Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Pasted Graphic
Auto salvage and repair shops occupy many of the ground floor spaces in the former mills in Frankford, like here at Tremont Mills. Note how one third of the stone rubble mill was removed when Wingohocking Street was widened. The Frankford Creek, channelized in concrete, runs just west of Tremont Mills, where planners envisage a 25 foot wide recreational trail, linking southeast to the East Coast Greenway along the Delaware River and northwest to the Schuylkill River in Conshohocken. Bicycle repairs might provide additional opportunities to the auto mechanics in Frankford. ( Torben Jenk, 2007).


Barbara M. Auwarter and Joyce Halley, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The intersection of the Great Frankford Road, formerly a well traveled Indian trail from Philadelphia to New York (now Frankford Avenue, the first legally designated road in Pennsylvania) and a fast running creek, the Quessionominck (now Frankford Creek) flowing to the Delaware River, provided an ideal environment for the early development of a major industrial settlement, Frankford, the first stage coach stop north of Philadelphia. 1 Frankford encouraged individual homeownership by forming the first savings and loan in the United States for the purpose of issuing mortgages; there is little evidence of traditional millhousing where mill owners built and owned housing for workers. 2 From the beginning of Frankford's early industrial tradition and continuing well into the twentieth century, mills and houses were built cheek to jowl, resulting in the curious sight today of restored early residences beside and in front of mills as small as a house or as large as a city block.
Following the transient Dutch trappers and traders, the Swedes, who reputedly arrived in the 1640s, had by 1660 a water powered grist mill operating by the navigable Frankford Creek.
3 This was the very same mill which Revolutionary War heroine, Lydia Darragh, visited after walking from her Philadelphia home which was occupied by British forces. On the pretext of having a sack of flour ground, she alerted the American forces in the Village of Frankford of an impending attack on Washington at Whitemarsh, thus foiling the ambush. 4 Unfortunately, the grist mill has been gone since 1854, razed by "progressive" Victorian industrialists. However, the spirit of the old mill remains alive in local legend. Local inhabitants attest to hearing harness bells and a shouting teamster, apparently attempting to prevent a heavily laden wagon with a shifting load from careening down the eighteenth century lumber road on the steep incline to the mill race.
From this grist mill nucleus, water power mills spread rapidly along the Frankford, Little Tacony, and Dark Run Creeks.
5 Tanning, which was banned from Philadelphia along with other dirty industries, 6 was begun in Frankford by Captain Samuel Finney in 1701. 7 After Finney, many others entered the tanning business. 8 During the eighteenth century, skilled workmen who had emigrated from England to improve their economic status, quickly recognized and exploited the water power possibilities of the area. At least nine dams were situated on the streams, and because of these dams and nearby markets, Frankford developed many types of mills. While the textile industry was prominent, many other industries flourished, including umbrella and parasol sticks, chemicals, gunpowder, military supplies, and milled lumber. 9
During the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere came to the powder mill in Frankford to observe gun powder production methods. In January 1776 the Continental Congress contracted Captain Oswald Eve to manufacture gun powder for the Colonies at $8.00 per hundred weight. Due to his clandestine dealing with the British, his mill on Frankford Creek was confiscated.
10 Nearby, in 1807, Captain Stephen Decatur, father of the famous naval hero, erected three mills: a saw mill, a grist mill, and a powder mill. 11
Frankford was mentioned as one of three sites for ordnance during the War of 1812 and construction was begun on an Arsenal in 1816.
The first textile mill in the Borough of Frankford was erected by Samuel Martin, who manufactured woolen blankets. He was quite unsuccessful until the War of 1812 during which he received a large government contract. Shortly after the war the mill burned and Martin returned to his native England.
About 1820, Samuel Pilling built one of the first mills for the block printing of calico. Since it was a unique process to the area, workmen were brought in from England, one example of the immigration waves arriving in Frankford to work the mills. In 1821, Jeremiah Horrocks started the first dye house in the Philadelphia area. James Brook, in his machine shop, built the first locomotive in 1834.  An iron works that produced springs for vehicles was established by William and Harvey Rowland and was quite successful. The first mill to be run by steam power in Frankford was set up by Richard and John Garsed to manufacture textiles in 1843.
From the middle of the nineteenth century until the Wall Street crash of 1929, a large number of mills, mostly textile and textile related industries were opened in Frankford, by now incorporated into the City of Philadelphia. For example, there were forty major manufacturers in 1869,
15 employing many skilled laborers, e.g., coach painters, stonecutters, express men, blacksmiths, carpet weavers, sandpaper makers, machinists, glass blowers, shirt makers, shovel makers, calico printers, drovers, spinners and drawers, carpenters, stick makers, engineers, wheelwrights,  cabinet makers, tin workers, bookkeepers, and truckers. 16 This figure does not include the shops of the small trades. 17
The Depression following the Stock Market crash of 1929 heavily impacted the textile industry in Frankford. The long, slow partial attempt at recovery ended after World War II. Most companies were finally liquidated in the 1950s. During the succeeding three decades, many mill buildings remained vacant. However, a noticeable surge in the economy began in the mid 1980s and by 1987, all of Frankford's mills were occupied and, except for normal turnover, remain so in 1989.

1  Guernsey A. Hallowell, For a Greater Frankford / Historical and Industrial Celebration, (Philadelphia, 1912), p. 8.
2  The Comly Rich House (1826), at 4276 Orchard Street (listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1960) was the first house in the United States to receive a mortgage (1831) from the first savings and loan in the United States, the Oxford Provident Building Society, founded 1831. See "1831-1981, 150th Anniversary," The Lamplighter, Issue No. 1, Winter 1981, p. 1, of the Third Federal Savings and Loan Association of Philadelphia.
3  Howard Lee Barnes, Curator, The Historical Society of Frankford, "History of Frankford" (Documentary - Video Tape), 1988, Segment I, on file at the Historical Society of Frankford.
4  The Free Quaker Meeting House/1783, Philadelphia Junior League.
5  Hallowell, p. 60; see also Philadelphia's Tradition of Neighborhoods, Frankford, Philadelphia Area Cultural Consortium, undated.
6  John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania, In the Olden Time, Vol. 1, (Philadelphia, 1899), p. 96.
7  Hallowell, p. 60.
8  Northeast High School Students, a Compilation, The Old Northeast, (Philadelphia, 1968), not paginated.
9  Northeast High School Students.
10  Hallowell, p. 13; see also, Orphan's Court Sale / Buckius' Estate (Notice) January 10, 1848.
11  Northeast High School Students.
12  The Frankford Arsenal produced 232 million rounds of ammunition during World War I and 1.4 billion rounds during World War II.  See Philadelphia's Tradition of Neighborhoods, n.p., on file at the Historical Society of Frankford.
13  Northeast High School Students.
14  Northeast High School Students.
15  Hallowell, p. 62.
16  Rehoboth United Methodist Church Archives, 1834 Cornerstone, revised and reset 1869.
17  Hallowell, p. 63-4.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Howard Lee Barnes, Curator of the Historical Society of Frankford, who assisted in the preparation of this chapter. Special thanks also to Michael Parrington and Helene Schenck, who prepared the section on the Frankford Arsenal.

Frankford bibliography