granted by Penn in 1701 was incorporated by the Pennsylvania Assembly.[17]

19th century

In the 1700s and 1800s, Chester was a hub for business due to easy access to the Delaware River for the transport of raw materials and finished goods by ship.

By the mid-1800s, many textile mills and factories were built along Chester Creek including the Upland Mills by John Price Crozer[18] and the Powhattan Mills by David Reese Esrey and Hugh Shaw.[19]

During the War of 1812, a group of volunteers from Chester called the Mifflin Guards was raised and led by Dr. Samuel Anderson. The troops were sent to Fort DuPont to defend the Delaware River from the threatened attack of British Admiral George Cockburn but did not see any action.[20]

In 1851, the Delaware County seat was moved from Chester to the borough of Media.[21] On February 14, 1866, Chester was incorporated as a city[22] and the first mayor elected was John Larkin, Jr..

In 1871, the Delaware River Iron Ship Building and Engine Works was opened by John Roach through the purchase of the Reaney, Son & Archbold shipyard. The first steel ships of the U.S. Navy were built at the Roach shipyard.[23] For the first 15 years of operation, it was the largest and most productive shipyard in the United States. More tonnage of ships were built at the Roach shipyard than its next two competitors combined.

Roach built other businesses to supply materials for his shipbuilding including the Chester Rolling Mill in 1873 to supply metal hull plates and beams, the Chester Pipe and Tube Company in 1877 for the manufacture of iron pipes and boiler tubes, and the Standard Steel Casting Company in 1883 to supply steel ingots.

Roach built the Combination Steel and Iron Company in 1880 to supply steel rails and other products for businesses beyond the Roach shipyard. He lost control of the company after his shipbuilding enterprise entered receivership in 1885.

First half of the 20th century

World War I brought Chester its first massive growth. People migrated to Chester for jobs, 63% of which were in manufacturing.[24] Between 1910 and 1920, Chester's population increased from 38,000 to 58,000 due to the influx of southern and eastern Europeans and southern U.S. blacks.[25] The Sun Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. was opened in 1917 to build ships for the United States until its closure in 1990. The idled Roach shipyard was purchased in 1917 by W. Averell Harriman to build merchant ships during World War I, and renamed the Merchant Shipbuilding Corporation. The shipyard closed permanently in 1923.

Like many boomtowns, Chester was unprepared for the social changes that came along with rapid growth. As southern blacks migrated to Pennsylvania as part of the Great Migration, racial violence broke out, racially segregated neighborhoods expanded and economic discrimination emerged.[26] A four-day race riot that resulted in seven deaths broke out in the city in July 1917, and the separation of blacks and whites in Chester's neighborhoods and workplaces became more defined.[27]

Chester was known as a freewheeling destination for vices such as drugs, alcohol, numbers rackets, gambling and prostitution. Chester was widely known as Greater Philadelphia's "Saloon Town".[28] By 1914, Chester had more saloons than police officers; approximately 1 saloon per every 987 residents.[29]

In 1927, the Ford Motor Company opened the Chester Assembly factory on the site of the previous Roach and Merchant shipyard and built cars there until its closure in 1961.[30]

Chester experienced its second growth period during World War II. Manufacturing increased exponentially including companies such as Wetherill Steel and Boilermakers, Congoleum-Nairn, Aberfoyles Textiles, Scott Paper Company, Belmont Iron Works, American Steel Foundries, Crew Levick Oil, Crown Smelting, Fields Brick Company, Hetzel and Ford Motor Company.[24] During World War II, the Sun shipyard became the largest single shipyard in the world.[31]

External audio
Chester, A City Working on a New Narrative, 43:46, Grapple, Keystone Crossroads[32]

The increased labor needs brought a flood of new workers to the city. The wartime labor force for industries along the waterfront soared to 100,000.[31]

Second half of the 20th century

Chester began losing its mainstay shipyard and automobile manufacturing jobs as early as the 1960s, causing the population to be halved from over 66,000 in 1950 to under 34,000 in 2010.

