Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

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Philadelphia Year Book, 1917.


Jack J. Steelman, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

There are at least two versions of how Bridesburg got its name. The first centers on Joseph Kirkbride who settled in the area in 1801. As the operator and owner of the bridge across the Frankford Creek, Kirkbride accumulated enough money to purchase large tracts of land in what was then called Point No Point. The name of the area soon became Kirkbridesburg, the burg coming from the German ethnic character of the community. As this version of the story goes it was shortened to Bridesburg.
A second version rests on the tradition in the Frankford Community of brides going to the river community for what today would be called a "honeymoon." Some local residents insist that the name Bridesburg came from this practice. Whether the folklore is true or the Kirkbride story is true bears little on the settlement of the community.
The original inhabitants of Bridesburg were the Lenni Lenape Indians. In 1643, Swedes, led by Johanne Printz settled in Bridesburg. A vision of the river ending impressed these early settlers—thus the name Point No Point." In the 1660s, more immigrants came and received "Liberty Grants" from William Penn. These were free grants of 80 acres given to anyone who purchased 5000 acres of land in Pennsylvania. The Swedes were soon outnumbered by the German Catholics. In 1664 Penn accepted the Swedes' offer to trade this land in Point No Point for land in Conshohocken. Throughout these early years Bridesburg was the river port for Frankford. Bridge Street became the main road to the Bridesburg wharf. The opening of the Frankford Arsenal in 1812 further increased population and established Bridesburg as a busy river stop.
Joseph Kirkbride was aided in his settlement of Bridesburg by Alfred Jenks. In 1820 he established the Bridesburg Manufacturing Company, a textile mill along the Frankford Creek. The limited water flow of the creek did not permit enlargement of the textile industry in Bridesburg. A more important and lasting effect on the neighborhood was the opening of the Tacony Chemical Works in 1842. Founded by Frederick Lennig in 1819 the firm attracted a large number of workers from Germany, establishing that population as the dominant nationality in early Bridesburg.
The major influx of the Polish population occurred between 1900 and 1920. The Frankford leather plant of Robert H. Foerderer Inc. originally hired Polish men to work in curing the hides. This process consisted of soaking hides for days in dog manure to soften it. The smell of the manure and the need to handle the soaked leather made this job unacceptable to most Philadelphia workers. However, the new Polish immigrant, excluded from most factory work in the city, flocked to Bridesburg for work. Many of these men had come to America to seek their fortune, hoping to return to their native Poland. Unfortunately, World War I intervened and the Polish men of Bridesburg could not return home, lest they be arrested and imprisoned for 20 years as draft dodgers under a law enacted during the war. With the end of the war many Polish women migrated to join the men of the town. This rapidly changed the ethnic character of the Bridesburg from German to Polish.

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Philadelphia Year Book, 1917.
In 1894 the opening of the first trolley line in the northeast connected Frankford, Bridesburg, Tacony, and Holmesburg along State Road. Nicknamed the Hop, Toad, and Frog Line it was used by many workers in Bridesburg. Residents now had a chance to work at Henry Disston and Sons Saw Works and Erben Search textile mill in Tacony, and the Foerderer Leather Works near Frankford. Such travel was so widespread that it was general knowledge in Tacony that Polish women from Bridesburg made up half of the Erben Search workforce.
In 1920 the Lennig Company was bought out by Rohm and Haas, an already established chemical company. Haas had come to America in 1906 bringing with him a new chemical, Oropon, for curing leather. Acceptance of this chemical by Foerderer initiated the opening of a Rohm and Haas plant nearby and eventually in Bristol, Bucks County. Rohm remained in Germany manufacturing the same chemical for European use. This gave the company an international flavor. The company stayed relatively small until World War II when it developed a synthetic chemical which produced plexiglas for fighters and bombers. It was this discovery which catapulted Rohm and Haas into the position as a world leader in chemical production.
Today Bridesburg is a community with several strong social and service organizations. With endowments from Rohm and Haas, the Civic Association of Bridesburg was able to build the Boys and Girls Club in 1941. The Club has conducted sports and other recreational activities for the children of the community since that date. Bridesburg is also a patriotic town. There are two American Legion Posts, and a Veterans of Foreign Wars Club, they oversee memorials saluting Bridesburg veterans. Other institutions that play an important role in preserving Bridesburg's history include churches of various denominations, the Bridesburg Businessmen's Association, and the Frankford Historical Society.
Although Bridesburg is located within a large urban area, its atmosphere remains that of a small town community. Located between the Delaware River and the Frankford Creek its boundaries have changed little over the years. Despite the closing of the Frankford Arsenal, Erben Search Inc., Henry Disston and Sons, and Foerderer Leather Works, Bridesburg remains an active industrial community. It is the home of workers for Allied Chemical Company and Rohm and Haas. Today Bridesburg remains one of the largest Polish communities in Philadelphia.
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Philadelphia Year Book, 1917.

