The White Mountains of Ambler

The White Mountains of Ambler

Ethan Reilly, Vanderbilt University, 2017

(Additional background and comments from Ethan Reilly appear after his article.)

          On a sunny April afternoon, children rejoice at the end of the school day. Bounding out of Mattison Avenue Elementary, they set out for their favorite places to play. Some hurry to claim space in the local parks and backyards, but those who bore of playground games have a more adventurous goal in mind. Less than a mile away, these children congregate at the White Mountains. Some of the Mountains are massive piles of eggshell colored gravel and sand while others are composed of decaying shingles, sheets, and pipes. The children race around the Mountains, jumping over chalky puddles, sledding down sandy slopes, and having throwing matches with the brittle refuse, which breaks upon impact. Their parents had told them not to hang out around here, warning them that some in town had died from asbestos poisoning, but how dangerous could the Mountains be if they were right in peoples’ backyards?

          So, the children played in the White Mountains, inhaling asbestos dust all the while. In 1970s Ambler, Pennsylvania, this was the norm. The town had spent the last century manufacturing asbestos products and shipping them across the continent. While it was once a rural Quaker village, its industry transformed it, attracting thousands of workers from Europe and the Americas, building vital infrastructure, and giving the town a sense of grand purpose. For good and bad, Ambler made asbestos and asbestos made Ambler. But the town was not always dedicated to this industry, and it certainly is not today. So, what purposes has Ambler served over time, and how have these purposes influenced its relationship with its environment? This examination deals in the moral grey zone where the town’s economy overlaps with its ecology.

1716 – 1854: The Occupation of a Hinterland Village

          Before the town of Ambler was ever even imagined, it was territory of the Lenni Lenape tribe, which ranged from the Lower Hudson Valley to the Delaware River watershed. This territory was well endowed with deciduous forests, pasture and farmland, mineral resources, and extensive waterways. Free European settlement of Pennsylvania began with a treaty between William Penn and the Lenni Lenape in 1680. In 1682, Penn sold to Quakers William and George Harmer a 408-acre tract of land which would later comprise all of Ambler Borough (Kieser). The Harmer purchase most prominently featured the Wissahickon Creek, which was a tributary to the Schuylkill River and led directly to Philadelphia and the Delaware. By 1712, William Harmer had built a grist mill along the Wissahickon, the area’s first European commercial venture. This mill was followed by eight more between 1720 and 1850. As grist, lumber, cloth, and paper mills propagated along the local creeks, a town center developed where the main road met the tannery and inn (Quattrone). This town was not yet Ambler, however. At the time, it was known as the village of Wissahickon.

          To begin, why did the Harmers and other settlers seek this land? Given the social intolerance of the Harmers’ religion at the time, they may have wanted to create a welcoming place for Quakers to practice in nature. As the purchase was a large, fertile, and well-wooded holding just a day’s travel from Philadelphia, perhaps the Harmers had entrepreneurial ambitions as well. Regardless of their intentions, the milling industry quickly came to define the town, generating both essential provisions for colonial life and commercial goods for the Philadelphia market. As early as the 1720s, Wissahickon entered a partnership with Philadelphia in which it traded its excess produce for the city’s higher quality goods (Kieser).

          As Wissahickon became more populated and industrialized in these early years, it brought some harm to its waterways. At its peak during this period, the village was home to around 100 people, nine mills, and a few other commercial buildings. Whenever possible, townspeople would site their buildings along a creek for two reasons: to power a mill and/or to carry away waste. While the former function had little environmental impact, the latter polluted the creeks with sewage and industrial byproducts, likely bringing sickness to many animals and settlers downstream. One creek was even nicknamed “Honey Run” after the pungently sweet outflow from the tannery upstream (Kieser). The town also caused more minor damage to its ecosystem by deforesting, replacing native plants with foreign crops, and hunting animals.