In the early 1960s, racial unrest and civil rights protests led by George Raymond of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) and Stanley Branche of the Committee for Freedom Now (CFFN) made Chester one of the key battlegrounds of the civil rights movement. James Farmer, the national director of the Congress of Racial Equality called Chester "the Birmingham of the North".[33]

In 1962, Branche and the CFFN focused on improving conditions at the predominantly black Franklin Elementary school in Chester. Although the school was built to house 500 students, it had become overcrowded with 1,200 students. The school's average class-size was 39, twice the number of nearby all-white schools. The school was built in 1910 and had never been updated. Only two bathrooms were available for the entire school.[34]

In November 1963, CFFN protesters blocked the entrance to Franklin Elementary school and the Chester Municipal Building resulting in the arrest of 240 protesters. Following public attention to the protests stoked by media coverage of the mass arrests, the mayor and school board negotiated with the CFFN and NAACP.[35] The Chester Board of Education agreed to reduce class sizes at Franklin school, remove unsanitary toilet facilities, relocate classes held in the boiler room and coal bin and repair school grounds.[36]

In 1964, a series of almost nightly protests brought chaos to Chester as protestors argued that the Chester School Board had de facto segregation of schools. The mayor of Chester, James Gorbey, issued "The Police Position to Preserve the Public Peace", a 10-point statement promising an immediate return to law and order. The city deputized firemen and trash collectors to help handle demonstrators.[37] The State of Pennsylvania deployed 50 state troopers to assist the 77-member Chester police force.[36] The demonstrations were marked by violence and charges of police brutality.[38] Over 600 people were arrested over a two-month period of civil rights rallies, marches, pickets, boycotts and sit-ins.[39] National civil rights leaders such as Gloria Richardson, Malcolm X and Dick Gregory came to Chester in support of the demonstrations.[40] Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton became involved in the negotiations and convinced Branche to obey a court-ordered moratorium on demonstrations.[41]

In 1978, an intense fire broke out at Wade Dump, a rubber recycling facility and illegal industrial chemical dumping site. The burning chemicals caused multi-colored smoke and noxious fumes which injured 43 firemen and caused long-term health problems for the first responders to the fire.[42] In 1981, the location was declared a Superfund cleanup site and remediation occurred throughout the 1980s. In 1989, the site was deemed safe and removed from the Superfund national priorities list. In 2004, the site was converted to a parking lot for the nearby Barry Bridge Park.[43]

By the 1980s, Chester was a city bereft of industry. Many bottom-rung projects were initiated in Chester, including a trash incinerator, a sewage treatment plant and a prison.[44] Chester residents and politicians began pushing back against the placement of projects that increased concerns about pollution, noise and trucks such as a contaminated soil remediation facility, the Westinghouse trash incinerator, the DELCORA sewage waste treatment center and the Abbonizio recycling center.[45]

In 1995, the state designated Chester as a financially distressed municipality.[46]

21st century

Recent programs to foster investment into Chester include the Pennsylvania Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) program, which incentivizes companies with state and local tax breaks to invest in KOZ-designated areas. The Wharf at Rivertown, a $60 million renovation of the Chester Waterside Station of the Philadelphia Electric Company, originally built in 1918, was renovated and provides recreational and office space for businesses.[47]

Harrah's Casino and Racetrack began harness racing in September 2006, and opened its racino in January 2007. Talen Energy Stadium, home of the Major Soccer League Philadelphia Union franchise, opened in 2010.[44]

Two ships of the United States Navy have been named USS Chester in honor of the city.

The following are listed on the National Register of Historic Places: Delaware County National Bank, 1724 Chester Courthouse, Chester Waterside Station of the Philadelphia Electric Company, Old Main and Chemistry Building, Third Presbyterian Church, William Penn Landing Site, and the former Second Street Bridge.[48]


Chester has a mayor-council government system, consisting of a popularly elected city mayor and city council. The terms of the mayor and members are four years.[49]

The current mayor of the City of Chester is Thaddeus Kirkland, who won the Democratic nomination in May 2015 over incumbent Mayor John Linder. Kirkland was elected on November 3, 2015, and took office on January 4, 2016.[50][51]

The Chester City Council consists of the mayor and four council members. Council members are elected at-large to serve the entire city. Council meetings are generally held the second and fourth Wednesday of each month. The five help administer the five municipal departments:[52]

  • The Department of Public Affairs
  • The Department of Public Safety
  • The Department of Public Works
  • The Parks and Recreation Department
  • The Finance and Tax Office

The city government has been in financial distress for many years and has operated under the state's Act 47 provisions for twenty-one years. The act provides for municipalities that are near bankruptcy.[53]

