Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Brenna O’Rourke Holland

Girard’s Bequest

On December 26, 1831, the richest man in the United States died and gave the city of Philadelphia the great majority of his fortune. Committed to philanthropy for much of his life, Stephen Girard (1750-1831) had wealth at the time of his death estimated at more than $6 million, earned during his life as a merchant and banker, from his investment in internal improvements like the Schuylkill Navigation Company, and in real estate in Philadelphia and beyond. Having no biological children as heirs, Girard left some of his fortune to his extended family. However, with the majority of his estate Girard invested in Philadelphia’s physical infrastructure with the intention of making it cleaner and healthier and in the city’s most impoverished citizens with the intention of making them more productive members of society.

[caption id="attachment_24210" align="alignright" width="248"]A black and white illustration of Stephen Girard in old age At the time of his death, Stephen Girard was likely the wealthiest man in America. He bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to the City of Philadelphia for charitable causes. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Drafted with the help of attorney William J. Duane (1780-1865), the twenty-six sections of Girard’s will covered thirty-five pages, plus a page-and-a-half codicil. Right away, Girard made clear his commitment to philanthropy. He dedicated the first eight sections of the will to established institutions in Philadelphia, like Pennsylvania Hospital, as well as those he intended to establish, like a school in Passyunk Township. Among other charitable bequests, he set aside money to be held in trust to provide fuel to help keep Philadelphia’s struggling citizens warm in the winter.

The middle part of the will set aside notably smaller bequests to Girard’s extended family and individuals who served in his household, but then its final sections meticulously explained how the bulk of Girard’s immense estate should be handled. Much of the money for these more substantial bequests derived from Girard’s extensive real estate holdings. For instance, the will stipulated that Girard’s property in Louisiana was to be held in trust jointly by the Corporation of the City of New Orleans and the mayor, alderman, and citizens of Philadelphia, and his real estate in Kentucky was to be sold, the proceeds to be used to accomplish Girard’s philanthropic goals.

[caption id="attachment_24211" align="alignright" width="300"]A color postcard photograph of Founders Hall, a Greek Revival-style white building with prominent front columns. It is surrounded by manicured lawns and a large stone wall. Girard left two million dollars to the construction of a school for poor orphaned or fatherless white boys. The main campus building, now known as Founder's Hall, was one of the most expensive buildings ever constructed at the time. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The most notable section of Girard’s bequest provided funds for the “Orphan Establishment” that became Girard College. With two million dollars, the largest single sum bequeathed in the will, Girard instructed the city to establish a school for “poor white male orphans.” The will explained precisely how and where each building should be constructed, detailing dimensions and materials. Construction of the College began in 1833 and the school admitted its first students in 1848. To accomplish his other main goal—making a cleaner and healthier city—Girard dedicated $500,000 to improve the area of the city along the Delaware River, resulting in the construction of Delaware Avenue.

Girard also foresaw the practical and legal challenges that his bequest would create. For the city to effectively inherit his fortune, it would need to establish committees and accounts to manage and safeguard his investments, and for that the city would need the help of the state. To ensure cooperation, Girard bequeathed $300,000 to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for internal improvements (intended for canals), but only to be paid after laws were passed to implement the other improvements for Philadelphia. In so doing, Girard created an extra incentive for the state and the city to cooperate.

[caption id="attachment_24214" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a large crowd of African-American protesters in front of a tall stone wall at Girard College. One holds a picket sign reading "These segregate walls must come down as the walls of Jericho" Girard College trustees resisted desegregating the school after the Brown v. Board of Education decision despite a 1957 U.S. Supreme Court ruling instructing them to do so. Large rallies attended by civil rights figures like Martin Luther King Jr. put pressure on the school until it eventually admitted black students in 1968. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Such cooperation was easier planned than accomplished. Girard’s bequest required the coordination of authorities at city, state, and national levels. This was no easy task and debates over how to manage the estate consumed significant time and energy within Philadelphia’s city government throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Additionally, the comparatively smaller bequests set aside for family members left Girard’s extended family feeling snubbed. Their challenges to the will made it to the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845) wrote the opinion in the case Vidal et. al v. Mayor, Alderman, and Citizens of Philadelphia (1844) that upheld the will and set new precedent for trust and corporate law. With this decision, Justice Story cemented the right of corporations not only to inherit real and personal estate, but also hold it in trust just as a citizen could. Girard’s will reached the Supreme Court again in the twentieth century in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), this time challenging the stipulation that Girard College admit only white boys. In the case Pennsylvania, et al. v. Board of Directors of City Trusts of the City of Philadelphia (1957), the Trustees of Girard College argued that the will was inviolable, but this time the Court disagreed. Girard College was eventually desegregated in 1968; the first female students enrolled in 1984.

