Historic Context


The history of the Aramingo Canal began with a meandering tidal stream located no more than three miles from the bustle and congestion of William Penn’s Philadelphia. Sometimes referred to as “Three-Mile Run,” but better known by the name “Gunner’s Run,” this stream was transformed in the mid–nineteenth century into a navigable public highway christened the Aramingo Canal. The canal was initially conceived as a means to help develop the Kensington/Port Richmond vicinity into an industrial and commercial center. The close proximity of the region to shipping facilities along Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront—and to the newly installed Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company in what is now Port Richmond—was strong incentive for local businessmen and landholders who sought to increase the value of their land. Unfortunately, a lack of funding, poor management, and rapid changes in the infrastructural needs of the burgeoning community resulted in the relatively swift demise of the waterway and its ultimate removal from the visible cityscape after a period of only about 50 years.

Early History of Shackamaxon

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area was the ancestral home to Unami-dialect-speaking groups of Lenni-Lenape Indians. Unami, which means “the people down river,” generally refers to those Lenape peoples that inhabited New Jersey south of the Raritan River, eastern Pennsylvania as far north as Easton, and the eastern shores of Delaware 1. The Lenape living in the lower Delaware River basinwere band-level horticulturalists who lived in dispersed settlements along the river and its larger tributaries. During the early historic period, in 1656, one place within the Unami Lenape territory was identified by Swedish engineer and cartographer Peter Lindstom as a location called “Kackamensi.” Though it is not known with certainty whether this name applied to a specific settlement or to a more vaguely defined region, it was situated along the western shore of the Delaware River opposite what is today known as Petty’s Island. This place reportedly served an important function as a regular meeting place for Lenape tribal councils, and early European settlers quickly adopted its name to refer to a broad territory that today encompasses the Kensington, Fishtown, and Port Richmond neighborhoods. Over time, the name Kackamensi was twisted through a variety of spellings to its final version, “Shackamaxon.”2

Fig. 2.1
Figure 2.1
Map showing the Shackamaxon Tract as it appeared before the establishment of the colony of Pennsylvania (Source: Roach 1968).

European settlement in the area began with a wave of Swedish settlers who arrived in the Delaware Valley beginning in 1637. Johan Printz, governor of the colony of New Sweden, established his capital at Tinicum Island in 1643; by the 1650s, several hundred families occupied the region 3. The land in and around Shackamaxon was first patented to a man named Peter Larsson Cock on June 5, 1664. When surveyed 11 years later, in 1675, the “Shackamaxon Tract,” as it was then known, included some 1,600 acres and encompassed an area along the west bank of the Delaware River lying to the north of a stream called Cohocksink Creek (present-day Canal Street) and south of Frankford Creek (Figure 2.1). At that time, the tract was occupied by the families of six men: Lasse Cock (son of Peter), Michael Nilsson Lyckan, Peter Nilsson Lyckan, Eric Cock, Otto Ernest Cock, and Gunnar Rambo 4.

Of these individuals, the last named was the son of Peter Gunnarsson Rambo, who had arrived in the Delaware Valley aboard the Swedish merchant ship Kalmar Nyckel in 1640 5. His son, Gunnar Rambo, eventually married a daughter of Peter Cock and acquired a parcel of land within the Shackamaxon Tract bordering a small, meandering tidal stream known by the Lenape name “Tumanaraming” Creek (Figure 2.2). Over time, this stream came to gain widespread recognition through its associated with Rambo’s land, and became widely known as “Gunner’s Run.”[1]

In March 1681, King Charles II of England issued a land grant of 45,000 square miles, later known as Pennsylvania, to William Penn, a Quaker. Upon Penn’s arrival to his new land in 1682, the only settlement within the boundaries of present-day

Fig. 2.2
Figure 2.2
Project area vicinity in 1681 (Source: Holme 1681).

Philadelphia was the Swedish settlement of Wicaco, which consisted of a handful of log houses and a log blockhouse built in the Scandinavian style 6. Penn’s plans to create a “greene country towne” were somewhat compromised with the discovery that the Swedes already owned much of the riverfront he had hoped to incorporate into his Philadelphia. Purchase of these parcels depleted Penn’s finances considerably and resulted in a downsized settlement plan of 12,000 acres organized in a grid pattern of streets with five public squares. The boundaries were between South and Vine Streets and the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, with the most heavily developed portion of the city concentrated along High (Market) Street east of Fourth Street 7.

