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Polish Settlement and Poland

A few aristocratic Polish emigres—the Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciusko (1746-1817), for example—found their way to Philadelphia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Large-scale Polish immigration to the Philadelphia region, however, began only after the Civil War, reaching its climax in the years immediately preceding World War I. Between 1870 and 1920, at least 700,000 Poles came to work in Pennsylvania’s heavy industries, primarily coal mining, iron and steel. A migration comprised primarily of young men in search of work, the initial intention was to return home with American earnings. The availability of better work opportunities and the outbreak of World War I reduced the return migration and led to the formation of at least fourteen permanent Polish settlements across the Philadelphia region. Although dispersed, these communities established lasting social institutions capable of maintaining their identity and culture.

[caption id="attachment_35193" align="alignright" width="209"]A black and white photograph of the Thaddeus Kosciuszko house. The three story brick home is in a state of disrepair with boarded windows, crumbling bricks, and evidence of previous repairs. A historical marker stands in front of it. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish Revolutionary War hero, lived in this house at 301 Pine Street in 1797 after he was expelled from Russian-occupied Poland. The house, shown in this 1972 photograph, fell into severe disrepair until it was restored by the National Park Service in advance of the 1976 bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The millions of Poles who journeyed to America (both North and South) before World War I were leaving a country that no longer existed. Coveting its rich farmland and strategic location, Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary repeatedly partitioned Poland in the eighteenth century, with Russia taking the largest portion. The subsequent abolition of serfdom in Austria-Hungary (1840s) and Russia (1860s), followed by land reforms, allowed former serfs to move and to buy land. As the population exploded, succeeding generations divided land holdings, creating a large population of underemployed male farmers who sought unskilled work on farms or in factories and mines outside of Poland, particularly in France, Germany, Belgium, and North Africa before migrating to North and South America. In Germany between 1870 and 1891, the Kulturkampf, a formalized attack on Catholicism and its Polish believers by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), instigated early Polish emigration from that country with many finding their way to the Philadelphia region.

Although few in number when compared with their Galician (Austrian) and Russian counterparts, German Poles were generally literate, tended to stay permanently, and often came as families. Their presence established the initial connections and organizations that benefited those who followed. Because Poles from Galicia and Russia comprised 85-90 percent of the total migration, the large majority of Polish immigrants were young peasant men of prime working age (17-39). Mostly unmarried, they arrived with the intention, much like Italian migrants of the time, of returning home with American earnings to increase or improve their land holdings. At least 40-45 percent actually returned to Europe, and more would have done so if not for the outbreak of World War I and the decision to remain in America rather than be drafted into the Russian and Hapsburg armies.

The Demand for Unskilled Labor

The Polish influx to Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia region began in the 1870s and accelerated after 1900. Poles remained the largest group (337,000) coming to Pennsylvania until 1901 when southern Italians and Sicilians pushed them into second place. An additional 340,000 Poles arrived between 1899 and 1914. Approximately 85-90 percent of the Polish population settled in the anthracite regions (primarily Northumberland and Luzerne Counties) and the Pittsburgh area (Allegheny County), with the remainder in the greater Philadelphia region. Poles were attracted to Pennsylvania by the availability of unskilled work in heavy industry. In some years, Poles and their native-born sons were the majority of those employed in the anthracite mines. By 1910, 65-75 percent of all Pennsylvania steel workers were foreign-born, with Poles and Slovaks the leading groups. Poles also dominated the state’s leather (tanning), meatpacking (slaughtering), oil, chemical and shipping (stevedores and longshoremen) industries, all of which had a significant presence in the greater Philadelphia region. The location of heavy industrial work eventually led to the establishment of at least fourteen settlements throughout the area. Because this work was volatile and not always permanent, these settlements were extremely transient places. In some years the turnover was more than half the population. Immigrants in search of work moved from one settlement to the other, back and forth to the coal regions, or to major Polish locations in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Chicago. The major move, however, was the return home.

Despite the extreme transiency, Polish immigrants formed strong, stable communities in the places where they found work. The increasing presence of women in the years 1907 to 1914, which led to marriage, children, and the need for institutions such as churches and schools, constrained mobility. In an economy of erratic male employment, the ability of women to find work as cleaning personnel or in paper, candy, or terra cotta factories, or to supplement household income by taking in lodgers and boarders or piecework, also reduced mobility. Property ownership, made possible by the affordability and ubiquity of the region’s row houses, further restrained geographic movement. Finally, an infrastructure of institutions and organizations enabled stable communities to form and remain intact, no matter how often the population changed. Polish workers could move from Nicetown or Port Richmond to Camden, Wilkes-Barre, or Chicago and find a Polish parish, school, newspaper, and fraternal or beneficial society that supported their needs. The Poles referred to this vast and comprehensive social network in America as Polonia. By 1914, an estimated 75 percent of Poles in the United States belonged to one or more of Polonia’s more than seven thousand societies.

As the first to arrive in the 1870s and 1880s, German Poles settled in German neighborhoods, such as the Northern Liberties, Kensington, South Philadelphia, Bridesburg, Coatesville, and South Camden, secured lodging through German contacts, and found employment in German-owned leather, textile, and chemical plants. They also established the first Polish parishes and organizations.

The Roman Catholic parish was the core of Polonia and its most formidable institution. In Poland, family and community life centered on the church. The priest was the recognized leader. Literate and often educated, he championed the peasants’ release from serfdom and fought against Prussian and Russian efforts to suppress the Polish language and Roman Catholic faith. Much more than a religious entity, the Polish parish organized not only weddings, funerals, baptisms, and liturgical processions but also dances, picnics, theatrical performances, sporting events, and lectures. Through pulpit, press, and school, it disseminated information to members and newcomers. A powerful social force invested with moral authority, its bonds were so strong that the parish name became synonymous with the territory in which it was located.

The Philadelphia Parishes

Initially, Poles in Philadelphia and Camden traveled to Trenton, Baltimore, or Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, to hear Mass and receive the sacraments in their own language, or they attended local Irish and German Catholic churches. Neither solution was satisfactory. Traveling long distances was unsustainable, and relying on “foreigners”—German and Irish—was untenable. Relations between Poles and Germans were often tense, a carryover of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, and newer arrivals from Russia and Galicia did not speak German. At home, Poles were used to choosing their priests and overseeing parish finances, but in America the Irish hierarchy had total control of appointments and finances. And lack of Polish representation in the hierarchy was intolerable. Responding to the situation, in the 1890s Poles from Pennsylvania’s coal regions were instrumental in forming the Polish National Catholic Church, the only successful schismatic movement in American Catholicism. John Joseph Krol (1910-96), born in Buffalo, New York, became one of the first Polish-Americans to serve in the national Roman Catholic hierarchy and the first in the nation to be appointed archbishop when appointed to serve Philadelphia from 1961 to 1988. He was designated Cardinal in 1967.

[caption id="attachment_34786" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photo of the interior of the St. Joseph's Church in South Camden, New Jersey. The photograph is taken from the rear of the church down the central aisle, showing rows of pews and arched galleries along the walls. At the front of the church is an alter adorned with religious statues, housed in a domed alcove with an ornately detailed ceiling. Polish families living in Camden came together to form St. Joseph's parish in 1892. In 1914, they moved to a new building, shown here in 1942, which became home to both religious and social organizations. (Photograph by William Lang, courtesy of Saint Joseph's History Society of South Camden)[/caption]

Between 1882 and 1927, Poles established seventeen parishes in the Philadelphia metropolitan region, sixteen Roman Catholic and one Polish National Catholic, all in neighborhoods with heavy industrial work that had prompted their settlement. On January 29, 1882, Poles from Camden, Chester, Wilmington, and Philadelphia met at Muellershen Hall (347 N. Third Street, in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia) to plan the first local parish. Forty-seven families took up a collection to construct or purchase a church building. Local Protestants blocked the attempt on four occasions. Resorting to a ruse, Polish priests and leaders passed themselves off as German businessmen and purchased land at the corner of Vienna (later Berks) and Memphis Streets in Kensington. They constructed a large “basement” and used it as a church until completion of the upper church level in 1890. With members of the local hierarchy in attendance, the Poles dedicated the first Polish church in the region to St. Laurentius on September 21, 1890.

In time, St. Adalbert, founded in 1904 with six hundred souls from Galicia and Russian Poland, became the area’s largest Polish parish and confirmed Port Richmond as the mother colony of the Polish population in the Delaware Valley. The parish built a grand church at Allegheny and Thompson Streets with money collected during the Panic of 1907. All parishes included a school staffed by one of the Polish sisterhoods--Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, Felician Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, and the Bernadine Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis. The Holy Family Sisters also founded Nazareth Academy, a private elementary and secondary school for girls; Holy Family College (later University); and Nazareth Hospital, all located in Northeast Philadelphia. The Felician Sisters founded and staffed St. Joseph’s Hospital, at Sixteenth Street and Girard Avenue.

Fraternal-Beneficial Societies

Once in place, the Polish parish gave rise to other institutions, the most important of which was the fraternal-beneficial society. More popular with Poles and other Slavs than with other immigrants, the fraternal-beneficial was basically a collectively financed insurance association through which the Polish immigrant could purchase an insurance policy for a nickel or dime a week. In time, the larger beneficials used their funds to provide mortgages and business and educational loans as well as offering a range of social and recreational activities

The largest beneficial societies active in the Philadelphia region were branches of organizations founded in Chicago: the Polish Roman Catholic Union (PRCU); its secular counterpart, the Polish National Alliance (PNA); and the Polish Women’s Alliance (PWA). Taking as its motto “God and Country,” the Polish Roman Catholic Union worked to prevent the absorption of Poles into the Irish-dominated Catholic Church. By 1925 it had 188,000 members nationwide and kept them informed through its newspaper, Narod Polski (Polish Nation). By the 1970s, it had eight chapters in the Philadelphia region. The larger Polish National Alliance reversed the PRCU’s motto to “Country and God” to assure outsiders of Polish-American loyalty to the United States and published Zgoda (Harmony), a daily newspaper. By 1925 it had 220,000 members nationwide and had established Alliance College in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, to educate the children of Polonia. By the 1970s PNA District VI had seventy-four lodges in Delaware, southern New Jersey, southeastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. The Polish Women’s Alliance grew nationally to twenty-five thousand members by 1925, and its house organ Glos Polek (Voice of the People) focused on women’s issues. By the 1970s, the PWA had six chapters in the Philadelphia area.

Philadelphia parish neighborhoods produced two beneficial societies that later expanded throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. The Polish Beneficial Society of St. John Cantius, originating in Bridesburg in 1899 (later known simply as the Polish Beneficial Society or PBS) offered low-interest mortgages and loans, supported charitable and civic causes, and sponsored lectures, dance classes, and its own newspaper. Ahead of its time, it accepted women as members and leaders as early as 1902. Unja Polek w Ameryce (Union of Polish Women in America or UPWA), founded in 1920, grew out of the Port Richmond chapter of the Bialy Krzyz or White Cross, an organization of Polish women that provided sweaters, blankets, long johns, and bandages for Polish and Polish American soldiers during World War I. Originally incorporated to sell insurance to women and children of Slavic descent in Pennsylvania, the group later extended its operations to New Jersey and Delaware. Unja Polek provided mortgages and college scholarships and sponsored dance groups, a glee club, girls youth group (the “Debs”), and hosted the annual Debutante Ball for the area’s Polonia. By 1980 UPWA had nearly $5 million of insurance in force and assets of $2.5 million. Other neighborhood financial groups that became regional institutions were Nicetown’s Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir the Great) Savings and Loan Association (later a division of Washington Savings Association), founded in 1898, and Port Richmond’s Polonia Federal Savings and Loan Association (later Polonia Bank), founded in 1923.

Polish-Language Newspapers

[caption id="attachment_35195" align="alignright" width="224"]A black and white photograph of a newspaper printing room. A woman stands reading a paper set on a desk. In the foreground, a folded newspaper reads "GWIAZDA. Polish Star. Final issue of Gwiazda." Polish-American community groups published Polish-language or bilingual newspapers catering to new immigrants. Gwiazda (“Star”), the final issue of which is seen in this 1985 photograph, served as the official voice of the Union of Polish Women in America. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

In addition to national Polish-language publications that kept readers informed of events in Poland and America, local Polonia supported several independent Polish language newspapers: Gwiazda (Star), Przyjaciel Ludu (Friend of the People), Jednosc (Unity), and Patryota (Patriot). Gwiazda became the official voice of Unja Polek; it was the last of the Philadelphia area Polish-language papers to cease publication (1984). The Polish American Journal, founded in 1911 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and later published in New York, offered “news for Polish Americans in English.”

Polish neighborhoods also supported fraternal societies focused on special interests (sports, literature, music) and experiences (military service). Most had their own buildings or designated spaces. Port Richmond supported the Fraternal Association of Joseph Pilsudski, the city’s largest such organization; the Polish Eagle Sports Club (which sponsored a team affiliated with the United States Soccer League of Pennsylvania); and the Polish American String Band, a participant in the city’s annual Mummers Parade. Manayunk housed the Polonia Hall Association and the city’s most active Sokol or Falcon’s Nest (#171), a branch of the national Polish Falcons of America, a group that supported gym classes and athletic programs. Neighborhood veterans groups included chapters representing the Polish army, air force and underground forces, as well as Polish-American veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Other fraternals transcended neighborhood boundaries, attracting members from across the region: the Polish Police Association of Philadelphia; the Paderewski Choral Society; the Polish Dramatic Theater; the Polish Intercollegiate Club (Polskie Kolko Miedzykolegialne or PKM) for college students, sponsor of a Polish folk dance group; the Jagellonian Law Society (for lawyers); and the Polish Professional Society for physicians, lawyers, engineers, executives, and other Polish and Polish American professionals living in the Delaware Valley.

