Manufacturing Suburbs

Essay

Aerial view of the Schuylkill River looking southeast from Manayunk
This 1915 aerial view of the Schuylkill River, looking southeast from the vicinity of Fountain Street in Manayunk, shows the numerous factories and homes that lined its banks. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Although early industrialization in the eighteenth century took root mainly in urban centers, a substantial share of the Philadelphia region’s early manufacturing sprang up in small towns outside the young city. The explanation for that pattern lay in the region’s great rivers, the Delaware and Schuylkill. As early as the eighteenth century, enterprising settlers saw that the fast-moving currents in those rivers could drive water wheels to power grist mills, sawmills, paper mills, and iron foundries, and they built such businesses along the banks. When coal-fired steam engines overtook both water wheels and hand work, some of those early producers remained on the rivers’ edge since waterways provided affordable transportation for raw materials and finished goods. Thus, the map of early suburban manufacturing followed the region’s main waterways, a pattern that eventually influenced the paths of subsequent transportation networks of rail lines and highways.

An image of two smoke stacks and three water towers of the Campbell's Soup Company building. The Water towers are painted with the Campbell's name and logo The Smoke stacks have the words
Visible here are the smoke stacks and water towers of the Campbell’s Soup factory in Camden, New Jersey. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In the first half of the nineteenth century canals enhanced the region’s rivers by extending their reach into the hinterlands and overcoming obstructions along particular stretches of river. Canals served especially to transport anthracite coal from the northeastern Pennsylvania coal fields to riverfront manufacturing towns. For example, Bristol Borough in Bucks County began to prosper as a manufacturing center on the Delaware River twenty-three miles northeast of the city after the Lehigh Canal built in 1829 connected Bristol with the state’s anthracite coal fields located near Mauch Chunk (later renamed Jim Thorpe) in Carbon County. Bristol’s industrial base expanded substantially in 1876 when William Grundy (1836-93) moved his woolen mill from Philadelphia, producing rugs, carpets, hosiery, and cloth. In 1815 the Schuylkill Navigation Company built a canal from Pottsville to Philadelphia, making possible the emergence of Manayunk as a mill town on the banks of the river. By 1830 the canal reached into the state’s coal region via Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, prompting its textile mills to mechanize to such an extent that Manayunk acquired the unflattering label “the Manchester of America.”

Table showing numbers of manufacturing employees by county in 1860A few of the manufacturing clusters outside Philadelphia grew to become small cities. The city of Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia developed a diversified manufacturing base in the nineteenth century by producing woolens, carriages, writing pens, and, most famously, Campbell’s Soup. The New York Shipbuilding Corporation began operations in 1899 on 160 acres in Camden, where the company built ships in assembly-line fashion, from barges to passenger liners and battleships. By World War II, it had become a central engine of Camden’s economy. Down the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the city of Chester in Delaware County based its prosperity on a diverse manufacturing base that included shipbuilding, textiles, metal products, and paper. Unlike smaller manufacturing suburbs, cities like Camden, Chester, and Wilmington developed beyond their manufacturing base. They gained prominence as hubs of transportation (mainly ports and railroads) and regional business services like banking, finance, and insurance.

Manufacturing Villages

Aerial view of the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
This aerial photograph of the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company, taken in 1915, shows the factory complex on the bank of the Schuylkill River with proximity to railroad tracks and a bridge over the river. Portions of Conshohocken are visible in the distance. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

By contrast, other early manufacturing villages remained small, focused on one or two industries. On the west side of Philadelphia, ten miles up the Schuylkill River, the town of Conshohocken spawned iron works on a canal alongside an unnavigable stretch of river. The first foundry was built in 1844. The longest-surviving firm was Alan Wood & Co., which established the Schuylkill Iron Works plant there in 1857. By 1920 Alan Wood Steel could produce 500,000 tons of steel a year. It remained the economic mainstay of Conshohocken until the mid-twentieth century. Many such towns specialized: Phoenixville produced steel; Gloucester City housed DuPont Chemicals; and asbestos plants fueled Ambler’s growth. Although they remained small, these nineteenth-century manufacturing towns shared some features in common with cities, including a land use pattern that mixed together manufacturing, housing, and walkable commercial districts where craftsmen, tradesmen, and merchants clustered. That surviving land-use pattern differentiated early manufacturing communities from twentieth century suburban towns.

