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Articles on Government and Law
(West Chester, Pennsylvania)

by Jim Jones

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They Also Ran (Stories of Past Elections)
Although the Democratic party has controlled West Chester politics since 2000, for more than a century before that, candidates endorsed by the Republican party dominated local elections. They won all but a handful of seats, but that didn't stop people from challenging them, both within and from outside of their party. Here are some of the highlights:

In 1949, a group calling itself the "Committee for the Preservation of the Christian Sabbath" urged voters to vote against changing the law to permit the showing of movies on Sunday in the Borough. They failed, but demonstrated that the Republican party was not the monolith that it claimed to be, at least in the Borough. Two years later, two-term Council member J. Herbert Bender (1942-1949) demonstrated it again by coming within 47 votes of Rudolph B. Weiler, the endorsed candidate for Borough Assessor, who won 1312 to 1265. Had the Democrats not run their own candidate, John T. Donnelly, his 607 votes could have easily altered he outcome.

In 1955, Republicans took all three Council races as W. Earl Thomas, Thomas Hoopes and George Baldwin Jr. defeated Louis Distefano, George Oakes and Francis M. Oakes. That was also the year that Anthony Stancato, father of the local developer, first won office as constable for the Borough. Four years later, Stancato won election as justice of the peace along with Earl Heald, defeating Democrats Joe Dunleavy and Frank Falcone.

Meanwhile, Democrat J. Herbert Chambers ran six times as a Democrat for mayor (called "burgess" until 1960) between 1949 and 1969. An electrician who ran unsuccessfully for state senator in 1944, Chambers lost five mayoral races to Republicans Gibbons Cornwell in 1949, Henry DeHaven in 1953, Charles Lucas Jr, in 1957, Lucas again in 1961, and Charles Andress in 1965. According to his widow, Alice Chambers, he ran in 1944 "to keep the two-party system alive," but his marriage made him part of the closest thing the Borough has ever seen to a Democratic dynasty. Alice was the daughter of builder Patrick Corcoran, who helped to revive the Democratic Party in Chester County around World War I. She served a term as secretary of the WCSC board of trustees, while her brother Henry lost a bid for County Commissioner in 1951, her husband eventually became mayor in 1969, her son won a seat on Council that year and succeeded his father as mayor in 1978, and her niece Pat Baldwin served a term as a Chester County Commissioner.

Meanwhile Republicans were building their own dynasties. Anthony Stancato (mentioned above) was appointed to the West Chester State College board of trustees and ran for mayor in 1969, while his son Anthony Jr. served as the chair of the local Republican committee at the end of the 1990s. Among the Republicans who defeated Herbert Chambers and his Democratic colleagues in 1957 was incumbent J. Dewees Mosteller and newcomer Dominic T. Marrone. Mosteller won his first term on Council in 1946 and remained there until his death in 1968, spending the last eight years as Council president. Marrone served less than a year before resigning to become the Borough solicitor, but then went on to become the solicitor for the County Republican party, an assistant district attorney, a Common Pleas Court judge and eventually a County commissioner.

The most visible Republican dynasty got its start in 1965. Once again, Democrats ran unsuccessfully for Borough Council as Norman Bond, Sig Overgaard and Joseph Burkenstock lost to four incumbent Republicans: Bob Spaziani Sr., Ed Cotter, C. Harry Barber and George Baldwin Jr. But the Democrats also sent three candidates into the campaign for School Board -- Harriet Hulnick, Nancy Houston and Richard Welsh. Among the Republican winners was a West Chester State College professor named Elinor Z. Taylor.

Taylor was the daughter of the Borough's Recreation Director and, like another successful Republican named Dick Yoder, a graduate of the local high school and an athletic coach at the state college. She went on to serve a term on Borough Council (1974-77) before entering the state legislature for thirty years. During that period she ran unopposed through most of the 1990s, but began facing challengers from both her own party and the Democrats on a regular basis in 2000. Although the Republican challengers generally dropped out at the last minute, a succession of Democrats -- including Robin Garrett, Wayne Burton, Bob Hodies and Barbara McIlvaine Smith -- kept up the pressure until she retired, and McIlvaine Smith won the seat in 2006. Ironically, she defeated Shannon Royer, whom she replaced on West Chester's Borough Council, and went on to defeat Royer a second time in 2008.