Political corruption

Chester has been negatively impacted for decades by corrupt politicians and organized crime.[54] Chester's Republican Party political machine was one of the nation's oldest and most corrupt.[55] John J. McClure took over from his father, William McClure, in 1907[55] and was the political boss for the machine until his death in 1965. In 1933, McClure was found guilty in federal court and sentenced to 18 months in prison for vice and rum-running[56] but his conviction was overturned on appeal.[57]

In 1941, McClure was indicted for conspiracy to gain a $250,000 profit from the sale of the Chester Water Works to a private buyer. McClure and four Chester City Council members were acquitted but ordered by the court to return the money to the city of Chester.[58]

With the exception of 1904-1905, the Republican political machine controlled Chester politics for over a century. A non-machine mayor was not elected until 1992[28] with the election of Barbara Bohannan-Sheppard.

In the 1990s, the Pennsylvania Crime Commission reported that Chester's government had been dominated by "a triad of criminals, corrupt politicians and rogue law-enforcement officers" since the 1960s.[59] John H. Nacrelli, the mayor of Chester from 1968 to 1979, was convicted of racketeering and income tax evasion for accepting $22,000 in bribes from an illegal gambling operation with ties to organized crime and served two years in prison.[60]

Police department

The current police commissioner, Daren Alston, is serving his second term in that role. He has worked for the department since 1993 and has held various roles including captain, major, and deputy chief.[61] The department responds to about 4,900 calls for service each month.[62]

Crime is a heavy part of the daily life in Chester along with violence and economic hardships.[63] The city of Chester has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. People in the city of Chester have a 1 in 37 chance of being the victim of a violent crime. Recently, a source stated that there were 73 registered sex offenders living in the area.[64] Other sources say that the crime in Chester is approximately 114% higher than crime in the rest of Pennsylvania and 330% greater than the rest of the nation.

To combat these crimes, the city of Chester has a police force of 112 officers. This is about 80% larger than the average police force in Pennsylvania.[65]


Chester borders on (clockwise from southwest to northeast) Trainer Borough, Upper Chichester Township, Chester Township, Upland Borough, Parkside Borough, Brookhaven Borough, Nether Providence Township, Ridley Township, and Eddystone Borough in Pennsylvania. Chester is bordered to the south by the Delaware River. The city has a total area of 6.0 square miles (15.6 km2), 4.8 square miles (12.5 km2) of which is land and 1.2 square miles (3.0 km2) of which (19.42%) is water, according to the United States Census Bureau.[4]

Chester Creek meets the Delaware River in Chester. The northeastern border of Chester is defined by Ridley Creek. The Port of Chester is along the Delaware.


Being at a low elevation between Philadelphia and Wilmington, Chester experiences a humid subtropical climate (Cfa) bordering a humid continental climate (Dfa.) The hardiness zone is 7b.

Climate data for Chester (Elevation: 10 ft (3 m)) 1981-2010 Averages
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °F (°C) 40.5
Daily mean °F (°C) 33.7
Average low °F (°C) 26.8
Average precipitation inches (mm) 3.15
Average relative humidity (%) 65.3 60.7 57.6 57.2 60.8 62.7 64.4 65.8 67.8 67.3 65.3 65.1 63.4
Average dew point °F (°C) 23.3
Source: PRISM[66]


Historical population
Est. 201833,909[2]−0.2%

As of Census 2010, the racial makeup of the city was 74.7% African American, 17.2% White, 9.0% Hispanic or Latino of any race, 0.6% Asian, 0.4% Native American, 0.1% Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, 3.9% from other races, and 3.0% from two or more races. .

