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Bars where Pete has had a drink

Sunday, February 05, 2023

#4677 - The Continental Tavern, Yardley, PA - 7/13/2022

Continental Tavern, Yardley, PA
Yardley Borough, Pennsylvania was incorporated in 1895, but the Yardleys first started settling in the area in 1682, originally with a purchase agreement for 500 acres from William Penn himself. The community of about 2,500 today, located just across the Delaware from New Jersey, has long been known to be a major stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. But it would be a century and a half after that war before some history buff new owners of a local hotel and tavern would unearth a motherload of artifacts from a long inaccessible chamber below the kitchen, to help flesh out their route and story.

Frank Lyons, owner, Continental Tavern

When I asked a few questions at the Continental Tavern in Yardley, PA in the summer of 2022, the staff there told me it was unfortunate that Frank wasn't there, as he was the main source of that sort of history. Frank Lyons, I would find out, was a retired commercial airline captain and partner in a small investment banking business before purchasing the Tavern in 2007, along with his wife Patty and daughter Kelly Lyons Vliet and her husband Sean. Frank was a revolutionary period history buff who had already participated with 15 to 20 people to annually re-enact the roles of the Massachusetts regiment that rowed the boats during Washington's crossing of the Delaware, just three miles down the road from the Tavern. (Frank plays the role of Colonel John Glover of the Marblehead, MA.)

Fortunately Frank arrived before I left, and informed of my questions, quite generously gave me a very interesting tour of the place. With Frank leading, the history reveals itself floor by floor, starting with the large number of artifacts on display in the bar itself. From there we went upstairs to some event spaces, displaying paintings and artifacts from the revolutionary war period, with much explanatory commentary from Frank, as well as many more artifacts from the tavern itself. On the third floor, which Frank has described as "the laboratory," one sees the cleaning and organizing process, complete with autoclave and rack after rack of antique items -- more than many historical museums. Finally, through a new, more accessible opening created just three weeks earlier, we entered the once hidden room which was slowly revealing its history and layer after layer of artifacts.

Though this chamber was a surprise to everyone, Frank and family knew the historical relevance of the hotel, and insisted on the means to restore it as part of the purchase. "Frank ... said the family has traced the property’s history back to the late 1700s, when it was an outbuilding of the Thomas Yardley estate. In 1808, it was sold as a shop and residence. By the 1840s, a town library occupied the second floor and the unlicensed tavern space functioned as a Temperance House. In the 1850s, the building also served boarders." (phillyburbs)

Susan Taylor, President of the Yardley Historical Association, added "The initial structure was built in 1845 as a temperance house and store. Then, in 1866 the proprietor received a license to operate a hotel with 18 rooms. A fierce blaze destroyed the building in 1876. The following year, it was rebuilt." (buckscountyintime)

Frank Lyons, re-enactment of 
the Delaware Crossing

Frank explained how, in the mid 1800s, owner Samuel Slack sought repeatedly to obtain a liquor license, over the fierce opposition of local women's temperance group in the Quaker town. He was finally successful in 1864, and said license is, of course, proudly displayed in the tavern today.

The transition to both a structure more true to its 19th century origins and to an attractive, viable business was described in Suburban Life Magazine

'Prior to settlement, the family presented their four-phase restoration plan to the Yardley Borough Planning Commission. The plan called for a total renovation of the three-story building, an upgrade to meet modern code standards, redesign of the entire first floor of the Tavern, and lastly, the reconstruction of a wrap-around porch to replicate the precise fa├žade fashioned in 1877. The proposed plan sought to revive the building’s remarkable charm and revitalize the center of Yardley.

“In 1876, a fire destroyed the two story structure and it was rebuilt in 1877 on the same foundation in its current three-story configuration,” Frank says. “During our renovations, which began in late 2007, an inaccessible chamber was discovered under the kitchen … in the corner of the chamber was a stone tunnel, which ran deep into the ground. We began an archeological dig looking for evidence of the Underground Railroad. What we found so far is over 10,000 empty whiskey bottles from the Prohibition Era, as well as a number of artifacts from Yardley’s past.” Many of those bottles and artifacts are on display around the building.