[caption id="attachment_35196" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of members of the Polish-American string Band performing in the 2011 mummer's parade. Four male dancers wear pirate-inspired skeleton costumes of brightly colored fabrics, skull masks, and hats with colorful feathers. Behind them, a row of musicians in similar costumes play musical instruments. Colorful confetti litters the ground. Members of the Polish American String Band perform a pirate-themed dance in the Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day, 2011. Founded in 1933, the troupe has become a staple of the parade and a lasting reminder of Polonia’s influence on Philadelphia’s culture. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

From the beginning, Poles were concerned with maintaining their identity and passing their language, history, and traditions to succeeding generations. Local initiatives took the form of theater groups, literary and poetry circles, libraries, and language schools. Frankford housed a Polish Library (4743 Melrose Street) prior to World War I, and Port Richmond established the Kosciusko Literary Association to promote a circulating library and the reading of Polish history and literature. By the 1940s szkolki doksznalcajace, or supplementary schools, appeared in many parishes, such as St. Adalbert and St. John Cantius, primarily to teach Polish language and history to new generations of Polish Americans. The Adam Mickiewicz Polish Language School, founded in 1922, was the largest and most successful. The Uniwersytet Ludowy, or Polish People’s University, an outgrowth of Poland’s socialist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, had a section in Philadelphia. It aimed to bring high forms of Polish culture “to the people” (especially uneducated, often illiterate, Polish immigrants) via lectures and discussions. Philadelphia Poles also formed a prominent chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation, Polonia’s most prestigious and important cultural organization (founded in New York City in 1927), which promoted interest in Polish history, art, music and science through funded research, exhibits, concerts and lectures.

The Dom Polski

Wherever they settled in large numbers in the United States, Poles created a Dom Polski (Polish home), a house or physical space that serves as headquarters for multiple cultural and educational organizations. The Philadelphia region’s Dom Polski began in 1900 as the Polish Library Association of Philadelphia in Port Richmond. With the growth of the Polish population and proliferation of cultural organizations, the region’s Polish leadership purchased a larger building after World War II, at 9150 Academy Road in Northeast Philadelphia, and incorporated the site as the Associated Polish Home. Over time, the Associated Polish Home came to host the Uniwersytet Ludowy, the Adam Mickiewicz Polish Language School, the Marcella Kochanska Sembrich (famous Polish opera singer (1858-1935) Female Chorus (successor to the Paderewski Choral Society and a member of District 7 of the Polish Singers Alliance of America), the PKM-Polish Intercollegiate Club’s Polish Folk Dance and Music Ensemble, the Philadelphia chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation, the Polish Heritage Society of Philadelphia, and the Adam Mularczyk Theater Company. It also provided rental and meeting spaces for weddings, other social events and conferences.

Cultural promotion and efforts to educate Americans about Polish culture and history intensified in the years following World War II, partially in response to nativism, discrimination, and negative stereotyping. In 1965 Philadelphia’s Polish Americans founded the Polish Heritage Society to offer concerts and lectures to the larger American audience in addition to Polish Americans. In 1981 regional leaders established the Polish American Cultural Center to “serve the varied social and cultural needs of Polish Americans and to promote public awareness and appreciation of Polish history and cultural heritage to as broad an audience as possible.” Originally housed in St. Hedwig’s (Jadwiga) Parish on North Twenty-Fourth Street in Philadelphia, the center moved in 1987 to 308 Walnut Street near Independence Hall, where it added a museum and exhibit hall.

Realizing that more than cultural education and outreach were necessary to promote their interests in America, Poles turned to political organization. As early as 1871 German Poles founded the Kosciuszko Club, the first formal Polish organization in the Philadelphia region, to serve as a clearinghouse for newly arrived Poles seeking jobs and lodgings and as a social center for the largely male group. The club’s success led to the purchase of a building at Front and Green Streets in the Northern Liberties. The club required each member to become a United States citizen as soon as possible, taking as its motto “A Good Pole is a Good American Citizen.” Upon obtaining citizenship, the new American received a substantial monetary gift. The group was short-lived, however, overwhelmed by too many Poles from Russia and Galicia seeking quick work with no intention of staying in the country.

Political Participation

Initially, the Poles’ political activity focused primarily on the reconstitution of the Polish state, a goal achieved at Versailles in 1918. Later, they sought to free Poland from communism and to work for greater Polish-American representation in government. The Pulaski Citizens Association of Philadelphia, for example, founded in 1937 as a successor to the Polish Political Club of Nicetown, encouraged political participation of Polish Americans and advanced Polish causes and candidates. After World War II Polish-American leaders formed the Polish American Citizens League of Pennsylvania to recruit, support, and elect Polish Americans to political office throughout the state.

[caption id="attachment_35198" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the 1952 Pulaski Day Parade. Adults wearing a doctor and nurse costume stand on a float featuring a hospital bed. A child lays in the bed with bandages on her head and other children sit on boxes labeled "medical supplies," "penicillin," and "vaccines". In the background, a giant letter and envelope give a plea for medical supplies. The Pulaski Day Parade commemorates Kasimierz Pulaski, a Polish Revolutionary War hero, but has also served as a platform for modern concerns of the Polish-American community. In this photograph from the 1952 parade, participants from several beneficial groups make a plea for the donation of badly-needed medical supplies for war-torn Poland. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Because of the proliferation of organizations—beneficial, fraternal, cultural, and political—pressure to form an umbrella organization was intense. During World War I Central Councils (Centrala Towarzystwo Polskich) formed in most cities, including Philadelphia, lobbied for an independent Poland and later coalesced to serve as the predecessor to the Polish American Congress. Founded in 1944 in Buffalo, New York, to fight communism and to lobby for a free Poland, the Polish American Congress became Polonia’s major political organization and lobbying group. By 2010 it was a federation of more than three thousand organizations with forty-one state divisions promoting Polish-American political power and social recognition and serving as a watchdog for Polish defamation and discrimination. More than four hundred representatives from 156 of the Philadelphia area’s Polish organizations and five Polish newspapers attended the founding meeting of the Eastern Pennsylvania District of the Polish American Congress in Port Richmond on February 25, 1945. The Eastern Division-PAC coordinated or sponsored major annual Polish events, such as Polish Heritage Month (February), Kosciusko Day Observance (also in February) at the General Thaddeus Kosciuszko House, the Pulaski Day parade (first week of October), and Polish Constitution Day (first week of May). Its efforts resulted in the designation of the Kosciuszko House, at Third and Pine Streets, as a national historical memorial and part of Independence National Historical Park.

By the late 1960s, the Philadelphia region’s increasingly educated, affluent Polish Americans had relocated to areas of Northeast Philadelphia and the Philadelphia and New Jersey suburbs. Their success, however, contrasted with less fortunate members of Polonia, many of them elderly, who often lived in the region’s original Polish neighborhoods, areas adversely affected by the decline of the industries that had supported them. To serve this population, Polish American leaders, led by a Philadelphia Polish pastor, formed Polish American Social Services (PASS) in 1972 to secure federal, state, and local funds for outreach and referral services such as fuel and tax rebates, food stamps, and pharmaceutical assistance for the elderly. The organization later coordinated with United Social Services to serve at least seven additional ethnic communities from its location at 308 Walnut Street, the site of the Polish American Cultural Center, Museum and Exhibit Hall. The Polish American Congress, Eastern Pennsylvania District; the Polish American Radio Program (WCBC 1490 AM); and the Polish American News also moved their headquarters to the site, affirming the building’s role as another version of the Dom Polski.

Post-World War II Invigoration

By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Philadelphia region’s Polonia was at a crossroads. As the descendants of the great Polish migration of 1870-1920 increasingly dispersed, their original parishes and neighborhoods fell into decline or extinction, and their organizations consolidated, closed, or redefined themselves. Most often, advancing education, upward mobility into the middle classes, and accelerating assimilation fueled these changes. Polonia, however, was reinvigorated after World War II by the arrival of new Polish populations. Under the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, several thousand Poles and others displaced from Central and Eastern Europe settled in the region. The United States Refugee Act of 1980 allowed thousands of Poles, active in Solidarnosc (Solidarity), the movement to free Poland from Soviet Communism, to settle in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. The “Solidarity Poles” who settled in the Philadelphia region were most often English-speaking educated professionals who revitalized and redirected a large segment of Polonia’s cultural life through active participation in the Associated Polish Home, a reinvigorated chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation, and commitment to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa near Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

With the decline or demise of Polish parishes, the religious and cultural focus of the area’s Polonia increasingly centered on the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Bucks County. The Pennsylvania Shrine was constructed as a tribute to the Black Madonna, a revered icon housed since 1382 in Czestochowa, Poland, and regarded as the guardian of the Polish people. Pauline Fathers (Order of St. Paul the Hermit), custodians of the original shrine, were suppressed by the Communist government in 1950. Seeking to continue their apostolate to foster devotion to the Mother of God, they purchased farmland in Bucks County to be near the large population centers of the East Coast. A successful fund-raising appeal to Polish Americans in the United States and Canada led to the building and dedication of a large church or shrine in time for ceremonies in August 1966 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the coming of Christianity to Poland. The addition of a cemetery and hosting of festivals and exhibits to promote Polish traditions enhanced its religious and symbolic significance. By the early twenty-first century, the “American Czestochowa” had been visited by thousands of Polish Americans from across the country and Canada, bringing together in one place the descendants of those who came in the great migration of 1870-1920, those who came during and after World War II, and those who fled martial law in Poland after 1981.

Caroline Golab is a cultural geographer and historian specializing in urbanization and immigration. Her Immigrant Destinations (Temple University Press 1977) is a seminal work that demonstrates the correlation between immigrant populations and industrial work patterns within and across America’s cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is a former Commonwealth Lecturer specializing in Pennsylvania history and has served as a Commissioner (Designated City Historian) for the City of Philadelphia.

Main Line of Public Works

During the 1820s, seeking to compete with New York and Baltimore in tapping western markets, business and political leaders in Philadelphia pushed for a state-funded canal to link Philadelphia with Pittsburgh. The result, an innovative yet peculiar patchwork of canals and railways known as the Main Line of Public Works, succeeded in moving freight and passengers across the mountainous middle of Pennsylvania. The 395-mile system reduced travel time and spurred growth of towns and market activity along the line, but it proved costly to operate and plunged the state into debt. Within three decades, more powerful locomotives rendered the Main Line of Public Works obsolete.

[caption id="attachment_35202" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of barges traversing the Erie Canal at Rochester, New York. A hotel with a painted sign reading Osburn House and other large buildings line the banks of canal. A group of men stands by the edge of the canal watching the barges. The Erie Canal, shown at Rochester, New York, in this 1900 photograph, linked the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. The immensely successful project dramatically decreased shipping time and costs between the agricultural regions in the midwestern United States and New York City, and increased New York’s economic advantage over Philadelphia, prompting the construction of the Main Line Works. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The impetus for the Pennsylvania canal scheme came largely from the looming threat of New York’s state-funded Erie Canal, which began construction in 1817. When completed in 1825, the canal linked the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, thus extending New York City’s orbit of trade to all the western interior and vastly increasing its competitive edge over Philadelphia. Additional threats to Philadelphia’s economic standing lay to the south, where Baltimore benefited from the movement of agricultural products down the Susquehanna River from Pennsylvania’s interior. The National Road, a federal east-west road project begun in 1811, also siphoned travel and trade from the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania into Maryland, where it connected with the Baltimore Turnpike.

Facing the loss of economic standing and recognizing the potential for trade as Americans moved west, Philadelphia business and political leaders campaigned for an improved transportation system to span across Pennsylvania. Since the colonial era, Philadelphia had looked west as far as Lancaster—about sixty-five miles away—for trade and travel enabled by the Philadelphia-Lancaster Road (a paved toll road after 1795). They also looked northwest to Reading, established in 1748 along the Schuylkill River. A canal between Reading and the Susquehanna Rivers, discussed since the 1790s, did not come to fruition until 1821. Meanwhile, developments in the early nineteenth century added to Philadelphians’ imagination of an economic region reaching farther into the interior of Pennsylvania and beyond: the state capital moved from Philadelphia to Lancaster in 1799 and then to Harrisburg in 1812; Pittsburgh grew from the site of a fort into a city; and new western states came into the union (Ohio in 1803, Indiana in 1816, and Illinois in 1818). Whetting appetites for new fortunes, opportunities in the West were growing as steamboats began to ply the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, reaching the expanding territory of cotton agriculture in the deep South. What could Philadelphians do to claim a share of the riches to come from the interior? How could they compete with New York and Baltimore, which seemed to be pulling ahead in the race to reach the West?

The Canal Campaign

Matthew Carey (1760-1839), newspaper editor and political economist, launched a vigorous campaign for a state-funded canal between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Together with such prominent citizens as Congressman John Sergeant (1779-1852) and Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), then president of the Second Bank of the United States, Carey formed the Pennsylvania Society for Promotion of Internal Improvements. With dues collected from fifty-five members, the society dispatched the architect and engineer William Strickland (1788-1854) to England to study the latest in transportation technology. Although Strickland returned with data that included the newest technology, railroads, Carey pushed aggressively for the more time-tested alternative of canals. Petitions, pamphlets, newspaper editorials, and mass meetings added momentum, despite opposition from southern Pennsylvania counties that traded with Baltimore and northeastern counties with economic ties to New York. In 1825, an Internal Improvement Convention in Harrisburg endorsed Carey’s preference for a canal, and the next year the Pennsylvania legislature authorized construction of a state-funded Pennsylvania Canal between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Adding a note of patriotic nationalism, construction began on the nation’s fiftieth birthday, July 4, 1826.

