Pre-History to 1854

The Original People and Their Land

William Warner was the first European to settle in West Philadelphia. He arrived in 1677, five years before William Penn founded his utopian city. Warner came to a vast and beautiful land filled with rolling hills, wetlands, and lush trees. The northern portions of the area were wooded with forests of oak, green pine, evergreen, chestnut, walnut, ash, button, magnolia, and hickory trees, while the meadowlands south and east were covered with moss, grass, and weeds ideal for grazing livestock. Wild berries, water lilies, strawberries, cattail, mushrooms, and corn grew wild in the fields.1

Lenape Family

Lenape Family
Lenape Family

Peter Lindeström's depiction of a Delaware Indian family as seen during his travels in 1650.

William Warner also came to a land inhabited by the Lenape or "Original People," West Philadelphia’s first natives. They were a nomadic people belonging to the Algonquian language family. Important tribes within this language group included the Ojibwa, Blackfoot, Shawnee, and Lenape. The Lenape were divided into three sub-tribes: the Minsi (People of the Stone Country) inhabited the northern part of Pennsylvania, the Unami (People Who Live Down-River) inhabited the central region of Pennsylvania, and the Unalachtigo (People Who Live by the Ocean) inhabited the southern area of Pennsylvania.2

The Lenape resided in bands along various rivers and creeks. They lived on hunting and growing foodstuffs and depended on the fertility of the land. Due to their heavy tillage of the land, the soils they farmed gradually lost their productivity. As a result, Lenape frequently relocated.3 Generally, an occupied area lost its usefulness in two decades' time. Thus, the natives constantly set up, abandoned, and resettled communities throughout Pennsylvania.

Archeological evidence indicates that the Lenape inhabited the area centuries before the Europeans arrived. They established various villages along the Schuylkill River and its tributaries. Recent excavations in West Philadelphia reveal evidence of settlements along the west bank of the Schuylkill River along today’s Civic Center Boulevard.4 In 2001, a team of archeologists excavated the area prior to the building of a parking garage. During the excavation, numerous prehistoric artifacts were found, providing evidence of a fairly large and stable indigenous community occupying the area during the late archaic and early woodland periods, six thousand years ago.

Blockley Almshouse Site

Blockley Almshouse Site
Blockley Almshouse Site

The site of the Blockley Almshouse and its cemetery, located at the corner of 38th Street and Civic Center Boulevard, was excavated in 2001.

The Lenape utilized natural resources to build their homes. They lived in single doorway wooden huts called wigwams, which were situated along rivers and creeks. The size of their wigwams depended on the region they inhabited. In the southern region, the Unalachtigo’s homes were created for single-family dwellings while in the northern region larger multi-family buildings were constructed.



Chief of the Lenape, 1737

The Lenape had distinctly different physical features and appearances than that of the Europeans. Skeletal remains indicate that the average male height ranged from 5’1" to 5’7." They had oval facial structures with high cheekbones, tan skin, and broad shoulders.5 Both men and women used bear grease to dress their hair, and decorated their bodies, face, and arms with designs painted in various colors.6 The women were of medium stature. For clothing, men wore breechcloths during the summer and fur robes during the winter. Likewise, women wore wrap-around-skirts during the summer and fur robes with leggings during the winter.7 Both women and girls adorned their bodies with tribal jewelry made from shells, stones, beads, and animal teeth and claws.8

Due to their short life expectancy, men and women married young.9 Girls commonly married at the ages of thirteen and fourteen while young men married at ages of seventeen and eighteen. For some marriage lasted a lifetime, but for others this union ended in divorce. A woman wishing to divorce her husband placed all of his personal possessions outside of the wigwam. A man wishing to divorce his wife left the home.10

Once couples had children, fathers with the help of other male elders bore responsibility for teaching male children to hunt for wild game. Women taught daughters how to gather edible plants and tend to the children. In late fall, the men left their homes to hunt white-tailed deer, wild fowl, muskrat, rabbits, and foxes. Men were responsible for the heavy work around the village, making tools, weapons, mortars, frames for the wigwams, dugouts, and fishing spears.11 Tools were made from the bones of animals, wood, stone, as well as various types of grasses. Birds such as herons, pigeons, eagles, hawks, and turkeys were hunted. Once a bird was captured, it would either be prepared for direct consumption or dried. When the weather was favorable, men would use spears, harpoons, nets, and dams to catch fish. The women would clean and prepare the fish, which were either eaten raw or dried and saved for later.12

Lenape Village

Lenape Village
Lenape Village

People arriving at a Lenape Village by dugout canoe, with barkhouses in the background.

Women’s work included tanning hides, sewing, cooking, as well as gathering fruits and berries when they were in season.13 Mothers would show their daughters how to gather roots, nuts, eggs, clams, and edible plants. As they grew older, young girls learned how to garden, care for the children, and cook.14 Although corn was the main crop, several varieties of beans, squash, pumpkins, tobacco, and sunflowers were cultivated.15 When fruit and nuts were in season, children would accompany their mothers and aunts into the forests to gather apples, persimmons, water lilies, and butternuts.16