Not every important industry located on a river bank. Some chose locations near an important source of raw materials. For example, glass manufacturing flourished during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River, particularly around the town of Glassboro in Gloucester County, named for the distinguished craftsmanship of what came to be known as “South Jersey Glass.” The quality of southern New Jersey’s sand, a major ingredient in glass manufacture, helped to establish its reputation, while its proximity to Philadelphia provided a large market for the industry.

Photograph of the Lee Tire and Rubber Company's main building in Conshohocken, Pa.
The main building of the Lee Tire and Rubber Company, built in 1909 in Conshohocken, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.(Library of Congress)

In the first three decades of the twentieth century, more manufacturers built factories in the suburbs, attracted by cheap land and enabled by cheap energy. In 1916 Sun Oil chose to locate Sun Shipbuilding Co. in Marcus Hook in Delaware County eighteen miles downriver from Philadelphia. That plant grew quickly by delivering tanker ships to serve in World War I. In 1924, Baldwin Locomotive expanded its massive Philadelphia operations by building a suburban plant in Eddystone in Delaware County, about twelve miles south of Philadelphia on the Delaware River. In 1925 the Ford Motor Co. transferred its regional operations from North Philadelphia to Chester, where it found more space and more efficient transportation for finished cars. Another major auto manufacturer, General Motors, opened a components factory upriver from Philadelphia in 1938 in West Trenton.

The Depression dealt a dramatic blow to many of these plants. Markets for their products collapsed in the 1930s, but business revived during World War II. Military contractors in Camden, Chester, and many parts of Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks Counties employed thousands of defense workers. Sun Shipbuilding once again constructed vital oil tankers for a Navy that fought a war on two oceans, while New York Ship built aircraft carriers and battleships.

Lure of the Highway 

Once the expanded highway network of the 1960s and 1970s increased access to undeveloped parcels of land outside the city, manufacturing spread more widely across the region. Rather than concentrating in towns, many manufacturers chose to build near highway off-ramps to speed transportation in and out of their plants, creating a highly dispersed pattern of industrial development.

A Molder collecting liquefied steel at Baldwin Locomotives' Eddystone, Pa plant.
Photographed in 1938, a molder is shown at work at Baldwin Locomotive, which slowly shifted its production from Philadelphia to suburban Eddystone, Delaware County, beginning in 1906. (National Archives and Records Administration)

To counteract the flight of industrial jobs, the city created its own industrial park in Northeast Philadelphia. In that sparsely populated section of the city, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation assembled large parcels of land during the 1960s and equipped them with water, sewer, and other industrial infrastructure. In effect, the city developed its own manufacturing “suburb” within the city limits.

In the space of only a few decades, however, new forces emerged to further challenge both city and suburbs. Obsolete technologies, coupled with competition from low-wage producers around the globe, forced many suburban manufacturers out of business. When diesel technology eclipsed Baldwin’s steam engines, the company shut down its Eddystone plant in the early 1970s. Alan Wood Steel Co. closed its Conshohocken plant in 1977, driven out of business by foreign steel. U.S. Steel managed to keep its Fairless Hills Plant in Falls Township, Bucks County, open, but only until 1991.

Manufacturing Persists

Aerial view of he U.S. Steel Fairless Plant on the Delaware RIver.
The U.S. Steel Fairless Plant in Fairless Hills, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, began steel production in 1952 on a 1,600-acre site. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Despite a broad regional decline in manufacturing, the Philadelphia metropolitan area remained competitive in various forms of advanced manufacturing that make use of new materials and processes enabled by nanotechnology or other scientific innovations. Those include pharmaceuticals, medical devices and equipment, precision instruments, plastics, chemicals, aircraft, and other defense industries.

As factory after factory fell victim to overseas competition and outsourcing, the loss of that industrial base brought a host of fiscal and social problems to manufacturing suburbs, including distressed schools, brownfields, deteriorating housing stocks, and stagnating tax bases. Populations aged in some of these suburban towns because the housing stock turned over so slowly that homeowners could not find buyers for their houses. Even in towns that were able to attract new populations, including African American and immigrant families, often the newcomers’ incomes and property values could not provide an adequate tax base for services.