[caption id="attachment_35216" align="alignright" width="300"]a color illustration of the Belmont inclined plane, a cable-driven mechanism for pulling rail cars up a slope to overcome the hilly landscape of Philadelphia's hinterlands. Pennsylvania’s terrain posed a challenge for the Main Line’s engineers, who had to combine canal and railway sections to navigate through the Allegheny Mountains. The Belmont Inclined Plane just west of Philadelphia used a steam-powered winch to haul the canal boats up the steep Belmont Plateau where they were attached to a steam locomotive. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Canal fever faced unavoidable hurdles of geography. Across the breadth of Pennsylvania, the state’s major rivers offered good settings for canals, but not continuously and not in a straight line between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. And how could a canal possibly climb over the Allegheny Mountains? Such barriers did not stop the Main Line of Public Works. After nine years of construction, the system offered a journey that started in Philadelphia by rail—but the new Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad first moved by horsepower from a terminal near Broad and Vine Streets (then the northern city limits) across the Schuylkill via a newly built Columbia Viaduct Bridge. Then, a stationary steam engine pulled the cars by cable up an inclined plane to the top of Belmont Plateau in the area later incorporated into Fairmount Park. Thus positioned, cars could be joined to a steam locomotive to ride the rails west via Lancaster and down another inclined plane to Columbia on the Susquehanna River.

From Columbia, the journey continued northwest by canal alongside the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers until the densely forested Allegheny Mountains blocked the way. At this juncture, at the town of Hollidaysburg, the trip required changing from water travel to another system of inclined planes, this one far more extensive than the beginning incline in Philadelphia. The Allegheny Portage Railroad involved hauling cars along a thirty-six-mile sequence of ten inclines and through a tunnel—the nation’s first for a railroad—to conquer a 1,400-foot change in elevation. After the trip over the mountains, the Main Line continued by canal from Johnstown to its ultimate destination in Pittsburgh. By the 1840s, the burdens of transferring people and cargo between canals and railways diminished with the introduction of canal boats that could be separated into sections to ride on rail cars when necessary and then reattached to return to the water.

Human Toll of the Route

[caption id="attachment_35206" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a low, unmarked stone memorial in the grassy edge of a wooded area. Behind it, a SEPTA train passes at high speed. Short: In summer of 1832, fifty-seven Irish immigrant workers building the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad died in an area known as Duffy’s Cut in Chester County, shown here around 2015. While the deaths were attributed to a cholera outbreak, investigations in the twenty-first century found several of the men sustained blunt-force trauma and one had been shot at close range. (Photograph by William E. Watson)[/caption]

Built at a cost of more than $12 million, the Main Line also extracted human costs as laborers, many of them Irish immigrants, constructed the system’s railroads, canals, 174 locks, forty-nine aqueducts, and three tunnels. At a spot in Chester County known as Duffy’s Cut, fifty-seven Irish laborers for a contractor building the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad died during a cholera outbreak during the summer of 1832. Later archaeological investigation revealed blunt-force trauma to some workers and one with a bullet wound.

The Main Line of Public Works succeeded to the extent that it cut travel time between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from twenty-three days to about four, and it moved both freight and people between Philadelphia and the West. However, it did not restore Philadelphia to its earlier primacy in American trade because it could not compete successfully with the lower costs and easier transit available on the straight-line Erie Canal. Nevertheless, the Main Line brought products such as wheat, flour, whiskey, and lumber into the port of Philadelphia, and it carried manufactured goods from the city to the interior. Along the line, Columbia, Hollidaysburg, and Johnstown became bustling towns. The Main Line’s passengers included the English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70), the “Swedish Nightingale” singer Jenny Lind (1820-87), and Jarena Lee (1783-64), the African American circuit preacher. The system also played a role in the Underground Railroad, as abolitionists including the lumber partners William Whipper (1804-76) and Stephen Smith (1795-1873) used their own boats and rail cars to move freedom seekers surreptitiously along the line.

[caption id="attachment_35205" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph showing a stone arch bridge. The stones on the arch are laid on an angle to support the uneven landscape of the area. The bridge stands in a grassy park with a stand of trees in the distance. The Allegheny Portage Railroad used a complex system of inclined planes, tunnels, and a skew arch bridge, shown here in a modern photograph, to connect the Pennsylvania Canal across the Allegheny Mountains. River boats and barges were loaded onto rail cars and pulled by mules at grade and steam winches on inclines. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

By the 1850s, however, more powerful locomotives made railroads a more feasible option through mountainous terrain as well as a faster alternative to canals. In 1857 the state, deeply in debt from construction of the Main Line and other canals, sold the line to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Engineering of the Horseshoe Curve in central Pennsylvania ended the need for the Portage Railroad, which faded, abandoned, into the landscape. The “Main Line” ceased to exist in its original form, but the name nevertheless survived for the subsequent line of the Pennsylvania Railroad and especially in reference to the elite suburbs that developed along the line west of Philadelphia. Remnants of the system through central Pennsylvania became recreational trails and parks, and tourists could visit the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service.

Although short-lived, the Main Line of Public Works helped to link the eastern seaboard to the expanding interior of the United States. At a time when national politicians debated whether the federal government should play a role in “internal improvements,” the Main Line tapped state funds for the system sought by boosters of Philadelphia. In the end, though, New York’s Erie Canal proved to be more effective—even some merchants in Philadelphia shipped goods to the West via New York rather than bear the cost of multiple transfers of the Main Line.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Caroline Golab

Caroline Golab is a cultural geographer and historian specializing in urbanization and immigration. Her Immigrant Destinations (Temple University Press 1977) is a seminal work that demonstrates the correlation between immigrant populations and industrial work patterns within and across America’s cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is a former Commonwealth Lecturer specializing in Pennsylvania history and has served as a Commissioner (Designated City Historian) for the City of Philadelphia.

Colonial Revival

During the late nineteenth century, a time of great tension, new immigration, and accelerating industrialization, white Euro-Americans sought comfort in the past, specifically the Colonial and Revolutionary eras. In their romanticized interpretation, the founding era was defined by simplicity, domestic industry, and unity—qualities in direct contrast to the tumultuous Civil War and its aftermath. They expressed nostalgia for the Colonial and Revolutionary eras through architecture, landscape design, and material culture in a popular movement known as the “Colonial Revival.” The origins of the movement can be traced to the 1876 centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which presented an opportunity to reunify the country by showcasing American ingenuity and culture to the world at the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.

[caption id="attachment_34538" align="alignright" width="199"]A black and white illustration with multiple small vignettes depicting the colonial farm-house exhibit that was built for the Centennial Exposition. These vignettes are a cradle, a women sitting in high-backed chairs in front of a fireplace with cooking pots, and a woman operating a spinning wheel Harper’s Weekly published illustrations of the Centennial Exhibition, including the New England Farm-House. The glorification of the colonial home inspired revivals in colonial-style furniture as well as architecture. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Centennial Exhibition featured exhibits of American technological advances alongside vignettes from the Colonial era. “The New England farm-house,” for example, presented a picture of domestic industry, complete with tools for traditional arts like candle making and an “old flax wheel from Plymouth.” The state of New Jersey highlighted its revolutionary history by reconstructing the Ford Mansion, the Morristown headquarters of George Washington (1732-99). These exhibits encouraged Americans to grasp a shared past, but the past they presented did not reflect colonial America’s diversity; instead, Anglo-American contributions dominated the conversation.

Although the Centennial Exhibition ended after six months, interest in romanticized, Anglicized versions of early-American architecture, landscapes, and decorative arts continued and evolved through the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Philadelphia became a geographic touchstone in the Colonial Revival movement as collectors like Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) turned their attention toward American decorative arts and furniture. At the same time, writers like Harold Eberlein (1875-1965), Anne Hollingsworth Wharton (1845-1928), and Robert (1860-1923) and Elizabeth (1871-1936) Shackleton produced hundred of books on the decorative arts and architecture, feeding the national obsession with all things “colonial.”

Architectural Characteristics

As the Colonial Revival gained momentum, nineteenth- and twentieth-century architects studied the Delaware Valley’s early English, German, Dutch, and Swedish buildings, focusing on their common elements to create a distinct Colonial Revival architectural style. Those elements included double-hung windows with shutters; hipped, gable, or gambrel roofs; and local building materials, such as stone. These features dotted the landscape of the Philadelphia area through the work of architects like Richardson Brognard Okie (1875-1945). Born in Camden, New Jersey, Okie completed his studies in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania during the first wave of the Colonial Revival movement. His designs of private residences, such as the H.B. Du Pont house in-Wilmington, Delaware, featuring stone exteriors, prominent chimneys, wide floorboards, and hand-wrought nails—hallmarks of his Pennsylvania farmhouse style. Another Philadelphia architect, Charles Barton Keen (1868-1931), designed Colonial Revival houses for wealthy Philadelphians then extended his practice along the East Coast.

While some architects employed vernacular building techniques, others paid homage to high-style Georgian architecture, with its symmetrical brick facades, central cupolas, and entrances with pediments. Architects Frank Miles Day (1861-1918) and Charles Z. Klauder (1872-1938) opted for stately Georgian grandeur when they designed “The Green” for the University of Delaware in 1917, giving an architectural nod to Delaware’s status as the first state. Whether they were going for the quaint charm of vernacular architecture or the classical elegance of Georgian architecture, Colonial Revival architects featured common eighteenth-century characteristics to give an impression of the past, rather than reproduce it.

The National Preservation Movement and the Colonial Revival

[caption id="attachment_34546" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph showing a reconstruction of market street, Philadelphia, as it may have appeared during the American Revolution. Several two-story brick homes line an unpaved street. At the end of the street is a Greek Revival style building topped by a round dome. A marching band in Revolutionary War-style costumes marches down the street while men and women in colonial costumes stand in the doorways and on the sidewalks observing. The Sesquicentennial International Exposition of 1926 featured a romanticized reconstruction of High (Market) Street in Philadelphia during the American Revolution, as shown in this photograph taken during the Exposition. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

In the first decades of the twentieth century, architects who spearheaded the Colonial Revival style also participated in an emerging national preservation movement, working with new organizations like Colonial Williamsburg and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities to bring Colonial buildings back to their former glory. Philadelphia was also an epicenter of historic preservation projects: Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, led the restoration of Fairmount Park’s eighteenth-century mansions. The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America installed a Colonial Revival garden on the grounds of Stenton, the home of James Logan (1674-1751). For his part, Okie took on the restoration of the Betsy Ross House. The Women’s Committee of the Sesquicentennial International Exposition (1926) also selected Okie to head the reconstruction of Philadelphia’s Colonial High Street.

While these projects drew praise and adoration by many, they frustrated ethnic groups that had been steamrolled by the Anglocentric narrative of the preservation movement. Determined to showcase their contributions to American history, ethnic heritage groups organized their own celebrations and projects. In 1913, African Americans in Philadelphia and other cities across the country celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1926, Dr. Amandus Johnson (1877-1974) founded the American Swedish Historical Museum in South Philadelphia to honor the contributions of America’s early Swedes. Despite these and other efforts, nativist sentiments persisted in Philadelphia, and the historical narrative remained relatively unchanged.

[caption id="attachment_34540" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the American Swedish Historical museum, a large white building with a green cooper roof and cupola. The museum is surrounded by a black fence and stands in a grassy field surrounded by trees. Amandus Johnson founded the American Swedish Historical Museum in response to the Anglocentric narrative of history promoted by the Colonial Revival movement. The building’s design draws on elements of both a seventeenth-century manor home in Sweden and George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Historians also voiced concerns as some preservation projects favored aesthetics over historical accuracy. In the 1930s, Okie headed the reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor, the country estate of William Penn (1644-1718) in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania historian Albert Cook Myers (1874-1960) withdrew his support from the project when he determined it reflected Okie’s personal taste rather than the archaeological and historical evidence. Myers went so far as to call the project a “monstrosity of vicious error.” Despite criticism from Myers and others, the reconstructed estate opened to the public in 1939. While the reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor and other historic preservation projects inspired public interest in the Colonial era, they also blurred the lines between historical and stylized impressions of the past.

The New Deal and Public Architecture

[caption id="attachment_34545" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a large school building with greek-style columns at the front entrance and a tall white cupola on top. Some Colonial Revival architects chose a more formal, Georgian style. This 1939 photograph shows Wilmington, Delaware’s Pierre S. Du Pont High School, which features a stately cupola and an elegant brick exterior reminiscent of Independence Hall. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Colonial Revival movement maintained popularity in the 1930s as a new crisis, the Great Depression, gripped the nation. Colonial Revival architecture continued in the form of new public buildings through the New Deal initiatives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Programs including the Public Works Administration and Works Progress Administration funded the construction and improvement of libraries, post offices, and public schools, such as the Pierre S. Du Pont High School building (later the Pierre S. Du Pont Middle School) in Wilmington, Delaware, and Jenkintown Elementary School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Government funds also went toward the improvement of existing Colonial structures, including Independence Hall; the Trent House in Trenton, New Jersey; and the Vernon-Wister House in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Buildings with brick facades and central cupolas offered a familiar, comfortable aesthetic as an alternative to the sleek, modern Art Deco architecture of the 1920s. Once again, the Colonial Revival movement served as a distraction from the hardships of modern life and encouraged Euro-Americans to look to a romantic version of the past for hope.

