Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia



Jane Mork Gibson, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

Fairmount Park consists of approximately four thousand acres and extends along water courses for fourteen miles. It is a combination of mostly manicured, landscaped parkland near the center of Philadelphia along the banks of the Schuylkill River and several preserved "natural" areas along the borders of the Wissahickon and Cresheim Creeks in the northwestern section of the city. 1 Today there is little evidence of the industrial establishments that once thrived within the park's limits. The existence of these industries and the threat which they posed in polluting the city's water supply taken from the Schuylkill River were important factors in the official founding of the park by act of the Pennsylvania Assembly on March 26, 1867. At that time, the Fairmount Park Commission was established to extend the several garden areas that had provided public recreational space before that date. The borders of the park were extended by another act passed on April 14, 1868. In the years following, buildings were razed and support systems
The park starts at Fairmount Avenue at the present-day Spring Garden Bridge and with varying parcels of land bordering the waterways, follows the Schuylkill River north to the mouth of the Wissahickon, from whence it continues along that creek to Northwestern and Germantown Avenues in Chestnut Hill and also along the Cresheim Creek tributary to Germantown Avenue and along a small tributary called Paper Mill Run or Monoshone Creek. The park can be roughly divided into three sections, the East Park, the West Park, and the Wissahickon Valley.
Extending along the Schuylkill's east bank, the East Park (Old Park) is the oldest section and includes Fairmount Water Works—where the Fairmount Gardens of 1835 represent the very beginnings of the park—and Lemon Hill, acquired by the city in 1844 to protect the purity of the Schuylkill and in 1855 dedicated to public use. Across the Schuylkill, the West Park—designated as parkland in 1867—is most famous as the site of the U.S. Centennial Exposition in 1876 when the nation celebrated both its founding and its industrial prowess and prospects for the future.  The third section, the Wissahickon Valley, became a cradle of industry in the eighteenth century in the days when water power determined potential industrial sites. The Wissahickon and its tributaries provided power for a total of 54 mills, with 23 of them within the limits of today's Fairmount Park. The increase in construction along the watershed has affected the flow of water in the streams, and today the raw power that turned the wheels can only be seen after a storm or heavy rainfall.
The industrial past of Fairmount Park encompasses a wide variety of activities. The earliest industries in the area were the mills of the Wissahickon because this waterway was of an appropriate size and had a steady flow of water to provide the necessary power. Richard Townsend is recorded to have built a grist mill and a saw mill at the mouth of the Wissahickon between 1686-1689, which he sold to Andrew Robeson and Charles Saunders in 1690.
2 The first paper mill in the American colonies was built on Paper Mill Run for William Rittenhouse, whose partner William Bradford noted in a letter dated November 18, 1690, that "Samuel Carpenter and I are Building a Paper Mill about a mile from thy mills at Skulkill...." 3 These were successful ventures which were expanded later with additional mills often belonging to other family members, and remnants of the installations survive to the present day.
During succeeding years a wide variety of mills were constructed in the Wissahickon Valley—grist mills, saw mills, a log mill for dyes, a nail cutting mill, paper mills, oil mills, and many kinds of textile mills. The number of mills diminished over time, due to fires, freshets, competition with newer, steam-powered mills, and also Sheriff's sales. Many of those remaining became large industrial complexes and employed auxiliary steam power.  In 1868 the Fairmount Park Commission began to acquire the Wissahickon sites, which included Townsend/Robeson's original mill, Dobsons' Mill (formerly Townsend's 2nd mill), the Rittenhouse Mill on the original mill seat plus the mills of Edward H. Amidown, Nicholas Rittenhouse, and Henry Rittenhouse, Kitchen's Mill, Livesey's Mill, the Glen Fern Mills (Livesey), Magarge's Lower and Upper Mills, and Bischoff's Mill (at Bell's Mill Road). Once taken over by the city, the buildings were torn down or became derelict and decayed over the years. In the 1930s the Works Project Administration (WPA) finished the job in that era's effort to provide rustic simplicity within the park, and the WPA demolished or altered most of what remained of buildings, mill races and dams. A significant enhancement to the park area in 1906 was the gift (by the Houston-Woodward-Henry Family) of a portion of the Cresheim Valley that contained additional mills.  Land above Bell's Mill Road was also a gift of the Houstons.