If 2006 was a turning point -- Democrat Andrew Dinniman also won a perpetually Republican state senate seat -- three other elections produced payoffs for persistent Democrats. The first was in 1969 when Herbert Chambers won his sixth race for mayor, thanks in large part to the turmoil that resulted when Borough Council decided to demolish the historic Chester Street [Friends] meeting house for a parking garage in 1966. That spawned an opposition movement headed by Dr. Edgar R. Lawrence, who ran (and lost) as an unendorsed Republican in 1969. Meanwhile the Republican party withheld its support from its own incumbent mayor, Charles Andress, and instead endorsed Anthony Stancato Sr. The Republicans also endorsed incumbent Council members J. Paul Mosteller, William Underwood and Edward Cotter, and newcomer Fred Beckett, the first African-American candidate for Council since the 19th century. The incumbents all won but Beckett lost, so Chambers was joined by his son Tom who became only the second Democrat to win a Council seat since 1913 (William E. Gilbert crossfiled as a Republican and Democrat in 1953). Ironically, the parking garage was eventually built two blocks to the east and named after J. Dewees Mosteller, a Republican.

Democrats scored two more victories in 1971 when Robert Cosgriff and Dallett Hemphill won Council seats. They nearly got a third, but Norman Bond lost by 15 votes to incumbent Republican, Robert Baldwin. With Tom Chambers, that gave the Democrats control over three of seven Council seats, but they never gained a majority. Instead they gradually lost ground during the 1970s and 1980s, until a second revolution took place in 1986. That year Wayne Burton, Richard Fazio, William Bowes and Ann Aerie joined incumbent Democrat Barry Wright on Council, while Tom Chambers reentered local politics for a second term as mayor. That left only two Republicans on Council, and the next election simply replaced them -- Kenneth Hagerty and Steven Handzel -- with two more -- Betty Loper and Patricia McIlvaine (Barbara McIlvaine-Smith's aunt). By 1990, Democrats controlled five of seven Council seats and the mayor (still Tom Chambers), but their hold on Borough government remained precarious in a town where Republicans held the edge in registrations and fundraising, as well as control of County government and the WCU board of directors, two of the Borough's largest employers.

The 1992 election gave Betty Loper two new Republican allies on Council, Janet Colliton and Mary Zimmerman. The 1994 election saw the Republicans open what Philadelphia Inquirer writers Jeff Eckhoff and Lem Lloyd (December 12, 1993) called "the fattest wallets in this year's election campaign" to win the mayoral race when First National Bank director Clifford DeBaptiste outspent former Council member Wayne Burton by a six- to-one margin, and three more Council seats (former College Republican chair Shannon Royer, oil company owner Boyd Davis, and pharmaceutical executive Robert Whetstone). Royer's victory was particularly close -- he won by only ten votes -- and a harbinger of his narrow loss to Barbara McIlvaine Smith for state representative in 2006 by 28 votes. As a result, Republicans controlled Council throughout most of the 1990s, although Democrats managed to hold two seats at all times.

That all changed in 2000. Following a contentious campaign to increase rental property inspections that forced the Republican party into an alliance with out-of-town landlords, the election ended with three Democrats and three Republicans, plus a tie in Ward 2. The tie breaker sent Democrat Diane Lebold to Council (and Republican Constance Allen back to the Library Board), and launched a Democratic majority that has yet to dissipate. Since then, the only Republican to win a seat on Borough Council has been Norman Bond's son Steve, who lost the 2003 primary as a Democrat and then beat his opponent (Joe Norley) in the fall after switching parties.