Beyond World War II

[caption id="attachment_34553" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor. It is a three story red brick building with white dormers in the roof. Historic preservation movements led to the recreation of some long-demolished pieces of colonial architecture. This photograph shows a reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor, which once served as William Penn's home. Though historians criticized recreations for their inaccuracies, they remained popular with the public. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

After the Second World War, suburban neighborhoods inspired a new wave of Colonial Revival architecture—one that was more economical and accessible to the growing middle class. The two Levittown suburbs in Pennsylvania and New Jersey advertised the 1957 “Colonial” as one of six house models. The two-story home offered traditional appeal with room for modern amenities, including a garage. While mass-produced “neocolonial” homes lacked the decorative elements of earlier Colonial Revival homes, they provided buyers with a simplified version using cost-effective materials. Families could continue the theme into the interior living spaces with midcentury versions of Colonial Revival furniture and color palettes. Once again, ideas of peaceful, colonial domesticity hit a chord with post-war, white Americans. However, as before, the Colonial Revival served as a figurative as well as literal façade, this time masking anxiety over suburban housing integration. The same year the “Colonial” debuted, the first African American family moved into a Levittown, Pennsylvania, home. The severe harassment they faced showed their neighbors did not mean to extend “American dream” (and the dream home) to all Americans.
While modernism dominated aesthetics in the 1960s and 1970s, the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976 resurrected Colonial Revival style and placed Philadelphia in the spotlight once more. Interest in Colonial history ebbed and flowed through the rest of the twentieth century, but the Colonial Revival remained in the country’s national consciousness. It peaked during times of social unrest, national crises, and historical milestone anniversary celebrations—moments when white Americans looked for common virtues and ways to maintain familiar social orders. Once maligned for its historical inaccuracies, in the late twentieth century the Colonial Revival became a subject of study and interest among historians. As a physical representation of American virtues and a hub of Colonial history and lore, Philadelphia remained at the fore of the Colonial Revival movement.

Danielle Lehr Schagrin is the former Education Program Coordinator at Pennsbury Manor, the reconstruction of William Penn’s country estate. She completed an internship with the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute and holds an M.A. in History with a concentration in public history from Lehigh University.

Great Wagon Road

Following routes established by Native Americans, the Great Wagon Road enabled eighteenth-century travel from Philadelphia and its hinterlands westward to Lancaster and then south into the backcountry of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. In search of affordable farmland and economic opportunity, thousands of Scots Irish, Germans, and others left the Philadelphia region to establish farms, taverns, villages, and new lives along the rugged road that stretched across southeastern Pennsylvania and eventually continued more than four hundred miles through the Shenandoah Valley of the Appalachian Mountains and beyond. The new population of the backcountry sustained connections with Philadelphia through trade, often facilitated by merchants in market towns such as Lancaster and York in Pennsylvania, Hagerstown in Maryland, and Winchester in northern Virginia.

[caption id="attachment_34539" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the Hager House, a two-story stone residence with a large front porch. Jonathan Hager founded Hagerstown, Maryland, after purchasing 200 acres of land off the Great Wagon Road in 1739. An immigrant from Westphalia, Germany, via Philadelphia, Hager lived in this home for only a few short years before moving to the growing town center of Hagerstown. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The Great Wagon Road saw its most intensive activity in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, prior to the American Revolution. During this period, the increasing population of Pennsylvania made land more scarce and costly, not only for new arrivals but for settled farmers seeking to secure livelihoods for future generations. At the same time, governors in Maryland and Virginia were promoting backcountry settlement by Europeans as a means of securing their frontiers. A flow of settlers began by the 1720s, a decade of high immigration of Germans and Scots Irish into Pennsylvania, then increased dramatically after the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster settled Iroquois Nation claims in the Shenandoah Valley. A German migrant through Philadelphia, Jonathan Hager (1714-75), bought land in Maryland in 1739 and subsequently founded Hagerstown. The colonial governors of Maryland and Virginia sped settlement by awarding large land grants to individuals on the condition that they recruit specified numbers of migrants. For example, New Jersey speculator Benjamin Borden (1675-1743), born in Monmouth County, moved to the northern Shenandoah Valley by 1734 and received a grant of 100,000 acres on the James River for his pledge to recruit settlers from Ireland. Jost Hite (1685-1761), a German immigrant living on the Perkiomen Creek northwest of Philadelphia, received a grant of 140,000 acres and agreed to recruit 140 families. Their settlement in Virginia, together with Quakers who migrated to a similar grant made to Alexander Ross (1682-1748) from Chester County, led to the founding of the new town of Winchester.

Barely a Road

[caption id="attachment_34541" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of a conestoga wagon with wooden frame and wheels and a cloth cover. The wagon is on display inside of a museum setting. Heavy-duty Conestoga wagons, created to handle poor road conditions and mountain slopes, hauled freight along the Great Wagon Road. German immigrants designed the iconic wagon around 1750 in the Conestoga Creek area of Lancaster County. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

In its earliest days, the Great Wagon Road could hardly be termed a “road.” The Indian trails that it traced for much of its length originated as pathways for individuals walking in single file. The subsequent road developed from the traffic of more individuals, people on horseback, herds of cattle, carts pulled by animals, and eventually the heavy-duty Conestoga wagons that became the freight-haulers of the road. In places, the route consisted of not a single road but of variations created by travelers to avoid hazards or reach new destinations. The journey required fording or ferrying across rivers along the way. The Pennsylvania portion of the Great Wagon Road roughly followed the Great Minquas Trail used by Lenni Lenape, Susquehannocks (Minquas), and European traders. During the middle eighteenth century, travelers on this route between Philadelphia and Lancaster (founded in 1729) found a stump-punctuated dirt road despite its designation as a “King’s Road.” As the road turned south after Lancaster and York (founded 1741), it approximated the route known to Europeans as the Great Warriors’ Path, created and still valued by Native Americans for passage through the Shenandoah Valley west of the Blue Ridge. Past the Shenandoah Valley into western Virginia and the Carolinas, additional branches of the road often consisted of little more than tromped grass, mud, and the wagon ruts of previous travelers.

[caption id="attachment_34543" align="alignright" width="270"]a black and white photograph of a small stone church with arched windows. The roof is topped by a white steeple with a weather vane. There is a small graveyard next do it. The photograph is taken in winter and several leafless trees stand in the background. Moravians from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, traveled the Great Wagon Road south to North Carolina, where they founded the community of Wachovia in 1753. The Bethabara Gemeinhaus, a stone church completed in 1788, marks the site of the settlement’s earliest commercial center. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Despite its rugged conditions, “the Great Waggon Road to Philadelphia” appeared designated as such in 1753, on A Map of the Inhabited Part of Virginia containing the whole Province of Maryland, with Part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina. By that time, the road had enabled a multiethnic ribbon of back-country settlement reaching from Pennsylvania south to the Yadkin River of North Carolina. In addition to the dominant Germans and Scots Irish, the settlers of the backcountry included Quakers who clustered around Winchester, Virginia (which sheltered exiled Philadelphia Quakers during the American Revolution). German-speaking Moravians from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, founded the community of Wachovia in western North Carolina in 1753. By 1780, the southern backcountry had an estimated population of about 380,000, including the Pennsylvania migrants as well as English, French Huguenot, German, and Highland Scot settlers who moved inland from coastal Virginia and the Carolinas. The Great Wagon Road also enabled journeys through the region, for example by socially elite travelers seeking the resort springs of western Virginia.

Towns Spaced a Day’s Journey Apart

While most migrants came to establish farms in the broad valley between the backcountry’s mountain ranges, towns also developed at intervals along the Great Wagon Road in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Spaced approximately one day’s journey apart, often founded by former Pennsylvanians and at times with street grids and center squares reminiscent of Philadelphia, towns anchored the backcountry as a market area for Philadelphia trade. They usually developed where the Great Wagon Road intersected with east-west roads from coastal regions. The resulting network of roads made it possible for wheat farmers in the backcountry to take harvests east to market in Alexandria or Richmond, Virginia, but bring back the profits to spend on finished goods imported by local merchants from Philadelphia via the Great Wagon Road. Towns along the Wagon Road served as points of transfer for crops bound for market in Philadelphia, including wheat and flour further exported from Philadelphia to Europe. Peddlers plied their trade along the road, and drovers moved herds of cattle to Philadelphia butchers. Philadelphia merchants and banks extended credit to backcountry businesses and land investors.

[caption id="attachment_34551" align="alignright" width="193"]A black and white illustration of Daniel Boone wearing a coat with fur on the collar and lapels. He has an elaborate hunting knife tucked into his belt. Daniel Boone opened the Wilderness Road from North Carolina into what would become Kentucky and Tennessee, connecting the Great Wagon Road to the unsettled west. Born in Pennsylvania, Boone moved to North Carolina at age fifteen and gained fame as the trailblazer of the Cumberland Gap. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Great Wagon Road became a pathway of settlement deeper into the western frontier after 1769, when Pennsylvania-born Daniel Boone (1734-1820) opened the Wilderness Road from North Carolina west into the territory that became Tennessee and Kentucky. Born in the rural reaches of Philadelphia County that later became Berks County, Boone migrated to North Carolina with his Quaker family at the age of 15. He gained fame as the trailblazer of the pass through the Cumberland Gap, thereby connecting the Great Wagon Road to points west.

The Great Wagon Road declined in importance with the development of additional improved roads and then railroads in the early nineteenth century. With some variations in route, it became the Lancaster Turnpike (incorporated 1792) in Pennsylvania and the Valley Turnpike (incorporated 1834) in Virginia. In the twentieth century, U.S. 30 in Pennsylvania and U.S. 11 and Interstate 81 through the Shenandoah Valley approximated the route of the Great Wagon Road. Testaments to connections with the Philadelphia region persisted in the form of surviving eighteenth-century houses, roadside historical markers, Pennsylvania-style bank barns, and towns with Presbyterian and Lutheran churches founded by Scots Irish and German settlers. The old road remained a subject of interest for scholars and a source of heritage tourism, and knowledgeable locals could still point out ruts and trenches believed to be remnants of the original road that linked Philadelphia to the settlement of the backcountry South.

Charlene Mires is Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden and Editor-in-Chief of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Wilmington, Delaware

Located thirty miles southwest of Philadelphia, Wilmington is Delaware’s largest city and the New Castle County seat. It originated as a colonial trading area and ferry crossing and later became one of the country’s most vital industrial and chemical-producing centers. With the decline of manufacturing near the close of the twentieth century, the city emerged as America’s “corporate capital.” Despite the city’s industrial might and corporate wealth, its history also reflected the spatial, economic, and racial disparities seen in cities across Greater Philadelphia and the nation. Often overshadowed by the region’s larger cities, Wilmington remained modest in size yet ambitious in scope.

Prior to Swedish and Dutch colonization in the early 1600s, the area that became Wilmington contained a vast population of Lenni Lenape Indians scattered in villages along the Delaware River. Over time, the Indians and settlers engaged in trade, exchanging furs for European-made goods. New Castle, six miles to the south, initially served as the area’s primary trading center. But in 1638, Swedish colonists erected Fort Christina on a narrow stretch of land between the Brandywine and Christina Rivers, the latter of which fed into the larger Delaware. In 1669, Governor Francis Lovelace (1621-75) chartered the Christina’s first ferry service north of present-day Newport. Twenty years later, an additional crossing opened over the Brandywine, generating commerce on the peninsula between the rivers. In 1731, with the colony then under English rule, the humble settlement gained incorporation.

[caption id="attachment_34035" align="alignright" width="220"] Thomas Penn, shown here in a 1751 portrait, became the first proprietor of Wilmington in 1731. Penn, son of Pennsylvania founder William, named the borough in honor of Spencer Compton, the First Earl of Wilmington. (Digital Collections, New York Public Library)[/caption]

Thomas Penn (1702-75), son of Pennsylvania founder William Penn (1644-1718), served as the first proprietor of the Borough of Wilmington, which he named for Spencer Compton (1673-1743), the First Earl of Wilmington and close associate of King George II (1683-1760). With easy river access to the interior and the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington attracted craftsmen, merchants, millers, and artisans, who transformed the fledgling borough into a key producer of flour and grain; the city’s so-called “Brandywine Superfine” flour reached markets throughout the colonies and ports as far away as Europe and the West Indies. In 1771, after concluding a carpentry apprenticeship, Samuel Canby (1751-1832) established the borough’s first textile mill along the Brandywine near Orange Street. Later, his son James Canby (1781-1858) assumed control of the mills and eventually helped found the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad, serving as its first chief executive. Although Wilmington witnessed no significant combat during the American Revolution, the borough provided shelter for American troops during the 1777-78 British occupation of nearby Philadelphia. Regiments from Maryland and Delaware remained in Wilmington to protect patriot supply lines along the Elk and Delaware Rivers.

Brandywine Village

Industrialization expanded in the Wilmington area during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Brandywine Village, a flour milling center, opened in 1753. Founded by prominent Quakers William Shipley (1693-1768), his wife Elizabeth Levis-Shipley (1690-1777), and their partner Thomas Canby Jr. (1702-1764), the complex contained twelve mills and more than sixty homes. In 1783, engineer Oliver Evans (1755-1819) introduced his automatic flour mill to the complex, a system that later revolutionized the industry. Working from his Newport, Delaware, and Philadelphia shops, Evans also experimented with steam and refrigeration technologies. With industry came growth; by the early 1800s, Wilmington’s population reached five thousand residents and its papermaking, grain, and flour processing operations were complemented by new technologies and industries. In 1802, French chemist E.I. du Pont (1771-1834) established a gunpowder mill along the Brandywine upstream from the city. Over the next century, his namesake company remained headquartered in Wilmington and grew into the world’s largest explosives manufacturer. Other prominent local families during the period included the Talleys, active in the timber business; the Bringhursts, who prospered in shipping and banking; and the Bancrofts, whose patriarch Joseph Bancroft (1803-1874) opened a textile mill along the Brandywine in 1831.