William Penn’s assistant surveyor of the county of Philadelphia was Thomas Fairman 8 and, by 1702, much of the Shackamaxon Tract had transferred to Fairman’s ownership. The land included 300 acres that his wife, Elizabeth Kinsey, purchased in 1678 from Captain Lawrence Cock, chief translator for William Penn 9, prior to her marriage to Fairman in 1680 10. By 1729, ownership of Fairman’s land had transferred to Robert Worthington, an innkeeper, and included 191.5 acres to the south of Gunner’s Run with a manor house on the northwest corner of Beach Street and Columbia Avenue. When the land became available, Anthony Palmer, a merchant from the West Indies and owner of the adjacent Hope Farm estate, sought to make purchase. To secure the funding, Palmer sold Hope Farm to William Ball in April 1729 for £2,140 Pennsylvania currency. Included in the purchase price were 676 acres of land, meadow, and swamp beginning at the mouth of Gunner’s Run.

Figure 2.3
Project area vicinity in 1802 (Source: Varle 1802, image courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection).

In January 1730, Palmer purchased the former Fairman estate and named the tract “Kensington,” after England’s Kensington Palace. Palmer’s lifestyle exhibited traces of refinement, and perhaps excess, but his business acumen was a great aid in the growth of the area. In an effort to attract settlement, he subdivided his holdings into smaller lots and founded the village named after his estate (Figure 2.3). Among the primary respondents to his offer were shipbuilders, who by the mid–eighteenth century were having trouble finding suitable locations within the city due to the cliffs along the shoreline and the commerce of the port 11. The Kensington riverfront also attracted fishermen, who settled in the area around Gunner’s Run and developed a livelihood centered on the shad runs up the Delaware River. The present-day name “Fishtown” is a result of their presence 12.

Next door, at the former Hope Farm, William Ball erected a grand home on his newly acquired land, which he renamed “Richmond Hall.” In subsequent years, the wider area encompassing Ball’s estate would be known as “Richmond” or the “Richmond Precinct,” and in the nineteenth century became the neighborhood of Port Richmond. In a circa-1753 survey of his estate (Figure 2.4), Ball’s “Mansion” appears on the banks of the Delaware River, to the east of “Point No Point Road” (present-day Richmond Street). Ball died 10 years after purchasing Hope Farm and left behind five children, the eldest of whom, William Jr., inherited most of the land. While much of the land contained within the Richmond Hall estate was submerged beneath the Delaware River with each high tide 13, there was still an interest in industrial development. In 1771, Robert Towars and Joseph Leacock rented from Ball “a piece of ground on the east side of Bank Street one hundred feet front and extending to the river.” They established the successful Philadelphia Glassworks, which Thomas Dyott later purchased in the early nineteenth century and made famous under his own name 14.

Figure 2.4
Manuscript survey of lands comprising the William Ball estate (Source: Grover circa 1753).

In another development, Benjamin Franklin, a cousin of Leacock by marriage 15, invited a man named John Hewson to relocate from England to Kensington to avoid the wrath of King George for his revolutionary political views. Hewson accepted the offer, left England in 1773, and established a calico printing works at Gunner’s Run near Point No Point Road the following year 16. With clientele such as Martha Washington, who favored Hewson’s prints and went so far as to commission a kerchief for her husband, the area was bound to grow and did so steadily 17. Hewson, a soldier as well as a businessman, returned from the Revolutionary War a hero and ran the company until retirement in 1810, when his son John Hewson Jr. took over the business 18.

Fig. 2.5
Figure 2.5
Project area vicinity in 1808 (Source: Hills 1808).

The establishment of these early industries along the north shore of Gunner’s Run during the latter eighteenth century gave rise to a small independent community that called itself “Balltown.” Likely consisting of no more than a smattering of simple homes, and populated primarily with individuals and families employed in the adjacent glassworks and calico printing house, this community was established by the late eighteenth century and identified on maps in the early nineteenth century (Figure 2.5). By the 1830s, however, this little hamlet had been subsumed by the Dyottville settlement established around Dr. Thomas Dyott’s glassworks. During its brief lifetime, Balltown represented the northernmost extent of development in the vicinity of Gunner’s Run. To the north and west, the Fairhill and Sepviva estates of the Norris family remained private residential property and farmland into the mid–nineteenth century 19.