There were 11,662 households, out of which 37.3% had children under the age of 18, 19.5% were headed by married couples living together, 35.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 38.1% were non-families. 31.2% of all households were made up of individuals, and 11.1% were someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.64, and the average family size was 3.34.[70]

For the period 2010-2014, the estimated median annual income for a household in the city was $28,607, and the median income for a family was $34,840. Male full-time workers had a median income of $34,354 versus $30,634 for females. The per capita income for the city was $15,516. About 27.3% of families and 33.1% of the total population were below the poverty line, including 47.7% of those under age 18 and 18.4% of those age 65 or over.[71]


In Chester, east-west streets are numbered, while north-south streets carry names. The main bisecting street, known as The Avenue of the States south of 9th Street and Edgmont Avenue north of it, is signed as both Pennsylvania Route 320 (southbound only; northbound PA Rt. 320 uses adjacent Madison Street to Interstate 95) and Pennsylvania Route 352. North of I-95, State Route 320 follows Providence Avenue. Between 1993 and 2006, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) widened and realigned Pennsylvania Route 291 from Trainer to Eddystone from a two-lane roadway to a five-lane roadway. This widening and realignment project, spearheaded by the late State Senator Clarence D. Bell, allowed PA Route 291 to maintain at least two travel lanes in each direction.

Highways and bridges

Chester is served by two interstate highways: Interstate 95 and Interstate 476, which meet in nearby Crum Lynne. I-95 was built in the 1960s and originally terminated just north of the Chester/Eddystone line at the present-day I-95/I-476 junction. It was extended north in the 1970s, with the section around Philadelphia International Airport being completed in 1985. Three exits on I-95 allow access to Highland Avenue, Kerlin Street, and Edgmont Avenue/Avenue of the States (Rts. 320 & 352).

Two federal highway routes, U.S. Route 13 and U.S. Route 322, also run through Chester. US 13 enters Chester from Trainer on W. 4th Street, becomes part of Highland Avenue between W. 4th Street and W. 9th Street, and then continues on 9th Street to Morton Avenue. US 13 follows Morton Avenue in the city's Sun Village section until it crosses Ridley Creek and becomes Chester Pike in Eddystone.

US 322 enters Chester from the northeast, merges with I-95 briefly and crosses the Delaware River over the Commodore Barry Bridge. Prior to the bridge's opening in 1974, US 322 would cross the Delaware River on the Chester-Bridgeport Ferry, via Flower Street, causing major backups because of limited space on the ferries. With the expansion of State Rt. 291 and the redevelopment of the Chester Waterfront, both the Delaware River Port Authority and PennDOT built a pair of entrance (westbound) and exit (eastbound) ramps to PA Rt. 291, providing direct access to the waterfront without using local streets. The ramps were built between 2007 and 2010 and were opened in 2011.[72]

Plans for reconstruction of US 322 and the merge with I-95 are underway.[73] The road currently requires traffic to merge onto I-95 in the left lane and requires changing lanes three times to the Commodore Barry Bridge exit ramp in less than a mile.

A $16.6 million project to fix up eight I-95 bridges will begin March 2017 and is expected to be finished in November 2018. Improvements to Chestnut Street and Morton Avenue are also included in the project.[74]

Public transportation

Public bus transportation in Chester is provided by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), which acquired the former Suburban Philadelphia Transit Authority (aka "Red Arrow" Lines) in 1968. Seven bus routes (Routes 37, 109, 113, 114, 117, 118, and 119) serve the city, with the Chester Transportation Center as the hub.

The city is also served by the SEPTA Wilmington/Newark Line commuter rail service. The Chester Transportation Center and Highland Avenue stations are the two SEPTA train stations in Chester. The Lamokin Street station was run as a flagstop station until it was closed and demolished in 2003 due to low usage.

The Chester Transportation Center was both a commuter and intercity stop on the former Pennsylvania Railroad's New York City–Washington, D.C. route. The Chester Transportation Center was bypassed when Amtrak took over intercity rail passenger services in 1971, with the exception from April 30, 1978, to October 29, 1983, when the Chesapeake stopped once daily in each direction between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C..


In 1995, the city's schools ranked last among the state's 501 districts, leading Pennsylvania education officials in 2001 to hire the for-profit Edison Schools to run the local school district for three years.[46]

Primary and secondary schools

Public schools

The Chester-Upland School District serves the city, along with nearby Chester Township and the borough of Upland.

Parochial schools

Drexel Neumann Academy is Chester's only parochial school. It is run by the Saint Katharine Drexel Roman Catholic Church which was established in 1993 by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia with the consolidation of all Roman Catholic parishes in the city.[75] St. James High School for Boys closed its doors in 1993 due to low enrollment.