[caption id="attachment_34034" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white illustration of the Lobdell Car Wheel Company's facories as they appeared in the late nineteenth century. The factories has numerous smoke stacks with billowing smoke arising from several connected buildings. Railway cars travel through covered sheds in the foreground. Vignettes above show earlier factories owned by the company. Wilmington’s Lobdell Car Wheel Company led the nation in train wheel production by the mid-nineteenth century. Established in 1830 as a general foundry, the factory on the Christina River, seen in this illustration, grew to employ thousands and boasted the capacity to cast hundreds of train wheels per day. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Delaware legislature rechartered the borough as the city of Wilmington in 1832, and with the completion of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad five years later, the city’s riverfront advantages merged with the Northeast’s burgeoning rail network. Shipbuilding, carriage making, and iron founding flourished during the 1840s, generating demand for raw materials and skilled workers. Yet railroad cars and their related components generated much of the city’s nineteenth-century economic activity. Prior to the Civil War, companies including Harlan and Hollingsworth, Pusey and Jones, and Jackson and Sharp opened factories along the Christina, placing Wilmington at the forefront of U.S railcar production. The Lobdell Car Wheel Company led the nation in train wheel production while Jackson and Sharp exported cars and later electric trolleys to Europe, Latin America, and Asia. As Wilmington’s industrial base increased, so too did its population of foreign workers, many of whom arrived from Ireland and Germany during the 1840s and 1850s.

The population of New Castle County had included numerous enslaved Africans, primarily in its rural southern areas, since the 1700s, but by the early 1800s members of Wilmington’s free black community achieved considerable home and property ownership and established a number of schools and churches. In 1827, the Wilmington Union Colonization Society petitioned the state assembly for a resolution to manumit slaves, provided they return to Africa, a measure deeply at odds with the city’s free blacks, who argued colonization ran counter to the nation’s founding principles. Wilmington also harbored considerable abolitionist sentiment and with its location less than ten miles from the Pennsylvania border served as the northeastern terminus for the Underground Railroad. Hardware purveyor Thomas Garrett (1789-1871) assisted Harriet Tubman (?-1913) on eight of her missions. Garrett’s covert activities eventually landed him in federal court, where in 1848, he was fined $5,400 for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. Other notable Wilmington abolitionists included shoemaker Abraham Doras Shadd (1801-82) and his daughter Mary Ann Shadd (1823-93), who used their homes to aid escaped slaves, as well as Samuel Burris (1808-68), who coordinated escape routes north into Philadelphia and out of Kent and Sussex Counties to the south. Although a slave state in 1860, with its citizens polarized by Northern and Southern sympathies, Delaware remained in the Union following the outbreak of the Civil War. During the conflict, Wilmington’s industries provided the Union Army with much-needed clothing, blankets, riverboats, rail cars, and artillery.

A Key Industrial Contributor

[caption id="attachment_34036" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the wilmington train station showing a three story clock tower, covered railway on the second story, and entrances on the ground floor. The Pennsylvania Railroad selected Wilmington as the site of a regional headquarters due to its location between Philadelphia and Washington, DC. In 1908, the company commissioned architect Frank Furness to design a new station on French Street, shown in this photograph from the 1970s. It still served as the city’s commuter rail station in 2019. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Despite competition from larger cities in the Northeast and Midwest, Wilmington’s productive capacity and population rose after 1865, making the city a key element in greater Philadelphia’s industrial network. Its yards and factories churned out carriages and rail cars, and by 1870, produced more iron ships than the rest of the nation’s facilities combined, earning the city the nickname “the American Clyde.” With such activity, the city’s population, which stood at 21,258 people at the onset of the Civil War, grew steadily, reaching nearly 77,000 by 1900. Newly arrived immigrants from Italy, Hungary, and Poland settled in neighborhoods on the edges of downtown or in low-lying, flood-prone areas along the Christina. Most lived in two- or three-story brick row houses, similar to those in Philadelphia and Camden, and found work in textiles or constructing the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad. However, fierce competition for jobs prompted the Wilmington City Council in the 1880s to temporarily prohibit Italian or Hungarian immigrants from employment on public works projects.

In the late nineteenth century, Wilmington confronted side effects from decades of industrial activity. The Brandywine River, the city’s main source of municipal water, became heavily polluted. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever occurred regularly in the 1870s and 1880s, prompting city officials to build reservoirs, a modern sewer system in 1890, and in 1909, Wilmington’s first water purification plant. In recognizing the ills of the industrial city, Wilmington’s elite removed to the suburbs, constructing mansions in areas such as Kentmere, Westover Hills, and Montchanin. Yet many prominent citizens such as U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Bayard (1828-98), William Poole Bancroft (1835-1928), Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954), businessman John Jacob Raskob (1879-1950), and U.S. Sen. T. Coleman du Pont (1863-1930) donated influence, land, funding, or ingenuity to beautify Wilmington’s public spaces and improve its infrastructure. Bancroft, known as the godfather of Wilmington’s park system, at Bayard’s urging in 1889 bequeathed to the city acreage for both Rockford Park and Brandywine River Park; the former’s observation tower, built in 1901, became one of Wilmington’s most beloved landmarks. Pierre S. du Pont personally financed road improvements of Kennett Pike (State Route 52), and enlisted Raskob to redesign Rodney Square, the city’s main public square. In 1905, the Pennsylvania Railroad elevated its street-level tracks through Wilmington and retained architect Frank Furness (1839-1912) to design a new station.

[caption id="attachment_34027" align="alignright" width="300"]a color photograph of the dupont building in Wilmington with a crowd of people standing in front. A banner in the foreground reads "St. Patricks Day" The Dupont Building, completed in 1923, occupies an entire block of downtown Wilmington. The multi-use tower houses the offices of Chemours Company—a DuPont derivative company— as well as the Hotel DuPont and the Playhouse on Rodney Square. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The Du Pont family also left an indelible architectural legacy in the city, opening the twelve-story Du Pont Building on Rodney Square in 1906 and the luxurious Hotel Du Pont in 1913. The hotel and its restaurant, the Green Room, remain two of Wilmington’s finest establishments. In 1924 the Du Pont Highway (US 13), personally financed by Pierre Du Pont, opened to vehicular traffic, allowing easier travel between the city and Delaware’s southern counties. Following the death of Wilmington-based artist Howard Pyle (1853-1911), friends, patrons, and former students honored his legacy by establishing the Wilmington Society for Fine Arts. The society later received the art collection of William’s brother Samuel Bancroft Jr. (1840-1915), who also donated eleven acres in Kentmere for the site of the Delaware Art Museum, which opened to the public in 1938. Decades later, artist Helen Farr Sloan (1911-2005) donated to the museum hundreds of paintings and prints executed by her husband John French Sloan (1871-1951), a member of the Philadelphia-founded Ashcan School; over time, her contributions amounted to the largest collection of his works held by a museum.

A Boost From World War I

In the 1910s, Pierre S. du Pont foresaw conflict in Europe, and in 1915 his company began supplying the Allies with armaments. By World War I’s conclusion, Du Pont had provided 40 percent of Allied explosives and seen its labor force increase dramatically, from 5,300 in 1914 to 48,000 four years later. The company’s regional footprint grew as well, as its facility in Carney’s Point, New Jersey, expanded and handled the bulk of wartime production. Hundreds of soldiers from Wilmington fought in the Battle of Argonne while thousands more at home participated in roadbuilding and maintenance work. The city’s shipyards supplied hundreds of submarine-chaser yachts and patrol craft. After the war, Du Pont reduced its munitions production and, aided by confiscated German research and patents, greatly expanded its production of chemicals, dyes, and cinematic film. Over time, this growth led Wilmingtonians to call Du Pont simply “the company.” Aiding the city’s postwar boom, in 1920 the Lobdell Car Wheel Company sold 101 acres of land to the city for the construction of modern port facilities. Two years later, the Port of Wilmington opened for commerce, exporting lumber, cork, burlap, lead, iron ore, fertilizer, and petroleum. As the 1920s drew to a close, Wilmington’s 110,000 residents enjoyed the prosperity seen elsewhere around the country, evident in its movie theaters, clothing stores, hotels and restaurants, sporting venues, and growing use of automobiles.

[caption id="attachment_34033" align="alignright" width="246"]A black and white photograph of Rockford tower, a tall cylindrical stone tower with a pyramidal roof. The upper floors are lined with arched windows. There is a sundial embedded in the stone below the windows. The tower stands in a park surrounded on two sides by trees, with a walking path leading towards it. Quaker industrialist William Bancroft, concerned with the disappearing green space in the city, bequeathed a large plot of land to the city which became Rockford Park. The park’s stone tower, shown in this photograph, became one of the city’s most beloved landmarks after its completion in 1901. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

During the Great Depression, Wilmington benefited from several New Deal projects overseen by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civil Works Administration (CWA). These included new public schools; road, sidewalk, and bridge improvements; upgraded dikes along the Christina River; and new buildings for the Wilmington Waterworks and the United States Postal Service. Located on Rodney Square, the Classical Revival-style post office opened in 1937 and contained murals designed by Albert Pels (1910-98) and Herman Zimmerman. As the nation plunged into World War II, Wilmington’s citizens and industries rushed to meet Allied demands. Thousands enlisted for military service. The New Castle County Airport shifted solely to military use. Iron founding, textile, and shipbuilding activity all increased dramatically as did the chemical and munitions output of the Du Pont, Hercules, and Atlas companies. Additionally, Du Pont engineers, working in Wilmington; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington, played key roles in the Manhattan Project, the secret program to develop the atomic bomb.

Wilmington prospered after World War II. Du Pont increased its workforce by ten thousand in the early 1950s and over the next three decades pioneered advances in plastics, nylon, rayon, Kevlar, Tyvek, and several other chemicals and products that helped fuel the nation’s postwar consumption; the company even advertised its famous “nylon suites” at the Hotel du Pont. With thousands of new jobs in the area, housing developments appeared in suburbs such as Sherwood Park, Pike Creek, Duncan Woods, Talleyville, and Forest Hills Park. While railcar production declined sharply, automobile production emerged as the state’s largest industry, second only to Du Pont. Shifting to peacetime operations, General Motors opened its Wilmington plant in 1947 on Boxwood Road while Chrysler opened a plant in Newark in 1952. In 1957, construction commenced on Interstate 95, which passed directly through downtown Wilmington between Jackson and Adams Streets. The highway, which many neighborhood residents opposed, was completed in 1968 and over time, ferried commuters away from downtown businesses. To relieve traffic congestion, the Interstate 495 bypass, along the city’s eastern edge, opened in 1977. With suburbanization came new recreational opportunities such as the Concord Mall (1965), the Delcastle Sports Complex (1970), and the Christiana Mall (1978).

Rioting of 1968

Despite Wilmington’s prosperity, race relations remained fraught in the postwar decades. While local institutions such as Salesianum High School, the YMCA, and the Hotel Du Pont began integrating in the early 1950s, the fight to desegregate the city’s public schools did not end until the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Wilmington’s schools complied with the decision later that year. In July 1967, civil disturbances in the city’s black neighborhoods prompted Mayor John E. Babiarz (1915-2004) to establish an evening curfew and temporary bans on liquor sales. Following the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68), three thousand National Guard troops arrived to quell ten days of widespread rioting and looting of downtown stores. Though Babiarz requested the troops be withdrawn after twenty-four days, Governor Charles L. Terry, Jr. (1900-70), a southern-style Democrat who won office on a platform of law and order, refused on the grounds of maintaining security and protecting property. The troops remained for nine months, leading to Terry’s reelection loss in November and marking the longest military occupation of an American city since the Civil War.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of Wilmington’s industrial interests contracted or relocated out of state. Its population dwindled. But the city entered a new phase. Du Pont, Hercules, and BASF continued to grow. Hercules, which spun off from Du Pont decades earlier, completed a 680,000-square-foot headquarters at the edge of the Midtown-Brandywine neighborhood—the state’s largest office building erected during the 1980s. Although Du Pont continued as the city’s largest employer, in September 2017 the storied company completed a $130 billion merger with Dow Chemical; by mid-2019, the newly formed conglomerate planned to break into three independent, publicly traded units. Beyond chemicals, Wilmington continued to diversify. In 1981, with the passage of the Financial Center Development Act, the state’s banking and tax laws were liberalized to attract outside investment. Banking giants such as Chase Manhattan, Bank of America, ING, MBNA, and Barclays opened offices as did pharmaceutical and telecommunications companies. By the 1990s, the city gained a somewhat dubious reputation as a base for “shell companies” suspected of avoiding government regulations and laundering foreign sources of income. These developments earned Wilmington yet another nickname, “corporate capital.”

Even with the influx of corporate investment, Wilmington faced other challenges in the 1990s and early 2000s, such as the environmental cleanup of dozens of industrial sites, the disappearance of automobile manufacturing, and persistent inequality between the city and its suburbs. Decades of manufacturing led to a high concentration of Superfund and brownfield locations, with New Castle County alone containing more than several U.S. states. Many of the most contaminated, such as the Tybout’s Corner landfill, saw remediation completed by the early 2000s. One of the most successful brownfield projects, Justison Landing, was completed in 2005; once home to tanneries and shipyards, the thirty-three-acre site transformed into apartments, offices, restaurants, and a stadium for the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a minor league baseball affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. In 2009, the last active car factory in the eastern U.S, Wilmington’s Boxwood Road GM plant, closed. As of 2019, with the plant demolished, plans included a new e-commerce facility on the site.