Frank notes at the time of purchase, the Tavern’s first floor was a 116 seat bar and restaurant. On the second and third floors, however, were 18 small hotel rooms which had gone unused since the 1950’s. In April of 2008, Vliet and the Lyons’ reopened the Tavern with 110 seats in the first floor bar and restaurant. In 2011 the second floor reopened to feature a 60-seat special purpose room designed for catered events and overflow dining, in addition to a small meeting room and office. A new efficient kitchen “line” was designed by Ken Fuller—one of Eastern Pennsylvania’s most prominent kitchen engineers — to offer modern equipment, and productive work areas. The last of the renovations were completed in the spring of 2012 with the reconstruction of the exterior wrap-around porch containing 22 seats for outdoor dining. Today, the Continental Tavern remains a successful and vibrant local dining destination.

“In a soundbite, the Tavern serves ‘old fashioned American tavern fare with a curiously modern accent,’” Frank says. “We have a robust selection of standard tavern comfort foods, such as ribs, burgers, steaks and pot pies, which are prepared in our kitchen with the finest ingredients. Each week however, our chefs plan unique specials which rival the best fine dining establishments in the county. There’s something for everyone.”'

Frank described the careful process of the dig with a number of family members and employees dedicating their time to the efforts, each additional each downward going a bit further back in time. He told of local historians and Underground Railroad buffs believed there must have been just such a stop on their road to freedom.

Continental Tavern, Yardley, PA
First liquor license, 1864

'Millard Mitchell, the late grandson of a slave, was astounded when he visited the excavation in 2008. As a descendant of the borough’s African American community, he beamed, “This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life.” It confirmed childhood stories about the Continental.'  (phillyburbs)

The tavern's website describes the early process in more detail:

"During construction, a large chamber was found in the basement below the kitchen. The chamber was approximately 15 feet by 15 feet with 18 inch stone walls. There was no entrance into the chamber from the outside or from the rest of the basement, which means that there had to have been a trap door from above.

Construction workers had to enter the chamber to run mechanical systems through it. What they found inside was starling. One corner of the chamber contained a mysterious quarter circle stone wall. The chamber was 4 feet from floor to ceiling. As crews began to dig every shovelful of dirt contained unusual artifacts — alcohol bottles, apothecary items, figurines, personal care products, tungsten light bulbs, an enigmatic weapon, and numerous other items pictured here on the website.

A few stones were removed from the quarter circle stone wall to reveal a 5 foot diameter cylindrical stone tunnel which went deep into the ground. Local Underground Railroad historians indicated that the tunnel was connected to a series of tunnels which came up from the canal and connected the Tavern with 2 other Yardley structures. These buildings were way stations on the Underground Railroad which was in operation from the early 1800’s through the Civil War."

Remnants of the madam?
Continental Tavern, Yardley, PA

Finally there are, of course, the ghosts. One of these, Frank believes, is related to some artifacts found crammed into one the walls. He showed me a silver handle of an old purse, a bloodied corset, and the rusted remains of a revolver that would appear to confirm a story of a beautiful madam murdered during the tavern's time as a brothel. There's even a painting that is said to resemble the woman, and some confirmatory "evidence" of the story and artifacts from local paranormal experts. In general the building is said to be one of the most haunted in the area, with the ghost stories being one of the largest attractions for visitors.

I enjoy hearing the stories, but being the stodgy sort, most interested in the more tangible aspects of history, I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to see all the artifacts and operations, and to collect the historical commentary from Frank. I am so pleased to find people with a love of history investing their time and effort into preserving great locations like this, and keeping them alive for the public. Finally, having finished my meal ahead of this, Frank sent me on my way to my next historical tavern, asking a question the Yardley bar for which he already knew the answer. "Is that enough history for you?"

2 N Main St, Yardley, PA 19067 - (215) 493-9191
Est. 1864 (first bar), 1877 (current building) - Building constructed: 1877
Web site: - facebook
Reviews: buckscountyadventures - paintingglassmedia - suburbanlifemagazine - - buckscountyintime - phillyburbs - onlyinyourstate - yelp - tripadvisor  

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