Header:Philadelphia History
Header:Philadelphia History

Callowhill Street

From The Evening Bulletin, September 14, 1925

Callowhill Street, or "Callow Hill," as it used to be called although it was understood it bore the name of William Penn's second wife, Hannah Callowhill has two wide places, one east of Second and the other west of Fourth Street, which occasionally arouse curiosity as to their original use.

In the case of the latter, which extends from Fourth to Marshall Street, and which makes the street wider than at any other part of its run from river to river, if the market houses and street sheds of old Philadelphia, and such as we still have on Second Street, are kept in mind, it is not hard to determine why this great open plaza was provided. Spring Garden Street, Girard Avenue, South Eleventh and lower Bainbridge Streets have similar spaces showing where market places formerly furnished neighborhood shopping centers.

But in the case of the smaller plaza, eat of Second, at the point where New Market Street crosses, it is not so easy to determine just why the deep inset in the curb line of the northwest corner occurs. Only one corner of this intersection is set back and from its appearance it is hard to tell whether that was the desire of the owners of the corner properties or the design of the city surveyors at some time past.

That plaza, small as it is. however, is the last landmark of one of the oldest markets in Philadelphia ands probably the first to be established north of the city line at Vine Street. By right of gift it might have been the first Penn Square. There, at one time, was a larger square, forming the shopping centre of "the town of Callow Hill."

Here and there in local histories of the Colonial and Revolutionary days one finds passing mention of this "town," which deserves to be counted as one of the city's earliest and nearest suburbs. Prior to the Revolution much of the land in that part of the Northern Liberties was owned by the Penns, and Thomas Penn, son of William Penn and Hannah Callowhill Penn, was particularly concerned with selling off the lots around Front and Callowhill. That they were choice lots goes without saying. They were the first across the city line, near the water front and, with the road improvements promised, easy of access from all parts of the old city. Furthermore the proprietors had provided for what was then a good-sized market square or plaza at the point where a new thoroughfare, New Market Street, was to cross Callowhill, between Front and Second. By the time of the Revolution a settlement had grown up around this square, that, in popular parlance, although not officially so designated, was known as "the town of Callow Hill" and the "town" extended from Pegg's Run, about where Willow Street now crosses, to Vine Street, and from Front Street west to the Old York Road, on the line of Fourth Street.

At the northeast corner of Front and Callowhill there is still standing an old residence that is a reminder of this Colonial suburb. Used now for business, and shabby and worn with age, the three-story red and black brick structure, half-screened in front by the Frankford elevated, shows, in its construction and design, that it was once a notable residence. How old it is no one seems to know, although by the style of architecture, the method of construction and its conformity to the classic design of other Colonial mansions in Philadelphia, there is little difficulty in classifying it period.

Here, a century ago, dwelt the Brittons, a well-to-do family of social connections. Nest door there then dwelt the Dewees and, a short while after the close of the Revolution, Captain Charles Biddle was one of the residents of Callowhill. The property, which in 1832 passed into the possession of Samuel Stevenson, the grocer, had been conveyed to the Brittons, on the eve of the Revolution, by the Penns shortly before the confiscation of their lands by the State.

Along Callowhill, west of Front, on the north side of the way, there also are some other examples old-time Philadelphia dwellings, smaller in size, but showing almost equal marks of age, although, for the most part, the structures round about are of a later date. In surveying the old landmarks of this section, one has to keep in mind the fact that, in July, 1850, it was swept by one of the greatest fires Philadelphia has ever known, a conflagration that began in a warehouse on Water Street below Vine, filled with hay and molasses and saltpeter and brimstone, and which spread west to Second Street, north to Callowhill and east to the river before it was checked, and which brought Newark and New York firemen on the scene. How small and how numerous were the buildings then about the old Callowhill Street Market Place can be judged from the record that between Vine and Callowhill and Delaware Avenue and Second Street two hundred and eleven houses were burned.

The selling of lots, the grading of Streets and the building of houses in this section had preceded the Revolution. In 1770 a petition addressed to the Courts, asking for the opening of Callowhill Street, from Fourth to Front, speaks of the number of resident thereon. It was still on the edge of open country. Campingtown, the military camp, was just across Pegg's Run. It was largely settled by Germans, as shown by the remark of one of the Colonists that when the took baron Steuben to "Callow Hill," during the Revolution, the baron thought he was back in his native land.

Presumably the market square provided by the sons of the Founder proved serviceable, for before the Revolution was over a number of the residents of the neighborhood asked the permission of the Legislature to provide a permanent market house or houses thereon. In the petition for the right to erect these buildings and rent the stalls, the applicants recited how shipbuilding and commerce and other occupations had flourished in "the place called Callowhill;" how a new ferry had been started at the foot of the street and how jersey's farmers had found it a convenient crossing. So they asked, and secured, the right to erect a market house, of four sections, with public market place, of four sections, with the understanding that the square was to remain "forever" as a public market place, and that when the subscribers to the building program had been reimbursed, with interest, for their civic contribution, the property was to pass to the ownership of the local authorities.

Isaac Coates of the Coates family after whom Coates Street, now Fairmount Avenue, was named, David Rose, George Forepaugh, George Leib, Peter Brown and John Britton were named as Superintendents of the Market, which, for some unknown reason, was named "The Norwich Market." In the archives of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania there is the old receipt book of that market company in which one can see how faithfully, year after year, for more than two generations, the accounts of the company were kept. On the plaza provided by the Penns its subscribers built the four houses, "covered with cedar shingles and tiles," as stipulated in the enabling act, with Callowhill and New Market Streets cutting through between the markets and the adjoining properties. Business, however, was not as expected at the start and as, evidence of the pull of the promoters there is the strange statute of March 18th, 1789, which imposed a penalty on any one who tried to peddle fruit or poultry, meat or butter and eggs, from door to door anywhere in the Liberties, or who sought to sell food of any kind, save vegetables, outside the market. any one so doing had to pay double the amount received for the sale, one half of which went to the Superintendents of the market and the other half to the private prosecutor.

Even with this monopolistic control, the market did not pay and finally the stockholders were glad to sell out to the municipal authorities. For many years, however the market square furnished a local business centre for the northern Liberties and partly the reason for the presence in that section of the city of a number of old inns and taverns like the White Horse, the Black Horse, the bald Eagle, the Red Lion and the Camel, and for the early extension of Second Street's shopping center northward to city line at Vine.

Meanwhile, growing steadily to the West, the Liberties, with Callowhill as one of the main thoroughfares, found need of other markets and even the old privilege which the farmers had of parking their market wagons on north Second Street did not serve. A little more than a century ago, another market on Callowhill Street came into existence, almost over night, in the larger open space left west of Fourth Street.

The little square to the east continued to decline in importance, although within the memory of the present generation it has come to that entire district about the plaza at New Market and Callowhill, being given over now almost entirely to the sale and handling of foodstuffs. At the back of one of the buildings, on the southwest corner, one may note, in the apparent corner placement of the structure in the rear, how the square probably extended in that direction in times past, while the opposite corner, now used again for market purposes, was once the home of the Gaul Brewery and previously had been the property of the Hares. Later it became the first of the Betz breweries and the place where that enterprising resident of old Callowhill laid the foundation for his future.