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2 Feb 2006 The Rest is History

 

From the original Lenni village of Shackamaxon prior to the European contact in the 1630's, to Anthony Palmer's Kensington founded in the 1730's, to being named Fishtown by the locals in the 1830's, our community seems to be facing yet another challenge to its name. It has been seen where some realtors are calling the Delaware River side of Girard Avenue, "Riverside." It would seem that given the three hundred plus years' history of the area and the fact that it changed names three times during those years, by the time the gentrification and rebuilding of the community is completed, the area would be primed to be renamed. However, would you really want to state, "I'm from Riverside!" Or worse, how about "I grew up in Trumptown!."

 

Many are attracted to the odd sounding community name of Fishtown. But how could citizens even stop outside pressures to change our name? One way might be to document the community's history for all to see, read and hear. With that thought in mind, we can now thank Star Newspapers, for committing itself to a local history column for our communities called "Query in the Neighborhood."

 

Many already know me as a local historian for the area, or simply as your neighbor, but now, with the support of Star Newspapers, you'll be able to read my column every week. Fresh from spending the past year and a half starting up my historical & genealogical research company, I am now going to be available to field questions from my neighbors on the history of our neighborhoods.

 

My idea for this column is to help document our history and to help to remind folks of our three hundred plus year history, a history, which we should be proud of. The idea of documenting however will not be limited to writing short little articles in the local paper that will be thrown away by the time the next issue comes out. No, I mean thoroughly documenting the community's history by writing scholarly books and appending them with thick bibliographies and detailed maps. I also have a website that over time will include a Kensington History Encyclopeadia. You click on the "Kensington History" folder at www.kennethwmilano.com to the various information I have posted on Fishtown and Kensington, as well as parts of Port Richmond and Northern Liberties.

 

This column while answering all inquiries will also keep the community informed of historical events that are associated with our neighborhoods, such as talks, tours, and new and used books. These sorts of mediums have a much better chance to stand the test of time, more then the memories of yesteryear newspaper articles, which while appearing to be informative, are often inaccurate, poorly researched, and largely forgotten.

 

When one looks at the history of Kensington and Fishtown, you are unable to find a scholarly study of the place. You might find interesting studies of an individual business, or business sector, but that is it, nothing comprehensive or complete. Most of what has been written comes down to us in the form of memories of old time neighbors and history buffs who have more pride then sources in their writings. The professional historians have barely looked at Kensington. They often stop when they get to Vine Street and study Benjamin Franklin's neighborhood in town, or head south to what they call today "Queen's Village," but was known a short time ago as Southwark, proving my theory that the name Fishtown could very well be in danger. As Nathaniel Burt, who wrote on the Philadelphia aristocracy, might say, "Proper Philadelphians would never go north of Vine Street." It would appear that the professional and academic historians have taken his advice.

 

Without the help of professional historians, Kensington was left to be studied by its residents who tended to be history buffs, or people who felt a need to write up their memories, but they were not trained as historians and the work shows them as such. Charles Cramp, of the Kensington shipyard family, in the early part of the 20th Century would write up memories in the old Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper. They were often nostalgic and romantic stories. There was also the Philadelphia historian Joseph Jackson who wrote the column "Men and Things" for the Philadelphia Bulletin in the late 1920's which sometimes-featured Kensington and Fishtown. Jackson, while an accomplished historian, wrote more popular history rather then scholarly. There were also articles regularly in the Philadelphia Record that would feature the neighborhood. By the time of World War One (1914-1918) however, most upper class residents of Kensington and Fishtown had moved to the new neighborhood of North Broad Street, or to the then developing suburbs, and Kensington history started to disappear from the mainstream press. Kensington history then was left to the local guys and local newspapers that still lived and operated in the neighborhood.

 

In is in this backdrop, that my own historical interests in the neighborhood has been set. I have spent the past decade and a half intensively studying the neighborhoods of Fishtown and Kensington whenever the time allows. I have built an impressive collection of books and ephemeral material on the community's history. My almost 20 years experience in the used, rare, and scholarly book trade, have been helpful in putting me into contact with many hard to find sources.

 

It is with this background I hope to be able to answer the members of our communities' inquiries. Please send me your queries and I will do my best to answer the most obscure questions. I am also a well versed in genealogical research, so if you have a family history question send that as well. So go ahead, try to stump me! Send me your inquires on the neighborhoods and we will answer them promptly.

 

 

9 Feb 2006 The Rest is History

 

As reported in my last column, the historian Nathaniel Burt was quoted as saying that "Proper Philadelphians" would never go north of Vine Street. By this it is presumed he meant that the old upper crust of Philadelphia, made their homes and social visits, in those areas and to those families, that lived in the old sections of Philadelphia, mainly Rittenhouse Square, and before that, the area that today is call Society Hill. I argued in my last column that this type of thinking must have been contagious to the professional, or academic historian, as there has never really been a scholarly study of Fishtown, Kensington, or the Northern Liberties, even though Kensington is world famous for its manufacturing history and thought to be one of the "earliest speculative planned communities in English-speaking America."

 

The Pennsylvania Historical and Salvage Project (PHSP), the group responsible for doing the archaeology work when they were bulldozing Fishtown and other river communities in preparation for the building of Highway I95, showed their Burtian ignorance when they rejected studying Fishtown, Kensington, and Northern Liberties, in favor of Southwark. The projects' papers are within the Anthony Garvin Papers at the University Archives at the University of Pennsylvania. In a summary report dated August 15, 1967, the Pennsylvania Historical Salvage Council noted:

 

"...a documentary survey of the area from Arch to Palmer Street was commenced. It was clear at the outset that this area has been in large part neglected, but that it has a distinctive and important history, which reflects major economic and social trends as manifest in Philadelphia. In fact, it now seems evident that the Northern Liberties-Fishtown-Kensington community, like Southwark, is one of the earliest speculative planned communities in English-speaking America and one, which, by design or accident, attracted a relatively homogeneous group of residents, thus creating a community similar in many of its aspects to the new urban developments of the twentieth century. The architectural residential style developed, while typical of Philadelphia building elsewhere, has distinctive variants in design which quite precisely suited the family needs and personal aspirations of the immigrants and successive generations of occupants."