[caption id="attachment_24215" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Delaware Avenue in the late 19th century showing a number of horse-drawn vehicles, a ferry depot, and industrial buildings lining the river. A portion of Girard's bequest went toward infrastructure and internal improvements, including the construction of Delaware Avenue. (PhillyHistory.com)[/caption]

After large expenditures for the construction of Girard College and Delaware Avenue, the value of the Girard Estate grew throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, deriving income largely from investments in coal lands in Schuylkill County. Managed by Philadelphia’s Board of Directors of City Trusts, established in 1869, in the twenty-first century the Girard Estate continued to derive assets from investments and real estate in greater Philadelphia with the primary purpose of funding the continued operation of Girard College, which maintained the educational and philanthropic mission of Stephen Girard. Girard’s bequest, the largest trust given to the city, built on an already long history of charitable giving in Philadelphia that began with Benjamin Franklin and others in the eighteenth century. The lasting value of this foundational gift cemented Girard’s charitable legacy and raised the bar for philanthropy in the City of Brotherly Love.

Brenna O’Rourke Holland is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. She earned her Ph.D. in history at Temple University. Her dissertation, “Free Market Family: Gender, Capitalism, and the Life of Stephen Girard,” is a cultural biography of Philadelphia merchant-turned-banker Stephen Girard that interrogates the relationship between family and capitalism in the early American republic.

Schuylkill Navigation Company

[caption id="attachment_18074" align="alignright" width="300"]A late 19th century image of a canal constructed by the Schuylkill Navigation Company. This late-nineteenth-century photograph shows the serenity of the Schuylkill Canal, a contrast to parts of the Schuylkill River, whose rapids made navigation impossible. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

While eighteenth-century Philadelphians looked almost exclusively to the east and the Delaware River to connect them to the wider world, by the turn of the nineteenth century they looked increasingly to the Schuylkill River and the west. After several failed attempts to fund improvements that would make the rapid-filled Schuylkill River navigable in the 1780s and 1790s, in 1815 the Pennsylvania Legislature approved a charter for the Schuylkill Navigation Company to build a navigation system of canals, dams, and slackwater pools from Mill Creek, just north of Pottsville, along the river to Philadelphia. After an extension in 1828 to Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, the system’s reach to the anthracite coal region helped to accelerate Philadelphia’s industrial growth.

Enthusiasm ran high for the project from the start, but its managers faced a daunting task. Unlike the Erie Canal being built at the same time in New York, the Schuylkill system was not funded by the state; it was a private corporation. Moreover, though the navigation along the Schuylkill would be less than one-third the length of the Erie Canal (108.23 miles vs. 363 miles), the Schuylkill Navigation Company built 120 locks (as compared to 83 on the Erie Canal) and the first ever canal tunnel. Therefore, the success of the Schuylkill project depended on both technological and fiscal innovations.

In order to begin work, the Schuylkill Navigation Company needed to find subscribers to purchase 10,000 shares to fund the improvement. Subscriptions were small investments, usually paid in three installments of less than ten dollars each. The company began work in 1816 but frequently ran out of money, forcing it to advertise for new subscriptions and plead to the state legislature. In 1823, the company took a mortgage loan from Philadelphia merchant-banker Stephen Girard (1750-1831) for $230,850, meaning that a default by the company would have given Girard ownership of the Schuylkill River. Technologically, the project also experienced difficulty finding reliable engineers, which forced repeated rebuilding of dams and locks. And legally, the Schuylkill Navigation Company faced opposition in 1819 from the City of Philadelphia’s Watering Committee, then planning the new Fairmount Water Works to improve water supply to the city. After a series of negotiations, the company and the Watering Committee agreed that the city would build and maintain the dam and lock system. The city also could use the water as long as the river was not drained below the top of the dam, which would prevent navigation.

