Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Workers’ Housing, c.1820-c.1900
various addresses in Manayunk, Philadelphia PA

Sara Jane Elk, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

A visitor to the developing mill town of Manayunk in the 1820s would undoubtedly observe masons and carpenters erecting stone mills along the Schuylkill Navigation Company canal and constructing frame or stone housing clustered near the mills. The first mill owners often attached a dwelling to the mill or built it nearby. Captain John Towers constructed his stone dwelling adjacent to his textile mill, and papermaker Samuel Eckstein built a two and a half story stone house for his manager. Although several mill owners constructed housing for their operatives, Manayunk owners did not erect the boarding houses found in great numbers in Lowell, or did they invest in enough tenements to house all of their workers.
 
In the earliest days, mill owners were involved in the construction of some dwellings. John Towers built six small frame houses across the canal from his mill which were later moved to Green Lane.
1 Jerome Keating, of Borie, Laguerenne and Keating, managed the mills between their construction in 1828 and his death in 1833 and was the only one of the three to live in Manayunk. He erected his house behind the “Back Row,” one of three rows of dwellings constructed for his workers. Each of “Keating’s Rows” contained "dwellings for six families each, all with yards and gardens, extending from the east side of Robeson [Rector Street], about half way to Penn [Pensdale] Street. The `Front Row' faced on the north side of Main Street; “Middle Row” on the south side of Cresson Street, and “Back Row” on the north side of Cresson Street." 2 Joseph Ripka also owned tenements for some of his favored employees as early as the 1830s. 3
 
The first Hexamer General Surveys of the late 1860s and early 1870s illustrate several of the mill complexes before vast expansion efforts took place. Dwelling houses appear along the canal near the Blantyre Mills, the Economy Mills, the A. Campbell Crompton Mills, and the Flat Rock Paper Mill.
4
 
Many of the Manayunk mill owners also resided in the mill village, their early mansions located on the meadowland or above on the rise toward the ridge. Workers lived in cheaply constructed tenements built by mill owners or developer/ landlords, at first on the floodplain, then later in tight rows of housing that began ascending up the hills in the 1850s and 60s. The earliest houses, then, stand near the canal east of Main Street along the perpendicular streets. Most of the rows facing the streets from Shurs Lane to Green Lane, between Main Street and Cresson date from c. 1830-1850. Further upstream, north of Leverington Avenue, along Canton Street, rows of the same genre were constructed to house workers of the Eckstein paper mill, the Moses Hey woolen mill, the Harris Saw Mill, W. B. Buckley & Sons Flat Rock Rolling Mill the Nixon Paper Mills, the Solms textile mill, and the two flour mills; all first generation mills situated along the upper portion of the canal.
 
Although the early textile mill owners reinvested in their mills rather than own large holdings of worker tenements, the situation changed during the mid-century, when more owners held real estate than those who did not. With increased population and a critical shortage of housing, mill owners may have contracted to erect the rows of cheap houses that began to cling to the hills.
5 With rock so close to the surface, plumbing was usually not installed. Outhouses were common on the landscape until scores of years later when homeowners began to replace them with indoor plumbing. With the majority of workers remaining propertyless well through the mid-nineteenth century, most Manayunk residents were forced to rent from mill owners or other established landlords.
 
Owners and builders of worker housing throughout the years of Manayunk's development remain relatively unknown. Limited investigation into the history of worker housing in Manayunk has revealed that Perry Levering may contracted for building in the 1830s and that S.S. Keely, his successor in business and also member of the Levering clan, built scores of houses in Manayunk and Roxborough between the 1860s and the 1890s.
 
The houses located at 103-105 Pensdale Street, constructed c. 1840, were sold by Henry K.B. Ogle in 1860 to Michael Byrne. Harry S. Ogle, father of Henry K.B. Ogle, was the great-grandson of Captain John Towers and himself a co-owner with Jacob Heft of the Dexter Mill and Dyeworks. The mill and dyeworks once stood on the site of the present Robert Krook Inc. yarn mill (4120 Main Street), between Lock Street and the David Wallace Lincoln Mill (4074 Main Street). Although deed records do not reveal which party constructed the houses, at Harry's death, his son Henry K. B. Ogle was appointed administrator of the estate which included real estate holdings of $2,000 in excess of the Dexter Mill of $2,200. As the Pensdale street houses stand across Main Street, within close proximity to the mill and dyehouse, it is probable that he leased these two dwellings to his workers.

1  Hagner, p. 67.
2  Goshow, p. 53. None of these structures survive. Demolition of Keating's house and “Back Row” took place when St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church built its present structures. The “Middle Row" was destroyed when the PG&N railroad came to Manayunk, and the “Front Row” fell for new commercial buildings along Main Street in the 1850s and 1860s.
3  Scranton, p. 252.
4  Hexamer General Survey, Nos. 4, 405, 711-712, 1027, 1068-1069, 1131-1132, 1809-1810.
5  Scranton, p. 252.


Update May 2007 (by Sara Jane Elk):
No change.