Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia


Preston Thayer and Jed Porter, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The West Philadelphia story is one that is generally associated with transportation. The Schuylkill River was an obstacle over which much pioneering bridge building stepped, and in the early years of the twentieth century, West Philadelphia became a "streetcar suburb."
Thomas Paine, pamphleteer of the American Revolution, drew up plans for an iron bridge to cross the Schuylkill. A model was made and exhibited in both Philadelphia and Paris, but the design was never executed. Had it been, it would have been the first iron bridge in America.
The first covered bridge in America crossed the Schuylkill at Market Street (1801-1805), and the Spring Garden Bridge, which opened in 1813, had an arch chord measuring 340 feet, nearly 100 feet longer than any other span at that time. Also a covered bridge, the Spring Garden Bridge was designed by Louis Wernwag, "architecturally assisted" by Robert Mills. Wernwag's bridge was known as the "Upper Ferry Bridge." It, in turn, was replaced by an early wire suspension bridge in 1842, to a design by Charles Ellet, Jr., also called the "Wire Bridge."
Not only did the present-day residential setting arise from improved access to Center City Philadelphia engendered by the Market Street Elevated Railroad, but the industrial activity in West Philadelphia was to a large extent comprised of carriage and wagonworks, blacksmiths, and livery stables. The Greenville section (bordered by Market Street, Powelton Avenue, and Lancaster Avenue) for instance began as a drovers' meetingplace in the nineteenth century.
West Philadelphia north of Market Street has undergone a number of transformations since the first half of the nineteenth century, when speculation in real estate established it as an early suburb. By the 1840s, cottages had appeared in Powelton, Hamiltonville, and Mantua.
2 The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a rapid expansion of housing, almost entirely row houses, constructed to accommodate middle-class Philadelphians leaving older neighborhoods. That development was continued by the construction of the Market Street Elevated Railroad westward between 1904 and 1907. An advertisement in 1909 for D. F. McConnell, a developer who occupied offices at 5908 Market Street, noted that "these modern porch houses" 3 were near the elevated railroad and, hence, a journey of only ten minutes to Center City. Lancaster Avenue was lined with shops, bakeries, and confectioneries to serve a new clientele. 4 Just as immigrants from Europe occupied and then abandoned neighborhoods as their mobility increased, so in the 1920s, African-Americans from the South found the only affordable housing in parts of North and West Philadelphia. 5
South of Market Street, a thriving light industrial center grew up around the Pennsylvania Railroad's 30th Street yards by the mid-nineteenth century. Dominating dozens of small manufacturing buildings at that time were the Allison & Sons Car & Tube Works (31st-32nd Streets; south of Chestnut Street to the Schuylkill River) and Job T. Pugh's Auger Works (Pugh Alley, west of 30th Street). The latter, established in 1774, was one of the many metalworking companies in West Philadelphia and remained active into the twentieth century.
With the purchase of 10-1/2 acres from the City of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania abandoned its site at 9th and Chestnut Streets in Center City and established its campus on the west banks of the Schuylkill River. The cornerstone of College Hall was laid in June 1871, and other construction soon followed.
6 The expansion of adjacent Drexel University (begun in 1891, with its chief objective being the "extension and improvement of industrial education"), the creation of the University City Science Center, and commercial development likewise had an impact on the eastern section of West Philadelphia.
Although such a concentration of factories, such as the Bonney Vise Works at 3015 Chestnut Street, the Junction Car Works at 32nd and Chestnut Streets, and the Otto Gas Engine Manufacturing Company at 33rd Walnut Streets (which were all demolished), was not typical of West Philadelphia north of Market Street, nevertheless, in the last years of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of this century, the neighborhoods boasted an extraordinary collection of enterprises, remarkable for its diversity as well as its shifts in scale. Found along the area's streets were carpenters', printers', and marble cutters' shops, bakeries, slaughterhouses, ice houses, milk depots, livery stables, and small factories which produced cigars, mirrors, and frames; as well as larger facilities like the Standard Roller Bearing Company factory (Merion Avenue between 48th and 51st Streets), now partly demolished, and the Robert Smith Ale Brewing Company (38th Street and Girard Avenue), which was demolished.  Other industries included the Chambers Brothers Machine Works and Foundry (52nd and Media Streets), the Oriental Mills of George Brooks and Son (55th and Pennsgrove Streets), the Penn Worsted Mills (54th and Poplar Streets), Yewdall's Mills (55th Street and Girard Avenue), the Philadelphia Elevator Company (3207-11 Spring Garden Street), and the Eclipse Cement & Blacking Company (Belmont Avenue at Thompson Street).
In those neighborhoods which were predominantly residential, a configuration emerged: a string of row houses was bounded at its corners by a grocery or tavern; a surprising number of blocks also included a Chinese laundry.
Those sites spared demolition in recent decades have not always enjoyed a kinder fate; renovation has radically altered their character as can be seen in the blocks of Lancaster Avenue between 39th and 46th Streets, and neglect has taken its toll on the row houses. Still, West Philadelphia has retained its vitality despite its losses and is home for working and middle-class Philadelphians, whose efforts, along with gentrification in University City, have prevented further encroachment of decay.
Today West Philadelphia's industry is concentrated at the southern edge of the district and along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

1  M. Lafitte Vieira, West Philadelphia Illustrated (Philadelphia, 1903).
2  Edwin Wolf II, Philadelphia: Portrait of an American City (Philadelphia, 1975), p. 180.
3  Edward Teitelman and Richard W. Longstreth, Architecture in Philadelphia:  A Guide (Cambridge, 1974), p. 277.
4  Teitelman and Longstreth, p. 183.
5  Wolf, p. 264.
6  Teitelman and Longstreth, p. 229.