Industrial and Commercial Growth

Figure 2.6
Sketch of the stone Richmond Street Bridge over Gunner’s Run, constructed circa 1834. A larger iron bridge replaced this bridge in 1853 (Source: Philadelphia City Archives 1853).

As Kensington thrived and industry expanded on Ball’s land, there was a need for infrastructural improvements. While bridges across Gunner’s Run are recorded as early as 1683 20, the concentration of industry at Point No Point, near the intersection of that stream and the Delaware River, warranted the construction of “a fine substantial bridge” by December 1834 21. It is likely that heavy traffic moved through this area due to the presence of the Dyottville Glassworks. There was some speculation that financial contributions from the glassworks resulted in expedited and enhanced construction, with this bridge having been built with higher walls and fencing than most 22. The elaborate design of this bridge is depicted in a pen-and-ink sketch accompanying the petition for the construction of a later (1853) steel bridge across Gunner’s Run (Figure 2.6).

Thomas Dyott was a self-credentialed medical doctor and nationally known salesman of patent medicines when he first rented the Kensington Glassworks from John Hewson Jr. around 1820. By the early 1830s he had purchased outright the former Kensington Glassworks and adjacent Philadelphia Glassworks, and combined them into a single complex to which he gave his own name 23. Dyott established his enterprise as a self-contained utopian community that included a school, library, chapel, store, medical facility, and housing for married couples and bachelors 24. He believed moral instruction was critical to running a successful business and allowed no alcohol consumption, gambling, fighting, or swearing among his workers or their families 25. Of his 400 employees, 130 were apprentices under the training of a handful of journeymen who agreed to Dyott’s rules of “temperance and decorum” 26. Dyott also founded his own bank, which proved to be his undoing when the Panic of 1837 revealed a lack of substance, or cash, behind his many investments 27. Convicted of fraudulent insolvency, he was sentenced to three years in Eastern State Penitentiary. He was then pardoned, rearrested as a debtor, and served the remainder of his term at Moyamensing Prison. Lehigh Coal and Navigation bought a large portion of Dyott’s former glassworks property and leased it to later glassmakers, who kept the Dyottville name until the factory closed in 1923 28.

While other industries in the area were perhaps not so all-encompassing or ambitious as the Dyottville Glassworks, the community was thriving. William Cramp established the Cramp shipyard as a producer of wooden vessels in 1830 with funding from his family’s shad fishery. At that time, at least 12 other shipyards were operating on the riverfront. Cramp’s original site, founded at the foot of what is now Susquehanna Avenue, employed less than 100 men and soon moved to Palmer Street. With the transition from wood to iron hull construction methods around the time of the Civil War, Cramp not only survived but thrived. In 1863, their first iron-hulled vessel was built, and by 1870, wood construction was abandoned altogether 29. By 1872, the company incorporated to become William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company 30, and in doing so took over operation of the I. P. Morris Company, a machine-building establishment founded in 1828 31. Cramp remained in operation through World War I and went idle in approximately 1927. In 1940, with $22,000,000 contributed by the Navy, Cramp shipbuilding reopened to fabricate light cruisers and submarines. The facility closed permanently after World War II 32.

Following the advent of steam power in the 1830s, the landscape of Philadelphia and the surrounding region generally—and of Kensington, Richmond, and Northern Liberties in particular—underwent radical change as the Industrial Revolution gained momentum. A steam-powered sawmill was established at Beach and Hanover Streets, supplying, among other things, lumber for Cramp’s clipper ships 33. The Penn Steam Engine and Boiler Works, founded by Thomas Reaney and Jacob Neafie on Beach Street, manufactured boilers and engines as early as 1838 34—and in later years, as Reany and Neafie, then Neafie and Levy, branched out to iron boats, propellers, fittings, and brass and iron castings for marine use 35. Steam engines, both stationary and portable, were a leading item of production, and great effort was made to simplify and streamline design to speed production and reduce cost 36.

Figure 2.7
Project area vicinity in 1843 (Source: Ellet 1843).