Meanwhile the list of unsuccessful Republicans grew during the decade to include Patricia Kotsay, Bob Rodgers, Steve Bond (reelection), Thomas Schindler, Timothy Daniels, Peter Kulp, Judy Harris, Joyce Sanyour, Bill Mason, Nancy Seltzer, Michael Bacchini, Andrew Lehr, Rick Miller and Andrew Close. Only Dick Yoder's victories over Paul Fitzpatrick for mayor in 2001 and Jim Jones for mayor in 2005 gave the Republican party anything to celebrate, and even that came with a caveat. Fitzpatrick, who was already on Council, continued to serve six more years including four as Council president. Jones won Fitzpatrick's seat after term limits made him ineligible at the end of 2006, and continued to serve after Yoder had to leave office at the end of 2009.

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Life and Death Matters
In early 2010, the West Chester Borough Council modified its ordinance on "Interments" (a.k.a. burials). Chapter 68 of the Borough Code prohibited "burial or interment of deceased persons ... in all locations within the Borough of West Chester." It is thanks to this ordinance that the Friends Burial Society have their cemetery on the south side of W. Rosedale Avenue; Greenmont, Chestnut Grove and Rolling Green cemeteries are all located east of Bolmar Street; and Oaklands, St. Agnes, Chestnut Grove Annex and Oaklands Friends cemetery are all located north of Goshen Road on what locals call "cemetery hill."  Chestnut Grove Cemetery
Chestnut Grove Cemetery at E. Gay St. & Garfield Ave.
All of them are located in West Goshen township, and none are located in East Bradford township, raising a question (why?) that will remain unanswered for now. This article addresses a different question -- why are burials prohibited within the Borough limits?

The earliest legislation on the subject was an ordinance passed on July 21, 1851. Beginning on August 20, it was no longer "lawful for any interment of the bodies of deceased persons to be made in all that part of the said Boro bounded on the North by Chestnut Street -- on the West by New Street -- on the South by Bernard (sic) Street -- and on the East by Matlack Street."

The minutes of Borough Council meetings were extremely brief in those days, but they mention a discussion at their May 19 meeting of a law passed by the state legislature in April which gave the Chief Burgess (a combination of our modern mayor and Borough Council president) the right to prohibit interments within a specified boundary in the municipality. Council appointed its Chief Burgess and Second Burgess (James H. Bull and J. Smith Futhey) to determine appropriate boundaries and to draft an ordinance. The following month, Chief Burgess Bull reported that they were working on an ordinance and intended to consult with the "Oaklands Cemetery Company and the catholics." Finally, on July 21, they "discussed, amended and approved" the new ordinance.

The state law which triggered all of this was the Act of April 3, 1851, known as the "General Borough Act." It laid out the powers permitted to borough governments all across the state, and formalized the jurisdiction of state and local law in existing boroughs like West Chester. Among the powers it conveyed to a borough were the ability to "to prohibit within the borough the burial or interment of deceased persons, or within such partial limits within the same as they may from time to time prescribe."

The speed with which Borough Council began to discuss prohibiting burials -- one month after the passage of the Act -- suggests that burials were a source of concern in 1851. The Borough Council minutes are too sparse to provide any clues, but Charles E. Rosenberg's book, The Cholera Years (University of Chicago Press, 1987) suggests an explanation. On page 101, Rosenberg wrote that "Cholera, like revolution, had swept through Europe in 1848." By December of that year, a ship carrying immigrants lay at anchor near Staten Island while city health inspectors inspected the bodies of seven passengers who had died en route -- all from cholera. Despite efforts to hold the survivors in quarantine, the disease spread into the city itself, and the cold winter temperatures limited its spread. Other ships brought cholera to ports like New Orleans, where the mild winter weather enabled it to spread much more rapidly. With the beginning of spring, it began to move north until by the summer of 1849, the country was reeling before a full-blown epidemic.

