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A Brief History of Philadelphia

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The city of Philadelphia, as laid out by William Penn, comprised only that portion of the present city situated between South and Vine Streets and Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. In fact, the city proper was that portion between High (Market) Street and Dock Creek. Here is where the pioneers dug caves in the banks of the Delaware or built huts on the land higher up. Meanwhile, the women equally busy in their sphere, had lighted their fire on the bare earth, and having "their kettle slung between two poles upon a stick transverse," thus prepared the meal of homely and frugal fare for the repast of diligent builders.

Native Americans were more or less present, either as spectators of the improvements then progressing, or, venders of their game and venison from the neighboring wilds. The Swedes and Dutch, who were the earliest settlers, as neighbors, brought their productions to market as a matter of course.

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Settlements were made, however, outside of these boundaries, and in the course of time they became separately incorporated and had separate governments, making congeries of towns and districts, the whole group being known abroad simply as Philadelphia. Several of these were situated immediately contiguous to the "city proper": Southwark and Moyamensing in the south, and Northern Liberties, Kensigton, Spring Garden and Penn District to the north, and West Philadelphia to the west — all of which were practically one town continuously built up.

Besides these, there were a number of other outlying townships, villages and settlements near the built-up town, though detached from it. Among these were Bridesburg, Frankford, Harrowgate, Holmesburg, the unincorporated Northern Liberties, Port Richmond, Nicetown, Rising Sun, Fox Chase, Germantown, Roxborough, Falls of Schuylkill, unincorporated Penn township, Francisville, Hamilton Village, Mantua, Blockley, Kingsessing and Passyunk.

Some of these also became absorbed in the extending streets of the congeries of towns of which Philadelphia was composed, and in 1854 they were all consolidated under one municipal government, the boundaries of which are coincident with those of the old county of Philadelphia. In the earlier times some of the districts mentioned had marked characteristics, but these have mostly passed away.

Southwark, immediately on the river front, was marked by great wood-yards for supplying fuel before the days of anthracite coal, also by the sheds and yards of boat-builders and mast-makers, and by ship-builders' yards down to the site of the United States Navy Yard.

A great many of the Southwark dwellings were inhabited by sea captains and seafaring men, and down to quite a recent period a considerable portion of its inhabitants were the families of seagoing people and "watermen." The wood-yards, mast and shipyards have gone to other localities, and their old sites are now occupied by commercial warehouses, extensive sugar refineries, the wharves and depots of the sugar, molasses and West Indies trade, the great grain warehouses, elevators and shipping-piers of the Pennsylvania R.R. Co., the wharves and depots of the American and Red Star lines of ocean steamships. The district was also characterized by the extensive machine-shops and iron-works of Merricks, Morris & Tasker, Savery and others, as well as by the mechanical work promoted by the navy yard, which was situated at the foot of Federal Street, previous to removing to League Island.

The Northern Liberties also had its great cord-wood wharves and yards along the river front, and extensive lumber-yards. The wood-yards have mostly disappeared, and have given place to large markets for farm-produce, commercial warehouses, railroad landings, depots and shipping wharves. Some of the lumber-yards remain, however. This district was also characterized, particularly along Second Street, by its farmers' market-yards for the wholesale trade in butter, eggs, poultry, meats, vegetables and other products of the farms of the adjacent country. Some of the fine old market-taverns and produce-yards still remain, but their marked characteristics have become obscured by the spread of the great city. Long before the consolidation of the Northern Liberties into the city Second Street was famous for its fine retail shops, and Third Street was the site of a large wholesale trade in groceries, provisions and leather. Second Street is now lined by a double row of retail stores along nearly its entire length, not only in the old Northern Liberties, but for miles below and above. Pegg's Run and Cohocksink Creek, which flowed through the Northern Liberties, were the sites of numerous extensive tan-yards. One of the pioneer mills in Philadelphia's great industries, the Old Globe Mill, was near the line of the Northern Liberties, Germantown Avenue below Girard Avenue. The Northern Liberties embraced what are now the Eleventh, Twelfth and part of the Sixteenth Wards of the city.

