Category Archives: Phoenixville

History Links! Get Yer History Links Here!

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It’s been a while since we did a Phoenixville Phriday. So, a couple of cool bits of local history news came out of our new hometown region this week.

The first was the amazing news that little Phoenixville was, for 17 years, hiding a secret treasure trove. Revolutionary War muskets, cannons, paintings, sculptures, uniforms, and George Washington’s frickin’ portmanteau were stored just a couple of blocks from our home. Now they’ve been transferred to the new Museum of the American Revolution, which will open next spring. You can read all about it here.

The second was that south of Philadelphia, the Lazaretto, the oldest surviving quarantine center and intake center for tens of thousands of immigrants who came in through Philadelphia, is going to be saved and repurposed. Read all about it!

The third isn’t exactly news. But, it is a good little list of facts about the encampment at Valley Forge, published at the Journal of the American Revolution. Since Hoxsie now spends more time in Valley Forge than you could imagine, it’s useful to remember why we preserved this rolling landscape along the Schuylkill. Check it out.

But we haven’t forgotten our origins. Fan of Washington Irving and headless Hessians? Check out this story on the Revolutionary Beginnings of the Headless Horseman.


Phoenixville Phriday: The Pennypacker Tragedy

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Disasters on RailroadsLast week we made mention of a railroad tragedy on the Pickering Valley Railroad, where a cow on the tracks led to the death of an engineer. But an 1877 storm led to a much bigger disaster, at the time the most fatal train wreck in Chester County history.

On Oct. 4, 1877, a torrential rainstorm washed out the track near Kimberton. The railroad was running a locomotive, two passenger cars, and a combination milk and baggage car (as the line’s primary business was milk runs). Up in Schwenksville that day, at what is now called Pennypacker Mills, was a reunion of the Pennypacker family, to which 1500 descendants of Heinrich Pennypacker, who settled in the area around 1700, were invited, and they came from all over the country. Rain forced the celebration indoors for the most part. Returning to their homes in the evening, reunion attendees made up most of the 130 passengers who left Phoenixville just before 6 p.m. for Byers Station. As The New York Times put it:

“The night had closed in intensely dark, rain was falling in torrents, the small streams along the route had overflowed their banks, and in many places the track was covered with water, which the ditches were unable to carry off as fast as it fell. Near Kimberton, about four miles from Phoenixville, the train ran into a wash-out at least 30 feet deep. The train consisted of the engine, two passenger cars, and a combination baggage and milk car, in the order named. The engine fell a mass of shattered iron at the bottom of the cavity, instantly killing the engineer, Frank Kenney, and the fireman, George Griffith. Conductor Golden, Brakeman Major, and Baggage-master Gamewell were in the baggage car, which remained on the track and escaped without injury. The first passenger car fell on top of the engine, and the second went crashing down on both, tearing off the roof of the first car, its end remaining on the bank. The conductor walked to a farm-house in the neighborhood, procured a horse and wagon, and drove back to Phoenixville, from which he sent a train with surgeons and medical appliances. It was 8:30 when the relief train felt its way cautiously to the edge of the chasm, and the storm was still raging furiously. By this time many of the wounded had been rescued and cared for in the baggage car and in the neighboring farmhouses, though the work of getting them up from the badly-shattered wreck was one of great difficulty. The wounded, of whom there is a terribly long list, were first attended to, and then the dead were got out from the wreck, the body of the fireman, Griffith, not being reached until late to-day.”

A 1999 article said that the bells in Phoenixville were rung to call rescuers to the train that went to the scene. It also said that the Masonic Hall became a morgue for the dead, and physicians came in from Pottstown and Norristown. The Times listed seven killed, including Nathan Pennypacker, and thirty-two wounded, including a barrel full of Pennypackers. A coroner’s jury noted that there had been two inches of rain between 5 and 6 p.m., and 4.92 inches had fallen in total; the jury called the storm “not only severe, but indeed phenomenal.” There was no question that this tremendous torrent through a steep gully of sandy soil was phenomenal, but the jury did find some design flaws in that the railroad had not allowed for sufficient drainage in the area. But it also did something else stupid and possibly lethal on a dark and stormy night: it ran with the engine backwards, its light shining onto the tank, not out onto the tracks. Somewhat different from the Times account, the jury found the train was constructed as follows:

“First, the engine reversed, with tank foremost and engine running backward, with the head light upon the front end of the tank as it ran; second, the gentlemen’s car, on the night in question, occupied by both sexes; third, the combination of ladies’ and baggage car in one; fourth, and last, the milk car . . . The train was run in this manner in violation of the rules of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, operators of the Pickering Valley Railroad …”

The jury found that if the railroad had followed its own rules, the order of the cars would have been locomotive and tank first, milk car second, and then the two passenger cars; the rear car would have been the gentlemen’s car, which theoretically would have remained on the track, which the milk car did. Of course, the women would still have been toast, but so it goes.