Swedish Encounter with the Lenape

Swedish Encounter with the Lenape
Swedish Encounter with the Lenape

Thomas Campanius Holm, c. 1700

During the first decades of the seventeenth century, the harsh winds of change swept across the Lenape’s land bringing European explorers and settlers in search of commercial opportunities. In 1633, Dutch and Swedish investors, under the leadership of Peter Minuit, formed the New South Company; the Dutch had already been involved in colonization along the Hudson River. In 1638, the Company bought a tract of land from the Lenape near present-day Wilmington, Delaware. The Company then established a settlement on Tinicum Island (near today’s Philadelphia International Airport) with John Printz as governor. Swedish and Finnish settlers who engaged in fur trading followed. Further fur trading posts were established along the west bank of the Delaware River. In 1640, the New South Company came under control of Swedes as Dutch investors sold their shares. Dutch officials still had ambitions in the Delaware River and established new trading posts. In 1655, Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch Governor of New York, led an invasion, capturing Swedish settlements. However, Dutch rule proved short-lived as the Dutch soon lost claims in North America to Great Britain. The Swedes remained and established a community in West Philadelphia along the southwest side of the Schuylkill River, bearing the Lenape name, Chinssessing, "a place where there is a meadow" (which grew to be the district of Kingsessing).

The Dutch and Swedes had episodic relations with the Lenape. William Penn would have more enduring and impacting interactions. In 1682, William Penn came to the Delaware River valley to claim lands granted to him on a proprietary basis by King Charles II of England and to establish a haven in the New World for fellow members of the persecuted Quaker sect. He came to take possession of lands that reached throughout southeast Pennsylvania where the Lenape resided.17 The Quakers believed strongly in the principles of goodwill and friendship and Penn practiced these principles with the Lenape. Penn was determined to treat them as brothers and sisters as he believed they too were children of God. He entered into purchase agreements with the Lenape that brought lands ceded in his proprietorship under his absolute title.18 Although he took ownership rights, he still recognized and reserved certain lands where Lenape villages were located, not allowing them to be sold. Peaceful relations between the European settlers and the Lenape would disintegrate, however, not long after Penn’s death in 1718.19

Penn's Treaty with the Indians

Penn's Treaty with the Indians
Penn's Treaty with the Indians

William Penn's treaty with the Lenape, negotiated with a Lenape sachem in 1683. The site is near the present-day Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington.

The Lenape famously lost all claims to the terrain they had inhabited for centuries in the "Walking Purchase" deed of 1737. After purchase agreements with William Penn the Lenape moved outward, but soon these lands would be claimed by growing numbers of European settlers in the countryside around Penn’s Philadelphia. In the 1730s, Penn’s sons reinterpreted an accord that Penn had reached with the Lenape in 1686, insisting that the Penn family claim extended a full day-and-a-half’s walking distance. Sending out so-called "walkers" to determine the extent of their asserted domain, the Penns seized ownership of lands sixty-five miles long, effectively adding 750,000 acres to the family estate.20

Disease and warfare further eclipsed the presence of the Lenape in eastern Pennsylvania. A series of smallpox epidemics—the smallpox microbe brought by European settlers to the New World—reduced the numbers of Lenape by an estimated 80 percent. Violent attacks sanctioned by Penn authorities took a toll as well. The remaining Lenape retreated westward into Ohio and beyond leaving but a tiny presence in Pennsylvania of the land’s centuries-long original inhabitants.


European Settlement and 18th Century Estate Building in West Philadelphia

With the departure of the Lenape, British farmers and craftsmen and later, Americans with substantial resources developed West Philadelphia. The first settlers typically built modest log and frame houses, but by the end of the 18th century large estates—with two-story brick and stone houses—had been developed along the banks of the Schuylkill River. William Warner (ca. 1627-1707), a native of the parish of Blockley in Worcestershire, England, led the way.21

West Philadelphia

West Philadelphia
West Philadelphia

West Philadelphia detail of the 1752 map by N. Scull, G. Heap, and L. Hebert.

Warner is an important figure in the history of West Philadelphia. He arrived in the Delaware Valley in the mid-1670s and by 1677 had settled on the west bank of the Schuylkill River. It is said that he negotiated with the Lenape and purchased rights from them to 1,500 acres of land.22 In any case, in the spring of 1678 he obtained from the Upland Court (located at present-day Chester, Pennsylvania) a formal order confirming his rights to 100 acres of land in West Philadelphia. Two years later he obtained from the same court legal recognition of his rights to a contiguous tract of 200 acres, and in 1681, still another 400 acres. When William Penn took control of Pennsylvania, Warner (and his family) patented a total of 588 acres with the new government. The original farm of 300 acres fronted on the Schuylkill River in present-day Fairmount Park (at the site of Samuel Breck’s 1797 mansion house, "Sweetbriar") and stretched west, between narrow boundaries, as far as 60th and Media Streets. Warner named his farm "Blockley," after his birth place in England.

Warner was also a community leader in the first years of William Penn’s new colony. He sought election to public office and was rewarded with two terms in the Pennsylvania Assembly, the first in 1683 and the second in 1691. He was also a justice of the peace for Philadelphia County in 1685 and 1686. His influence proved lasting, for in 1705, when the entire 14.2 square mile area we know of as West Philadelphia today was first organized as a political entity, it was officially named Blockley Township. The Blockley name identified West Philadelphia for nearly 150 years. Not until 1854, when the City of Philadelphia expanded and incorporated all the townships in Philadelphia County, did a ward number substitute for Blockley as the designation for West Philadelphia.

