From Blockley Township to West Philadelphia

Fixed bridges provided transportation opportunities in the first half of the nineteenth century, bringing residential and institutional development to Blockley Township.

Blockley Township made great strides in the first half of the nineteenth century. Bridges replaced ferries, allowing public transport by horse-drawn buses. Villages formed around transportation routes and the divided land of former estates. The area also housed some of the city's most vital social institutions for the underprivileged. When the City of Philadelphia incorporated its neighboring polities in Philadelphia County in 1854, Blockley Township was so developed it had already been divided into three subsections, all of which were incorporated into the city under the name “West Philadelphia.”

Transportation Promotes Development

The success of the Lancaster turnpike in the eighteenth century necessitated the development of fixed bridges over the Schuylkill which allowed regular foot traffic and the first not-so-rapid methods of mass transit.

New developments in transportation require advancement in infrastructure. In the case of West Philadelphia, this meant the introduction of stable, stationary bridges. Rapid advances in the engineering of bridges enabled the start of mass transportation. West Philadelphia residents traveled to and from Philadelphia daily on horseback, by wagon, an in horse-drawn omnibuses.

Modern Bridges

Early in the nineteenth century, safe, reliable, stationary, and capable-of-high-volume bridges replaced ferries and floating bridges on the Schuylkill River. No sooner were these new bridges open than they became the primary conveyors of commerce and people.

The early nineteenth century stationary bridges were marvels of ingenuity and cutting-edge technology. Crossing the Schuylkill suddenly became a high-volume and highly adventurous activity; whether pedestrian, wagon, or horse-drawn omnibuses, people and commerce like never before poured in and out of Philadelphia. By 1839, bridges were such a mandatory part of travel that Philadelphia gained ownership of them and removed the toll.

The Market Street Permanent Bridge

Introducing an entirely new era in West Philadelphia history, the Market Street Permanent Bridge was announced in 1798 and opened to the public in 1805.

The first stationary bridge across the Schuylkill, the Market Street Permanent Bridge, was created at the popular middle crossing on Market Street, the starting point for the heavily-trafficked Lancaster Turnpike. Construction of the Market Street Bridge began in October 1800 and extended more than four years until it was completed and ready for public use. The bridge was a private enterprise, funded by a company of wealthy investors. It cost thirty thousand dollars and its creators did not skimp. Fronted by a marble obelisk on its western side, with a carved wooden statue at each entrance (one called Commerce, the other Agriculture), the Permanent Bridge opened to an enthusiastic public on January 1, 1805. Neither the public nor commercial traffic was deterred by the toll. Rising 31 feet above the river, the triple-arch bridge was 552 feet long.

The Wernwag “Colossus” Bridge

In 1812 the proprietors of the Upper Ferry responded to the loss of business to the Market Street Permanent Bridge by constructing a permanent bridge of their own.

The commercial success of the Market Street Permanent Bridge attracted the attention of other investors. Soon promoters filed petitions for an active incorporation to construct at the Upper Ferry crossing. The company contracted the well-known German engineer Louis Wernwag to design the bridge. His single-arch bridge was an engineering marvel. Spanning 340 feet, the wooden "Colossus" was 98 feet longer than any other bridge arch on the continent at the time. Shortly after the bridge opened in 1812, Spring Garden Street was extended to connect the bridge to the Lancaster Pike.

The Fairmount Wire Bridge

The public approval of the Market Street Permanent and the Wernwag bridges lead to one of the first taxpayer-funded, public bridges in Philadelphia, the Fairmount Wire Bridge.

When a fire destroyed the Wernwag Bridge in 1838, the public demanded a replacement be constructed and opened as soon as possible. Philadelphia's elected representatives commissioned a publicly funded bridge and after more than two years of construction, it opened in January 1842. It was the second wire bridge in the United States. Designed by Charles Ellet Jr., it was the second wire bridge in the United States. Ellet was commissioned under the terms of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Free Bridge Act of 1839, which allowed Philadelphia to appropriate funds to build toll-free bridges over the Schuylkill.1 Control of the bridge was vested in the commissioners of the Spring Garden district.