The very beginnings of Fairmount Park have an industrial flavor, for while the South Garden and the landscaped walkways at Fairmount Water Works in 1835 provided a much appreciated urban public recreational space, it was the technology of the pumping operations that gave the site its unique quality. The first building for the Fairmount Water Works was constructed beginning in 1812 on a rocky ledge where quarrying was an industrial pursuit, at the base of the highest point near the original city limit; a reservoir for the water works was built on top of the hill. Additions to the water pumping facility in 1822 included a mill house for eight water wheels, a dam "thrown" across the Schuylkill, and a set of locks on the west bank for the use of the Schuylkill Navigation Company's slackwater canal system that allowed boats to operate up the river to the coal country.  In subsequent years the facility was further enlarged and hydraulic turbines replaced the water wheels.
It was the location of the water intakes for the city's water works on the Schuylkill—at Fairmount, at West Philadelphia opposite Lemon Hill, at Montgomery Drive, and at Spring Garden by the rock tunnel—that was the compelling factor when additional land was acquired for the park. The original plan of William Penn had established country estates along the Schuylkill, but as the nineteenth century city grew and industry flourished, a variety of business pursuits began to occupy land on the river banks and on adjacent land. On the east bank, despite the pollution caused by the steamboats docking there, the Public Landing immediately north of the Fairmount Forebay remained until the early years of the twentieth century, functioning as part of the facilities of the park. Other industrial sites were gradually acquired and put out of business. The Morris & Towne Rolling Mill was located in the "Flat Iron" area at Pennsylvania and Landing Avenues, in the vicinity of the Lincoln statue and the present Azalea Garden. Further upriver along the east bank the Knickerbocker Ice Company had two ice houses and the Eagle Ice Company one ice house. There were also the Engel & Wolfe brewery and beer vaults, and the Fountain Green Rolling Mills. The park became only a narrow strip at East Falls and did not include the mills there that from the early nineteenth century discharged their industrial waste into the river; before construction of Fairmount Dam, the natural fall line at East Falls had made this a very early industrial area. A large part of the Powers & Weightman Company's industrial establishment that extended from Falls Bridge almost to the Wissahickon, and produced chemicals and pharmaceuticals, was included in the lands appropriated for the park.
The west bank of the Schuylkill was not as heavily industrialized as the east bank because it had continued as landed estates, but lifestyles were changing in the nineteenth century and this land was changing hands. In 1862 there were small industries directly across from Fairmount Water Works, and the Cold Spring Ice Company was just south of the Girard Avenue Bridge and the Knickerbocker Ice Company was further upstream. The Park Oil Refinery at 38th Street and Girard Avenue was small, but the large Belmont Petroleum Refinery constructed in 1865 just north of the Columbia Bridge may have acted as a stimulus to the extension of the park soon after. In 1866 a broadside proclaimed that Wissahickon Oil Wells were being drilled at the junction of the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek, and one well was pumping fifty barrels of oil a day.
4 A more traditional threat to the purity of the water was the operations of William Simpson's large calico print and dye works just south of Falls Bridge, the Washington Print Works.