John Bartram

John Bartram
John Bartram

Portrait by Howard Pyle

Two miles south and west of the Warner settlement—but also on the west bank of the Schuylkill River—another prominent early Pennsylvanian, John Bartram (1699-1777), made his home. John Bartram is generally recognized as the father of American botany and the first North American to hybridize flowering plants.23 Bartram was born on a farm just west of Philadelphia, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. In 1728 he purchased a farm of 102 acres on the west bank of the Schuylkill and soon thereafter constructed a two-story stone house for himself and his family. He prospered. The origins of Bartram’s interest in flowers are unknown—he perhaps became fascinated by the medicinal powers of plants. In 1736 he traveled upstream on the Schuylkill, collecting plants for exchange with Peter Collinson, his British correspondent. Two years later he undertook the first of his North American explorations, traveling more than 1,000 miles up the James River in Virginia, studying the natural history of that region. He discovered several native floras, of which the Franklinia alatamaha tree is his most famous. John Bartram’s fame grew throughout the American colonies and in Europe (Bartram maintained correspondence with European botanists and regularly sent them clippings of plants and seeds—all rhododendrons in Europe, for example, date back to Bartram’s shipments). In total, it is believed that Bartram helped to identify, cultivate and preserve more than 200 American plant species.24

John Bartram’s son, William Bartram (1739-1823), would come into his own as a famous and respected botanist for the documentation of his travels. In 1773, William Bartram began a tour of the southern colonies that lasted four years and he recorded his experience; a published version of his journals with his drawings drew acclaim as an "American natural history classic." Another of John Bartram’s sons, John Bartram Jr., turned his father’s gardens into a commercial venture. He published one of the first catalogs for the mail-order sale of plants and seeds.25 Such famous American founding fathers as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson purchased flowers and seeds from the Bartrams for their gardens, adding to the renown of John Bartram and his sons. Today, one can tour Bartram’s Gardens and see various plants Bartram helped to cultivate as well as his home, which serves as a museum. The Garden now occupies forty-five acres, much smaller than the original 102-acre site. The preservation of the Bartrams’ contributions to botany is due to the philanthropy of Andrew Eastwick, a successful railroad executive, who purchased the estate and ceded the grounds to the city of Philadelphia in 1891 for public use. Those interested in the history of West Philadelphia may visit Bartram’s Garden from its entry at 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard in southwest Philadelphia.

House of John Bartram, the Colonial Botanist and Agriculturist

House of John Bartram, the Colonial Botanist and Agriculturist
House of John Bartram, the Colonial Botanist and Agriculturist

House of John Bartram, the famed colonial botanist and agriculturalist; located on the Schuylkill River below Gray's Ferry.

Nearly a century after William Warner, another man, William Hamilton (1745-1813) came to exemplify estate building along the western banks of the Schuylkill River. He was the grandson of the famous Philadelphia lawyer, Andrew Hamilton (ca. 1676-1741), a major legal and political figure in Philadelphia in the first half of the 18th century. Andrew Hamilton, whose British origins are obscure, arrived in Virginia in 1700 and rapidly became a prominent attorney in both Virginia and Maryland.26 He moved to Philadelphia in 1715 and just two years later was named Attorney General of the Province of Pennsylvania. He was also a major investor in Pennsylvania land, including 300 acres on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in Blockley Township, which he purchased in 1735. In that same year Andrew Hamilton became the most famous lawyer in colonial America when he successfully defended John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, in a landmark free-speech case. New York authorities had accused Zenger of "seditious libels." Andrew Hamilton won an acquittal for Zenger by challenging the law rather than proving his client’s innocence. The case ultimately contributed to the adoption of the principles of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Hamilton’s abilities in litigation at the trial gave rise to the expression, "Philadelphia lawyer."

At his death, in 1741, Andrew Hamilton willed his West Philadelphia land to his son, Andrew, Jr. The younger Andrew lived only until 1747, when he willed "his Plantation on the West side of the Schuylkill, containing about 356 acres," to his son, William. Nearly thirty years later, in 1776, another son of the elder Andrew Hamilton, James (ca. 1710-1783), purchased an additional 179 acres in West Philadelphia, a tract of land which was contiguous with William Hamilton’s estate. When James Hamilton died, in 1783, he willed all 179 acres to William. In this manner—356 acres from his father, Andrew the second, and 179 acres from his uncle, James—William Hamilton, by 1785, came into ownership of approximately 535 acres of West Philadelphia land. William Hamilton’s estate stretched from the Schuylkill River on the east to present-day 43rd Street on the west, and from present-day Market Street on the north to the present-day Woodlands Cemetery on the south.

By 1785, other wealthy Philadelphians were purchasing open land and building grand mansion houses along both the east and the west banks of the Schuylkill River. Many of these "country estates" were later purchased by the City of Philadelphia and consolidated within the present-day boundaries of Fairmount Park. On the east side of the river were, for example, John Macpherson’s "Mount Pleasant" (1765) and the Rawle family’s "Laurel Hill" (1767). On the west side were William Peters’ "Belmont" (1744) and on the old Warner farm, the imposing club house of the gentlemen members of the "Schuylkill Fishing Company" (ca. 1747, but now demolished). William Hamilton decided to follow their lead.

In 1788, near the southwest corner of his inherited estate, William Hamilton built a fashionable, two-story, stone mansion house which featured oval rooms and sweeping views of the Schuylkill River and southwest Philadelphia. He decorated the house with fancy English furniture and fine art. Perhaps most notably, he developed extensive gardens and filled them with native and exotic plants from across America and around the world. In 1798, at the time of that year’s U.S. Direct Tax, the tax assessors described an estate which included not only the 7,100 square foot main house, but also a hot house, greenhouse, seed house, tea house, ice house, coach house and stable, and two porter houses. William Hamilton called his place the "Woodlands" and for a quarter century—until his death in 1813—travelers throughout the English-speaking world came to see it. Over several years and in several transactions Hamilton’s heirs sold the Woodlands, but the mansion house itself has survived to the present day as the office and administration building of the Woodlands Cemetery, formed from part of the estate in 1840. Those interested in the history of West Philadelphia may visit the Woodlands through a magnificent gate to the cemetery grounds at 4000 Woodland Avenue.