 

Again in the Garvin Papers is found the following:

 

"On the basis of the feasibility survey of the block conducted to field investigation, the structures at 433-447 Richmond Street, including one single eighteenth century brick dwelling appeared to be the most promising site for field investigation."

"...because of the critical importance of this site in relationship to the seventeenth century Fairman settlement of the Shackamaxon area, archaeological observation and recording should accompany any contractor activities in the area. It is within the realm of possibility that a seventeenth century occupation layer exists below the fill at an undetermined depth. Should project funds permit it, equipment should be brought in at some point in this area which would permit very deep excavations..."

 

After lauding over the area and praising it as unique and one of the oldest planned communities in America, and that is should be further studied, the PHSP then went on to neglect the area and focused mainly on doing "deep excavations" of archaeology digs on Southwark area homes, south of Vine Street, more precisely, south of South Street. The fact that the University of Pennsylvania was a backer of the PHSP and an early investor in the revival of Queen's Village, may or may not, have had something to do with that decision

 

The work of the PHSP is another example of how our communities have never been able to count on outside help in documenting our past. It is true that you can find books about individual manufacturers, like the Cramp Shipbuilding Company (Norris & the Delaware), the Stetson Hat Factory (4th & Montgomery), the Disston Saw Works (started at Front & Laurel), and even Schoenhut Toys (Sepviva & Hagert), but a comprehensive study of the history of the community has never been attempted. Some scholars like Prof. Philip Scranton have published books on Philadelphia that include information about Kensington, in particular are Scranton's two books on the textile history of Philadelphia, "Proprietary Capitalism," and "Figured Tapestry." These books do contain information on Kensington's textile history, but they only look at that particular sector of the Kensington economy.

 

History has shown that it has been only through our own local homegrown historians that Fishtown and Kensington's history has been recorded. People like George W. Baker, a Fishtowner, and perhaps the first who really got serious about our history. A friend of Baker's was J. Hampton Hock, who also wrote articles on the neighborhood and began talking up the idea of publishing a history of Kensington. James Smart, another local resident, wrote and took an interest in the neighborhood's history. Finally, Joseph S. Molmer wrote articles on the neighborhood in the old "Penn Treaty Gazette," a precursor to today's "Fishtown Star." These local historians, Baker, Hock, Smart, and Molmer, helped to keep Kensington and Fishtown's history from fading. From the 1940's through to the 1980's, these men kept the spirit of neighborhood pride going. Next week we will take a more in-depth look at their contributions to our local history.

 

 

16 Feb 2006 The Rest is History

 

We asked for your questions and boy did we get them. Space is limited, but in time we will try to answer everybody.

 

Torben Jenk of N. 2nd Street says he has been watching the filming of "Rocky VI" and wanted to know why Stallone picked Kensington instead of South Philadelphia, as he thought Rocky Marciano was from South Philly. He was also interested in knowing what other films or TV shows were filmed in the neighborhood besides the Rocky films and the recently departed T.V. show, "Hack." His neighbor also thought that Stallone "has cute buns."

 

Well Torben, I don't have an opinion on Stallone's derriere and I also have not been paying close attention to the most recent Rocky enterprise. I remember well the first "Rocky" (1976) and it's my pick for the best movie ever made in Kensington. It put us on the map in Hollyweird. It's the classic underdog tale and has excellent characters that you could love and hate. Who could ever forget Rocky crying out "Adrian," or Adrian's brother Pauly throwing the turkey out the back door, or Burgess Meredith (Rocky's trainer) telling Stallone, "You could'a been somebody!" Plus who today, can resist running up the Art Museum's steps!

 

I think Stallone used Kensington for Rocky because he knew it better then South Philadelphia (he went to school at nearby Lincoln High) and the neighborhood also had that harder edge he was looking for as his backdrop to the movie. Also, Rocky Marciano actually grew up in Brockton, MA, where he excelled at sports at the local high school, worked in the shoe business briefly, before being called by Uncle Sam, and after serving he turned pro.

 

As for other movies filmed in Kensington, Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" (1995) starring Bruce Willis & Brad Pitt, was filmed in Kensington, with the Army of the Twelve Monkey's headquarters being located at Kensington Avenue & Somerset Street. Not being a big movie buff, I'm sure there are others. Perhaps our readers could write and let us know!

 

Eugene, a new fellow to the neighborhood, and one with a Romanian Jewish heritage, asked if Fishtown ever had a Jewish presence like Northern Liberties did on Marshall Street (below Girard Avenue).

 

Well Eugene, to my knowledge Fishtown proper had long been a Protestant Christian neighborhood. Even the Roman Catholics got a late start here. St. Laurentius, a Polish parish was founded in 1882 and Holy Name, an Irish parish, was founded only in 1905. Before these two Fishtown churches were founded, the Catholics in the area would have to step out of the neighborhood to go to church (St. Michael's 1831, St. Anne's 1845, St. Boniface 1866, and Immaculate Conception 1869).

 

I am not aware of a synagogue that was ever in Fishtown proper (today's 18th Ward), but locally we did have B'nai Israel (ca. 1877) & Chevra Tehilliam (ca.1887), two synagogues that were competing diagonally across from each other at Tulip & Auburn Streets, the heart of Port Richmond's "Jewtown," or more formally, "Jerusalem" neighborhood.

 

Many of the old small businesses on Frankford, Girard, and Kensington Avenues, as well as Richmond Street, had roots in this community, which was founded in the 1870's after a settlement there by Polish & Lithuanian Jews. I suppose what Jewish folks there were in Fishtown may have come from this community, or perhaps drifted up Girard Avenue from the Marshall Street area, or simply set up shops locally to conduct business with the many workers at the large industries in the area. Allen Meyer & Carl Nathan's "The Jewish Community Under the Frankford El," published by Arcadia, in 2003, is a good place to start for the history of Jews in this area of the city.