Kensington was a ship- and boat-building district, and another considerable portion of its old time inhabitants were fishermen engaged in supplying the Philadelphia markets. Kensington, however, soon got into the iron and steel manufacture, and the building of steam-machinery, the outcropping of which may be seen in the large works now in operation there and on the river front above. Kensington embraced part of the present Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Wards.

Spring Garden District, which is now characterized by extensive manufacturing establishments of nearly all descriptions — among them the great Baldwin Locomotive Works and Powers & Weightman's chemical laboratory — and for its masses of handsome dwellings, was, in the old time, one of the most pleasant suburbs of Philadelphia and the principal dwelling-place of the Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Butchers or Victuallers.

Port Richmond, occupying the Delaware River front to the north and northeast of Old Kensington, was brought into prominence by the establishment at that point of the tidewater terminus of the Reading R.R. Co. For its immense coal traffic by sea. This at once began to improve the unproductive land in the vicinity; for the shipping-piers, the coal-depots, the engine-houses, workshops, offices, etc., were accompanied followed by a large increase of population the erection of dwellings, great activity and rapid progress in all respects. The coal trade built it up in the first place, but the district is now the centre of a manufacturing trade that has but few superiors in the United States.

The other districts and villages now incorporated in the city have been built up so that they now in fact, as in name, the city itself.

Click here for the complete listing of Incorporated District, Boroughs, and Townships in the County of Philadelphia, 1854

Consolidation of the City, 1854

The movement in favor of the consolidation of the city and districts had been agitated. A committee appointed by town meeting drafted a bill to be laid before the Legislature, fixing the details of the measure, was adopted by the General Assembly on February 2,1854.

The bill provided that the city of Philadelphia, as limited by the charter of 1789, should be enlarged by taking in all the territory comprised within the county of Philadelphia. The incorporated districts were abolished. Southwark, Northern, Liberties, Kensington, Spring Garden, Moyamensing, Penn, Richmond, West Philadelphia, and Belmont ceased to have corporate existence. The borough of Frankford, Germantown, Manayunk, Whitehall, Bridesburg and Aramingo were deprived of their franchises. The townships of Passyunk, Blockley, Kingsessing, Roxborough, Germantown, Bristol, Oxford, Lower Dublin, Moreland, Northern Liberties (unincorporated), Byberry, Delaware, and Penn were abolished, and all the franchises and property of these governments transferred to the city of Philadelphia.

The enlarged territory thrown into the city was divided into 24 wards, 23 of which lay east of the Schuylkill.

Beginning at League Island, the enumeration of the wards ran northward in tiers.

  • The First Ward extended from the Delaware to the Schuylkill south of Warthon Street, Passyunk Road, Little Washington Street, and below South Street, West of Broad.
  • The Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Wards lay adjoining the First Ward on the front as far north as Vine Street.
  • The Seventh, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Wards, were on the east side of the Schuylkill.
  • The Eleventh and Twelfth Wards (old Northern Liberties) extended as far north as Poplar Street.
  • The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth, took in nearly the whole of Spring Garden.
  • The Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Wards were originally portions of Kensington and Richmond.
  • The Twentieth Ward took up the district of North Penn and ground belonging to the unincorporated Northern Liberties.
  • The Twenty-first Ward was above the Twentieth, on the east side of the Schuylkill, and included the township of Roxborough and the borough of Manayunk.
  • The Twenty-second Ward included the borough and township of Germantown and the township of Bristol.
  • All the rest of the country east of the Schuylkill was the Twenty-third Ward, including Frankford, Holmesburg, Bridesburg, Aramingo, Byberry, Moreland, and Lower Dublin townships.
  • The Twenty-fourth Ward was composed of Blockly and Kingsessing.

The passage of the bill was the cause of great rejoicing. The Governor and Legislature and the chief officers of the State were invited to participate in ceremonies arranged by a committee. The Board of Trade engaged the Robert F. Stockton for a ride on the river on March 11, 1854, with a banquet on board. In the evening the Consolidation Ball was held in the Museum building. The next day, March 12, 1854, a banquet was given the city's guests at Sansom Hall.

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