Since the last major epidemic of cholera in 1832, the medical profession had not yet discovered an effective response. Medical knowledge of the time ascribed disease to "filth" ("germ theory" was still in the future), and proposed solutions that promoted "cleanliness" like street sweeping, prohibiting pigs from residing in towns, and eliminating stagnant water, as well as placing the sick in quarantine. But local laws were too weak to allow municipalities like West Chester to enforce such measures, and in Pennsylvania, where all authority resided with the state, it took an act of the state legislature to enable West Chester to respond. Preventing the burial of possibly cholera-infected corpses in the middle town was one such response. [For other responses in West Chester, read Charlotte Bridges's Report on the West Chester Board of Health from 1885-1960.]

In 1873, Borough Council revisited its burial ordinance. The minutes are especially opaque -- they report simply that at its August 19 meeting, "On motion it was resolved to promulgate an ordinance prohibiting internments of deceased persons within the Borough limits." The new ordinance copied most of the language form the 1851 ordinance but instead of boundaries, said simply "it shall not be lawful to inter the body of any deceased person within the limits of the Borough." That must have set off a scramble to move cemeteries out of the Borough -- evidently the legal principle of "grandfathering" did not apply -- because the following month, "Thomas Warrington and Benjamin Hoopes of the Friends Society appeared before Council to ask that the ordinance not go into effect until April 1st, 1874. Council agreed.  Burial ground on W.
Barnard St. in 1847
Burial ground on W. Barnard St. in 1847
Over the years, the state legislature expanded on the laws governing burials, and occasionally even the State Supreme Court weighed in. For example, in a challenge to the burial law of the Borough of Yeadon, the judge quoted the decision in "Kincaid's Appeal" (66 Pa. 423, 5 Am. Rep. 377), to whit:

No one can doubt the power of the Legislature to prohibit all future interments within the limits of towns or cities. In ancient times, in Greece and Rome, such was the universal rule. It was one of the laws of the twelve tables `hominem mortuum in urbe ne sepelite neve vicinitate.' It is much to be regretted that it was not adopted as our policy at an early period. This is no invasion of any right of property. Every right, from an absolute ownership down to a mere easement, is purchased and held subject to the restriction that it shall be so exercised as not to injure others. Though at the time it may be remote and inoffensive, the purchaser is bound to know at his peril that it may become otherwise, by the residence of many people in its vicinity, and that it must yield to laws for the suppression of nuisances. If conditions or covenants, appropriating land to some particular use, could prevent the Legislature from afterwards declaring that use unlawful, legislative powers necessary to the comfort and preservation of populous communities might be frittered away into perfect insignificance."

Such a power the state may exercise through municipalities. ...

As state law changed, so did the Borough's. The current version was adopted as part of a general reorganization of the Borough's ordinances in June 1973, and amended in 1989. On January 20, 2011, at the request of officials from Calgary Lutheran Church, Council amended the ordinance again to exempt cremated remains from the prohibition against burials within the Borough.

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Water Bills During Tough Times
Now that Christmas is past and the stories intended to inspire charitable giving have subsided, it's time to consider an episode from the last major depression that afflicted the Borough of West Chester in the 1930s. This article is inspired by a piece that aired on National Public Radio before Christmas about an anonymous businessman who used the pseudonym "B. Virdot" to give away money in Ohio during the 1930s Depression to people who wrote letters explaining why they were deserving.

The 1932 Borough Council faced something similar in connection with delinquent water bills. In those days, the Borough owned the local water system, and used meters to charge Borough residents and businesses for their use. Council minutes located in the Chester County Historical Society indicate that the Borough, which drew its drinking water from the Chester Creek at Milltown in East Goshen, had begun to experience shortages as early as 1925 when the stream level dropped during the summer. As a result, Council began to refuse requests for new water connections, but had no unusual problems collecting fees from existing customers.

That began to change about two years after the Depression began in late 1929. Historians agree that the effects of the Depression did not appear all at once, but expanded gradually as banks failed, credit became unobtainable, companies went out of business, people lost jobs and merchants lost sales. By 1932, when the Dow Jones industrial average reached its lowest point and the national unemployment rate rose to more than ten percent, Council had accumulated a long list of delinquent water customers. Some had recovered, like Villa Maria Academy, which was located on the site of Seven Oaks Apartments in those days, but many others had not, including the largest factory in town, the Sharples Separator Works. The minutes of the March 3, 1932 meeting listed thirty-three customers who were at least four months behind in their payments (see box).