It is the bridges over the Schuylkill and its tributaries that constitute part of the industrial archeology of Fairmount Park. At the Upper Ferry, the location of today's Spring Garden Bridge, nothing remains of the site's two most notable bridges, the wooden Upper Ferry Bridge by Wernwag (1812-38)—called "The Colossus of Fairmount" with an span of 343 feet—and the Wire Bridge by Charles Ellet (1842-70), the first wire suspension bridge for general traffic in the United States. However, at the far end of the South Garden at Fairmount Water Works, there remains a brass plaque on the abandoned eastern masonry abutment of the double-decked truss bridge designed by Strickland Kneass with the iron works supplied by the Keystone Bridge Company (erected 1873-75). Proceeding upriver, the extant bridges have been important in the development of Philadelphia by providing a means to link the city with the countryside, with a major focus Philadelphia's primacy in rail transportation—the Girard Avenue Bridge (1874), the Fairmount Park Trolley Bridge (1897) now called the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, the Columbia Bridge (1886) at the location of the 1834 bridge that carried the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad across the Schuylkill, the Reading Railroad "Stone Bridge" (1855), the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Bridge (1889), and the Falls Bridge (1895). Also, the first wire suspension bridge in the country—for pedestrians only—was built by Josiah White at East Falls in 1816, near the present-day Twin Bridges.  Recent nominations for the National Register of Historic Places include the three-span stone arch bridge of coursed ashlar (1888) which carries Ridge Road over Wissahickon Creek near the site of Robeson's mills, the Wissahickon Memorial Bridge (1931) with its monumental concrete arches faced with stone rising high above the Wissahickon at Henry Avenue, and the Walnut Lane Memorial Bridge (1950) which was the longest open spandrel arch bridge of its time (233 feet) and is the first prestressed concrete girder bridge in the United States. Further up the Wissahickon Valley, the restored Thomas Mill Road Covered Bridge (1855) survives and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  An unfortunate recent loss is the wrought iron Cresheim Valley Viaduct (c.1884) which brought the Pennsylvania Railroad to Chestnut Hill and was replaced with a concrete and steel structure (1988-89).
Many of the transportation systems that existed within the park have been replaced by modern roadways that provide access to its facilities, although Conrail/Amtrak uses old right-of-ways of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Reading Railroad in the West Park. The towpath for the Schuylkill Navigation Company's slackwater canal system ran along the west bank of the Schuylkill from the western end of the mule bridge at Manayunk to the canal locks at Fairmount Dam, although steam tugs were generally employed in this section. All traces of the canal system were eradicated by the construction of West River Drive and the Schuylkill Expressway in the 1950s. including the canal locks, but the c.1980 fish ladder has utilized a portion of the lock wall.
From 1834 to 1854 the Inclined Plane that extended roughly from the Columbia Bridge to Belmont Mansion provided a means for the early railway cars of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railway to ascend 180 feet from the level of the river to the Belmont Plateau above using a windlass and a stationary steam engine; the cut for the roadbed made a still visible depression in the land which followed Belmont Glen part of the way. The roadbed was later used by Fairmount Park trolleys (1897-1946).
5 The Fairmount Park Railroad constructed for the Centennial in 1876 to allow visitors to travel within the park grounds no longer remains, although for several years the trolley utilized portions of the track. The innovative early monorail Elevated Railway (1876) that transported passengers over a deep ravine near the Horticultural Building at the Centennial likewise is no more.
While not a true industrial building, Memorial Hall, which was the Centennial's Art Gallery in 1876, stands as a monument to the celebration of the nation's industrial achievements in its first one hundred years. The temporary Main Exhibition Building was directly in front of it, next to Machinery Hall with its great Corliss Engine providing power for the exhibits. A remarkable scale model of the Centennial buildings and grounds that was constructed in 1894 under the direction of John Baird, the Chairman of the Centennial Finance Committee, was presented to the city and is on display in the basement of Memorial Hall. From the model the viewer can gain a sense of the extent and magnificence of the Centennial when the nation was granted its place in the world as an industrial power.