Woodlands, the Seat of Mr. Wm. Hamilton

Woodlands, the Seat of Mr. Wm. Hamilton
Woodlands, the Seat of Mr. Wm. Hamilton

The Woodlands, a splendid Georgian mansion overlooking the Schuylkill River at Gray's Ferry was completed by William Hamilton in 1770 and rebuilt from 1786-1792.

North of the Woodlands, that is, north of present-day Market Street, there were, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a series of grand mansion houses and country estates on the west bank of the Schuylkill. The first of these was the Powel family’s ninety-seven-acre "Powelton," followed to the north by: a ninety-five-acre property owned by Anne Willing Bingham; John Britton’s ferry house and ferry, known as the "Upper Ferry on Schuylkill," which included fifty-eight acres of land (in 1798 Britton sold the ferry house, ferry, and fourteen acres to Adam Siter); David Beveridge’s property of twenty-nine acres; and Judge Richard Peters’ place, "Mantua Farm," which extended to 227½ acres. By the late 19th century, however, all five of these houses had been demolished and their grounds developed into the present-day neighborhoods of Powelton Village and Mantua. In addition, the land directly on the Schuylkill was taken up by the Pennsylvania Railroad for its rail lines and freight depot.

Solitude, A Quiet Retreat

Solitude, A Quiet Retreat
Solitude, A Quiet Retreat

One of the late 18th century country houses on the west bank of the Schuylkill River was John Penn's 'Solitude.' It was meant to be a quiet place and so it was for a number of years. Today it is in the center of the Philadelphia Zoo where it serves as administrative headquarters.

Still more fancy houses and gardens lined the Schuylkill farther north. Just beyond the Pennsylvania Railroad’s freight yard was John Penn’s "Solitude" (the house still stands on the grounds of the present-day Philadelphia Zoo); the Warner family’s "Egglesfield;" Samuel Breck’s "Sweetbriar;" William Bingham’s showplace, "Lansdowne;" and the Peters family’s "Belmont." The last four of these estates were later incorporated into Philadelphia’s present-day Fairmount Park. The houses known as "Belmont" and "Sweetbriar" have survived to the present time and are open for tours at regular hours.

The story of "Powelton" illustrates the eventual denser, residential development of West Philadelphia as well as any of these country estates. It was home to one of the greatest Greek Revival mansions in the entire Delaware Valley; its ninety-seven acres extended, in present-day terms, from the Schuylkill River on the east, 36th Street on the west, Lancaster Avenue on the southwest, and Powelton or Pearl Street on the north. Samuel Powel (1738-1793) and his wife, Elizabeth Willing Powel (1742-1830) purchased the land in 1775 and built a country house there sometime before 1784.

Samuel Powel died there in the midst of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. His widow began building the grand mansion in May 1800. "Powelton House," as she called it, was completed in December 1801. It stood on ground bounded by present-day Race Street on the south, 32nd Street on the east, Powelton Street on the north, and Natrona Street on the west. Elizabeth Willing Powel adopted her nephew, John Powel Hare, who, in 1808, in accordance with his aunt’s wishes, changed his name to John Hare Powel (1786-1856). As a result, when she died, he inherited her enormous wealth. In the 1830s and 1840s John Hare Powel enlarged the house until it was an enormous Greek Revival palace, but in 1851, just as soon as the Pennsylvania Railroad began to develop its 30th Street rail center, Powel sold his house and land to the Railroad and never returned to West Philadelphia. The Railroad partitioned the property, keeping thirty acres of low land along the Schuylkill River and selling sixty-three acres of higher ground for residential development. Elihu Spencer Miller (1817-1879)—whose wife was Anna Emlen Hare (1833-unk.)—purchased the great house and two acres in 1860. The Miller family occupied the place until 1883, when they sold to Evert Janson Wendell, whose building firm of Wendell and Smith demolished the house in January and February 1885. Within a year, Wendell and Smith had cut two streets through the property and constructed no fewer than sixty houses on the two-acre site. From open country estate to crowded urban streets took only thirty-five years.

The Bingham property to the north of "Powelton" was also rapidly developed. William Bingham (1752-1804)—a member of the Continental Congress, Trustee of the University of Pennsylvania, Director of the Bank of North America, and from March 1795 to March 1801, U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania—was said to be the richest American of his time.27 Bingham was also influential in West Philadelphia. Bingham was President of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike and it was he, "between 1792 and 1796, [who] oversaw the construction and operation of [this] major commercial artery…The turnpike was modern in its engineering and crushed-stone surface and proved highly profitable as a business."28 Bingham’s daughters married sons of "Sir Francis Baring, head of the British House of Baring…"29 and it was the Barings who gave Baring and Hamilton streets their names and developed the Bingham land between 1850 and 1890.

West Philadelphia, 1839

West Philadelphia, 1839
West Philadelphia, 1839

Map of West Philadelphia in 1839, by Charles Ellet Jr.