By the summer of 1932, the problem had become acute. The Water Department's entire budget was about $25,000 that year, and the delinquent payments amounted to nearly five percent. In addition, Borough officials had already found a number of people with illegal (i.e. unmetered) water connections. The pressure to "crack down" was growing, although so was the number of people impoverished by the Depression. On July 15, Council decided to send final notices to delinquent customers, but two weeks later decided to make landlords responsible for the bills instead of their tenants. According to the minutes of that meeting:

"The matter of delinquencies was discussed and given serious consideration by Council, the ability to pay and the various causes of delinquencies under present conditions were discussed, and it was the sense of Council that the delinquents should be dealt with as leniently as the law would permit."

Borough Council also decided to instruct the members of its Water Committee to meet with all the delinquents and offer them a chance to either pay up or tell Council at their August 10 meeting why their water should not be shut off.

The August Council meeting was long and painful. Before it ended, Council voted to grant water at no cost to the Chester County Hospital on E. Marshall St. and the Homeopathic Hospital on N. Walnut St., and offered deferments to a number of people. Others were not so fortunate however, and by the end of the meeting Council had voted to shut off the water at a total of seventeen properties. They included the McCormick Brothers warehouse at 17 N. Walnut St.; the West Chester Auto Supply Company at 108 E. Gay St.; Frank Grubb's rental property at 128 W. Chestnut St.; Howard Clements' shop in the 400-block of E. Gay St.; two houses at 401 and 417 W. Market St. occupied by relatives of the owner, Charles Fullerton; and Nicholas Spaziani's grocery store at 142 N. Wayne St..

The largest group of properties to lose water service were rental units belonging to Harry Siegel, the owner of a furniture store at 139 W. Gay St.. According to the meeting minutes compiled by Borough secretary Fred Wahl, "Water Commissioner Reagan reported that Mr. Siegal (sic) is a persistent offender in the matter of paying his water bills and the same trouble is had with him each year. After a discussion by Council, Mr. Dewees moved, seconded by Mr. Hoopes: That water supply [be shut off] in all [nine] properties owned by Harry Siegal where bills] are delinquent. Motion was adopted. All members present voted in favor."

In every case where a property owner appeared to ask Council for leniency, they were rewarded with at least a one-month deferment. Council was especially reluctant to punish widows and as a result, Lucinda Lear at 105 E. Chestnut St., Fannie Butcher of 204 W. Lafayette St. and Sara Howard at 410 E. Miner St. all got reprieves. The Separator Works bought time by sending a check for $50. Lawrence B. Doran, the owner of a concrete block plant on E. Nields St. next to the railroad tracks (where the day care is now located) received deferments for that property plus two rental properties. Patrick Corcoran, a successful builder with a large number of rental properties in the Borough, managed to buy some time by telling Council, "he has a great many tenants back in their rents and he has distressed nobody."

A painter named William Badum, who lived with his wife Anna at 427 N. New St., told Council "he was unable to pay his delinquent water bill as he has not had work for some time and has considerable money standing out that he cannot collect. He will make a determined effort to pay by next month." Daniel Egio (a.k.a. Dausi Egide) of 00 N. Church St. obtained a reprieve by telling Council he'd lost his job, his tenants couldn't pay, this was first time to fall behind on payments, and he had a wife and two children to support. A printer named Frank Gilbert offered to work off his debt by doing some of the Borough's printing.

Council also gave an extra month to the State Armory, a laborer named Henry Canty (a.k.a. Countee) and his wife Mary at 114 S. Matlack St., a physician's stenographer named Frank Grant who rented at 114 W. Union St., the YMCA's locker clerk Samuel McDonald who rented 131 E. Barnard St., and several other people from the southeast part of town. They also voted to delay action on the bill owed by Walter Jackson of 123 E. Miner St., since he had recently died.