Demographic Shifts

Demographics in Wilmington shifted after 1990. The proportion of white residents fell from 40 to 28 percent by 2010, a period of steady gains in the African American population (which reached 58 percent) and Latino residents (12 percent). After the 2010 census, projections estimated Wilmington’s population growing by 0.4 per cent, far below the gains of Philadelphia. Although surrounded by affluent areas on its northern and western edges, in 2018 Wilmington had one of the nation’s highest murder rates and nearly half of its residents under age eighteen lived below the federal poverty line.

Throughout its nearly 350-year existence, Wilmington has mirrored the aspirations, tensions, and historical changes of the United States as a whole. Although never achieving the prominence of nearby Philadelphia or Baltimore to its south, the city at times exerted enormous influence for one of its comparatively smaller size. And despite the many challenges that Wilmington faced in the early twenty-first century, it still strived to be, as welcome signs at the city limits proclaimed, “a place to be somebody.”

Stephen Nepa teaches history at Temple University, Pennsylvania State University-Abington, Rowan University, and Moore College of Art and Design. He is a contributing author to numerous books and journals, and regularly appears in the Emmy Award-winning documentary series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. He received his B.A and M.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and his Ph.D. from Temple. A native of Wilmington, he lives in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Contributionship

As North America’s longest continuously operating fire insurance company, The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire (The Contributionship) affected the physical and economic development of Philadelphia and the region while simultaneously establishing modern insurance underwriting standards. Through its insurance operations, The Contributionship promoted fire safety, lent money for home mortgages, and invested capital in business ventures.

[caption id="attachment_34128" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and whit photograph of a scroll of paper held on two wooden reels with cranks. The scroll has a list of signatures on it. The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss of Fire drafted by-laws based on those of the Amicable Contributors—a London-based insurance company—in 1752. Called the Deed of Settlement, the original document, shown in this 1926 photo, established a broad plan for operations. (Archive.org)[/caption]

Before The Contributionship, attempts to establish a property insurer either failed or stalled. The first effort to form an insurance company collapsed after a calamitous fire in Charleston in 1740 overwhelmed South Carolina’s Friendly Society for the Mutual Insuring of Houses against Fire only five years after its inception. A decade after this catastrophe, the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) in 1736 as an all-volunteer fire brigade, contemplated the next attempt at insurance coverage. The fire brigade’s members realized, however, that its small membership could not accumulate sufficient capital to fund the plan properly.

Despite abandoning its initial insurance plan in 1751, the Union Fire Company’s experiment introduced the idea of fire insurance to a wider network of prominent Philadelphians. During the early months of 1752, seventy-five of Philadelphia’s leading citizens subscribed to The Contributionship’s Deed of Settlement, or rules of operation, based on a similar framework for a London insurer, the Amicable Contributors. Following an advertisement in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, subscribers met at the Court House, then located at High (Market) and Second Streets, on April 13, 1752, to elect The Contributionship’s board of directors and first treasurer. Following this mutual commitment, The Contributionship formally incorporated in 1769 under existing Pennsylvania law.

Influence on Construction and Landscaping

The Contributionship intended to reduce fire hazards through its conservative rules of operation and, consequently, influenced Philadelphia’s future construction and landscaping. The company limited its business range to within a ten-mile radius of Philadelphia, but only upon an acceptable written survey of the risk. Additionally, The Contributionship charged higher premiums for homes with commercial storefronts, such as chemists and malthouses. After 1769, the company’s refusal to insure wooden properties affected building practices by encouraging brick structures. By 1781, The Contributionship ceased insuring properties with shade trees due to their potential as fuel for fire and the inability of fire equipment to reach higher than one story. This decision fanned a disagreement between the company and subscribers who wished to keep trees on their properties. Faced with the denial of insurance coverage, those subscribers organized a rival insurance company willing to accept their trees and named it the Mutual Assurance Company, commonly referred to as the Green Tree, in 1784.

As The Contributionship accumulated deposits from its subscribers for insurance coverage, the company considered how to employ these funds without risking the capital necessary for a fire loss. Within a year of commencing business, the company’s board of directors began lending its subscribers’ deposits for mortgages at a 6 percent rate and received permission in 1809 from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to invest in stock companies, such as the Bank of North America. By the early nineteenth century, The Contributionship’s assets grew modestly thanks to its conservative underwriting philosophy and the city’s enhanced ability to fight fires with a more reliable water supply and better equipment. With significantly increased assets by 1835, The Contributionship expanded its investments to include ventures such as the Schuylkill Navigation Company  and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Beyond financial investments, The Contributionship played an active civic role in the Philadelphia region. As early as 1754, it erected stone mile markers from Philadelphia to New Castle, Delaware, and to New York for use by travelers and surveyors. Naturally, The Contributionship also sought to reduce fire hazards by donating funds for chimney sweeping and new fire equipment for fire brigades in Philadelphia.

In 1836, Finally, a Headquarters

[caption id="attachment_33790" align="alignright" width="211"]a black and white photograph of a three story brick building with a columned portico over the entrance. The Contributionship commissioned renowned architect Thomas Ustick Walter to design this Greek Revival building for its headquarters, completed in 1836. The neighborhood around it soon housed several similar organizations and became known as “Insurance Row.” (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Due to its fitful growth and a limited number of full-time employees, The Contributionship did not need rented office space initially, operating instead primarily from the homes of its treasurers until the early 1800s. With growing assets, the company considered purchasing a building for its headquarters as early as 1816. Yet, The Contributionship moved slowly with this effort until 1835, when new leadership sought to modernize the company’s operations, including the establishment of a suitable headquarters. The company’s directors commissioned the esteemed Architect of the United States Capitol, Thomas U. Walter (1804-87), to design a permanent home worthy of the company’s ascendant status. Construction of Walter’s Greek Revival style building at 212 S. Fourth Street finished in 1836. The Contributionship strategically selected this property because of its proximity to businesses helpful to the conduct of insurance, such as banks and brokerage houses. Other insurance companies, including the Green Tree, noted the convenience of this area and also located around Walnut Street between Second and Sixth Streets, which eventually became known as “Insurance Row.” Named a National Historic Landmark in 1979, The Contributionship’s headquarters afforded its treasurers and their families living quarters until 1894.

From its new headquarters, The Contributionship flourished throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. Although the company rescinded its ten-mile geographic range in 1836, the company operated solely in Pennsylvania. Despite large claims from fires in 1839 and 1850, the company was able to maintain steady coverage to its members thanks to its conservative underwriting practices. During the Civil War, The Contributionship wholeheartedly sided with the Union’s cause and, again, demonstrated its commitment to civic engagement by purchasing war loans from the Federal Government and the State of Pennsylvania and donating to the Volunteer Refreshment Saloon to boost the troops’ morale. Recognizing the danger of inadequate deposits, The Contributionship continued to resist paying dividends until 1894 when it bowed to pressure from protesting subscribers and paid dividends for the first time since 1763.

Catastrophic fires in the cities of Baltimore and San Francisco in 1904 and 1906, respectively, convinced The Contributionship’s leadership to reduce the number of insured buildings in concentrated neighborhoods and to build its financial reserves through an increase in rates. Despite the rate hike, the fear of such fires encouraged more Philadelphians to seek coverage and The Contributionship’s business increased notably. Although refusing to write car insurance, the company recognized the popularity of automobiles, and, in 1909, agreed to extend fire coverage to the growing number of garages housing them. The company remained solvent through the stock crash of 1929 despite the need to foreclose on some of its real estate holdings. In the late 1940s, the company began covering hazards beyond fire for the first time, and in the 1970s and 1980s the company expanded into all lines of insurance. It also invested in non-insurance services, such as residential security, affiliated with its core home-protection business. The Contributionship expanded into the New Jersey market by the late 1990s, spreading 50 percent of the company’s risk profile into that market by 2002.

Fire Marks, a Sign of Protection

[caption id="attachment_34127" align="alignright" width="250"]a color photograph of the Contributionship's fire mark, wooden shield with a bronze From its founding through the late nineteenth century, The Contributionship affixed these plaques to the exteriors of buildings they insured. The Contributionship’s emblem of four clasped hands, shown in this photograph, represented mutual support. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

An enduring symbol of The Contributionship has been its fire mark, which the company issued to all policyholders starting in 1752. The practice of affixing a fire mark to a home’s façade to identify what fire company or insurer protected the home originated in London in the seventeenth century and continued in the American colonies. The Contributionship’s fire mark, commonly called the Hand-in-Hand, consisted of four gilded hands, each clasping a wrist of another hand to create a square of hands, on a black shield. The symbolism of the clasped hands, also known as the fireman’s carry, represented mutual support and linked The Contributionship to its origins with the Union Fire Company and the Amicable Contributors. The Contributionship ceased issuing fire marks with the advent of Philadelphia’s municipal fire department in 1871, which answered fire calls regardless of the home’s owner or insurer. Nevertheless, The Contributionship’s fire marks, and those of other insurance companies, remained visible on homes in Philadelphia and assumed a decorative role.

Over more than 250 years of continuous operation, The Contributionship modernized and adapted to respond to its subscribers’ demands as well as changes in the marketplace. Risk-related premiums and well-timed rate adjustments, both up and down, maintained the company’s solvency against competition and through wars and economic downturns, assuring its place in Philadelphia’s history.

Timothy J. Potero is a practicing attorney and M.A. candidate in Rutgers-Camden’s public history program.

Danielle Lehr Schagrin

Danielle Lehr Schagrin is the former Education Program Coordinator at Pennsbury Manor, the reconstruction of William Penn’s country estate. She completed an internship with the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute and holds an M.A. in History with a concentration in public history from Lehigh University.

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum)

The Penn Museum—officially the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—originated in 1887 through the combined efforts of university scholars, administrators, and Philadelphia philanthropists. Created as part of a broader movement to expand, modernize, and professionalize the university, throughout its history the museum also performed a public role of bringing ancient and far away cultures to Philadelphia for both academic research and spectacular display. Although always an independent entity, the museum also served the mission of the affiliated university through its roles in scholarly innovation, collegiate education, and outreach to the public. In the twenty-first century, as museums and the disciplines of archaeology and anthropology became more critical about the ways they represented nonwhite and non-Western cultures, the Penn Museum reconsidered the form and content of its dual academic and public roles.

[caption id="attachment_33773" align="alignright" width="232"]A black and white portrait of William Platt Pepper University of Pennsylvania Provost William Platt Pepper, shown in this 1902 portrait, funded an expedition to the ancient city of Nippur conducted between 1889 and 1900. The artifacts recovered on this journey were displayed in the university library and formed the basis of the Penn Museum. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The idea for the museum originated in 1887, when John Punnett Peters (1852-1921), a professor of Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, persuaded University Provost William Pepper (1843-98) to fund an expedition to the Sumerian city of Nippur in modern-day Iraq. In agreeing to do so, Pepper stipulated that anything Peters collected would be held at the university in a new museum. The museum, the expedition, and the scholarship that resulted combined anthropology—the study of man, his origins, and the evolution of human culture—with archaeology, a field rooted in the search for evidence to verify Greek mythology, the Bible, and other founding myths of Western, Christian civilization.

The museum created to house the fruits of the Sumerian expedition and other collections had its first home in the Furness Library on the university’s new West Philadelphia campus from 1890 until 1899. It then moved to its permanent home in a stylishly eclectic building designed by a team led by Wilson Eyre (1858-1944). Although the university held the collections and faculty members often led expeditions, funding for the museum and its collecting efforts came primarily from independent groups like the Babylonian Exploration Fund, the Egypt Exploration Society, and the University Archaeological Association. These organizations were usually headed by prominent, wealthy Philadelphia philanthropists who continued to be a key source of income throughout the museum’s history.

Museum’s Dual Purposes

The institution’s original name, the Free Museum of Art and Science, reflected its interdisciplinarity and dual purposes. For researchers, the museum housed and displayed artifacts of human culture as scientific resources. At the time, anthropology and archaeology were not the interpretive, liberal arts fields that they later became, but were disciplines dedicated to systematic classification and scientific observation. However, while scholars and researchers used the collections for science, public displays also enriched the museum experience for visitors and allowed those who felt welcome to demonstrate their elite aesthetic taste. As was typical of endeavors in anthropology and archaeology, the museum sought to demonstrate both similarities and differences among diverse communities. Many cultures were collected under one roof, but their arrangement reinforced ideological hierarchies by presenting an inevitable march of human progress and creating contrasts between supposedly primitive crafts and civilized tastes. In Philadelphia, this was reflected in curatorial and architectural choices that saw ethnological artifacts collected from indigenous people arranged on the lowest floor and archaeological collections of Greek, Roman, and Babylonian civilizations on the floors above. It tied a literal, physical march from bottom to top to an intellectual and ideological one.

In 1913, the museum officially changed its name to the University Museum, a step in a gradual evolution of the institution’s relationship to the University of Pennsylvania and a sign of the shifting composition of the Board of Managers. The university always housed the collections, making them available to staff and students for teaching and research, but the museum operated independently. Curators and leaders of expeditions sometimes, but not always, had appointments as faculty members, and likewise the Department of Anthropology sometimes, but not always, operated out of the museum. Although officially separate, administrative control over museum matters like hiring and firing shifted to the university in the early twentieth century—coinciding with the name change. Financial contributions from the university began in the 1930s, and by the 1980s Penn exclusively appointed the museum’s Board of Overseers. While administrative and financial control shifted, the hybrid public-academic nature of the museum remained constant throughout its history..