South of Market Street, William Hamilton made plans to subdivide his estate as early as 1808. In that year he formally proposed "Hamilton Village," a westward extension of the standard grid of the Philadelphia street system. The Hamilton Village development was triangular in shape, bounded, approximately, by the present-day streets of Market on the north, 32nd on the east, Spruce and Woodlands Avenue on the south, and 40th on the west. The streets were laid out and houses, churches, and schools began to be built. Rather than a "country" lifestyle, Hamilton Village was "suburban," that is, its residents commuted to work daily over the new Market Street bridge and returned home each evening. In that sense, Hamilton Village may be described as the first modern suburb of Philadelphia.

William Hamilton died in 1813 and his heirs began selling the Woodlands in large acreages. The two most important sales were those of 1829 and 1840. In the first of those years Hamilton’s heirs sold 187 acres to "The Guardians for the Relief and Employment of the Poor of the City of Philadelphia," thereby creating in West Philadelphia a great public institution commonly known as the Philadelphia Almshouse, which was transformed in the early 20th century to the Philadelphia General Hospital and continued on the site until its closing in 1977. In the second instance, real estate lawyer Eli K. Price and his brother, Philip, a surveyor, created the Woodlands Cemetery company, which included the Woodlands mansion house itself and ninety-one acres of surrounding land. By 1850, at about the same time "Powelton" was sold and subdivided, the "Woodlands" as it had been was no more. Nevertheless, the mansion house has survived and is open for tours at regular hours.

From a countryside of sizeable estates and fashionable mansion houses the eastern portion of West Philadelphia would emerge by the mid-19th century as a suburb, built up on streets which represented an extension of the City of Philadelphia to the east. As early as 1802, at least one person imagined this more cosmopolitan place.

That was Charles P. Varle, a distinguished cartographer, who, in that year, published a map for his fellow Philadelphians, entitled, To The Citizens of Philadelphia This New Plan Of The City And Its Environs. Varle portrayed a fully developed version of William Penn’s rectangular city, but also a developed Blockley Township, with the street grid system of the city extended across the Schuylkill to the eastern part of Blockley and Market Street forming a boulevard bridging the river with an esplanade at a western end in the township. However, Varle’s dream aside, Blockley Township remained—with exceptions like Hamilton Village and Powelton Village—a rural and unpopulated district for more than a hundred years after William Warner purchased land from the Lenape and established his "Willow Grove." This is evident in the first tax assessments and censuses conducted in the last decades of the eighteenth century.

Four sources provide another window on life in Blockley Township in the late 18th century. They are the records of the 1783 tax assessment, when the assessors counted the number of residents, buildings, and domesticated animals; the 1790 U.S. census; the 1798 U.S. Direct Tax; and the 1800 U.S. census. In 1783 the tax assessors counted 644 people in Blockley Township.30 They also counted 85 houses, 40 barns, 119 horses, 253 horn cattle and sheep. There were two ferries, two grist mills, and one tannery in the Township of Blockley. In 1790 the U.S. Census takers counted a 40% increase, to 883 residents (423 white males; 434 white females; twenty-two "other persons," that is, free African Americans; and four slaves). In 1798 the tax assessors counted 150 houses. In 1800 the U.S. Census takers documented another 20% growth in the general population to 1091 (549 white males; 507 white females; thirty-three free African Americans; and two slaves). Blockley was only sparsely populated, but was growing rapidly. People lived, on average, seven to a household. Men slightly outnumbered women in these early surveys, but they dominated as property holders. In 1798 only ten of the 150 household owners were women. Official documents thus reveal Blockley Township at the turn of the nineteenth century as a hinterland rather than a suburb to the famed city of Philadelphia to the east that had recently figured so importantly in the American Revolution and creation of a new republic.


Bridging the Schuylkill

In the nineteenth century, West Philadelphia transformed from a countryside of family farms and "gentlemen’s" estates to a set of residential communities. The building of bridges across the Schuylkill River promoted development. Traffic of goods and people between Philadelphia and the city’s hinterland west of the Schuylkill had greatly increased over the course of the eighteenth century with the growth of agricultural production, but until the first decade of the nineteenth century, traffic across the river was chiefly handled by three ferries: "Gray’s Ferry" on the south; "Middle Ferry" at present-day Market Street; and the "Upper Ferry" at present-day Spring Garden Street. But even before a more efficient means of bridging the river came of issue, the greater settlement of Philadelphia’s western hinterland area rested on the building and improvement of road and wagon ways.

As early as 1683, work had begun on what was variously called "Blockley and Merion Turnpike" or "Plank Road," a route used by Welsh Friends of Merion to go from their meeting house to the Upper Ferry on the Schuylkill. Part of this road evolved into present-day 54th Street and Lancaster Avenue.31 In 1722, a committee was appointed to plan further road connections from points in Blockley Township to the river.32 In 1786, a large project was initiated to construct the "First Long Turnpike in the United States."33 This "first important public improvement in the state" was completed by the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road Company. The turnpike was completed for public use in 1795 and extended from Philadelphia to Lancaster.34

Improvement of roads and increased wagon traffic did not force innovations in bridging the Schuylkill River. War did. In 1776 at the outset of the American Revolution, George Washington, military leader of the colonial uprising, ordered the erection of a bridge connecting Philadelphia to the west and General Israel Putnam supervised its construction. The "bridge" was a primitive construction involving floating logs and scows; with the later British occupation of Philadelphia, the bridge was destroyed and the scows were hidden in the marshes.35 The British then oversaw a second bridge project. In 1777, Lord William Howe deputed Captain John Montressor to construct a bridge across the Schuylkill River. However, the bridge was hastily built and was destroyed by the rushing water shortly after its completion. Montressor and a team of engineers then gathered the debris and built a third bridge in the same location. The bridge remained after the British evacuated the area. The English traveler Henry Wansey described the bridge as: 