Philadelphia's need for a "pure and wholesome" water supply caused the city to utilize the water of the Schuylkill River for almost two centuries, with the construction of various pump houses and storage reservoirs along its banks. On the east bank Fairmount Water Works (1812) was decommissioned as a pumping station in 1911 and is being restored for adaptive re-use; the site of the Spring Garden Water Works (1844-1909) is now the Glendenning Rock Garden; and the Queen Lane Pumping Station (1895) is still in operation near the City Line Bridge with a state-of-the-art filtration plant and reservoir on Henry Avenue outside the park area. The Philadelphia Museum of Art now occupies the site of the Fairmount Reservoir, once the city's sole water storage facility, but the East Park Reservoir located within the park area near Diamond Street and constructed to expand the water storage system in the 1870s, is still a part of the city's water system. On the west bank of the Schuylkill River, the Belmont Pumping Station (1870) at the foot of Montgomery Drive continues to function, and the extensive Belmont Filtration Beds and Reservoir are outside the park area.
Perhaps the most significant of all the existing archeological features is the  Fairmount Dam, a crib dam "thrown" across the Schuylkill (1819-1821) and repaired and extended several times. The construction of this dam created a "pond" up the river as far as Flat Rock Dam in Manayunk, covering the natural fall line at East Falls and providing a wide expanse of water to be enjoyed by oarsmen and by the public visiting the park, as well as providing a reservoir for the city water supply. The dam changed the Schuylkill from a fast-moving, self-cleansing river to one that is subject to silting and the retention of pollutants.  Today the water flowing so picturesquely over the dam, formerly diverted to turn the water wheels and the hydraulic turbines which pumped some of the water to the reservoirs atop "Faire Mount," has become an aesthetic part of the cityscape, seldom identified as an important source of industrial water power in yesteryear.
Fairmount Park's historical antecedents are generally referred to as being associated with the estates and activities of the wealthy—Penn's "Green Countrie Town"—but the industrial past of the park should be remembered.  The nineteenth century was an industrial heyday and Philadelphia accepted the challenges presented, as indicated by the many mills in operation. The probable continuing division of the estates into parcels which could provide a river-front location for industry is an equally important aspect of the park's history. Without foresight and the recognition of this possibility by Philadelphia leaders in 1867, the oil refineries of Girard Point could have been located at what was once the Belmont Petroleum Refinery near Montgomery Drive on the west bank of the Schuylkill, within what is now the heart of Fairmount Park.

1   This overview concerns the Fairmount Park boundaries as they are generally perceived; in recent years, additional city land from many sections of Philadelphia has been added to what was originally Fairmount Park.
2   James J. Magee, Jr., "Ancient Mills of the Wissahickon," Germantown Telegraph, August 11, 1933.
3   George Allen, "The Rittenhouse Paper Mill and Its Founders," Mennonite Quarterly Review, 1942, Vol. 16, pp. 108-128, as quoted by John Milner Associates, Inc., A Master Plan Study for Historic Rittenhouse Town, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1988, p. 13.
4   "Wissahickon Oil Wells!" [broadside], 1866, (Fairmount Park Historical Files).  Refining of petroleum had become a sizable business in 1866 when nearly two million gallons were refined in Philadelphia, at locations principally on the Schuylkill River.  See Edwin T. Freedley, Philadelphia and Its Manufactures, (Philadelphia, 1859), p. 432.
5   Joseph Jackson, Encyclopedia of Philadelphia, Vol. 3 (Philadelphia, 1933), pg. 779.  See also John C. Trautwine, Jr., "The Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad of 1834," Vol. 2, No. 7, 1915, p. 152.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to John McIlhenny, Fairmount Park Historian, for information on many sites, especially Belmont Petroleum Refinery and Washington Print Works. Thanks to Richard Boardman, Librarian in the Map Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, for knowledgeable assistance with the collections. Thanks also to John Mayer for information on the Fairmount Park Trolley and the bridges over the Schuylkill River. Thanks to Lisabeth Holloway, Germantown Historical Society, for assistance with the collection. Thanks to Harold E. Spaulding for research material on the Wissahickon Paper Mill. Thanks to Drew Brown of the Philadelphia Water Department who provided information on the Belmont Pumping Station.

Fairmount Park bibliography