[caption id="attachment_33772" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the main entrance of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The photograph is taken through the iron gates and shows a formal garden with hedge rows and a reflecting pond with a stone bench in the foreground. Cherry trees in bloom flanking the front door. The rapidly expanding museum collections necessitated the construction of a dedicated display space in the late 1890s. The new building, designed by a team led by architect Wilson Eyre, opened in 1899 and boasted gardens, artifact laboratories, and lecture spaces in addition to galleries. (Photograph by E. Mencher for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

In the first half of the twentieth century, as the museum and the fields of anthropology, ethnology, and archaeology grew, so did the museum. Ethnographic expeditions, excavations of ancient artifacts, and acquisitions through purchase grew the collections and programs of research and display. While the research had academic value, these exotic objects also came from areas of the world that were colonized by Western empires—and thus were embedded in problematic politics recognized only later by most American curators and scholars. Those politics periodically came to the fore, especially during the breakup of empires in the mid-twentieth century. In Latin America, where the museum conducted work throughout the twentieth century, local interest in heritage, tourist dollars, and the struggle for post-colonial power drove governments to control archaeological research more tightly over time. This impacted the intellectual trajectories of anthropology and archaeology, and it led expeditions like those of the University Museum to become somewhat more collaborative.

The Louis Shotridge Era

In the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most important curators at the museum—although never a professor at the university—was Louis Shotridge (1882-1935), a Tlingit Indian from the Pacific Northwest. Conducting salvage ethnographies, Shotridge collected and documented languages and traditions at risk of being destroyed by settler colonialism and government policies that criminalized indigenous culture and decimated native populations. On the one hand, Shotridge assured that some part of indigenous culture—in some cases his own culture—would survive. On the other hand, he knew the institution where he worked took sacred objects and sterilized them, that it interpreted indigenous people as primitive savages, and that it expected nonwhite scholars like himself to assimilate themselves and their scholarship into the authoritative voice of academic institutions.

After World War II, old tensions between white, Western scholars and post-colonial or third-world nations arose, but they were sometimes addressed in new ways. Research continued to be largely generated and validated by elite European and American institutions with systems of knowledge and hierarchical classification that changed little from the nineteenth century, but museums also became more dedicated to leaving artifacts in their places of origin so they might be interpreted and appreciated by the communities from which they came as well as being used in scholarship.

[caption id="attachment_33777" align="alignright" width="190"]A black and white photograph of Froelich G. Rainey standing in front of a colossal ancient bust of Ramses the second of Egypt. The statue wears a crown adorned with a rearing cobra. Anthropologist Froelich Gladstone Rainey served as director of the Penn Museum from 1947 to 1976. During his tenure the museum enacted the Pennsylvania Declaration, which condemned the purchase of artifacts without a pedigree and called for the return of looted items. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

At the same time, the black market for antiquities, fostered by the poverty of so-called third world nations and by the exploding value of artifacts in commercial markets, also challenged museums in the post-World War II era. In 1970, the University Museum under director Froelich Rainey (1907-92) influenced acquisitions policies throughout the museum field by issuing the Pennsylvania Declaration, which pledged to end the purchase of artifacts without “a pedigree—that is information about the different owners of the objects, place of origin, legality of export, and other data useful in each individual case." The statement called attention to the complex question of ownership: Was the object obtained “legally” or was there proof that it had been looted? Ultimately, in addition to restricting new acquisitions, the museum returned objects to countries including Italy, Turkey, and Peru. In 2008, the museum created the Penn Cultural Heritage Center to address related issues.

Repatriating Collected Objects

The U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) enacted in 1990 provided the most effective and widely enforced mechanism to address the concerns of indigenous people in the United States with regard to cultural heritage. For the University Museum, between 1990 and 2016, this federal law led to twenty-five tribes successfully filing claims to have human remains and other religious objects returned to them from the museum’s collections.

The University Museum—which by 1996 was rebranded as the Penn Museum to make its institutional affiliation clearer—also confronted the complex issues of who should tell the stories of objects on display. Historically, Western museums presented narratives of hierarchical evolution and inevitable progress that either demonstrated continuities between ancient and modern societies or juxtaposed “primitive” and “civilized” cultures in ways that justified colonialism and racism. By the twenty-first century, however, museums like Penn’s sought to generate more understanding and appreciation of diversity and inclusion even though white, Western academic standards of science and objectivity tended to remain the arbiters of knowledge and worth.

[caption id="attachment_33780" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a man holding a mask, which a young boy is painting. Another young boy stands nearby and watches. As attitudes towards other cultures shifted, the museum moved to incorporate Native American voices into its educational program. This 1972 photograph shows Jimmy Johnny, a representative from the Salish Tribe of British Columbia, teaching two boys how to paint a traditional Salish mask. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In 2014, a reimagining of the Penn Museum’s North American gallery caught up with trends toward sharing authority for exhibit development with indigenous people. “Native American Voices” challenged old, racist narratives by representing native people as alive and thriving while also acknowledging how American and European colonialism decimated these communities and their cultures. For this exhibit, museum curators consulted with indigenous leaders, which resulted in a richer, more multivocal, and inclusive exhibit. Nevertheless, the museum clearly retained authority.

Other exhibit strategies focused on bringing more diverse voices and more relevant themes into the museum’s interpretation of its archaeological collections. Reinstalled Middle East galleries opened in 2018 with a focus on urbanization, and plans called for future renovations, restorations, and reinstallations of the Africa and Mesoamerica galleries, the Harrison Auditorium, and the Egyptian wing. A Global Guides program, initiated in 2018, incorporated the varied perspectives of contemporary Philadelphians who were immigrants and refugees from the areas of ancient cities excavated by the museum. Plans for renovation of the museum’s 1899 building, scheduled to continue through 2021, sought to create an increasingly visitor-centered institution with improvements including climate control, better way-finding, and more elevators.

In the twenty-first century, the Penn Museum faced the challenge of how to use old collections, many of which were collected in exploitative, colonial contexts, to tell new stories that incorporated communities and perspectives that the museum historically marginalized. Although hindered by its own history and the colonial history of its disciplines, new strategies were making this museum more engaged, and visitorship, especially for special events that showcased diverse cultural traditions, reflected that. William Pepper’s idea to create a museum that served both the university and the people of Philadelphia was being realized in new ways for a new era. Indeed, the institution whose mission was to explore “the human story: who we are and where we come from” was gradually and powerfully beginning to reassess who we are, who gets to speak for us, and where we get to do so.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer, lecturer, and historian in Philadelphia. She received her Ph.D. in Media and Cultural Studies from Northwestern University and now works at the Wagner Free Institute of Science and elsewhere.

Camden County, New Jersey

Formed in 1844 from parts of what had been Gloucester County since 1686, Camden County maintained throughout its history a prominent role in the greater Philadelphia region, sustaining its close association with the city of Philadelphia and serving a central role in the social and economic life of South Jersey. Always a diversified area, the county’s more rural areas to the east of Philadelphia suburbanized in the mid-twentieth century even as the county seat and historic county keystone, Camden City, fell in influence and power. By the early twenty-first century, despite considerable effort to reverse the trend, the county reflected every element of the modern balkanized metropolitan area: an impoverished urban core, fraying older suburban areas fringing Camden, and more-affluent outer suburbs.

Early settlement in the area that became Camden County stemmed from European competition to exploit the material resources of the region then designated as West Jersey. Although Swedes and the Dutch settled there first, the desire to be competitive spurred West Jersey’s British trustees, including William Penn (1644-1718), to sign a Concessions and Agreements document in 1677 granting assurances of religious freedom, equitable taxation, and representative government. Aimed at Quakers seeking refuge from persecution, the document induced the settlement of a contingent of migrants from Ireland, in an area known as the Irish Tenth, whose boundaries were contiguous with modern Camden County. Initially coexisting peacefully with native inhabitants, the Lenni Lenape, the European settlers over time displaced native inhabitants as trade and settlement grew in close association with the city of Philadelphia after its establishment in 1682.

[caption id="attachment_33786" align="alignright" width="250"]a colored map of Camden County in 1857 with major rail lines, turnpikes, cities, and townships marked. Camden County separated from Gloucester County in 1844 as the result of a contentious vote. The population of the county grew rapidly in this period and new municipalities formed as communities grew around desirable features like rivers (for milling) or railway stations. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

A ferry operating as early as 1688 provided the earliest means of communication and transportation between the two colonies on the Delaware River. Operated in its early years by members of the Cooper family, the area of modest settlement on the New Jersey side was known for nearly a century as Cooper’s Ferry. Under Jacob Cooper’s direction, an area of some one hundred acres built up with the intent of making the area Philadelphia’s most prominent suburb. Cooper named his project Camden Town, after Charles Pratt, First Earl of Camden, a British judge known for his defense of the American cause. The effort faltered but did not collapse during the American Revolution, when British troops occupying Philadelphia foraged the area for food and supplies.

Settlement took a big step forward when ambitious entrepreneurs based in Gloucester City laid out city streets in 1820, leading to the incorporation of Camden City in 1828. Early manufacturing plants along the Delaware River boosted the city’s standing and put it in competition with the Gloucester County seat at Woodbury for influence in the region. After rural interests succeeded in carving a new Atlantic County out of the eastern portions of Gloucester County in 1837, Camden enthusiasts pressed their own case for a new county. Divisions hardened, however, as political partisans fought for state as well as local control, and the creation of the new Camden County, finally, in 1844, was bitterly contested. A new courthouse designed by the noted Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan (1815-84) in 1853 signified the city’s stature, but it was Camden’s emergence as the heart of improved transportation networks, not politics, that explained its rise from a mere hamlet at the time of the Revolution to a city of 9,479, more than a third of the county’s population, at mid-century.

Transportation Networks

A number of entrepreneurs sought to build up rivals to Camden through development expected to follow from the establishment of turnpikes and railways. A number of these enterprises failed, including the Moorestown and Camden Turnpike, chartered in 1849 with the intent of boosting suburban development on the northeastern bank of Cooper’s Creek. More successful was the advent, in 1834, of the Camden and Amboy Railroad with connections to New York City, not just from southern New Jersey but also from Southeast Pennsylvania, for those traveling by ferry to Camden and then north. A second railroad, the Camden and Atlantic, organized in 1836, further enhanced the city as a transportation center, as area residents made their way to the Jersey Shore.

[caption id="attachment_33721" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of the Indian King Tavern in Haddonfield, a white Colonial-era three-story tavern with black window shutters. A wooden horse trough stands on the street in front. a hanging sign in the foreground reads "The Indian King". The Indian King Tavern, built in 1750, served as a business and political center for the growing village of Haddonfield. The New Jersey State Assembly endorsed the Declaration of Independence and the Great Seal of New Jersey in the tavern in 1777. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

As transportation corridors extended out from Camden at the core, trade picked up in older communities. Originally settled by Quakers seeking religious freedom in 1682, Gloustertown. rose from a tiny fishing village to become the center of local political and military organization in the years immediately before the American Revolution. Early manufacturing activity there was promising, but lack of a rail connections to Camden, until 1873, retarded growth, despite the area’s incorporation as Gloucester City in 1868. With that rail connection in place, the city grew by nearly 50 percent in the ensuing decade to 5,347 people. The area north of Camden also flourished with gristmills and sawmills established along the Pennsauken Creek in an area designated as Delaware Township. In 1854 a group of investors, seeking to capitalize on a proposed rail line passing through a cluster of country estates owned by Philadelphia dry goods merchants and known locally as Merchantville, laid out additional lots intended to spur growth. With the arrival of the Camden and Amboy in 1869 they realized returns on their investments, and in 1874 the tiny hamlet—at seven-tenths of a square mile—officially formed as Merchantville Borough, separating itself from Stockton Township, which had itself formed out of the north portion of Delaware Township in 1859. In 1892 another portion of Stockton, which had fostered its own industries, withdrew to form Pennsauken Township. Finally, in 1899 the city of Camden annexed the remaining part of what had once been Stockton Township.

Camden County grew steadily throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, rising fourfold from a population of 25,422 in 1850 to 107,643 in 1900. Even as rail connections prompted town growth along the Delaware River, railroads boosted suburban development to the east. The Camden and Atlantic line’s decision to locate a stop and telegraph station on Collins Farm Road in 1871 prompted local residents six years later to incorporate as Collingswood. Spurred by investments, including the creation of the 61-acre Knight Park, by Philadelphia import-export merchant and sugar refiner Edward Collings Knight (1813-92) and other Collings family members, the area realized its aspirations to form a desirable residential enclave. Describing itself as supporting “the clean, pure life essential to social advancement,” Collingswood was one of the first communities in New Jersey to elect to go dry under 1873 legislation that provided the local option to do so. Just to the east, Haddonfield, whose incorporation stretched back to 1701 and whose early history included the New Jersey legislature’s adoption of the state seal at the Indian King Tavern in 1777, also grew as a result of the arrival of the rail connection between Camden and Atlantic City that materialized in 1853. After investors with connections both to turnpikes and rail lines formed the Haddonfield Improvement Company to market building lots in the area, Haddonfield grew sufficiently to break away from Haddon Township to form its own borough, in 1875. Farther along the Camden and Atlantic City line, rail officials opened a station at Long-A-Coming, derived from the name used by Native Americans who used the Lonaconing Trail to describe the route that connected the Jersey Shore to the Delaware River. As the area grew, it assumed the new name of Berlin, not because it drew settlers from Germany, although Germans were among the railroad’s directors, but as a community specifically created for Philadelphia Germans seeking to escape nativist attacks farther along the line to Atlantic City, in Egg Harbor City.