The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad completed its trackage from the banks of the Schuylkill to the banks of the Delaware in 1842 and shortly thereafter, in 1847, the Richmond district was formed.
"Sketch map of Phila. and Readg. Rail Road and its branches" (1873), terminating in Port Richmond.

Most of the early growth of the area resulted from development of the Port Richmond freight handling facilities of the Reading; from the time of its early construction until its dismantling in 1976, the Port Richmond yards and docks constituted the largest privately-owned tidewater terminal in the world, covering over 230 acres. At one time, the piers received and discharged cargoes destined to ports around the world as well as to the Atlantic coastal trade. The freight and coal storage yards west to Front Street had a capacity of approximately 5,600 cars (based on 44' car lengths).

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Philadelphia Year Book, 1917.

The 2.5 million bushel grain elevator, c.1928, was converted to coal handling after Conrail took over operations; ships were loaded at a rate of 25 million bushels per hour, which translated to over 27 million bushels in a single year. Pier 18, the Coal Dumper, built in 1918 (now demolished), could unload one 55-70 ton car every two minutes. Next upriver was Pier 14, the Ore Facility, which had an unloading capacity of 400 tons per hour and annually handled more than 1 million tons of imported ore.

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Philadelphia Year Book, 1917.

Another important facility in the Terminal was the 100-ton Dock Crane, located on Pier G; it was one of the largest on the Atlantic Seaboard. The last pier in the terminal, located near the Allegheny Avenue end, was Pier J, which consisted of four car floats, each equipped to handle up to five cars, that once moved over 100,000 cars per year to New Jersey customers.
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Philadelphia Year Book, 1917.

Coal was handled primarily in the southern end of the facility. In this area, a large shed containing five tracks, each capable of handling six to eight cars, was constructed for wintertime loading. The shed contained steam coils to thaw frozen carloads of coal so that they could be dumped into ships. Coal dumping was accomplished by one of two means:
1. By electrically-powered "mules" which ran on narrow-gauge tracks (between the standard gauge rails) that hoisted the loaded cars, one at a time, up to a rotating platform. Once positioned on the platform, the wheels of the loaded car were locked onto the track and the platform, with the car firmly secured, was flipped over by steam-powered winches and the contents emptied onto an apron that fed the falling coal into the hold of the waiting ship. After the platform and car were righted, the car was released to coast back into the yard and the next one was shuttled into place by the mule.
2. The use of chutes placed on pier tracks that guided the coal, which was systematically emptied from the bottoms of the hopper cars, into the holds of the ships. Obviously, the first method was faster, and certainly much more dramatic.
Grain, raw sugar, and bulk materials were also stored and handled at the Port Richmond facilities. Interestingly, in the center of the terminal was a small chapel, staffed by the Church of the Assumption on Allegheny Avenue. It was originally established so that merchant seamen would have a place to worship that was close to their ship; however, it also became a popular place for some of the neighborhood families as it was close for them, too.
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Philadelphia Year Book, 1917.

Since the closing of the terminal in 1976, much of the trackage and piers have been removed; the site now sits idle.

1  Richard Webster, Philadelphia Preserved, (Philadelphia, 1976), pp. 305 & 312.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Dr. Harry Silcox, who prepared much of the overview information on Bridesburg. Thanks also to John R. Bowie, who assisted in the preparation of the material on the sites. Thanks also to Frank Weer, who contributed considerable information on the Port Richmond facilities.

Port Richmond - Bridesburg bibliography