 

Oddly enough, there was a "Jew's Burial Ground" located on east side of Duke Street (now Thompson), between Shackamaxon & Crown (Creese) Streets. This burial ground is found on a map in an 1828 book entitled, "The Stranger's Guide...of Philadelphia," published by H.S. Tanner, in Philadelphia. I never found much out about this burial ground, when it was founded, who owned it, or when it disappeared. Perhaps the National Museum of American Jewish History (55 N. 5th Street) might be a good place to start to research this ancient cemetery. I would be very surprised if there was a Jewish settlement in this area for that time (pre 1830), my guess is that it was a burial ground for a synagogue in today's Center City.

 

 

23 Feb 2006 The Rest is History

 

Well the questions have not stopped and people have shown that when given an opportunity to find out about their local history, they will take advantage of it.

 

Mike who runs the upholstery shop over at 2214 Frankford Avenue wrote inquiring about the area of Frankford Avenue near him. He had a number of questions, but we can only get to a couple.

 

He wanted to know where to find out about shops that use to line Frankford Avenue and a structure that he called "a wonderful building on the odd side of 2200 Frankford that was demolished in the last 10 years."

 

What I can tell you Mike, is that there is a nice little book, hard to get, but available at the Philadelphia Library, called "Kensington; City Within a City. An Historical and Industrial Review," published in the year 1890.

 

It is basically a biographical directory of Kensington businesses. It lists the address of the business, shop owner, what services they provide, or items sold, plus a short piece about the history of the business. It's a nice size book and I would guess that most of the businesses that were present on Frankford Avenue from that time period are listed.

 

As for pictures of Frankford Avenue, this book might have an occasional photo, but mostly you will have to check the various photograph collections in Philadelphia. There are four collections that I like to use: Philadelphia City Archives, 31st & Market; Temple University Urban Archives, basement of the university's main library; the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 13th & Locust; and the main branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, 19th & Vine.

 

Most of these collections have the photographs alphabetized by street, so it would be a simple job of looking up the street you want and what hundred blocks you would be interested to see.

 

That wonderful building you saw on the 2200 block was the old Ritter Preserve Manufactory. Ritter was the first company in America to make available fruit preserves in such a fashion, to make it affordable to the working classes. Ritter Ketchup use to be as common as Heinz Ketchup today in these parts. I would guess that the above-mentioned photo collections might have a photograph of that building, but there was a genealogy of the Ritter Family published, it was a small edition, hard to come by, but it does have some pictures of the store in all its glory.

 

Pat Woods from Haddonfield, NJ, wrote asking if I knew what "intersection the "Know-Nothings" attacked St. Michael's during the Anti-Catholic riots. He said his "grandfather remembered some of this as a kid and said there was a farmer's market around St. Michael's that was attacked."

 

The Kensington Riots are a topic of my interest. The main "Know-Nothing" riots in Kensington, took place during the first week of May 1844. In it's simplest form, it was a political movement that did not like the influx of Irish Catholic to America. The Nativists ("Know-Nothings") provoked the outburst, which started at the Nanny Goat Market, which use to run down the middle of today's American Street, at the intersection of Master Street. The rioters eventually set fire to many Irish homes on Cadwallader Street, the small street that runs off of American Street at Master, as well as the Hibernia Hose Company, which was on the west side of American, just north of Master. St. Michael's Church was torched, as was the nearby Nunnery that housed the Sisters. After about three days order was restored in Kensington, but later rioting took place elsewhere.

 

I rather doubt your grandfather knew about this personally, as this took place in 1844, my guess is that he may have known old-timers, and they might have known old-timers who were alive back then and perhaps it was still the chatter of the local corner taproom. Or, perhaps he simply remembers reading about it, or folks talking about it at St. Michael's, as it was published in their 100th Anniversary history of the church, back in 1934.

 

There are a number of published articles and books on this event. If you visit my website, kennethwmilano.com, you can find a link within my "Kensington History" folder that leads to a number of whole text volumes and illustrations that are online courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

 

Keep the letters coming. We will try to print as many as possible.

 

 

 

2 Mar 2006 The Rest is History

The letters keep coming in, but this week there is another pressing issue. In last week's edition of the Star (Feb 23rd, 2006), we read about the possibility that the Macpherson Square branch of the Free Library might have its name changed. It seems that local Councilman Rick Mariano has the idea that the library and community would be better served by honoring the recently deceased civil rights activist Coretta Scott King.

Most assuredly, Ms. King is a person well deserving of such an honor, one would think she is deserving of a greater honor then a local neighborhood library, especially if that local library is already named to honor heroes of yesterday, that being the family of Captain John Macpherson (not McPherson, he was Scottish, not Irish).

The library was not named for the Macpherson family simply because they once owned the property where the library was located. They did indeed own the property, their colonial mansion was bulldozed in order to build the current structure, but it was also named to honor the family of John Macpherson, whose son gave his life in the Revolutionary War, another son William served in the war, and John himself gave up his own fortune in supporting the cause for independence during the American Revolution.

John Macpherson was born in 1726, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was murdered when he was only 4 years old. At the age of twelve and the family impoverished due to his father's death, John left home and hired himself out to a master of a ship plying the foreign trade, and with this his life at sea began, eventually bringing him to America in the late 1740's.

In time, John became a master of his own ship, the "Britannia" a British privateer. Working out of Philadelphia, he began his financial pursuits, which turned out to be very successful. In a battle with the French, he had his right arm shot off and over time he was wounded 9 different times. He was tough and it makes sense he was associated with Kensington. He was the 18th century version of "Rocky."

John took a number of prizes throughout the Caribbean from the enemies of the British (France and Spain) and with his wealth he purchased 31 acres of land on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, with more land added later. It was here that he built his estate, which he called "Mount Pleasant," the same name that it still retains today.

When the American Revolution started, Macpherson's son, also named John, joined the Continental Army. As fate would have it, John, Jr., was shot through the heart with the same bullet that killed General Montgomery at the storming of Quebec. Another of his son's, William, became a General in the Continental Army, while a third son Robert was wounded during engagements in Canada during the War of 1812, eventually dying from these wounds in 1817. The Macphersons gave dearly for the independence of America.

Six months after the death of his son, Macpherson applied to Congress for a commission but the position was given to another. He then offered a plan for destroying British ships, but it did not meet with Washington's approval. Finally, he offered to build ships with his own money, to be paid later. He built the ships, but was never paid, which led to his financial downfall after the war was over.