[caption id="attachment_33722" align="alignright" width="300"]a black and white photograph of the unfinished Ben Franklin bridge taken from the Philadelphia side of the Delaware River. The cables and pillars are completed but there are large gaps in the road bed.  In the foreground are several marinas and piers on the river. In the background is the skyline of the city of Camden. The Delaware River Bridge, renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in 1955, connects Camden County to Philadelphia. Prior to its completion in 1926, Camden County residents relied on ferries to cross the Delaware River. This photo shows the bridge under construction in 1925. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The opening of the Delaware River (subsequently named Benjamin Franklin) Bridge in 1926 scrambled established transportation patterns for the region, forcing the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroads to consolidate their once highly competitive rail connections between Camden and the Jersey Shore and spurring greater reliance on automobiles for travel. A grand boulevard connecting to the bridge, designed in the City Beautiful style and named in 1929 to honor Rear Admiral Henry Braid Wilson (1861-1954), a Camden native who served in the Spanish-American and First World Wars, was intended to bind Camden City to surrounding towns, even prompting the idea of consolidating city and suburbs. Such hopes were quickly dashed by established nearby towns protective of their independence, and outward movement of settlement as well as traffic remained modest through the Depression and war years. Indeed, it was largely the undeveloped character of Delaware Township, which hugged the extension of the Admiral Wilson, the Marlton Pike (Route 70), that drew investments for regional destinations. The Garden State Race Track, opened during World War II on previously foreclosed land, prompted a number of additional glitzy entertainment venues, including the Cherry Hill Inn on farmland purchased by the banker and racetrack owner Eugene Mori (1898-1975) and the luxurious Rickshaw Inn opposite the racetrack's main entry gate on Route 70, a local landmark marked by its plate-gold roof and Asian decor.

Employment Expands to the Suburbs

Until the mid-1950s, much of Delaware Township remained farmland, with the exception of a grouping of fine brick homes with generously proportioned lots and streets named for elite suburbs on Philadelphia's legendary Main Line in the town’s Colwick section. That changed in the mid-1950s, as developers carved out new neighborhoods laced with tract housing in much of the 24-square-mile township. The location of a new RCA electronics plant on a ridge known as Cherry Hill, on land sold by Mori as he sought tax relief, brought newcomers to the area, many of them engineers from New York, even as it marked a shift of resources out of Camden. Even more important, again at Eugene Mori’s instigation, the first enclosed regional mall on the East Coast opened on October 11, 1961. Designed by shopping center pioneer Victor Gruen (1903-80) and developed by James Rouse (1914-96), the Cherry Hill Mall was not responsible for the choice of the new name given the township the same year, but it helped establish Cherry Hill as a central destination for all county residents. By 1965, Cherry Hill’s assessed property value, up from $9.5 million in 1950 to $156.2 million, exceeded that of Camden, making it the richest community in the county and all of South Jersey.

Employment opportunities outside Camden also grew in Pennsauken, which boasted the region’s busiest airport during the 1930s, until larger planes required longer runways and air travel shifted to Philadelphia. Both before and after World War II, Pennsauken attracted companies like Kieckhefer Container, which established its business at what had once been a yacht club on the Delaware River, employing some six hundred workers throughout the 1930s, and Randall Manufacturing, the makers of plumbers’ enamelware, hired another five hundred. Nearby, Cities Service established refining facilities covering most of Petty’s Island. After the war, Pennsauken attracted a host of midsize companies to a newly established industrial park on the Delaware waterfront. Between 1958 and 1970 manufacturing jobs in Camden County outside the city increased from 6,184 to 21,316, a number on a par with Camden itself. Even as the city lost close to half its manufacturing base in the 1960s, suburban manufacturing employment increased at a rate of 85 percent.

Population Growth

Blessed with an array of housing options and employment opportunities, the suburbs boomed in the mid-1960s and afterwards. With a population of 255,727 in 1940, Camden County climbed to 392,035 twenty years later. It added another 64,000 people over the next decade, when growth slowed considerably. As Irish, Italian, and other white ethnic families made the transition from factory work to white-collar occupations in Philadelphia and Camden, they moved to new homes aimed at a burgeoning suburban middle class. In a conscious effort to protect the newly acquired benefits of suburban life, these towns introduced building restrictions, through practices that came to be called exclusionary zoning. In Delaware Township, Mayor Christian Weber and his colleagues altered the township’s zoning code to require larger lots, as Weber asserted, “there will be no row houses, twin houses or prefabricated homes in the township.” Similarly, Collingswood placed controls on garden apartments with the clear intention of keeping out renters who might prove a tax burden to the township. 

[caption id="attachment_33723" align="alignright" width="300"]an overhead simplified line drawing of the Yorkship Village neighborhood of Camden. Houses, streets, parks, and rivers are illustrated. World War I brought an influx of workers to the New York Shipbuilding Company in Camden. To accommodate them, the government-owned Emergency Fleet Corporation funded the construction of Yorkship Village, a planned community of 1,400 homes based on the garden city model. (The Architectural Forum via Google Books)[/caption]

Due to its close proximity to shipbuilding facilities on both sides of the Delaware River, Camden County became home to several distinctive planned communities during World Wars I and II. Seeking to alleviate a severe shortage of housing options for ship workers employed at Camden’s New York Ship facility, the U.S. Shipping Board’s Emergency Fleet Corporation designated 225 acres of farmland at the eastern edge of Camden to accommodate 1,400 new housing units. Laid out according to “Garden City” principles established by Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928) in England in the early twentieth century, the new community allocated generous amounts of open space, including a central town square lined with shops, to support modest homes sited close to public ways with the intent of enhancing sociability among workers. Known originally as Yorkship Village, the area was annexed into Camden after World War I and subsequently became known as Fairview.

Several decades later, as another war approached, area planners utilized a new version of a planned community for war workers by laying out Audubon Park. Composed of some five hundred prefabricated units and supported by Camden #1, the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, Audubon Park operated according to a pioneer “mutual plan” under which residents bought shares in the mutual benefit company that owned the land. Designed by the prominent Philadelphia-based architect Oscar Stonorov (1905-70), who had been codesigner of Yorkship Village, Audubon Park combined elements of city density with easy access to the amenities of suburban life. Such could also be said of the second mutual home development in Camden County, Bellmawr Park, some five hundred units carved out of an estate dating back to the seventeenth century. Both projects were meant to house war workers with construction costs being provided by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration


[caption id="attachment_33720" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of the Peter Mott House, a small white two-story house dating to the early nineteenth century. A white picket fence surrounds the grounds. A blue banner hangs on the fence marking the site as the home of the Lawnside historical society. Lawnside, a free black community, became a hub of the Underground Railroad in the years prior to the Civil War. African American preacher Peter Mott and his wife Elizabeth sheltered escaping slaves in their Lawnside home, which later became an Underground Railroad museum. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Historically, African Americans had lived throughout the county: in pockets of Camden, in an area of Cherry Hill known as Batesville separated from other settlements by a country road, in Haddonfield just off of the Haddonfield-Berlin Road, in Chesilhurst, and most visibly in the historically black town of Lawnside (originally known as Free Haven, then Snowhill when it was closely associated with Underground Railroad activity). Laid out initially in 1840 by Haddonfield Quaker and abolitionist Ralph Smith, the area offered small lots to free blacks at low cost. Incorporated in 1926, Lawnside became widely known as a rich source of black entertainment for the region as well as a thriving community of upwardly mobile residents.

Elsewhere, zoning restrictions, often combined with overt hostility, blocked Camden’s African American population, which reached a majority in the decade following civil disturbances that erupted in the city in 1971, from accessing homes in the suburbs. Housing choices in the 1970s and beyond thus became racially skewed in spite of the national fair housing legislation adopted in 1968. Spurred by discrimination in housing in Mount Laurel, just across the Camden County line in Burlington County, lawyers for plaintiffs seeking a zoning change to allow multiple-unit construction achieved a state supreme court ruling that every community should make available its “fair share” of affordable housing. While the ruling anticipated opening the suburbs to a broader class of residents, executing it proved difficult. Forty years after the first Mount Laurel ruling, Camden still had four times its share of affordable housing, while nearby communities Cherry Hill, Pennsauken, and Haddonfield fell well short of fulfilling their obligations.

Over time, suburban development shifted even farther east and away from Camden, a pattern evidenced especially in Voorhees, which came to be perceived as more exclusive than the once-premier destination of Cherry Hill. A town of just some 6,000 in 1970, Voorhees boomed following the opening in 1970 of the Echelon Mall, doubling its population the next decade and reaching a population of 28,000 by 2000, after which growth slowed considerably. Some former Camden residents who had settled along bus lines in nearby Pennsauken or the western portion of Cherry Hill in the 1960s chose to move farther out. As one sign of such decisions, the Beth El synagogue, which traced its origins as Camden’s first conservative congregation to 1920, moved first to Cherry Hill in 1967 and subsequently to Voorhees in 2009.

To the far east, Winslow Township, the largest jurisdiction in the county at fifty-eight square miles remained largely farm country for its eleven thousand residents as late as 1970. Nestled at the edge of the Pine Barrens, where environmental restrictions circumscribed growth, the township exploded in the 1980s as developers cleared land for larger, ex-urban homes that had come into demand. The area added another ten thousand residents each in the 1970s and 1980s, achieving a population of just under forty thousand in 2010. Connected both to the shore communities by the Atlantic City Expressway and other population centers to the north through Routes 30 and 73, Winslow offered a rare combination of easy access to employment as well as premier recreational and entertainment facilities.

Social Disparities

[caption id="attachment_33676" align="alignright" width="300"]a colored map of Camden County depicting the average median household income in the county's towns and cities While some areas of Camden County declined in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, others flourished. This map shows the lingering disparity of income between areas like Camden, which suffered deindustrialization and high crime rates, and Cherry Hill, which attracted businesses and wealthier residents. (Map by Michael Siegel for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Outward movement from Camden continued in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as black and Hispanic families followed the pattern of earlier outmigration, to the west sides of Cherry Hill and Collingswood and especially to Pennsauken. As the minority population grew there, and with it the number of children eligible for free school lunches, local residents seeking to incorporate newcomers while still hoping to moderate the pace of racial turnover persuaded town officials to establish a Stable Integration Review Board. Formed in the mid-1990s with the purpose of encouraging white residents to buy homes and stay put, the initiative drew support of both black and white residents. The effort, which lasted more than a decade, had limited effect, as by 2015 the white population had fallen from 55 percent in 2000 to under 20 percent. Meanwhile, the African American population increased to 33 percent and Hispanic to 49 percent.

As Camden County made the transition into the twenty-first century, it witnessed a number of initiatives aimed at achieving more balanced growth. When New Jersey took the extraordinary step of assuming day-to-day control of the city of Camden for seven years starting in 2002, it required the formation of a regional impact council aimed at stemming the spread out of Camden of problems such as crime and blight, while offering hope that the difficult issues of affordable housing might be taken up on a regional basis. Local officials only reluctantly formed a council composed of the mayors of nearby jurisdictions two years after it was mandated, and they failed to pursue its stated goals with any rigor. As a result, efforts to diversify the housing stock of communities outside Camden proceeded largely as a result of the threat if not actual exercise of court actions. More hopefully, Collingswood invested in multiunit developments near the PATCO Speedline into Philadelphia, thereby fulfilling the smart growth goals behind such transit planning. An effort to convert the deserted race track in Cherry Hill into a compact town center linking homes and apartments to shopping along Garden City ideals proved less successful, as resulting development created largely big box retail well beyond walking distance of residential construction.

As of 2010 Camden County’s relatively diverse population had reached 513,657: 65 percent white, 20 percent African American, 14 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian. The city of Camden remained the county’s largest entity, at 77,344, with Cherry Hill not far behind at 71, 045. Eighty-eight percent of county residents had completed high school, while more than 30 percent held a bachelor’s degree or higher.

[caption id="attachment_33785" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a line of men jogging on pavement in front of the Camden Police Academy. All of the men wear identical sweat suits except the instructor Recruits to the Camden Police Academy train with instructor Ed Borman in this photograph from 1972. In 2012, the county Board of Chosen Freeholders dissolved the Camden City Police Department and installed county police officers to patrol the city. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In its modern form, Camden County proved reliably Democratic, as evidenced by complete control of its chief county agency, the Board of Chosen Freeholders. A holdover from the colonial era, the Freeholders advanced some modern concepts, taking over the function of policing Camden in 2012 and advancing an ambitious building program through the Camden County Improvement Authority, including hospital and university construction projects and highway improvements. Figures associated with county politics, most notably South Jersey’s most prominent political broker, George Norcross (b. 1956), and his brother Donald (b. 1958), a state senator and subsequently Camden County’s congressional representative, parlayed a generous state incentives program to relocate businesses from different parts of the county into Camden. Facilitated by Republican governor Chris Christie (b. 1962), the reinvestment program did not immediately alter the high level of poverty in Camden, but it nonetheless altered Camden’s image as well as its skyline as a city rising. With affordable housing still largely concentrated in Camden, no one predicted a reversal of population outmigration from the city any time soon, leaving Camden County still racially and socially divided.

Howard Gillette Jr. is Professor Emeritus of History at Rutgers University-Camden and co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. (Information current at date of publication.)

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