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Where We Live | Northeast Philadelphia

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Posted on Wed, Nov. 17, 2004
 I M A G E S 
Louis M. Iatarola of the Historical Society of Tacony, outside the Tacony Music Hall. The neighborhood is rich in history.
Louis M. Iatarola of the Historical Society of Tacony, outside the Tacony Music Hall. The neighborhood is rich in history.

Neighborhood history predates Philadelphia's founding father

Inquirer Staff Writer

Say history of Philadelphia, and Germantown or Society Hill may come to mind. Say history of Philadelphia and picture Old Swedes' Church in South Philadelphia in the 1700s.

But rarely would images of Northeast Philadelphia come to mind.

There are reasons why Frankford Avenue, Pennypack Park, or the Somerton neighborhood are not considered a big part of the city's history. One is that much of the Northeast is relatively new, having been been developed since the 1950s - about 250 years later than, say, Old City.

"There's not much history in farmland," says historian Harry Silcox, who has written two books about neighborhood history in the Northeast.

Perception is a second reason.

"When you talk of Northeast Philadelphia, people think of Cottman and Bustleton or Grant and the Boulevard, but those areas were developed last. They filled in missing commercial gaps," says Louis M. Iatarola, a member of the Historical Society of Tacony.

Iatarola says what should be talked about are the neighborhoods, some of which go back centuries. Holmesburg, Frankford and Burholme are the oldest communities, he says, and Fox Chase, Tacony and Torresdale are not too far behind.

All of those neighborhoods - in fact, all of the Northeast - were part of Philadelphia County in 1682 when William Penn arrived, but they did not become part of the city until 1854 when the city and county's boundaries became the same.


Portions of Frankford Avenue were in use in 1677 - that's five years before Philadelphia was founded by William Penn.

Swedes and Finns were living in what is now Tacony in 1679. Holmesburg, a Swedish settlement on the Delaware at the Pennypack Creek, was settled even earlier.

William Penn named Henry Waddy of Tacony as the area's first postmaster in 1683.

The oldest stone arch bridge in the country still used on a major travel route is the Frankford Avenue Bridge over Pennypack Creek, built in 1697.

The American Society of Civil Engineers says on its Web site that the original span was 18 feet wide (it has been widened several times) and was barely big enough to hold two teams of horses on what was then the Kings Highway, the road between New York and Philadelphia.

In 1725, four-wheeled carts, the newest public transportation of the time, connected Three Tuns Tavern, Second and Chestnut Streets, with the borough of Frankford. The carts ran along the Kings Highway, which would be called Bristol Pike in the 1780s, and Frankford Avenue by the late 1800s.

In 1756, a three-day stagecoach ride from Philadelphia to New York began. Within 20 years, that ride would be just two days, and the stage line would be called "The Flying Machine."

Gen. George Washington's Army marched through the Northeast in 1775 on its way to the Battle of Trenton.

In fact, says Silcox, it was then that an African American baker in the Northeast named Cyrus Bustil gave needed bread to Washington and his troops. No one is certain how Bustleton got its name, but Silcox said some believe the neighborhood is named after that generous baker.

The Massachusetts delegation to the First Continental Congress - including John Adams - traveled south on the Bristol Pike on the way to Philadelphia in 1784.

In 1816, President James Madison purchased 20 acres on Frankford Creek for the Frankford Arsenal for $7,680. Eight years later, Gen. Lafayette, in a return trip to America, was feted at a reception there. The Saturday Evening Post covered the story.

In 1837, and again in 1849, Presidents Martin Van Buren and Zachary Taylor bought more land and expanded the arsenal by 33 acres at a combined cost of $23,000.

Black and white antislavery advocates came to the neighborhood of Byberry in the mid-19th century, Silcox says, to visit with Robert Purvis, a black abolition leader whose house was an Underground Railroad station for escaped slaves.


That commerce mentioned earlier at places such as Cottman and Bustleton has a history as well.

With water power from the Delaware River and the Tacony, Poquessing and Pennypack Creeks - the Northeast is surely the city's creekiest neighborhood - industry started early.

The Northeast's first factory was the Rowland Shovel Factory on the Pennypack, near where Father Judge High School is now. Silcox says that in 1802, it was the site of a ground-breaking event - the manufacture of the nation's first shovel.

Thirty years later, Joseph Ripka, a Manayunk textile manufacturer, opened a textile factory on the Pennypack just under where the Rhawn Street Bridge is today.

His mill produced 750,000 yards of cotton annually. That mill and a calico print mill employed 180 workers from Holmesburg, some of whom lived in cabins along the west side of the creek and under today's bridge. An 8-foot-high stone fireplace, probably from a factory building, remains.

Hotels along the Delaware and easy water travel made towns such as Tacony, Holmesburg and Frankford both a stop for traveling merchants and a summer country home for rich Philadelphians - Silcox writes that they included merchant Caleb Cope, umbrella manufacturer Robert H. Wright, textile manufacturer Samuel Comly and locomotive manufacturer Matthew Baldwin.

Tacony became more of an industrial town in 1872 when English-born Henry Disston moved his saw works there from Kensington. It would become an internationally known supplier of saws and blades. Some even called the community "Disstonville." By 1900, Tacony, unlike the countrylike villages of Somerton and Fox Chase, became the most developed town north of Frankford.

So, yes, there is a history here - a time when Castor Avenue was 40-Acre Lane and when Bustleton Avenue at Bells Corner intersected with a busy Axe Factory Road.

And a time, in more recent history from 1924 to 1931, when the Frankford Yellow Jackets - not the Eagles - were the city's first professional football team.

Contact staff writer Murray Dubin at 215-854-2797 or

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