Macpherson was forced to rent his Mount Pleasant home and eventually sold it. He pursued some business adventures, plus also published the first city directory for Philadelphia (1785), the country's first Trade paper, called "Price Current," as well a book on moral philosophy, which was a collection of lectures he had delivered as a way of making money.

Macpherson died on the 6th of September 1792 and was buried at the yard of St. Paul's Church, on Third Street, south of Walnut. He was poor as a young man with hardly a penny in his pocket. He came to America with no money and no friends and after thirty-five years he was one of the most noted citizens in Philadelphia.

Surely the sacrifices of Macpherson and that of his sons should not now be lost on Philadelphians. Do we really want to vanquish the honor of yesterday's heroes by honoring today's? Should not Coretta Scott King legacy be deserving of honoring her and her work and not remembered for eliminating the names of honorable figures of previous years? Call Councilman Mariano's office (215-686-3448), or call library spokesperson Sandy Horrocks (215-567-7710), and let them know that we do not want the Macphersons to be forgotten!

 

9 Mar 2006 The Rest is History

I received an email from Elizabeth, whose grandfather was John H. Strunk. She wrote that family stories state her Strunk ancestors were one of the first families to settle the Fishtown area and that there are Strunk families still residing here. She wanted to know if I could shed light on these stories.

Well Elizabeth, while never studying the Strunk family, I have seen the surname on local business signs (Strunk Auto & Truck Repair) and wondered myself if they were related to surnames I came across in repositories where I research. I decided to take a peek to settle your, as well as my, curiosity, and also to use the family as an example of what you find when you use the U.S. Census records to research your family history.

Today you can research census records on any family's history, from the comfort of your home, by using various online genealogy websites. Using the Strunk family as an example, I will show below how you can trace a family and the insights you can gather.

The US Census for 1790 (the first by the federal government) we find a possible 13 families surnamed Strunk, all residing in Pennsylvania, showing that the surname originated in PA. Of these 13 families, only 2 are in Philadelphia County, located in "Germantown."

The census of 1800 shows the name of Strunk migrating into NY and NC, but still a predominately PA name. There are still two families in Philadelphia County, but now only one is in Germantown and another in Passyunk.

In 1810 the surname shows stability, located only in NY, NC, and PA. In this census, we see signs of the Strunks moving towards Fishtown. There is a Strunk residing in East Northern Liberties. Kensington did not yet exist as a self-governing district and therefore it was listed under East Northern Liberties. There were also two other Strunk families in Philadelphia County.

By 1820 the surname of Strunk has moved into KY, while disappearing in NC and remaining in NY State. Pennsylvania again dominates the surname, with at least 23 families now bearing the name. Only one, William Strunk, is listed for Philadelphia County and he is in the Northern Liberties.

In 1830 the surname of Strunk is now the name for at least 55 families and PA still leads the way with 33. There are 4 families in Philadelphia County, 3 of them being in the Northern Liberties, the other 1 in Penn Township. We can assume that the 3 Northern Liberties families might be an expansion of the one earlier family located there.

The 1840 census shows the surname Strunk pushing even further west and showing up in IL, MI, MO, and the "Iowa Territory." There are also now 5 families in Philadelphia County, with most of them residing in the Spring Garden District, just west of the Northern Liberties.

The 1850 census shows that there are 562 individuals carrying the Strunk name. This is due to the fact that the 1850 Census is the first census to list all members of the household, while the previous censuses only listed the "head" of the household. Pennsylvania still has the majority, with 356 of these individuals.

This 1850 Census is when we find Strunks living in Kensington. There were two Strunk families living here. Kensington's 1st Ward had one Strunk family, consisting of William Strunk (b. abt. 1817) and his wife Elizabeth (b. abt. 1823) and their children Mary, Lydia, Samuel, and Henry. Kensington's 7th Ward had the other Strunk family, an older couple, another William Strunk (b. abt. 1776)) and his wife, also Elizabeth (b. abt. 1778).

It would appear that it is this younger William Strunk, located in Kensington in 1850, that the Strunks of Fishtown's 18th Ward, would descend from. By 1860, William and his wife had 7 children, including twin daughters.

This brief survey of the Strunk surname was done by using only the databases for the U.S. Census available online from www.ancestry.com. Ancestry is a fee based subscription site. It has numerous databases for researching family history. This process could be done for any family surname, but since we had a question about the Strunk family, we used that one.

The census records contain much more information then given here, particularly the ones after 1850. Its quite possible that if we did further research, we would find that the Strunk family was in Fishtown earlier then the 1850 census and that these families were all related to one of the 18th century immigrant Strunks who first came to Philadelphia before the Revolution. So, indeed, Elizabeth, it looks like the Strunks were a very early Fishtown family!

 

16 Mar 2006 The Rest is History

Last week an article appeared in the Daily News about the plans of the School District to turn a Kensington playground site into a new school. However, the plans were halted when the School District got spooked! By using ground-penetrating radar, they discovered that there were up to 330 human bodies buried under the playground. It seems that the playground at Jasper and Orleans was built on the site of an old cemetery.

Mickey Flaville, from Port Richmond, wrote to me wanting to know what was up? Who is buried under the playground, what happened, and does this happen often?

Unfortunately Mickey, it does happen often. You see, the idea of having playgrounds for kids to have a recreational outlet is rather new, historically speaking. It started to come into vogue in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. For areas of the city that were not quite built up yet, it was easy, there was enough open space and all you had to do was lay out a playground and build. But for inner city neighborhoods like Fishtown and Kensington, there was no open space left. Blocks and blocks of houses were crammed into every available space; even the back alleys' were filled with houses.

In order to build playgrounds for these inner city neighborhoods, the city government looked around and saw these old cemeteries and they saw playgrounds waiting to be built. A campaign was waged and many of the old cemeteries were closed, the bodies dug up and transferred to large suburban cemeteries that were opening up outside of Philadelphia.

Some transfers of the bodies went well, others did not. In some cases the old tombstones were relocated to the new cemeteries, but in other cases they were used as foundations for local houses, or for the foundation of the Betsy Ross Bridge.

