Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Washington Print Works, c.1860
West River Drive at Falls Bridge, Philadelphia PA

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

The Washington Print Works of William Simpson were located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River between the Falls Bridge (1894-95) and the Stone Bridge (1855) of the Reading Railroad, well within the "Schuylkill Pond" which provided the water supply of Philadelphia. Sidings from the Reading Railroad, which ran through the property, made possible the easy transportation of both raw materials and finished product. The advent of steam power in the 1830s made it possible to locate a mill without regard to the water power available, and the Washington Print Works is an example of the threat which burgeoning industry on the Schuylkill posed to the purity of the water, and subsequently led to the establishment of Fairmount Park.
A series of five Hexamer General Surveys #148, 299, 477-478, 570-571 and 858-859 indicate that the Washington Print Works had expanded considerably during its operation. Although the earlier maps were not dated, the identification number suggests that the first survey was made c.1867, and the final one was dated April 14, 1875.
This date is later than the acquisition date of many of the other properties taken by the city for the park.
Hexamer General Survey #148 (1866) stated the activity of the works as "Printing and Dyeing done & Dyers Liquor manufactured." The establishment included a Logwood House, Bleach House, Finishing Room, Washing and Padding Room, Print Room, Dye House, and Drying Rooms. The surveyor thought the buildings were from ten to twenty-five years old.  Dirty Waste was carefully removed every day, but there is no indication of how or where, or whether it was disposed of in the river. Only on this map was shown a Silk Print Works, which evidently was not successful as the later surveys indicate that the buildings are used for drying rooms. There was a total of twenty-six buildings on the earliest map, many of them small buildings.
Hexamer General Survey #858-859 (1875) was the final survey undertaken and gives several specific items of information. By 1875 there were thirty-eight buildings, the various steam engines ranged from 6-60 horse power, and there were nine printing machines, five power sewing machines, and five callenders. Approximately four hundred hands were employed, putting in a ten hour day, with the Bleach House operating until 12 midnight. Waste was removed every day and wood shavings from the Carpenter's Shop were "cleaned out weekly and taken away from the premises or thrown into the river." What other waste was discharged into the river is not indicated.
Because they were fire insurance maps, the Hexamer General Surveys were particularly concerned not only with building construction, but with the availability of water and other equipment to fight fires. This information in the case of the Washington Print Works gives further evidence of the expanding industrial activity on the site. The silk printing buildings were situated up a steep hill, beyond and above the Reading Railroad tracks. In the first three surveys
#148 (1866), #299, #477-478, a single reservoir was shown alongside these buildings with a notation that it was 60 feet above the highest part of the lower buildings and that its use was for "Supplying the Plugs and the Whole Establishment with Water." Survey #570-571 (1872) shows a pond above the reservoir, and the fifth survey #858-859 (1875) showed three basins. The two lower basins, with a steep hill and a dam between them, were "for supplying the establishment with water for manufacturing purposes," and were supplied by springs on the hill. The third basin, separated by a stone-wall dam from the one below, was "A Basin used exclusively for water supply in case of fire. Water pumped from Schuylkill River by 2 forcing pumps in No. 14 [Pump House by the river]. Supply pipes 12 in. and 6 in." A creek also fed water into this basin.
When the City acquired the land as part of Fairmount Park, the buildings were razed and at present all evidence of this large cotton print and dye works has been just about obliterated. The West River Drive and a grassy plot on the river bank occupy the site today. The basins were converted to become the scenic Chamonix Lakes, where the Philadelphia Transportation Company trolley line built Chamonix Station in 1896. During the 1950s, unauthorized swimming and a drowning in onr of the lakes caused them to be drained. Parts of the Schuylkill Expressway and the western abutments and approaches for the Twin Bridges are now on the site of the upper areas of the Washington Print Works. It is probable that remnants exist of the stone dams for the basins that stored water. The only other evidence of this industrial activity of earlier years that is now readily seen is the flow of water from the springs on the hill, now channeled through a culvert to become a small cascade from the rocks just south of the Falls Bridge on the West River Drive.

Update May 2007 (by Jane Mork Gibson):
The bucolic appearance of the location of the Washington Print Works belies the former industrial activity at the spot. The still-active springs that once fed the millpond located above the roadway continue to provide for a waterfall at the location.