Property address
Property use
Sharples Separator Co.
301 E. Chestnut St.
$473.96 factory
manufacture dairy equipment
L. B. Doran & Sons
501 Nields St.
$13.20 factory
manufacture concrete building blocks
Lawrence Doran
123 Linden St.
$29.04 rental property
landscape gardener Morris Walton & family
Lawrence Doran
512 Nields St.
$14.52 owner occupied
owned block plant across Nields St.
M. & T. E. Farrell
209 W. Chestnut St.
$16.33 owner occupied
co-owner of construction company
M. & T. E. Farrell
211 W. Chestnut St.
$16.33 owner occupied
co-owner of construction company
M. & T. E. Farrell
426 W. Chestnut St.
$7.26 rental property
3 families of laborers
M. & T. E. Farrell
428 W. Chestnut St.
$8.47 rental property
2 families (steam shovel operator/bookbinder)
Harry Siegel
249-51 E. Chestnut St.
$29.04 rental property
2 families of laborers
Harry Siegel
225 Evans St.
$7.26 rental property
driver Irvin Spriggs & family
Harry Siegel
212 N. Franklin St.
$14.52 rental property
fireman James Powell & family
Harry Siegel
9 N. Franklin St.
$14.52 rental property
Harry Siegel
5 N. Franklin St.
$14.52 rental property
Harry Siegel
410 N. Darlington St.
$14.52 rental property
laborer Edward Kavanaugh & family
Harry Siegel
221 S. Darlington St.
$10.89 rental property
widow Edith Jackson
Harry Siegel
225 S. Darlington St.
$10.89 rental property
driver William Lewis & family
Lucinda Lear
105 E. Chestnut St.
$30.25 owner occupied
widow, rented rooms
Domenick Bouney
249 Maple Ave.
$9.24 owner occupied
blacksmith shop & family
Dominick Sabatina
132 E. Gay St.
$41.10 factory
manufactured carbonated beverages
Harry M. Peterson
309 S. Adams St.
$7.26 rental property
laborer Joseph Potts & family
Philip T. Durnell
503 S. Adams St.
$7.52 owner occupied
carpenter & family
Charles Norman
301 S. Adams St.
$7.26 owner occupied
three boarders
Fannie Swayne
21 W. Barnard St.
$14.52 owner occupied
widow and son's family
W. Francis Grubb
128 W. Chestnut St.
$14.52 owner occupied
taxi driver
Isaac Snyder
128 E. Market St.
$16.33 rental property
owner's relatives
Charles Fullerton
407-417 W. Market St.
$14.52 not known
occupied by other Fullertons
J. Fullerton
401 W. Market St.
$7.26 not known
Frederick Fullerton, junk dealer
J. Doran
125 Linden St.
$29.04 rental property
Elinsky family, teacher
H. Mobalia
305 Hannum Ave.
$14.52 owner occupied
family, laborer
H. Clements
424 E. Gay St.
$7.26 business property
possibly a paint shop
Wilmer Farra
423 S. Matlack St.
$10.89 owner occupied
family, carpenter
L. Esposito
424 S. Matlack St.
$14.52 rental property
Barber family (taxi driver)
Richard Stamper
632 S. Matlack St.
$10.89 owner occupied
garage mechanic & family
James F. O'Neill
732-34 S. Matlack St.
$29.04 rental properties
tenants and relatives
J. Cohen
117 E. Miner St.
$14.52 owner occupied
livestock dealer & family
A. C. Jackson
633 E. Miner St.
$7.26 rental property
John Wesley family
Nicolas Spazannia
132 Wayne St.
$14.52 owner occupied
grocery & residence
Rebecca Taylor
21 Price St.
$14.52 owner occupied
woodworker & family
W. Durnall
113 S. Poplar St.
$7.26 rental property
2 families of relatives, laborers
John Ricci
104 N. New St.
$21.78 rental property
barber Alphonso Chew & family
William Badum
427 N. New St.
$14.52 owner occupied
painter & family
David Miles
117 S. New St.
$21.78 owner occupied
car salesman & family
C. Clark
432 E. Miner St.
$7.26 rental property
relatives, laborers
Mary Durnall
426 E. Miner St.
$5.26 rental property
family, laborers
William J. Corcoran
Rear 121 W. Miner St.
$7.26 rental property
upscale "Everhart Apartments"
In subsequent months, Council (or those who showed up -- at no meeting did all members attend) extended some deferments and cancelled others. Egio, Howard, Doran, Canty, Grant, McDonald, Corcoran and Mrs. William Tigue all received another month's reprieve in September, but they instructed their solicitor to begin court action against the William Jackson estate and the Sharples Separator Works. In November, they extended everyone for another month and halted the action against the Separator Works. Finally in December, Council voted to terminate water service for Egio, Canty, Doran and the Jackson Estate just before Christmas, and asked the solicitor to begin action against Sarah Howard and to send a written demand for $100 per week to the Sharples Separator Works.