1855 – 1880: The Potential of a Railroad Stop

          The next major development for the village was its connection to Philadelphia via the North Pennsylvania Railroad in 1855. The railroad allowed Wissahickon farmers to ship their produce more efficiently, promising to increase the economic potential of the town. However, just as the railroad brought freer trade and movement, its construction allowed larger towns near our village to install steam-powered mills. These new mills could produce flour in both higher quality and greater quantity than Wissahickon’s grist mills. By 1870, this harsh competition brought the milling industry of Wissahickon to decline, causing the town’s growth to stagnate (Hallowell Hough). In this way, the town’s status as a trading partner with Philadelphia was usurped by more capable hinterland towns. Economic forces had rendered Wissahickon commercially irrelevant for the time being, decreasing its industrial output and thus easing ecological damage. The activity of the railroad also brought greater air pollution to the town, even if trains only stopped in Wissahickon to reload.

          Along with economic uncertainty, the North Pennsylvania Railroad brought the town morbid fame and a new namesake. Shortly after the railroad was completed, two passenger trains crashed headfirst into each other just two miles away from Wissahickon, killing approximately 60 young men and women and injuring 100 more riders. In response, a Quaker woman named Mary Johnson Ambler carried first aid supplies to the wreck site and used her own home as a hospital to nurse the survivors’ wounds. The incident became known as the Great Train Wreck of 1856 and became famous as the deadliest railroad catastrophe in the world up to that time. After her death, the town remembered Mary Johnson Ambler’s heroic actions by naming itself after her. From self-sacrifice in response to man-made disaster, Ambler found its name (Quattrone).

1881 – 1972: The Production of a Company Town

          After decades of economic stagnation, a new industry made Ambler its home. In 1881, the pharmaceutical firm Keasbey & Mattison relocated from Philadelphia to Ambler, with a clear entrepreneurial vision. K&M sought to combine the town’s plentiful supply of dolomite rock with raw asbestos shipped by rail from Quebec to create fireproof products ranging from shingles to cloth. A factory was built along Wissahickon Creek, and demand for the new asbestos products rocketed. Within a decade, Keasbey & Mattison had brought hundreds of workers, managers, and executives to Ambler, more than quadrupling its size. To accommodate this boom in population, Mattison hired laborers from across Europe and the American South to build 400 new houses along with offices and public buildings. Most notably, Italian stonemasons and North Carolinian African American workers contributed to the town’s cultural identity. Mattison further invested in the town by purifying its water supply, erecting electric streetlamps, and patronizing its cinema, playhouse, and orchestra. The company’s success was such that by World War I, Ambler was known as “the asbestos capital of the world,” (Quattrone). By 1930, the town’s population had quadrupled again, to 4,000 (Ambler, PA Population).

          In this period of 50 years, Ambler transformed from a rural town robbed of its market to an industrial hub at the top of its trade. By nearly every metric, quality of life had improved, though to what did Amblerites owe this good fortune? The economic boon of the Keasbey & Mattison factory was the apparent cause, but the company would not have moved to Ambler had it not had railroad access or been rich in dolomite rock (Kennedy). The unique causes of Ambler’s prosperity were these physical characteristics of the site. After all, the entrepreneurship of K&M was available to many towns, but it chose Ambler. The broader mechanism seems to be that constructs, like mills, factories, and railroads, are tools for converting natural resources, like fertile soils, forests, and minerals, into wealth. Wealth can then be traded for products and services that improve quality of life, like nonnative foods, water purifiers, and movie theaters, sourced from a local city. This is how both the city and the hinterland town feed each other without ever explicitly agreeing to their relationship: they are each located in an environment which allows them to produce what the other needs. Without trade, a town can only ever be as prosperous as its fields, forests, and waters allow it to be. Through trade, a town’s prosperity is no longer constrained by its immediate environment—it is extended to the environments of every settlement within reach. This is why the railroad brought prosperity to Ambler: it extended the town’s economic reach from across the state to across the continent.

          The economy certainly has its flaws, however—it has no inherent regard for ethics nor the environment. In Ambler, the economy brightened the streets at night and provided clean drinking water at the same time as it made airborne clouds of carcinogenic dust and polluted the Wissahickon Creek with mineral slurry. Had citizens of Ambler, employees of Keasbey & Mattison, and consumers of the company’s products known how dangerous asbestos was, they might have spurned the industry despite its economic potential. Unfortunately, asbestos was not widely recognized to be dangerous until the 1960s, and asbestos products were not fully banned in the United States until 1989 (Reiny). As a result, from the K&M factory’s first day in 1883 until the first restriction of asbestos in 1973, the material was rarely handled properly. Within the factory, workers manipulated raw asbestos dust without ventilator masks, and outside the factory, asbestos waste was dumped in massive piles exposed to wind and rain. When inhaled, asbestos dust inflames and scars the lung, causing asbestosis, a disease which results in severe shortness of breath and increased risks for lung cancer and fatal mesothelioma (Asbestos). As a result, Ambler factory workers and townspeople alike contracted asbestosis at high rates—by one estimation, they were 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer than the general population (Reiny). Local wildlife may have also been afflicted with similar disease due to its proximity to the toxic town.