[caption id="attachment_18071" align="alignright" width="300"]Artistic representation of the Schuylkill River, featuring the Fairmount Water Works in the foreground. On the west bank of the river, a house and a canal lock built by the Schuylkill Navigation Company can be seen. This artistic rendering of the Schuylkill River shows a gazebo overlooking the Fairmount Water Works and a canal lock built by the Schuylkill Navigation Company. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

Despite these frequent setbacks, including the death of principal engineer Thomas Oakes (1777-1823) in 1823, the stretch between Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works and Reading became navigable in 1824. The company celebrated with a ceremonial trip down the navigation on three inaugural barges, the Thomas Oakes, Stephen Girard, and DeWitt Clinton. An extension of the canal to Port Carbon, at the mouth of Mill Creek in Schuylkill County, completed in 1828, made the Schuylkill River Pennsylvania’s most efficient mode of transportation for anthracite coal for the following decade and a half. Despite its hefty cost of more than $2.3 million, the project became profitable from revenue gained primarily from tolls but also from rents on water power. In 1829, the Schuylkill Navigation Company began to pay dividends to its shareholders.

[caption id="attachment_18073" align="alignright" width="256"]Map illustrating the many canals of the Delaware Valley, the canal linking Pottsville to Philadelphia was created by the Schuylkill Navigation Company. This map illustrates the many canals of the Delaware Valley. The canal linking Pottsville to Philadelphia was created by the Schuylkill Navigation Company. (Click map to enlarge.)[/caption]

The Schuylkill Navigation Company’s monopoly on transportation to the rich coal lands in the region ended in 1842 with the opening of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Unlike canals, railroads did not freeze in the winter. Although they faced regular maintenance costs, railroads did not have to battle the same environmental challenges, like floods that often filled the canals with silt from the coalfields.

Faced with competition from the railroad, the Schuylkill Navigation Company enlarged the canal in 1846 to accommodate larger boats. Tonnage transported along the navigation increased continually until 1859, when it reached its maximum of 1,699,101 tons, of which 1,379,109 tons were anthracite coal. However, after repeated floods and droughts, the financial challenges that accompanied the Civil War, and a coal miners strike, in 1870 the company decided to lease the entire navigation to its competitor, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

[caption id="attachment_18072" align="alignright" width="190"]People enjoying a walk on the Manayunk Canal Towpath, now a modern day park. People enjoy a walk on the Manayunk Canal Towpath. Recreation is one of the modern adaptions of the structures built by the Schuylkill Navigation Company. (Photograph by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Some navigation continued along the canals of the Schuylkill into the first decades of the twentieth century, with the final commercial cargo transported in 1931. At the end of the twentieth- and into the twenty-first century, sections of the canal, like the one in Manayunk, underwent restoration to promote recreation and commemorate the past. The canal era of the mid-nineteenth century in Pennsylvania usually has been overshadowed by the success of New York’s Erie Canal and the railroad, but the Schuylkill Navigation Company was important for its precedents in transportation innovation and the tremendous amount of fuel, both coal and waterpower from the canals, carried to Philadelphia’s rapidly industrializing economy.

Brenna ORourke Holland is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. She earned her Ph.D. in history at Temple University. Her dissertation, Free Market Family: Gender, Capitalism, and the Life of Stephen Girard, is a cultural biography of Philadelphia merchant-turned-banker Stephen Girard that interrogates the relationship between family and capitalism in the early American republic.