Sometimes when these playgrounds are renovated, or have their fields redone, you will have bones, or old tombstones accidentally dug up.

Locally, Hetzell's and Shissler's Playgrounds in Fishtown and Franklin Playground, in Kensington, were all built on top of cemeteries.

Hetzell's was built on top of the old Hanover Street Burial Ground, which was actually three different burial grounds that were used by local churches as early as 1805 (Kensington Methodist Episcopal, Mutual of Kensington and Union Wesleyan). Hanover was closed about 1922-23, with the bodies removed to suburban cemeteries. Some of the bodies were removed to the Odd Fellows Cemetery at 22nd & Diamond in 1922, only to be removed again when that cemetery was closed up and moved in 1951.

Shissler Playground, or what use to be called "Newt's" when I was a kid, after a local coal company, was built on top of the Mutual Family Cemetery, also known as Helverson's Cemetery, after a local undertaker who had interests in a number of Kensington cemeteries. There is not a whole lot of information about this particular cemetery, only that it was located on the northwest side of Frankford Road, above Palmer Street and operated from the late 1830's to the early 1860's. It's status as a playground happened previous to 1922 and it's anybody's guess as to what happened to the bodies.

As for Franklin Playground, the one making the news today, it was built on a cemetery that dates back over 165 years. Catharine R. Livingston conveyed to Rev. George Boyd and John W. Kester a lot of ground "situated near the two-mile stone on Frankford Road, for the purpose of a rural cemetery." On the 29th of May, 1840, the association was incorporated as the Franklin Cemetery Company."

The last bodies were supposedly buried there by 1910 and as reported by Thomas H. Keel's in his book "Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries," by the 1930's Franklin had become a "hangout for disorderly persons," and "one tomb served as a hiding place for thieves."

Franklin was closed in 1950 with thousands of bodies removed to suburban cemeteries and the cemetery transformed into a playground. However, the location of many of these bodies today remains a mystery. In 1988, "construction workers excavating for a strip mall near Neshaminy Mall in Bensalem, Bucks County, discovered a number of unmarked graves." These graves were said to be possibly from Franklin Cemetery.

So the next time you're out on the field playing softball and you trip over a rock sticking out of the ground, you might want to check to see if it's actually a rock, or perhaps a tibia, or a fibula.

 

23 Mar 2006 The Rest is History

Have you ever wondered why your basement keeps getting wet even though you tried just about everything to keep out the water? Have you checked to see if there were ever any old creeks that ran down the middle of your street? One Port Richmond resident, Dave Tomlin, recently wrote to me about just such an incident.

"I live on Richmond Street, close to Castor Avenue. When I was a child playing with mud, a hole opened in the ground and I could hear gurgling water. Many years later, a tree my father planted as a youth began to grow at an incredible rate, my surmise being that its roots finally tapped into this underground water source. Some old-timers say that before Port Richmond developed, many streams emptied into the Delaware River but were covered. Are there any old maps showing the location of such streams? Is there any other documentation on the subject?"

It does not surprise me at all Dave that there might be a creak under your yard. The answer to your question lies in those old maps of Philadelphia. There were many streams and creeks, which have vanished over the years. They now run underground, some piped and turned into sewers, others simply drying up over time, and still others that appear during a heavy rainfall.

Aramingo Avenue was a large creek called Gunner's Run, named for one of the original Swedish settlers in the area, Gunnar Rambo. At one point in the 19th century, during the canal craze, they actually made the creek into a canal for a while, but it proved unprofitable.

A good portion of Port Richmond from about Lehigh Avenue up to say Allegheny and east of Aramingo was swamp, and considered useless up until the coal piers were built in about the 1830's to 1840's, and then great interest began in the area and soon the swamps were filled in and industrial interests took over the area.

For possible maps that would be clearly detailed, you might try checking several places. One would be the Philadelphia Water Department. I am sure they have records of early streams, as well as maps of the watershed for the whole of Philadelphia.

There is also a pretty good website compiled by Adam Levine, an historical consultant to Philadelphia's Water Department. Adam's website can be reached by going to http://www.phillyh2o.org/maps.htm and then by clicking on the link for "maps," which will direct you to a page where there are three maps. One is a map of Philadelphia's historic creeks, which shows our own local creeks of Gunner's Run and Cohocksink Creek (under Canal Street as well as a number of other streets). These two creeks were the historical northern and southern borders for most of Kensington's history.

The 2nd map shows the creeks that survive today, which sadly are very few.

The third map is most interesting. It shows what happened to the missing streams and creeks. This map is illustrated with red lines that represent the sewer lines where these old waterways now flow.

Another place for old maps is the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov) website, where you can search for period maps of Philadelphia and see for yourself where the old creeks were located. A simple search using the terms "Maps of Philadelphia" (in quotations) should do the trick.

If you are really interested and would like to do your own research, then you might try checking out an article entitled, "A Brief Discussion of Philadelphia's Maps" by former city archivist Jefferson Moak. The article is available online at the following address: http://www.phila.gov/phils/Docs/otherinfo/newslet/maps.htm.

Moak explains the value of the material located at City Archives, "The source material, which is used for most of the commercially produced maps lies in the large and virtually untapped resources that were generated by the governmental offices of the Surveyor General, the City Surveyor, the Board of Surveyors and the Bureau of Surveys and Design." This information has been compiled since the founding of Philadelphia in 1682.

These offices have had the chief responsibility of "ascertaining property boundaries, laying out and regulating the streets, sewers and watercourses, and since 1854, maintaining the City Plan." The material is mostly in manuscript form. The plans depict the "legal geographic layout of the city.... The clientele of these departments varies from property owners and the real estate brokers, to the governmental agencies concerned with current property descriptions, the proper layout of streets and underground conduits, and planning.

The Philadelphia City Archives possesses a great many of the early surveys and records: the Bureau of Surveys and Designs has retained many of the comprehensive late nineteenth and twentieth century plans."

You can view this material by visiting the Philadelphia City Archives, which is located at the old Philadelphia Bulletin building at 31st & Market Streets.