          Dangerous air was paired also with toxic water. The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported in 1920 that, “the amount of waste from the [K&M] plant is tremendous and gives the creek a milky appearance for some distance downstream,” (Eleventh Annual Report). During the work day, the factory constantly dumped a slurry of dolomite, cement, and asbestos into the Wissahickon Creek, likely poisoning the watershed ecosystem for miles downstream (Reiny).

          Dr. Richard Mattison, the man who brought asbestos processing to Ambler, is not entirely to blame for Ambler’s notoriety. Amidst the Great Depression, Keasbey & Mattison was sold to an English competitor, Turner & Newell. T&N shut down in 1962, selling the factory to CertainTeed Corporation and Nicolet Industries. Factory operations finally ended when Nicolet went bankrupt due to thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits in 1987, a full 106 years after K&M first moved to Ambler (Reiny). For all the good and bad he brought to the town, Mattison is remembered modestly: a residential street and a couple of residential developments bare his name today.

1973 – 2017: The Recovery of a Robust Community

          In recent decades, Ambler has found new purpose in overcoming its toxic legacy. At peak contamination, asbestos dumps spanned 25 acres of land along the Wissahickon Creek, amounting to some 1,500,000 cubic yards of waste. As soon as the EPA began regulating asbestos products, it made the town’s deadly “mountain range” a priority. In 1973, the EPA sent a task force to begin remediation. But after years of effort, the Agency had made little progress and abandoned its attempt. Efforts restarted in 1986, this time allocating a Superfund to the initiative and committing to a clearer plan. By 1993, the Agency had capped the Mountains with soil and fenced off the dump sites. This prevented most of the asbestos dust from becoming airborne and kept citizens from disturbing the waste. To the newly aware townspeople, this remediation was a satisfying step forward. However, when a land developer proposed to build a seventeen story apartment on one of the reclaimed dump sites in 2005, the surrounding community reopened the dialogue. The community was still wary of the waste, and for good reason: any passerby could see chunks of decaying asbestos brick sitting on the other side of the fence. In response, the EPA returned to the Superfund site in 2009, this time removing excess waste from the sites and draining a contaminated reservoir (A History of Asbestos in Ambler). Work on the sites is ongoing now and the Agency finally seems committed to a long-term containment plan. For the time being, the asbestos piles remain covered in feet of topsoil; the White Mountains have been buried under brown and green (Environmental Concerns).

          For all the harm that asbestos contamination has brought to the people of Ambler, it has also demonstrated the importance of a healthy environment. After decades of firsthand experience with ecological danger and reclamation efforts, the town has committed be more environmentally conscious, protective, and appreciative. In the early 2000s, it began a project which would reflect this newfound ethos in its skyline. At the time, the Ambler Boiler House, which once provided the Keasbey & Mattison factory with steam for its engines, stood derelict along the Wissahickon—a symbol of Ambler’s unwholesome industrial legacy. In conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the borough government offered a sixteen million dollar grant to refurbish the brickwork building. When construction completed in 2011, a Platinum LEED certified office space stood where a coal-burning steam plant once had (Ambler Boiler House). The Ambler Boiler House now serves as a monument to the lessons the town has learned about environmental stewardship.

          This renovation project represented a shift in Ambler’s economy, too—the town would have had little use for an office building before Keasbey and Mattison moved in. Since the decline of its factory in the ‘70s, Ambler has found new purpose in its flourishing service industries. In 2015, while only 15.6% of its workforce was employed in construction, production, and transportation, 84.5% found work in service industries, from entertainment to sales (United States).