Boathouse Row

[caption id="attachment_7361" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Though the unique clubhouses of Boathouse Row will draw attention at any time of day, viewing the buildings at night is a favorite pastime of Philadelphians. (Photo by R. Kennedy for Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation) Boathouse Row at night. (Photo by R. Kennedy, Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row is a National Historic Landmark that reflects the city’s fusion of sport, culture, and history. The boathouses, built in the second half of the nineteenth-century, line the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River just north of the Fairmount Waterworks. Lit at night with thousands of glowing bulbs, they form a welcoming beacon to travelers entering Philadelphia along the Schuylkill River on Interstate 76.

The circumstances that led to the distinctive row of boathouses on the Schuylkill date to the early nineteenth century when Philadelphia, a commercial and cultural center of the early American Republic, became one of most historically rich and lively rowing cities in the United States. In 1821, the construction of the Fairmount Waterworks’ dam created favorable conditions for rowing on the Schuylkill and set an aesthetic that helped determine the style of the earliest boathouses. Temporary boathouse structures probably existed as the popularity of rowing grew, but construction of more permanent boathouses began in the 1850s under the auspices of the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia and later with increasing involvement from the Fairmount Park Commission (formed in 1867). The Schuylkill Navy, founded in 1858, served as a membership organization for the city’s amateur rowing clubs and oversaw activity on the river. Surviving into the twenty-first century, it became one of the nation’s oldest amateur sports associations.

The first small boathouse built by the Undine Barge Club was little more than a shack, but the original structure was renovated in the 1880s by the prominent architectural firm of Furness & Evans. The boathouse architecture of from the 1870s onward reflected the impulse of the Fairmount Park Commission to impose order on the riverfront landscape by requiring stone construction. When additional boathouses were built in the 1890s and early twentieth century, architectural design aesthetics had changed, and architects incorporated brick and other materials in their designs. However, each structure still reflected the utilitarian goals of protecting and storing rowing shells as well as providing a gathering place for participants.

Boating as Art

The Schuylkill’s boating history was captured on canvas by the well-known late-nineteenth-century American painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). A rower himself, Eakins found inspiration in the bodies of oarsmen as they glided along the river near the boathouses. Unfortunately, rowing’s popularity declined in the first half of the twentieth century as membership in rowing clubs dropped during the two world wars and the Great Depression; by the second half of the twentieth century many of the boathouses fell into disrepair. To celebrate the Bicentennial in 1976 and revive the boathouses, lights were hung outlining the frames of each structure, and after several repairs, in 2005 the lights were replaced with LEDs.

A recent addition, Lloyd Hall, built in 1999, is the only public structure among the boathouses. After demolition of the former public boathouse, Plaisted Hall, the new construction created controversy because its many amenities did not include room for storing or launching rowing shells. In 2002, St. Joseph’s University and St. Joseph’s Prep built a boathouse upriver, near the Strawberry Mansion bridge, but this modern structure along with the now condemned East Park Canoe House, the former home to Temple University’s team, are not traditionally considered part of Boathouse Row. Temple University also proposed construction of a new, multimillion-dollar boathouse but withdrew its proposal in 2013 because an Open Lands Protection ordinance enacted in 2011 required such projects to be offset by the purchase or transfer of comparable park land.

Despite these controversies, the twenty-first-century Boathouse Row serves as a landmark and gathering place for athletes from around the country, from novices to Olympic-caliber rowers.  Many of the associations that built the first boathouses survive and continue to support thriving club programs while also serving as venues for high school and collegiate rowers. One of the most celebrated races every spring, the Dad Vail Regatta, welcomes oarsmen and women from collegiate programs and features a novice race for corporate sponsors, a fund-raising tool that fuses Philadelphia’s rich history of rowing with its future.

Brenna O’Rourke Holland earned her Ph.D. in history at Temple University.  Her dissertation, “Free Market Family: Gender, Capitalism, and the Life of Stephen Girard,” is a cultural biography of Philadelphia merchant-turned-banker Stephen Girard that interrogates the transition to capitalism in the early American Republic. As an undergraduate at Colgate University, she was a coxswain for the Men’s Varsity Rowing team, and she enjoys cheering on her alma mater at races along the Schuylkill.

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