 

30 Mar 2006 The Rest is History

Michael & Evelyn Foisy of Master Street wrote to me wondering about their home's history. They are readers of the column and decided to write to me to see what I could do for them. They were interested in obtaining information and possibly photographs, or the age of their home.

This is a good inquiry and one, which I think many folks would be interested in learning about. In order to research the history of any home, you would typically construct a "chain of title" which would reveal all the past owners of the property.

There are several steps that you need to take. First, you can visit the Records Department, Room 154 at City Hall. Here you can give them the address of the property your interested in researching. They will give you a microfiche to view there, which will have the "chain of title," going back at least to the 1950's, or if your lucky, back to the late 19th century. These deeds here tend to be abstracts sometimes, but they will give all the pertinent information you need. At the end of the deeds it usually states the recording date as well it gives the Volume, Book, and Page number of the transaction. With this information and the grantor/grantee names, you can then go to Philadelphia City Archives at 31st & Market Streets.

At the Archives, you can view the appropriate microfilm, which contains the information that you gathered from City Hall's Records Department. By viewing this transaction, it would then give you another volume, book, and page number. By repeating this process you will be able to follow the property ownership backwards in time.

If you get stuck along the way, perhaps the property wound up in court, or for some reason all the appropriate information was not on the deed, you could do a search by the grantor (seller) or grantee (buyer). There are indexes for both grantor/grantee and you could scan these indexes looking for the people involved in the transaction. The indexes will give the grantor/grantee, volume, book, and page number, so that you could then go back to the microfilm volumes of the appropriate deeds and continue your search.

Along the way you'll probably find that your little row house was probably part of a larger parcel of land and over time that large piece of land was broken down and made into blocks of houses.

Another thing you want to do while you're at City Hall before heading to City Archives, is visit Room 163 of the Records Department, where you can view tax maps. These maps have the whole of the city broken down into about a couple of square blocks on each map. On the microfiche deed abstracts that you looked at in Room 153, there will be a number and letter combination at the top, something like 7N12. This number is the number for the map that your property will show up on. At the map room (room 163) ask to see your map number. If you do not have the number, they should be able to find the map regardless by simply giving them your address.

On these maps they have every lot in the city numbered. Using the above example of 7N12, you might find your property number is 7N12 #203. You also will find other numbers on these maps that are crossed out. Perhaps numbers 101 thru 110 are crossed out and are replaced by numbers 111 thru 150, which would mean the ten properties that use to be numbered 101 thru 110, have now been divided into forty properties and are numbered 111 thru 150. It takes a little getting use to, but by being able to detect which numbers preceded your numbered lot, you'll be able to gather insight into how the properties in your area were divided up over the years, as well these numbers of the other lots could be used in the event you lose your way researching your own property. Eventually, all these little lots will merge into one larger land parcel.

By doing the above steps you should be able to get a thorough history of your home, as it pertains to its previous owners, when it was divided up from a larger lot and presumably when the structure was built would begin to be mentioned on the deed as well. If your really interested in the house's history, you could also research the owners of the property to get an idea of what sorts of people lived there, what they did for a living, where they came from, etc. Have fun and let me know if anyone gets around to researching your home.

 

 

 

 

6 Apr 2006 The Rest is History

On February 9th last, I mentioned I would write next about the neighborhoods' past historians, but with so many letters coming in and questions to answer, I was not about to sit down and write about them. This week we take a break from answering letters in order to take a look at a couple of those past historians.

It is interesting to take notice of the neighborhoods' chroniclers of yesteryear. These people, in their own way, have helped to create and mould our neighborhoods.

An interesting piece that appeared in the "One Man News" of June 1939 is one of the more important pieces of Fishtown history to appear in print. In the article, an old-timer gives the exact dimensions of Fishtown as told to him when he was a "young lad in the 1870's." At that time, in the 1870's, an old timer had told him these boundaries too and that it was true when he was a boy as well, which pushes these boundaries back to the time when the name of Fishtown first started in the 1820's, and thus helped to dispel the myth of Charles Dickens naming the area Fishtown.

The "One Man News," a penny paper, was written and published by Fishtown's Francis T. Wilcox, as way of making a buck during the depression. It was loaded with advertisements and local stories and in a sense, could be considered the forerunner to the Penn Treaty Gazette, later today's Fishtown Star.

Another local historian, George W. Baker, was probably the first person to start writing seriously about Kensington's history. An engineer, employed locally by PE's Engineering Design Department, he lived on Palmer Street, but moved to the burbs by retirement age. His father was superintendent at the old Kensington shipyard of Neafie and Levy.

Baker wrote historical articles for local papers, lectured at local historical societies, and elsewhere. He did a substantial amount of research, with much of his research obviously mined from Scharf & Wescott's three-volume "History of Philadelphia," as well as John Watson's three-volume work, "Annals of Philadelphia." There also appears to have been some research done with deed, census, and city directory records, and various family paper collections as well.

Baker's short work "Kensington, Tight Little Isle," is a fairly good history of Kensington, but there is no bibliography, or notes, thus making it time consuming to find what sources he actually used. Baker wrote from about the late 1930's to perhaps the early 1980's, certainly the longest running historian of the neighborhood.

One of Baker's lasting contributions was an excellent map done in 1950, entitled, "Kensington- Her Official Boundaries and Neighbors before Absorption by Philadelphia in 1854," and it is still today, one of the best maps that have been put together. A copy can be seen on my website under the Kensington History folder, under "maps."

Dr. J. Hampton Hoch, the son of a Frankford Avenue pharmacist and later a professor of Pharmacy at the Medical College of South Carolina, also recorded Kensington's history. In November of 1957, Hoch wrote to George Baker, " I think it would be a good thing if we could find about a half dozen people who would work together to compile a real history of Kensington." It never happened. Baker and Hoch continued to correspond about Kensington history for another decade, with Hoch writing nicely researched pieces on "Bachelor's Hall," "Lasse Cock and the Log House Lot," "Thomas Fairman and the Governor's House," and a number of other interesting articles.