Omnibuses

Mass transportation in the form of horse-drawn cars became possible by the construction of bridges.

The bridges constructed across the Schuylkill in the first decades of the nineteenth century provided the means for horse-drawn omnibuses to carry the first commuters to the central city. They were charged substantial fares by private operators, the cost amounting to more than ten percent of the daily wage of most workers.1 The omnibuses traversed Market Street across the Schuylkill to the intersection of Darby Road (Woodland Avenue) and Lancaster Pike.

  • 1. Walter Licht, Getting Work: Philadelphia, 1840-1950 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 53.

Burgeoning Villages

As Blockley Township grew as a commercial corridor, residential communities grew up closely along major thoroughfares.

Blockley Township grew rapidly after it became directly connected to the city with the Market Street Bridge. Fifty years after the first continuous link to the city was introduced with the Market Street Permanent Bridge, Blockley Township had grown from an agricultural countryside to a series of rapidly growing communities. Owners of the great mansion estates along the river, realizing the bridge meant the end of their rural privacy and a dramatic increase in their land value, seized the opportunity and divided their land for sale. Mantua, Hamilton Village, and Powelton Village were proto-suburbs—a planned community of home owners within reach of the city, but lacking the rapid transit which later made suburbs the city's backyard. Farther west, communities grew organically into small towns at places where there was opportunity for commerce; the intersections of transportation routes, sources of mechanical power, or a combination of the two. Towns like Haddington and Hestonville grew around places where medium-sized roads intersected with the Lancaster Turnpike.

Mantua

The 1812 Spring Garden Street Bridge spurred the development of Mantua, a planned neighborhood.

Mantua, to the north of Powelton Village, was a neighborhood bounded by present-day Spring Garden Street on the south, Lancaster Pike on the southwest, present-day 40th Street on the west, present-day Girard Avenue on the north, and the Schuylkill River on the east. Residential development began in the 1830s, and Mantua, like Hamilton Village, had taken shape by 1850. Judge Richard Peters, owner of the Belmont estate, and the real estate developer John Britton, Jr., are the most prominent names associated with the rise of Mantua.

Hamilton Village

After the announcement of the Market Street Bridge, Hamilton made plans to divide his land into "Hamiltonville," a neighborhood created for those who intended to commute regularly to and from the city, over and back on the bridge.

William Hamilton made plans to subdivide his estate south of Market Street as early as 1798, the year the Market Street Bridge was announced. By 1808, he had formally proposed "Hamilton Village" with streets planned to be a westward extension of the standard grid of the Philadelphia street system. Hamilton Village (alternately called "Hamiltonville") was bounded approximately by the present-day streets of Market on the north, 32nd Street on the east, Spruce and Woodlands Avenue on the south, and 40th Street on the west. The streets were laid out and houses, churches, and schools began construction. Hamilton Village is special in Philadelphia history because its residents commuted to work in the city over the Market Street bridge instead of adopting a "country lifestyle." Some Philadelphia historians have gone so far as to declare Hamilton Village the first modern suburb of Philadelphia, but others point out that the concept of the "modern" suburb requires the technological wonder of rapid transportation.

Hestonville

Hestonville formed around the three-point intersection of present-day 52nd Street, Lancaster Pike, and the Old Lancaster Road (present-day 54th Street).

Hestonville, also called "Monroeville," formed around the three-point intersection of present-day 52nd Street, Lancaster Pike, and the Old Lancaster Road (present-day 54th Street). Named for Edward W. Heston (1745-1824), grandson of William Warner and owner of nearly 100 acres of inherited land near the crossroads. By 1843 Hestonville was one of the handful of Blockley villages significant enough to be labeled on maps, though it was only a few dozen buildings.