[two iron chains] strained across the river parallel to each other, about six feet distance; on it are placed flat planks, fastened to each chain; and in this the horses and carriages pass over. As the horses stepped on the boards they sank under the pressure and the water rose between them; no railing on either side, it really looked very frightful and dangerous.36

In the 1780s, Thomas Paine, the famed author of the revolutionary tract Common Sense and leading figure in the American Revolution, rendered plans for the construction of an iron bridge across the Schuylkill River. However, the project lay idle and in 1798 a design by Timothy Palmer for a wooden bridge was selected over Thomas Paine’s model. On October 18, 1800, construction began on Palmer’s Permanent Bridge at Market Street. The Permanent Bridge opened to the public in 1805. The covered bridge spanned the 550-foot length of the river with a series of arches and was 1300 feet long in total construction.37 The Permanent Bridge facilitated expanding traffic across the Schuylkill until 1850 when it was engulfed and destroyed by fire. The bridge was then reconstructed and widened to incorporate tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad (the mainline tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad and its successors connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and points further west runs through a wide swathe of West Philadelphia to this very day).38 Fire would also destroy this bridge in 1875; a truly permanent Market Street Bridge constructed with iron spans and stone fortifications would open in 1887.39

Schuylkill Bridge, High Street Philadelphia

The Permanent Bridge at Market Street
The Permanent Bridge at Market Street

Architectural plan and elevation of the Market Street Permanent Bridge.

No sooner than the completion of the first standing bridge across Schuylkill in 1805, pressure mounted for another span—this time with residential community-building west of the Schuylkill in mind. In 1809, Judge Richard Peters, owner of the Belmont estate along the northwest banks of the Schuylkill in Blockley Township, announced a plan to subdivide his lands and build suburban homes.

Looking East towards the Wernwag Bridge

Looking East towards the Wernwag Bridge
Looking East towards the Wernwag Bridge

Looking east to the Wernwag Bridge (opened 1812), with the Fairmount Water Works in the background.

The neighborhood of Mantua would thus emerge.40 To allow eased access to the community from Philadelphia petitions to the state legislature soon were filed for public construction of a bridge at Spring Garden Street (replacing private ferry service at that location). The German engineer, Lewis Wernwag, promoted a design for the bridge. The state legislature then contracted with Wernwag’s company, and the wooden Wernwag Bridge opened in 1812. The bridge was the longest single-span bridge in the world. It had a single arch that spanned 343 feet, ninety feet longer than any other bridge. 

The Spring Garden Bridge spurred immediate real estate development in Mantua. Following Judge Peters’ lead, John Britton, Jr., a local developer, in April of 1813 announced his plan to sell lots in Mantua for suburban home building and Philadelphians quickly responded.41 By the time the doors of the newly constructed First Presbyterian Church of Mantua opened in 1846, Mantua was a budding neighborhood of streets and homes with little evidence of the estates that marked the area a few decades before.42


Institution Building

As the first pockets of residential neighborhoods emerged in Blockley Township in the first decades of the nineteenth century with the bridging of the Schuylkill River, another kind of development occurred at the same time—the product of social disorders in William Penn’s utopian city of Philadelphia to the east. With growing concern for the numbers of ill, homeless, and unstable people roaming the streets of Philadelphia in the mid-1700s, Benjamin Franklin and other founders of Pennsylvania Hospital made provision for the admission of psychiatric patients when the hospital opened in February 1751 at 8th and Spruce Streets (the first hospital established in North America).43 Benjamin Rush, a physician at the hospital and a leading man of science of his age, instituted humane treatments of the insane, believing that they could be cured in bright surroundings and through recreational and occupational therapies.

Grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane

Grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane
Grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane

Grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, completed in 1841.

By the first decades of the nineteenth century, however, the population of psychiatric patients swelled beyond the hospital’s capacities. Hospital officials then decided to create a separate asylum in a bucolic setting and a 130-acre tract of land was purchased in Blockley Township (at the current 49th and Market Streets). The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane opened in 1841 under the progressive superintendency 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.44

During his tenure as superintendent, Kirkbride gained international recognition for his approaches to the treatment of the insane. Patients at the hospital resided unchained in private, sanitary, and well-lit rooms, worked outdoors, enjoyed recreational activities including lectures and the use of a library, and received medical attention. The psychiatric hospital established in West Philadelphia in the 1840s, eventually renamed as the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital, remained in operation until 1997, when declining revenues from insurance providers forced the closing and sale of the facility and the re-opening of a treatment center at Pennsylvania Hospital’s 8th Street location.

The Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane served private patients, those who could afford to pay the costs of hospitalization. The number of indigent, ill, and unstable people in William Penn’s Philadelphia demanded a public response as well. As early as 1684, Penn had designated two lots in his new city for the building of an almshouse for the care of what he termed the "distressed." The first almshouse established there only served Quakers. In 1731, the city opened an inclusive facility at 4th and Pine Streets—the first of its kind in North America—affording shelter, employment, and medical attention to the poor, sick, and insane who had no means of support.45

Philadelphia’s public almshouse developed as a multifunctional institute, part shelter, workhouse, orphanage, and hospital (the facility, not coincidentally, had various names associated with it—as the Philadelphia Almshouse and the Philadelphia General Hospital). Housing growing numbers of public wards, the cramped original and expanded buildings could not fill the need. In similar fashion to the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, guardians of the almshouse looked to establish a larger facility in the open, bucolic setting of the city’s hinterland. Accordingly, city officials in 1832 purchased 187 acres of the remaining Woodlands estate of the heirs of Andrew Hamilton (an area stretching from today’s 34th Street to University Avenue and Spruce Street to Civic Center Boulevard, terrain now encompassing the University of Pennsylvania).46

Blockley Almshouse

Blockley Almshouse
Blockley Almshouse

Lithograph of the Blockley Almshouse, 1835. View is from the east bank of the Schuylkill, with the Market Street Permanent Bridge in right background.

Philadelphia General Hospital, or Blockley Almshouse as it was more commonly called, grew in its new West Philadelphia location to a massive four building complex, each edifice three stories high and 500 feet long; they housed 3000 public charges by the 1870s, including 200 orphans, 600 insane, and the rest, indigents and vagrants, many in poor health. The physician-in-chief at the time, Dr. J. Chalmers Da Costa caustically described the facility as follows:

Blockley is the microcosm of the city. Within these gray walls we find all sorts of physical and mental diseases, and also a multitude of those social maladies that degrade man-hood, undermine national strength and threaten civilization itself. Here is drunkenness; here is pauperism; here is illegitimacy; here is madness; here are the eternal priestesses of prostitution who sacrifice for the sins of man; here is crime in all its protean aspects, and here is vice in all its monstrous forms.47

The presence of Blockley Almshouse in West Philadelphia slowly diminished. When trustees of the University of Pennsylvania determined to move the university from its original location on 9th and Chestnut Streets to West Philadelphia in the early 1870s, they purchased and were ceded land by the city that included parts of the Almshouse. With new understandings of mental illness, city officials in the first decades of the twentieth century created a separate public psychiatric hospital in northeast Philadelphia; later other facilities of the Blockley Almshouse were emptied or relocated. In 1977, the last remaining services of the Philadelphia General Hospital were closed and the institution ceased its operations; the care of needy patients was now handled by area private hospitals through Medicaid.48 However, the history of the institution did not end there. In the spring of 2002, excavators preparing for the construction of parking garages unearthed the graves of 437 individuals and eleven mass internment sites at the spot that had been the burial grounds for residents of the Blockley Almshouse.49

Blockley Township in the first half of the nineteenth century not only received the marginal peoples of the city of Philadelphia, but also the city’s dead. In addition to the Potter’s Field of Blockley Almshouse, a cemetery for the upper crust of Philadelphia was also established. In 1840, a group of investors purchased the remaining acres of the Woodlands estate of William Hamilton and his heirs, including the mansion and carriage house. and then created a bucolic burial ground. The elite of Philadelphia could pay their respects to and commune with their dearly departed at graveside visitations in the beautifully landscaped, rolling hill estate of the Hamilton family. Among the famous Philadelphians buried at Woodlands Cemetery are: Anthony Drexel, the great Philadelphia financier; John Edgar Thompson and Thomas Alexander Scott, powerful executives of the Pennsylvania Railroad; and Thomas Eakins, the artist.


Incorporation into a Greater Philadelphia: The Consolidation Act of 1854

Social disorder in the city of Philadelphia led to institution building in Blockley Township in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Social unrest and violence in districts due northeast and southeast of Philadelphia would also lead to the political incorporation of these areas and Blockley into a municipality vastly larger than William Penn’s original City of Brotherly Love.

The first calls for the creation of a greater Philadelphia occurred after the city was rocked by rioting in 1844 between native-born Protestants and newly arriving Irish Catholic immigrants. Labor unrest and fighting between volunteer fire brigades and other gangs in working-class communities such as Northern Liberties and Kensington to the northeast of the city and Southwark and Moyamemsing to the south had raised apprehensions in the 1830s, but the riots of 1844, largely in Kensington, demanded a response and a small chorus of civic leaders in Philadelphia suggested that greater political and policing control of the patchwork quilt of townships and boroughs surrounding the city were necessary.50

The advocates of consolidation gained little support at first. Their plan involved heavy public investments in infrastructure and raising taxes had little appeal. Many elite Philadelphians also feared annexing immigrant communities on the outskirts, especially since Democratic Party voters there would threaten the Whig Party dominance in the city. Incorporation and control by city elites gained little resonance in working-class enclaves as well.51

However, by the early 1850s, opinions had shifted. First, advocates of consolidation developed new justifications. Annexation, they argued and predicted, would establish Philadelphia as the commercial center of the United States. With railroads extending through Pennsylvania to western territories, the vast proportion of the goods of the West and even products from East Asia would arrive and be merchandized from Philadelphia (with Philadelphia’s manufactured products finding markets in return). Establishing appropriate transshipment facilities required the organizing of the city’s then surrounding environs (here, Blockley Township was critical in the plans of the boosters of an enlarged city). Second, increased need for coordinated police, fire, water supply, and street construction, maintenance, and sanitation services in the face of social unrest and health crises convinced once wary elite groups of the benefits of consolidation. Many of them now further understood the profits to be made in real estate development in outlying districts with planned growth. Finally, with the prospects of huge public works projects—from the building of train stations and yards and boulevards and proposed edifices that would symbolize the rising cosmopolitan stature of Philadelphia—representatives from working-class districts joined the movement on behalf of consolidation with the prospect of vast new employment opportunities. With consensus and strong advocacy, a bill to consolidate Philadelphia easily passed state assemblies in Harrisburg in 1854. William Penn’s 1200-acre city became a 122 square mile metropolis.