Charter schools

Chester Charter School for the Arts began in 2008 as a small public-private partnership between The Chester Fund for Education and the Arts and the Chester-Upland school district. The school was originally called the Chester Upland School for the Arts (CUSA) and operated until 2011 when significant staff reduction occurred due to state funding cuts.[76] In 2012, a charter school application was accepted and the school operated in Aston until September 2017 when a $30 million campus was built on Highland Ave.[77]

Chester Community Charter School is a charter school established in 1998 that serves over 4,000 students in grades K-8.[78][79] The school operates four campuses, the Upland campus at 1100 Main Street in Upland, the Aston campus at 200 Commerce Drive in Aston, the East Campus at 302 East 5th Street and the West Campus at 2730 Bethel Road in Chester Township.[80]

Widener Partnership Charter School was first launched in 2006, and is located across from the main campus of Widener University. It has been operating for eight years, and has 400 enrolled students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Widener University provides support to the charter school including educating staff, providing work to graduate students, and use of the university facilities. The school also has a number of outside partners that include 21st Century Learning Communities, Andrew Hicks Foundation, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Big Friends, Chester Education Foundation, Earth Force, Exelon Foundation, Incredible Years, PECO, and Soccer for Success.[81] The Widener Partnership Charter School also has recently added a new $4.6 million wing of the school at 1450 Edgmont Ave. This new edition includes a science learning center, an extension of the library, a gymnasium, eight classrooms and eight offices.[82]

Colleges and universities

Widener University is a private, coeducational university located in Chester. Its main campus sits on 108 acres (0.44 km2). The university has three other campuses: two in Pennsylvania (Harrisburg and Exton) and one in Wilmington, Delaware.

Founded as The Bullock School for Boys in 1821, the school was established in Wilmington, Delaware. It became The Alsop School for Boys from 1846 to 1853, and then Hyatt's Select School for Boys from 1853 to 1859. Military instruction was introduced in 1858, and in 1859, the school changed its name to Delaware Military Academy. It moved to Chester in 1862 and became Pennsylvania Military Academy. It was known as Pennsylvania Military College after 1892 and adopted the Widener name in 1972.

About 3,300 undergraduates and 3,300 graduate students attend Widener in eight degree-granting schools. The university offers associates, bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in areas ranging from traditional liberal arts to professional programs. The Carnegie Foundation classifies Widener as a Doctoral/Research University and a Community Engagement Institution. Widener was ranked #181 in the National Universities category by US News & World Report for 2012.[83]

Crozer Theological Seminary was a multi-denominational religious institution built in 1858 by the wealthy industrialist John Price Crozer. Its most famous student was Martin Luther King, who graduated in 1951 with a Bachelor of Divinity degree.[84]

In 1970, the school was moved to Rochester, New York in a merger that formed the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.[85] The Old Main Building of the Crozer Theological Seminary was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1973.[86] The seminary grounds are part of the Crozer Arboretum and the Old Main building is part of the Crozer-Chester Medical Center.

Sleeper's College was a vocational school for "office and commercial training" founded in 1910.[87]


Horse racing

With the construction of Harrah's Philadelphia, the city received a series of horse races that were once held at the Brandywine Raceway and the now-defunct Liberty Bell Park Racetrack. The racino opened on January 22, 2008, and features a specially constructed bridge that enables the midpoint of races, contested at one mile, to take place over the Delaware River.


Club Sport League Venue Established Championships
Philadelphia Union Soccer MLS Talen Energy Stadium 2010  

Chester is the home of the Major League Soccer Philadelphia Union franchise, which plays its home games at Talen Energy Stadium, a soccer-specific stadium at the base of the Commodore Barry Bridge. Located on the Delaware River, the stadium is part of a larger development called Rivertown. Financing for the Rivertown development was announced in early 2008 by Governor Ed Rendell and Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, with $25 million going to the construction of Talen Energy Stadium, and an additional $7 million towards a two-phase project composing of 186 townhouses, 25 apartments, 335,000 square feet (31,100 m2) of office space, a 200,000-square-foot (19,000 m2) convention center, more than 20,000 square feet (1,900 m2) of retail space, and a parking structure to house 1,350 cars. In phase two, another 200 apartments will be built, along with 100,000 square feet (9,300 m2) of office space and 22,000 square feet (2,000 m2) of retail space.[88]

Notable people

Points of interest


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Further reading

Preceded by
County seat of Chester County
Succeeded by
West Chester
Preceded by
County seat of Delaware County
Succeeded by
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