Yet manufacturing suburbs also offered significant opportunities for redevelopment. Towns built before the automobile resembled the city’s industrial neighborhoods, densely developed with worker housing built within walking distance of manufacturing plants. They remained walkable communities usually with a main street commercial district. Planners and developers recognized a preference among some homebuyers for higher density housing in communities with historic character that allowed residents to rely less on automobiles and more on walking, bicycling and passenger rail lines serving many older river towns. The market potential was especially high for manufacturing suburbs built along rivers because of the premium that real estate markets place on waterfront locations. In places like Conshohocken and Bristol, developers repurposed mills, lofts, and other industrial buildings to house offices and commercial businesses. The success of such projects led regional planners to recognize that old manufacturing towns could help concentrate future commercial and residential development and lessen sprawl.

Carolyn T. Adams is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University and associate editor of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University

Gallery

Campbell Soup Factory Towers

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Visible here are the smoke stacks and water towers of the Campbell’s Soup factory in Camden, New Jersey. For much of the twentieth century travelers crossing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge could see the water towers, painted to resemble the iconic red and white soup can. This photo, from 1980, was taken just ten years before the plant closed. The plant was demolished in late 1991. Currently, only Campbell’s corporate headquarters remains in Camden.

Lee Tire & Rubber Company, Conshohocken, Montgomery County, Pa.

Library of Congress

J. Ellwood Lee opened his first factory in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, in 1887 selling medical supplies. In 1905 Lee believed automobiles would become popular and merged his medical supply company with Johnson & Johnson, leading to the creation of the Lee Tire and Rubber Company, which opened in 1914. The main building of the Lee Tire and Rubber Company, shown here, was built in 1909 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

The company began to decline in the 1960s and was taken over by a New York firm, which changed the name to Lee National Corporation. In 1965 the company was sold to Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which restored Lee’s original name. The changes delayed the company’s demise, but it went out of business in 1980.

Lee Tire’s position within sight of a bend in the Schuylkill Expressway gave it a noteworthy place in the history of Philadelphia-area traffic reporting. The stretch near Conshohocken was often the scene of back-ups and some radio traffic reporters referred to the section informally as the “Lee Tire curve” during the years before the property was sold and the name atop the building slipped into history. The section of expressway now is referred to as simply the Conshohocken curve.

U.S. Steel Fairless Plant in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania

National Archives and Records Administration

The U.S. Steel Fairless Plant in Fairless Hills, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, began steel production in 1952 on a 1,600-acre site. The construction of this plant spurred a housing development that was subsidized by U.S. Steel to provide housing for the plant’s employees. The plant, shown here on the bank of the Delaware River in 1973, began to decline in the 1990s, forcing the closure of the hot side of the plant and the pipe mill in 1991.

In 1993 the Environmental Protection Agency urged U.S. Steel to clean up this site because the soil had been contaminated with arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals. The rest of the plant activities were shut down in 2001, except for its galvanizing facility, which in 2016 was still operating.

Molder at the Baldwin Locomotives' Eddystone Plant

National Archives and Records Administration

Baldwin Locomotives’ 196-acre shop on Broad Street in Philadelphia, while encompassing eight city blocks, eventually began to feel too small and the company sought to shift to an area with greater space. The slow shift to a new 616-acre suburban location in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, began in 1906. Eddystone, located on the Delaware River in Delaware County about twelve miles south of Philadelphia, became the main location of all locomotive production in 1928. A molder at the Eddystone plant is shown here in 1938 collecting a small amount of liquefied steel from a furnace.

Schuylkill River looking southeast from Manayunk

Library Company of Philadelphia

In 1815 the Schuylkill Navigation Company built a canal from Pottsville to Philadelphia, making possible the emergence of Manayunk as a mill town on the banks of the river. By 1830 the canal reached into the state’s coal region via Port Carbon, Pennsylvania, prompting its textile mills to mechanize to such an extent that Manayunk acquired the unflattering label “the Manchester of America."

This aerial view from 1915 of the Schuylkill River, looking southeast from the vicinity of Fountain Street in Manayunk, shows the river and numerous factories and homes that lined its banks.

Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company Conshohocken Pennsylvania

Library Company of Philadelphia

On the west side of Philadelphia, ten miles up the Schuylkill River, the town of Conshohocken spawned iron works on a canal alongside an unnavigable stretch of river. The first foundry was built in 1844. The longest-surviving firm was Alan Wood & Co., which established the Schuylkill Iron Works plant there in 1857. By 1920 Alan Wood Steel could produce 500,000 tons of steel a year. It remained the economic mainstay of Conshohocken until the mid-twentieth century.

This aerial view of the Alan Wood Iron and Steel Company from 1915 in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, shows the factory complex as it sits on the bank of the Schuylkill River and straddles Conshohocken Road. The main facility was designed by the architecture firm of Savory, Scheetz, & Savory and built in 1910. Railroad tracks and bridges over the river are visible as are portions of the city of Conshohocken in the distance.

Baldwin Locomotive Works, Pouring a Cylinder

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The Baldwin Locomotive Works became one of many industries to bolster Chester’s economy and employment after its move to nearby Eddystone, Pa., from Philadelphia in 1929. This undated photo, taken in the Eddystone plant, shows workers filling molds with molten metal.

The Baldwin Locomotive Works was founded in Philadelphia by railway pioneer Mattias Baldwin in 1831. By 1845, the works constructed an average of twenty steam locomotives per year. During the Civil War, Baldwin provided the federal government with thirty locomotives to support the Union. Business continued to flourish and at its peak, Baldwin occupied seven blocks of Philadelphia from Broad and Spring Garden Streets to Eighteenth and Callowhill Streets. Still, this proved too small a space for the booming works. In 1929, the works moved to a 600 acre plant in Eddystone, Pa., just north of Chester on the Delaware River. This undated photo, taken in the Eddystone plant, shows workers filling molds with molten metal.

Baldwin’s sales began to decline as steam engine technology gave way to diesel engines. During World War II, the federal government awarded a contract for diesel engines to General Motors and placed a cap on the number of diesel engines Baldwin could build. Baldwin was forced to cease production in 1956.

Ford Motor Car Assembly Plant, Chester, Pennsylvania

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Ford had a car-manufacturing presence in Philadelphia from at least the early 1910s. As the need for automobiles grew across the region, Ford required a bigger facility for its operations. This led to Ford opening a plant in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1925. The Chester plant, pictured here, built cars until the outbreak of World War II using parts manufactured by Ford in Michigan and shipped to the plant in Chester.

Workers At Sun Shipbuilding

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

During World War II the Sun Shipbuilding Company of Chester, Pennsylvania, expanded and added twenty shipways for construction of Naval vessels and extended over 1.5 miles across the riverfront. With Sun’s physical expansion came an all-time high number of employees reaching 35,633 workers in August 1943, about when this image was taken. Note in the background a billboard for Sun Shipbuilding boasting “30 years of Progressive Activity” above five images of increasingly larger ships. In addition to showing one of the biggest shipbuilding operations in the region, this photograph also provides some legitimacy to Sun’s claim to be the most diverse shipbuilding company. Nearly 12,000 African Americans and 2,800 women worked at the facility.

New York Ship in Camden

National Archives and Record Administration

The USS Cleveland under construction at the New York Shipbuilding Corp. shipyard in Camden, 1941. Ships built on the Delaware River were the region's most important contribution to the war effort during World War II.

Manufacturing Suburbs

This table shows the number of workers employed in manufacturing in 1860 in suburban counties and the city of Philadelphia. A few of the manufacturing clusters outside Philadelphia grew to become small cities. Some areas, including the cities of Camden, Chester, and Wilmington, developed beyond their manufacturing base to gain prominence as hubs of transportation or regional business services.

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Related Reading

Adams, Carolyn. “Industrial Suburbs.” In Brian Black and Michael Chiarappa, eds. Nature’s Entrepot: Philadelphia’s Urban Sphere and Its Environmental Thresholds.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012, 117-135.

Lewis, Robert, ed. Manufacturing Suburbs: Building Work and Home on the Metropolitan Frontier.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

Lewis, Robert. “Running Rings around the City: North American Industrial Suburbs, 1850-1950.” In R. Harris & P. Larkham, eds. Changing Suburbs: Foundation, Form, and Function. London: Routledge, 1999,  146-167.

Lindstrom, Diane. Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region, 1810-1850. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Scranton, Philip, and Walter Licht. Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution.  New York:  Alfred Knopf, 1978.

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