Building Local Institutions to Serve all of Philadelphia

Starting in the 1820s, managers of both the Philadelphia Almshouse and the Pennsylvania Hospital responded to intense public pressure to move dependent-care facilities outside the earshot of urban Philadelphia, and Blockley Township had the nearest, most available space within Philadelphia County for institutions of this kind.

Philadelphia, like any city, invariably includes a portion of the population in need: the homeless, mentally unwell, aged, orphaned, or in need of city-provided healthcare. Care for the majority of these dependent populations had been a part of Philadelphia since 1684 in the form of a city almshouse. By the 1820s, the almshouse had already been moved once to expand its facilities and, more importantly move it to the boundary of established buildings. In 1829, the Philadelphia Almshouse was so full that patients would sometimes be chained in the basement for lack of space. The disruption to the neighborhood made it a nuisance and the public pressured managers to move. Spacious and still relatively sparse Blockley Township offered a nearby solution. The newly renamed Blockley Almshouse opened on former Hamilton lands in 1832. Shortly after, the Pennsylvania Hospital, a private institution, followed the lead of the public almshouse and moved their mentally unwell population a few blocks away from the Blockley Almshouse. The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane opened in 1840 under the care of Thomas Kirkbride, a progressive superintendent.

Blockley Almshouse

Philadelphia's public almshouse—part shelter, workhouse, orphanage, and indigent hospital—moved to a portion of the former Woodlands estate in 1832.

Philadelphia's public almshouse developed as a multipurpose institute: a combined shelter, workhouse, orphanage, and indigent hospital. In the nineteenth century, Almshouse facilities in Center City could not provide health and social services to the growing number of public wards. But the main push came from Center City’s rising prices for the decreasingly available land. Neighbors complained that they were spending too much to live close to the busy, often noisy, institution. It was clear that the Almshouse had to move. The Guardians of the Almshouse looked to establish a larger facility in the open, still undeveloped setting of Blockley Township. In 1832, city officials purchased 187 acres of the former Woodlands estate. Blockley Almshouse, as the new facility was commonly called, grew in its new West Philadelphia location to become a sprawling four-building complex, each building three stories high and 500 feet long.

Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane

Following in the footsteps of Philadelphia's public almshouse, Philadelphia's leading private institution, the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, moved to West Philadelphia in 1841 under the leadership of Thomas Story Kirkbride, a progressive pioneer in humane treatment for the mentally ill.

Care for Philadelphia’s mentally ill had been a part of the Pennsylvania Hospital since its opening in 1751, but by the early decades of the nineteenth century, the population of psychiatric patients had swollen beyond the hospital's capacity.1 Hospital officials decided to move the psychiatric patients to a separate asylum and purchased a 130-acre tract of land in Blockley Township, at present-day 49th and Market streets. The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane opened in 1841 under the progressive direction of Thomas Story Kirkbride, who oversaw its expansion and the construction of a formidable building complex in the late 1850s that stands to this day.2 During his tenure as superintendent, Kirkbride gained international recognition for his humane approach to the treatment of the insane. Patients at the hospital resided unchained in private, sanitary and well-lit private rooms. They worked outdoors; enjoyed recreational activities, including lectures and the use of a library; and received medical attention.

Becoming Part of a Greater Philadelphia

West Philadelphia was incorporated into the City of Philadelphia by the Consolidation Act of 1854 along with other boroughs, townships, and districts of Philadelphia County.

The Consolidation Act of 1854 merged the City of Philadelphia with the outlying boroughs, townships, and districts of Philadelphia County, including West Philadelphia. The Consolidation Act of 1854 was designed as a solution to social, environmental, and organizational problems that had plagued Philadelphia County in the first half of the century. Eli K. Price, a major landowner in Blockley Township and a state senator, shepherded Philadelphia’s 1854 annexation of West Philadelphia through the Pennsylvania legislature.