          There is cause to believe that without the economic stimulus of the asbestos factory, Ambler would have never developed as mature a workforce as it has today. Before K&M moved in, Ambler was a town of only 250 with a failing milling industry—all that it had in its favor were natural resources and a railroad stop. As surrounding towns produced more grain at lower prices, Ambler was all but erased from Philadelphia’s hinterland. Without the economic purpose of feeding the city, the town was on a path to disintegration. But when K&M brought money, people, and infrastructure to Ambler, it rose beyond the status of a hinterland town. Rather than existing to serve Philadelphia, the town now served every urban center connected by rail. And in one way Ambler became more like a city: as thousands of workers migrated to the borough, it could no longer support itself alone, so other towns occupied themselves with feeding Ambler through trade. In this way, Ambler progressed from a lopsided hinterland-city system to unrestricted trade with its peers. The town’s manufacturing industry gave it the economic leverage to start serving itself rather than the city—a leverage which has propagated throughout the region today.

The Tension of a Conflicted Ethic

          In the end, does the success of Ambler in providing products and services for the world and cultivating its residents justify the damage it caused to their health and environment? In Ambler and perhaps every place where humans settle, there is a moral tension between the desires of the people and the health of their environment. As a self-preserving species, we tend to align our ethics with whatever helps us survive—it is right to keep captive livestock and to kill predators which threaten us. But as empathetic thinkers, we also recognize that to some extent other organisms have that same right to survival—that it is wrong to needlessly kill a deer or set fire to a tree. The conflict comes when humans need to kill organisms—chop down trees, hunt animals, replace natural growth with cereal crops—to survive and thrive.

          So, to what extent should people harm their environment in order to live a better life? In rural Wissahickon, were settlers right to pollute their streams with sewage? Had they not, some would have surely gotten sick and died, but in doing so they certainly harmed creatures downstream. In bustling Ambler, were Keasbey and Mattison right to exchange the health of the region for the prosperity and profit? The town is better off now than it was then, so perhaps they were. The truth is that there is no consensus: every person values the quality of their own life and the health of their environment differently. Some would rather starve than kill an animal for its meat while others would gladly poison millions of insects to protect their crop. In Ambler, human desires are at odds with the wellbeing of the environment, but no compromise is obvious. Until we can devise some way to fairly govern our interactions with nature, we have little choice but to live in moral ambiguity.


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It has been over six years since Ethan Reilly submitted this research paper to his professor. Looking back, he says that he is most surprised that he was never taught about Ambler’s rich history while he was in high school. This asbestos story alone connects to many themes that local students study, and seeing how those themes affect their hometown makes the topics more relevant and important.

After graduating from Wissahickon High School, Reilly attended Vanderbilt University, where he double majored to receive a B.S. in Public Policy and Engineering Science with a concentration in environmental policy. For a class project to make a Vanderbilt campus park more inviting and sustainable, he designed and proposed a stormwater fountain, which was built in the heart of the campus. At this writing, he is a volunteer advocate for citizens’ environmental and campaign finance reform groups. He includes history in his list of hobbies because it joins science, creative writing, linguistics, and storytelling games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Reilly completed The White Mountains of Ambler for a course in Urban Ecology, which he describes as the “study of the environmental conditions and consequences of life in cities through history, i.e., transformations of landscapes, food systems, social inequality, and built environments.” His assignment was to prepare a critical analysis of the relationship between an urban place and its environment. Ambler provided an excellent example.

In the proposal for his paper, Reilly writes,

I was interested in how development of the frontier looks from the perspective of the satellite town, rather than the city. I decided to use my hometown, Ambler, as a case study [because] … Ambler is a thriving town built upon the toxic waste from an industry which once saved it….  I will examine how Ambler’s development and relationship with its environment have been driven and affected by economic forces and … [in turn] their ethical implications.

Reilly shares what he has learned about the nature of pollution: “Its harms can be pervasive and often go unrecognized until we study them. Even when harm is known, polluters regularly use their power to slow and stop solutions. Environmental monitoring and an empowered public are critical safeguards.”

Reilly concludes with words of admiration for Ambler, stating, “In the end, Ambler’s struggle and victory against asbestos pollution makes me proud.  Citizens saw a problem that would last for generations, but they were diligent in working to fix it. I see that as an inspiring legacy.”