They found another problem, too, and thought that perhaps the practice of putting iron bars across the windows wasn’t necessarily in the best interests of passengers:

“We find that the practice of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, in placing rods of iron across the outside of the windows of its passenger cars, forming an unyielding grating, is one fraught with great danger. In an accident similar to that on the Pickering Valley Railroad, on the evening of October 4th, by the windows being clear of these obstructions, the escape of passengers from a wrecked train would be greatly facilitated.”


Phoenixville Phriday: All Caused By A Cow

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All Caused By A CowHoxsie was surprised to search through an online archive of California newspapers and find more than a few stories that originated in his newish hometown of Phoenixville, PA. Some were of tragedy, some were of no consequence at all, but all were printed a long way from where they happened. In this case, the San Francisco Call of August 5, 1895, told the tale of tragedy on the Pickering Valley Railroad the day before:

“The passenger train on the Pickering Valley Railroad, due here at 8:40 o’clock, ran into a cow a short distance from Pemberton [sic; Kimberton], three miles from here, to-night. The engine left the track, several cars following it over a steep embankment. The engineer, Joseph Grow of Phoenixville, was instantly killed, and the fireman dangerously hurt, while half a dozen passengers were perhaps fatally injured. They were members of the Salvation Army from here, returning from Fegleys Grove, where a meeting was held to-day. The wreck occurred near the spot where so many members of the Pennypacker family were killed in a wreck some years ago.”

The Pickering Valley Railroad opened in October 1871, running from Phoenixville (where it connected with the Reading at what is now called Columbia Station) to Byers in Upper Uwchlan, near Eagle. It primarily served as a milk run, but also carried passengers, sometimes to tragic results. More on that next week.

A tiny bit of Pickering Valley Railroad track remains, up on the wall along Bridge Street, leading into the old Reading station. You can see it here.

Phoenixville Phriday: Phoenixville Knits!

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We know much about the history of iron and steel in Phoenixville – it was the Phoenix Iron Works that gave the borough its name, after all (prior to incorporation in 1849, the village was known as Manavon). But there was also a significant textile industry, including a number of knitting mills, which are described in Thomson’s “Chester County and Its People” from 1898, as follows:

Byrne, Parsons & Co., the firm being composed of Thomas F. Byrne and William H. Parsons, proprietors of the largest knitting works in Phoenixville, began the business in which they are now engaged in 1885. At first they were located in a small frame building on Jackson Street, remaining there until 1890. Then, after being on Hall Street until 1896, they removed to their present three-story and basement building, which is 140×46 feet in size, and fully equipped with knitting and sewing machines, the machinery being propelled by a seventy-five-horse power engine. The company manufactures hose and ladies’ underwear, employs about 175 hands, and turns out annually about $175,000 worth of goods. [Thomson unfortunately doesn’t give the then-current location.]

The Phoenixville Knitting Mills were established in 1891, by the present firm, Davis, Russell & Co., composed of Amber Davis, William Russell and Jonathan Davis. Their building is on Breckenridge Street, is two stories high, and at first was 32×60 feet in size, an addition of the same size being erected in 1894. These works are well equipped with knitting and sewing machines, which are run by a ten-horse power steam engine. The company employs about eighty hands and manufactures about $70,000 worth of hose and ladies’ underwear, the latter feature of the business being added in 1894, when the second building was erected.

The Perseverance Knitting Company was organized in the spring of 1896 at Spring City, and moved down to Phoenixville in September, 1897. This company is composed of William Rice, Annie R. Davis and Hiram Buckwalter. The business is on Vanderslice Street, and is in the same building with the Schuylkill Valley Illuminating Company. This company manufactures ladies’ underwear, employs about thirty hands, and turns out about $25,000 worth per year. Mrs. Annie R. Davis is president of the company and William Rice secretary and treasurer.

William J. O’Donnell began the business of knitting ladies’ underwear in February, 1896, in the upper story of a two-story building owned by himself on Hall Street, the lower story being used for the manufacture of paper boxes. He employs about ten hands and manufactures from $6,000 to $10,000. Power for propelling the machinery in this factory is derived from the Schuylkill Valley Illuminating Company.

Parsons & Angstadt, proprietors of knitting mills at the corner of Hall Street and Lincoln Avenue, Phoenixville, the firm being composed of Lewis Parsons and Peter Angstadt, began business in August, 1897. Their building is a two-story brick, and is fitted up with machinery suitable to the knitting of ladies’ fine hosiery. The firm employs about twenty hands, and turns out from $7,000 to $10,000 worth of goods per year. Power is derived from a steam engine in the first story of the building.