Despite the fact that his company had made no payments since the August 1932 meeting, on January 11, 1933, the company's secretary, Fred Wood, sent a written request for leniency. Council referred it to their solicitor, which is presumably where the matter stood in March when the company filed for bankruptcy. The July 12 minutes mention that the Separator Company continued to receive water service, and the October 9 minutes note negotiations were underway between the Borough and the company's receivers, with Council president J. Paul MacElree serving as the company's lawyer. He was absent from the July, August and September 1933 meetings. After his term ended in December, he appeared before Council in 1924 as the lawyer for Fred Wood and Thomas Slack, the court-appointed receivers for the company.]

By the summer of 1933, there was a new group of delinquent water customers that included the Darlington Seminary, the new owner of the Mayflower Lunch, which had gone bankrupt in 1932, and Cornelia Dilworth, a widow who told Council that she had not missed a payment in twenty years, but fell behind because her tenants could not pay their rent. Council finally cut of Sara Howard's water in September 1933. It continued to hone the process by which it dealt with delinquent water customers, but it never again invited them to plead their case en masse at a public meeting.

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West Chester Gets a Sewer System
The current brou-ha-ha over health care reform has what electronics experts refer to as a low signal-to-noise ratio. In other words, there is relatively little substance in some of the arguments being made, and it tends to get drowned out by the noise that surrounds it. It recalls an episode from the early twentieth century in West Chester history when local government tried to get approval to install a Borough-sized sewer system.

West Chester was founded on the top of a hill, and for more than a century, when rain fell, it ran downhill and nobody thought much about it. The liquid wastes produced by Borough residents followed the rain water down hill, and started to cause concern in the mid-19th century. About the time of the Civil War, Borough Council adopted an ordinance that regulated the size and depth of cesspools -- covered pits designed to hold liquid sewage until a contractor came to pump it out and carry it away from the Borough. Those regulations were not enough to prevent people from discharging sewage out into the streets however, and that became one of the priorities of the Board of Health after it was formed in 1885. Even then, violations continued, and since liquids from the Borough ended up in either the Chester Creek or Brandywine Creek, communities located downstream complained.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the downstream communities found a way to make West Chester pay attention by filing lawsuits. Others took a more benign approach, like the roughly 300 people who presented a petition to Borough Council in September 1904. Many owned land which bordered streams leading away from the Borough, while the largest number were residents of the Borough who believed that civic improvements would invigorate the business climate. A newspaper article from that time published an approximation of a snippet from the discussion that took place among Council members:  The sewer pump house in
Everhart Park
The sewer pump house in Everhart Park
  • Mr. Heed: "I can't see how all this business in West Chester damages Wllmington."
  • Mr. Marshall: "Ah, Wllmington!"
  • Mr. Turner.: "It [sewage] will purify itself in that distance."
  • Mr. Heed: "They say there are no water closets [toilets] connected with the sewer system in town."
  • President Brown: "If some of the property owners were put on a committee to investigate they would have to report themselves, for there are closets in West Chester connected and they know it."
  • Mr. Meed: "We all know we have no money to do any work with. It will require a vote of the people for this purpose. I say, make the Board of Health responsible."
  • Mr. Ingram: "I will vote for It, but I will say right here that there are some property owners, who, if their taxes should be raised, would fall dead."