William Warner’s "Blockley" thus became identified as West Philadelphia as of 1854. Blockley Township had not figured in the concerns for social unrest that initially drove the movement for consolidation. But, as transportation and real estate development became an element in the call for the organizing of outlying districts of Philadelphia, Blockley loomed large. Not coincidentally, a major advocate in the political drive toward annexation was an individual who had definite property interests in the area. Eli Kirk Price (1797-1884) shepherded the consolidation bill of 1854 through Harrisburg as a state senator. Price was a descendent of one of the original Quaker families to settle in Philadelphia and he was a noted lawyer and political figure. Although he lived in the city, Price accumulated substantial land holdings in Blockley Township and he was one of the founding members of the Woodlands Cemetery Company.52 The extent to which Price personally profited from the consolidation is difficult to determine, but he influentially stood for a new West Philadelphia, as a highly developed residential community within a major city.

  • 1. Herbert Kraft, The Lenape or Delaware Indians (New Jersey: Lenape Lifeways, Inc., 2005), 35.
  • 2. Ibid., 29.
  • 3. Daniel Richter, Native Americans’ Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2005), 28.
  • 4. "Native American Sites in the City of Philadelphia," Philadelphia Archaeological Forum (accessed May 20, 2008).
  • 5. Clinton Alfred Weslager, The Delaware Indians: A History (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1972), 59.
  • 6. Kraft 2005,11-12.
  • 7. Ibid., 13.
  • 8. Kraft 1986, 129.
  • 9. Ibid., 131.
  • 10. Kraft 2005, 16.
  • 11. Ibid., 22.
  • 12. Ibid., 30-33.
  • 13. Weslager 1972, 58-62.
  • 14. Kraft 2005, 20.
  • 15. Kraft 1986, 138.
  • 16. Kraft 2005, 37.
  • 17. Weslager 1972, 155.
  • 18. Ibid., 164.
  • 19. Ibid., 170.
  • 20. George R. Fisher, "The Walking Purchase," Philadelphia Reflections (accessed May 24, 2008).
  • 21. Craig W. Horle, Lawmaking and Legislators in Pennsylvania: A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. 1 (1682-1709) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).
  • 22. Ibid.
  • 23. Phillip Drennon Thomas, "Bartram, John," American National Biography Online (accessed July 11, 2008).
  • 24. Bartram’s Garden (accessed February 15, 2008).
  • 25. Ibid.
  • 26. Craig W. Horle, Joseph S. Foster, and Jeffrey L. Scheib, eds., Lawmaking and Legislators in Pennsylvania: A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. 2 (1710-1756) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 416-49.
  • 27. Robert J. Gough, "Bingham, William," American National Biography Online (accessed July 14, 2008).
  • 28. Ibid.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Tello J. d’Apery, Overbrook Farms: Its Historical Background, Growth and Community Life (Philadelphia: The Magee Press, 1936), 38 (accessed July 16, 2008).
  • 31. Ibid., 38, 49-50.
  • 32. M. Laffitte Vieira, West Philadelphia Illustrated (Philadelphia: Avil Printing Co, 1903), 28; (AND) D’Apery 1936, 37 (accessed February 15, 2008).
  • 33. Ibid., 47.
  • 34. Ibid.
  • 35. Bennett Nolan, The Schuykill (New Bruswick: Rutgers University Press, 1951), 249-250.
  • 36. Nolan 1951, 251.
  • 37. John Lewis, The Reputation of the Lower Schuylkill (Philadelphia: Enterprise Publishing Company, 1924), 3.
  • 38. Vieira 1903, 36.
  • 39. Ibid., 36.
  • 40. Rosenthal, "Mantua: The Real Estate Promotion that Grew and Grew," A History of Philadelphia’s University City (Philadelphia, PA.: Printing Office of the University of Pennsylvania, 1963) (accessed June 14, 2008).
  • 41. Ibid.
  • 42. Preston Thayer and Jed Porter, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990) (accessed February 20, 2008).
  • 43. Howard Sudak, "A Remarkable Legacy: Pennsylvania Hospital’s Influence on the Field of Psychiatry," University of Pennsylvania Health System (accessed February 20, 2008).
  • 44. David J. Rothman, The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1971), 141-45.
  • 45. John Welsh Croskey, History of Blockley: A History of the Philadelphia Hospital from Its Inception, 1731-1928 (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company, 1929), 11-13.
  • 46. Ibid., 64.
  • 47. Rosenthal 1963, 2.
  • 48. "'Old Blockley':  Philadelphia General Hospital," City of Philadelphia (accessed June 15, 2008; no longer available).
  • 49. Kise Straw and Kolodmer, "Blockley Almshouse Cemetery," KSK Architects, Planners, Historians (accessed June 15, 2008; no longer available).
  • 50. David Montgomery, "The Shuttle and the Cross:  Weavers and Artisans in the Kensington Riots of 1844," Journal of Social History, 5 (Summer 1972):  411-446.
  • 51. Andrew Heath, The Manifest Destiny of Philadelphia:  Imperialism, Republicanism, and the Remaking of a City and Its People, 1837-1877 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2008).
  • 52. "Eli K. Papers," University of Delaware Library Special Collections Department (Processed August 1993, by Rhonda R. Newton) (accessed July 10, 2008).