Many of Hoch's articles were written up in 1960 and given to the Philadelphia Historical Commission in the hopes they would do something with them to preserve historic structures in Fishtown and Kensington. In a letter dated September 11, 1960 and written to Grant M. Simon, of Philadelphia, he states "Exert your best efforts to see that Kensington is not deprived of its rightful recognition." Hoch is asking Simon to exert his effort because Simon was the chairman of the Historical Commission in Philadelphia

Another letter from Hoch to Simon has Hoch asking Simon if the commission and Dr. Tinkcom gathered any old pertinent data on old structures in Kensington. Dr. Tinkcom was the same person who would later direct the efforts of the Pennsylvania Historical and Salvage Council (which I reported back in February 9th's column had neglected the study of the Fishtown area and studied Southwark instead, when these neighborhoods were being bulldozed during the construction of I-95). Hoch tried to motivate the Historical Commission to recognize Fishtown's historical significance by his letter writing campaign and thoroughly researched articles. Nothing seems to have ever come of Hoch's efforts, but it was not for his lack of trying. It appears again that Nathaniel Burt's adage, "Proper Philadelphians did not go north of Vine Street" won out.

 

13 Apr 2006 The Rest is History

Early on in my studies into the history of Kensington, I told myself that one day I would make the trip "across the pond," to see the original "Kensington," in England. I wanted to know what was it about this place in England that moved Anthony Palmer to name his town after it?

In the summer of 1996, I finally got my chance. I got what one could call the poor man's sabbatical, that is, unemployment checks for the summer. My new teaching position was not going to start until September and with unemployment checks coming in, I made plans to go to Europe. I planned a ten-day research vacation in England.

I spent the time walking the streets of London, researching in its repositories, and took an additional short trip to Cambridge, to visit and research at Cambridge University, the prestigious medieval institution of learning.

My trip to Cambridge was due to the fact that they had in their library a collection of West Indies genealogical papers, which hopefully was going to help me in identifying the genealogical roots of our Kensington's founder.

I searched the archives at Cambridge and found some things that were helpful. I also sat on the green outside of King's College and smoked a Cuban cigar. As I did this I thought to myself, America is a great country; how many working stiffs can say they sat on the green at Cambridge and smoked a big fat Cuban cigar while on unemployment? Only in America I thought.

While in London, I spent several days walking the her streets. The more narrow and crooked, the more interesting I found to walk it. I can safely say I walked the whole of the ancient city of London; from Kensington Gardens to Whitechapel, from Clerkenwall to Paddington, from Regent's Park to Chelsea, and all through the Docklands, all the while seeking out the haunts and homes of my favorite authors.

I dined at the "Olde Cheshire Cheese," on Fleet Street, a pub frequented by Dickens and Thackeray, visited Gray's Inn, famed in the writings of Boswell. I even stopped at the home of Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, and later paid tribute to Twickenham, outside of London, which was the home of neo-classical poet Alexander Pope, where I lunched at his grotto. On this same trip I walked through the area known as Richmond, a suburb of London, and the place where our own Philadelphia neighborhood of Port Richmond had gotten its name.

London's East End, the old working class neighborhood, mostly populated with Pakistani and Indians now, and their wonderful restaurants, was also a destination of mine. While in the East End, I visited Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where the original Liberty Bell was cast and All Hallows-by-the Tower Chapel, where President John Quincy Adams was married. Toynbee Hall, the place that marks the first Settlement House in history is also located here, and in their garden was a statue of Jane Addams, the great American social reformer of Hull House, in Chicago. This social movement founded our own neighborhood Lutheran Settlement House.

I spent one whole day simply touring the area known as Kensington, a wealthy section west of Central London. It is here that the famous Kensington Gardens are located, as well as the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall. Kensington's High Street is considered one of the major shopping districts in all of London. While there I took a tour of the architecture and while viewing an old church a procession of people in a parade like fashion came out led by a woman who was the mayor of Kensington.

However, the best and grandest of all was my visit to Kensington Palace, the royal residence of the British Monarchs and their children since it was first founded in 1689. Most parts are off limits, but some historic rooms are open for tourists. Queen Victoria was brought up here and Princess Diana lived here as well.

In recounting my trip, it would seem that Anthony Palmer founded his town of Kensington in Pennsylvania, not only to honor the British Monarch, but to have a fancy name as well. He named his development after the King's residence. People at that time would have known the name of Kensington and thus it was catchy and sounded fancy.  Palmer's development was really no different then what we see today when a suburban developer comes along, buys an old farm and lays out streets with nice sounding names like Morning Glory and Sunset Dream and then names the development something like Hearthstone, or Eden Brooke, and charges you a half a million dollars to live there. It happened 275 years ago and it still happens today.

 

20 Apr 2006 The Rest is History

When the Lord made shad

The Devil was mad

For it seemed such a feast of delight

So to poison the scheme

He jumped in the stream

And stuck in the bones out of spite.

- An old fisherman's poem

Have you ever wanted to know why they call our neighborhood Fishtown? Well, tonight is a night for you. Rich Remer, of the Kensington History Project, will be speaking at the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center at 6:00 PM on the history of the Delaware River shad fishing industry, which was dominated and controlled by a group of families who had their roots and residences in that small area of Kensington that came to be known as Fishtown.

Remer is one of the founders (along with Torben Jenk and Ken Milano) of the Kensington History Project, a local group that researches, publishes, and lectures on the history of Kensington and Fishtown. Remer has done a tremendous amount of research on the Shad fishing of the early fishing families of Fishtown (try saying that ten times real fast).

According to Remer, Shad was once the second most popular fish in the United States after Cod and there was a time when the Delaware River was teeming with Shad. The "Kensington shadders" as Remer calls them, were a tight knit group, often intermarrying and living in the same general neighborhood, that being the original section of Kensington that became Fishtown and had as its borders the old creek called Gunner's Run (Aramingo Avenue & Dyott Street) on the north, the Delaware River on the east, Palmer Street on the south, and roughly Moyer Street on the west. This small section of Kensington (after all it was all Kensington before it was Fishtown) became known as Fishtown because many of the Delaware River's fishermen lived here, married here, and died here.