Therein lay the problem -- to create a municipal sewer system would require more money than the Borough had ever spent on anything, and its main benefit -- rendering Borough sewage harmless -- would go to downstream communities which drew their drinking water from the Brandywine and Chester Creeks.

A succession of lawsuits applied pressure to Borough Council, which was responsible for paying the lawyers to defend them and the penalties when they lost. Additional pressure came in the form of contaminated water wells in the East End of the Borough, but since most of West Chester's residents relied on municipal water, they were able to shrug that off. Nevertheless, by 1909 Borough Council felt the need to ask the voters for permission to build a sewer treatment plant and a system of pipes designed to connect it to all of the houses in the Borough.

They failed, not once, but three times between 1906 and 1910. Newspaper articles in the weeks leading up to the third referendum in 1910 gave broad coverage to the supporters, which included Borough officials, State Normal School professors, and the West Chester Merchants' and Business Men's Association. Opponents got less coverage, but their position can be reconstructed from the arguments put forth by the supporters: $200,000 was too much to ask Borough residents to pay;, the current system works just fine; all that's needed is more enforcement of the cesspool ordinance; and the supporters of sewers are only looking to benefit their own businesses.

After the third defeat in May 1910, Borough Council recognized that it would probably be unable to win a fourth attempt. Instead, they opted to construct the system in segments by borrowing money for the treatment plants and then adding sewer pipes as the money became available. By 1912, an engineer had created an acceptable master plan which featured two treatment plants on Goose Creek (southeast) and Taylor's Run (northwest) plus pumping stations to transfer sewage from the Borough's other watersheds to a transfer pipe which used gravity to conduct it to the treatment plants.

Construction got underway along S. Matlack Street in 1913, the tunnel under Wayne Street was finished in fall 1915, and the pumping station in Everhart Grove (now Everhart Park) opened in early 1916. Meanwhile, the next political battle got underway -- how customers would be charged for their use of the sewer system.

The first proposal was to set the rate equal to one half of the water bill paid by each property. Borough Council approved that in September 1916, but Burgess (the old name for a Mayor) J. Paul MacElree vetoed it. Then Borough Council approved a new ordinance that charged users a base fee linked to the value of their property, plus a separate fee for each sink, toilet or drain connected to the system. The Burgess let this one go through, so by the end of 1916, the system began to pay for itself.

The naysayers were right about one thing -- the introduction of sewers had at least one bad side effect. The many new toilets installed to replace outhouses all consumed water, and the result was increased demand on the Borough's reservoir system. By the summer of 1917 there was discussion of an ordinance to prohibit the washing of automobiles -- itself a new practice in the Borough -- although once the rain began to fall again in the late fall, such talk subsided.

Another chronic problem was caused by people who allowed trash to fall into the sewer. In late 1917, the superintendent of the sewer department told the newspaper that "Persons still dump all kinds of articles in sewer pipes. How some get through without clogging closets (i.e. toilets), etc., is a wonder, yet no horse blankets, pillows, washtubs have been raked out of the big well, but there are brushes, broken china, articles of clothing, and well, a good many things." A third problem was caused by people who refused to pay their sewer bills, which led to a flurry of summons issued by the Justice of the Peace.

During the ensuing ninety-three years, the Borough's sewer system has needed upgrades and improvements, but no one has ever suggested that it should be removed or that it was a mistake to construct it. From our vantage point, it's hard to imagine what the opponents argued during the referenda on bond issues that took place between 1906 and 1910. Perhaps there's a lesson in all this for those engaged in the debate about health care.

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Copyright 2010 by Dr. James A. Jones