By the 1840s, Kensington’s street grid was filled out with new residents and businesses, and the waterfront was built up with wharves, both private and public. According to city directories from the time, fully half or more of the occupants of Kensington worked in an industry related to fishing or shipbuilding 37. So expansive was the growth that Kensington, formerly a part of Northern Liberties, was incorporated as an independent district in March 1820, and maintained self-rule until the city of Philadelphia consolidated in 1854 38. The boundary of Kensington by this time extended as far as Germantown Avenue to the west and Lehigh Avenue to the north 39. A map of the area in 1843 shows the extent of development in Kensington, but indicates the presence of only a few factories east of Gunner’s Run (Figure 2.7). These factories included the Pennsylvania White Lead Works, a cordage factory, and a rope works and chemical works along Point No Point Road in Richmond 40. Of the 258,037 inhabitants listed in Philadelphia County, 22,314 were in Kensington and 34,474 were in Northern Liberties, compared to 93,665 in the city of Philadelphia.

Arrival of the Railroad

The establishment of what was initially little more than a modest railroad depot along the Delaware River at Port Richmond, with several wharves immediately adjacent, provided the spark that would cause the region to explode commercially. The depot was the terminus of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, which crossed the Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad north of Gunner’s Run (Figure 2.7). The Philadelphia and Reading Railroad had been seeking open space in order to develop rail lines to haul anthracite from the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania into the region, and found the space it needed in the empty marshland on Ball’s property that had discouraged earlier settlement 41. The Philadelphia and Reading’s charter was passed in 1833 and work commenced on the construction of the railroad and depot in 1835. A 54-mile-long line from Philadelphia to Reading was opened in 1838. The line was extended over time, and on January 1, 1842, the first train passed over the 93 miles of track from Richmond to Pottsville 42. In conjunction with the rail line, an extensive tidewater port facility was installed in Richmond on the Delaware River to allow movement of coal throughout the Atlantic seaboard. In 1842, the railroad transported 49,752 tons of coal to the Philadelphia waterfront, and by 1847, the tonnage had increased to 1,360,681 43.

Fig. 2.8
Figure 2.8
Project area vicinity in 1847 (Source: Sidney 1847).

Richmond quickly transformed into the bustling port town of Port Richmond and the surrounding 1,163 acres were incorporated as the District of Richmond on February 22, 1847 44. In 1846, some 8,953 vessels sailed out of Port Richmond, and by the following year the number increased to 11,439, with each vessel carrying an average of 120 tons of coal. With this growth, real-estate values increased rapidly. Property that sold for $10,000 in 1837 increased to $90,000 just 10 years later 45. By 1847, the once-isolated depot and wharves at Port Richmond expanded to include no less than 14 rail lines terminating along the shore (Figure 2.8). The two-by-four-block “hub” of Port Richmond had grown to encompass 10 blocks alongPoint No Point Road. Along Richmond Lane(Ann Street), roads ran to the shoreline, with neither marshland nor sand acting to slow development in the area.

With the construction of the rail line and port facility, there was an immediate and growing need for employees, who mostly settled in the immediate vicinity. Previously empty land surrounding Port Richmond was rapidly developed to accommodate the influx of workers relocating to find work on the shipping piers, coal depots, engine houses, workshops, and offices 46. Much of the workforce came from the Philadelphia population, and over time further reinforcements were provided in the waves of immigrants arriving at the very ports where they would soon make their living.

Figure 2.9
Project area in 1849, showing the proposed alignment of the future Aramingo Canal (Source: Sidney 1849).

The switch from wood to anthracite coal as the industrial fuel of choice was of monumental importance in the redefinition of the area. With a new and seemingly unlimited fuel source in such close proximity to their foundries, ironworkers rapidly embraced and capitalized upon the use of anthracite. The Philadelphia Iron and Steel Works opened in 1844, followed by the Kensington Iron and Steel Works (1845) and the People’s Iron and Machine Works (1846). Vacated shipyards were converted to foundries and the iron rush was on 47. Other forms of manufacturing also thrived with the introduction of this new fuel. Glassworks, fabric workshops, chemical plants, and machine shops abounded in the region. The 1840 industrial census enumerates 47 factories in Kensington alone; by 1850, this number had increased to 114 48. Anthracite coal, a product that had been ridiculed years earlier, was now igniting the region with growth in roadways, train yards, and seaports 49.


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