Off the Beaten Path: History of the Crum Ruins
Guest Author: Marissa Lariviere ‘18
Have you ever stumbled across the strange ruins in the Crum Woods? At first glance, these crumbling walls just seem creepy. But don’t run away- this area actually has a long and fascinating history, involving magnificent mansions and dating all the way back to Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn.
The estate was originally one of three parcels purchased from William Penn in 1681 by a Society of Friends member, Thomas Powell. Centuries later, in 1892, Mrs. James H. Little bought the estate and named it Lytlecote. She built an elite suburban fieldstone mansion on the former farmland, which was described by a contemporary as “one of the most attractive of the many handsome Delaware county estates… massive in its proportions and beautiful in its surroundings.”
In 1927, Lytlecote was bought by Ward Hinkson and his wife Edith, and renamed Oak Knoll. The Hinksons would go on to construct an elaborate estate over the 32 acres, turning their home into an iconic site in the area. This included a swimming pool, a private arboretum, and an Italian Water Garden complete with a fountain. In their gardens, the Hinksons and their six gardeners cultivated boxwood hedges, roses, tree peonies, rhododendrons, and Exbury azaleas, among others. They also planted an abundance of trees, including Norway spruces, white pines, a double-flowering dogwood, golden-flowered fringe trees, a lace leaf maple, and flowering cherry trees. Five greenhouses stood near the house, where the Hinksons grew twelve varieties of orchids commercially. Around 100,000 of these orchid flowers were cut and sold each year.
In 1964, the Hinksons sold much of their land to be turned into suburban homes. However, the real demise of Oak Knoll came with the construction of the Blue Route Highway (Interstate 476). The estate was demolished to clear the path for the new road. In preparation, all 73,000 of the Hinksons’ orchids were sold at auction and their greenhouses were dismantled. By 1967, the Hinksons had moved to a new home in Upper Providence and construction of the Blue Route began. The highway would be completed in 1992.
Today, little remains of the Hinkson’s elaborate estate. However, the ruins of Oak Knoll’s Italian Water Garden can still be found in the Crum Woods. They are now known as “the Crum Ruins,” “the sunken gardens,” or simply “the ruins.” The ruins consist of the stone walls and steps of the water garden, whose stonework is weathered but not seriously damaged. The college has filled in the small central pool with soil to avoid liability. These ruins are a popular destination for hikers, joggers, and bikers on the Leiper-Smedley trail. This paved path, which is over two miles long, runs from the Thomas Leiper House to Smedley Park. Visitors can still see many of the plants that were cultivated at Oak Knoll, including flowering cherries, yews, white pines, a sourwood, a cucumber magnolia, Japanese pachysandra, large-flowered, sessile, and yellow trilliums, and an abundant akebia vine. These ruins are an important part of local history in a beautiful natural setting. For the adventurous hiker, they’re definitely well worth a visit!
This article is part of an ongoing column called the Crum Woods Chronicle. The Crum Woods Chronicle will be periodic updates and observations about subjects related to natural history, interesting species found in and around the Crum Woods, and exciting events you can get involved in. My hope is that some of these topics will interest you, strengthen your connection to the Crum Woods, and inspire you to explore your backyard a little more often.
Natural areas do not maintain their character and quality independently, especially when they are heavily used by people and embedded in urban environments. Educating yourself about aspects of the Crum Woods that interest you and understanding how your individual use of the Crum Woods impacts it (and how you can reduce that impact!) are important steps every one of us should take.
“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” –Baba Dioum