Remer's research has found that over the course of the 19th century, the fishermen families of Fishtown had "gradually bought or leased the shore fisheries of the lower Delaware River estuary and by mid-century they controlled the catch. The neighborhood was called Fishtown because these families controlled the fishing; it was "the" home for fishermen, not just for Kensington, or Philadelphia, but the whole of the Delaware Valley.

The surnames of these early fisherman stand out as beacons of the history of the community: Baker, Bakeoven, Bennett, Collar, Cramp, Faunce, Gosser, Pote, Rice, Shibe, Tees, and Tuttle. Of these families, the main fishing families were the Bennetts, Cramps, Faunces, Gossers, and Rices. However, many of these families served or founded local social institutions and churches, as well as played major roles in the development of Kensington's Fishtown section. Even Benjamin Shibe, the owner of the old Philadelphia Athletics baseball team hailed from a Fishtown fishing family, as well as the great shipbuilding family of William Cramp. If you stroll through Palmer Cemetery (Memphis & Palmer Streets), you will see many of these early fishermen buried on the hill along the Memphis Street side.

The foot of Susquehanna Avenue had been the main dock for the fishermen and it was here where you had a "veritable fish market with numerous skiffs and catboats" and it would not be uncommon to see women with baskets of fish on their heads. "Purchasers would come to the wharf and make their purchases, the "catties" and eels being skinned in their presence thus guaranteeing fresh fish." However, much of the selling of the fish was handled in town, at the fish market on Dock Street.

Over time the shad fisheries came to an end. The combined pressures of "over fishing, pollution, and environmental degradation." Fishtown's fishermen were left to find work elsewhere. A number of them had funneled their monies into local real estate; others went into that other popular neighborhood business of shipbuilding. Today, after "peaking in the early 1900's," Remer says that the Delaware River shad fishery has now dwindled to "one operating commercial establishment, the Lewis Fishery of Lamberton, New Jersey, and Fishtown's glorious shad seasons are forever gone."

If talking shad sounds tasty, take a visit to here Remer. Rich did his graduate schooling at the College of William & Mary and is a fine historian and lecturer.

Water Works Interpretive Center, April 20th, from 6-8 PM. Rich Remer talking Shad. Sponsored by the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center in conjunction with the Oliver Evans Chapter of the Society for Industrial Archeology. For directions to the Center you can visit: www.fairmountwaterworks.org, or call Phyllis Wichert at 215-685-6113. The center is located behind the Philadelphia Art Museum, on the Schuylkill River within the Water Works complex.

 

27 Apr 2006 The Rest is History

Two weeks ago we took a look at some of the previous documenters of Kensington & Fishtown's history. Men like Francis T. Wilcox and George W. Baker had played a role in telling the communities' history. This week we will look at several others in the neighborhood's history who started to talk about preserving our architecture, which might not be a bad idea to look at today.

We had seen previously that Dr. J. Hampton Hoch had tried several times to interest Grant Simon of the Historical Commission of Philadelphia in the historical buildings of the area and to see if they would take action to preserve these structures before further deterioration, or development, removed them permanently from the landscape. Hoch had researched and written a number of articles to back up his arguments.

Others in the community, people like Joseph P. McGough of Palmer street and William S. Earley on Berks Street, had similar interests and took similar actions. These two gentlemen, like Hoch, corresponded with the Philadelphia Historical Commission about preserving the community's heritage.

In the early 1960's there was an upsurge of historical interest to protect the buildings and restore Palmer Cemetery. The building of I-95 highway and the bulldozing of block after block of houses along Fishtown's waterfront woke up neighbors, but after the I-95 was built, passivity and apathy worked its way back into the fabric of most of the residents, and much of the historical work of the previous historians was forgotten, but for a few who remained active.

James Smart in the early 1960's was writing local history articles in the Philadelphia Bulletin. Smart published a number of historical articles on Kensington and Fishtown. The Bulletin was not the only paper in town talking up Fishtown. In September of 1963 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a featured story on Fishtown in their Sunday Today Magazine. It featured some paintings by B. Eisenstat and pretty much said the same old things about the neighborhood.

On July 3, 1968, the old "Penn Treaty Gazette, " the precursor to the "Fishtown Star," began a series of articles on the history of Kensington. The articles ran over the course of the summer with at least eight articles being published. These articles were researched and written by Joseph S. Molmer and followed much what George Baker and Hampton Hoch had researched and written.

While Molmer and Baker continued along with their pursuits, the year 1982 marked the 300-year anniversary of Philadelphia. Much effort was done by the then group called the Fishtown Civic Association, with their efforts to expand Penn Treaty Park and with their publication of "Fishtown, a Slice of Life; 300 Years in Philadelphia, 1682-1982." The book had many contributors, in the likes of George Baker, Karen Grant, Ken Robertson, Julia Robinson, & Sandy Salzman, as well as others. The "Slice of Life" book was finally giving Fishtown a "book" about its history. While still not a scholarly publication, it was indeed a furthering of Baker, Hoch, and Molmer's work.

Today, with the advancement and possibilities of casinos descending on the area, there is again an interest brewing in the history of the area. The developers, contractors, realtors, and gentrifiers, have already converged on the community over the last several years, in some cases that they done a good job in preserving and restoring our architecture, but in other cases the buildings have been drastically altered.

One only has to look at the southeast corner of Hewson Street & Girard Avenue to the building with the hideous zigzag design. This home is one of a group of homes that sit along Hewson Street and along Berks Street east of Girard Avenue, and they were original homes of Dr. Thomas Dyott's utopian Dyottsville Glassworks. Built for glassworkers, these homes date to the about the 1820's-1830's, and were lived in by mainly German glassblowers. Dyott provided housing, a school, church services, and a bank, to his mainly male workers, 100 glassblowers, and about 200 apprentices

Perhaps now is the time when neighbors, old and new, can again begin talking about preserving Fishtown's heritage. Most of our 18th century homes are gone, but there are many interesting early 19th century homes intact, as well as important industrial buildings as well. Perhaps if the area tried to get some sort of historic designation, one would not have to worry about developers coming in and altering the landscape with structures that are out of character of the community and projects like the controversy being debated on Moyer Street would perhaps be a mute point?

 


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