The Union Knitting Company, composed of H.W. and E.E. Walters, began business in April, 1897, renting a two-story brick building on Main Street, near Church. They carry on the business of knitting ladies’ underwear, their machinery being propelled by electric power derived from the Schuylkill Valley Illuminating Company, about twenty-five hands being employed, and from $60,000 to $70,000 worth of product being manufactured annually.

The Phoenixville Industrial Association was incorporated under the laws of the State of New Jersey March 22, 1898, with a capital of $100,000. The stockholders numbered about 150, and the first board of directors and officers were as follows: Paul S. Reeves, president; Amos G. Gotwals, treasurer; Dr. J.P. Eldridge, vice-president; C.H. Howell, secretary; Thomas D. Grover, David Schmutz, V.N. Shaffer, Thomas L. Snyder, John S. Dismant and J.F. Starkey, Jr. Five acres of land was donated to the enterprise by John Gallagher of Phoenixville, the land being located on Franklin Avenue at the corner of Grant Street. Ground was broken for the erection of a building June 15, 1898, the building to be of brick, and 50×300 feet in size, and there is to be also a boiler and engine building and a good sized office besides. The purpose of the association is to manufacture silk ribbon, and the works are to be operated by Johnson, Cowden & Co. of New York City. When in full operation it is expected this company will employ 400 hands.

Phoenixville Phriday: Free rent and cannons

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A volume called “Chester County and Its People,” by W.W. Thomson in 1898, relates that during the War of the Rebellion,

“At Phoenixville David Reeves, president of the Phoenix Iron Works, gave notice that any of his employes [sic] enlisted in the army they should have the houses they lived in, owned by the company, free of rent during their absence in the service of their Government. In a few hours a subscription of $4,000 was raised for the support of the families of such as should enlist.” Many of those who did enlist likely joined up with the company raised at West Chester called the Reserve Guards, “composed of men under forty years of age and armed with Sharp’s rifles,” or another company called the Union Guards or the Anderson Light Artillery.  “The Phoenixville Iron Works during the month of April or early in May, 1861, made a number of wrought-iron cannon for the government, six and twelve pounders, for Philadelphia, and turned out several thousand solid 12-pound balls and shells. It was thus in all parts of the county, everyone talking about and preparing for war. The Phoenixville field piece was known as the Griffen gun, the patentee being John Griffen, superintendent of the works at that time.”

The Griffen gun, of course, is well-known in these parts and an example still sits in Reeves Park. The Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area has a number of images of the gun and its manufacture on this page.

An undated but contemporary biography of Griffen says that he was a burgess and was instrumental in the construction of Phoenixville schools. “He designed and superintended their erection, and had the schools properly graded.  He was unanimously re-elected as a school director, being the first person in the borough to receive that honor.”


Phoenixville Phriday: The Big Inch

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TheBigInchinPhoenixville.pngThe United States entered the Second World War in 1941, which brought, shall we say, a reaction from Germany. Part of that reaction was sending U-boats to the eastern sea routes, where they proved pretty effective at sinking our oil tankers that brought oil up to the northeast from the Gulf of Mexico. 46 tankers were sunk and another 16 damaged just from January through April of 1942. One report says that the US lost a quarter of its oil tankers that year. Shipments shifted to rail but the infrastructure wasn’t really ready; there weren’t nearly enough rail cars to handle the need, and inland barges were inefficient. Pre-war planning had been underway, however, and the federal government had a plan to build pipelines, the biggest that had ever been built, and one of them, known as the “Big Inch,” came right to Phoenixville.

(Well, the location is universally reported as Phoenixville in all the media of the day. But it is really closer to Eagle; back in 1943, no doubt Phoenixville was the biggest place around.)

Big Inch was a 24-inch pipeline that ran from Longview, Texas to Norris City, Illinois, and then on to Phoenixville, PA. A parallel pipe was known as “Little Big Inch,” intended to carry lighter products like kerosene. Here the pipeline branched into 20-inch segments that served New York City (Linden, NJ) and Philadelphia (Chester Junction, PA). The line was put together with incredible speed; pipe was being fashioned by July of 1942. Just 350 days after construction began, a ceremony was held in Eagle, near Phoenixville to mark the final weld of the Big Inch (July 19, 1943). The picture above was taken just before the pipe was dedicated. Oil was flowing to Philadelphia by August 15, hitting the junction just the day before. It had taken a month just to flow from Norris City.

You might think that in those early days of the war, when there was concern about military secrecy and sabotage, that a national security project of this type might have been kept at least a little quiet. But to the contrary, it almost seems as if they couldn’t publicize this pipeline enough, as part of war-time propaganda. As the Wikipedia page for Big Inch notes, newsreels gushed Pipeline Goes Through! and Pipe Dream Comes True-Oil!, and short films were made about the construction work, including Pipeline.The pipelines also appeared in the RKO Pathé film Oil is Blood. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes attended the dedication ceremony. Big Inch was not kept quiet.

SyracuseHeraldAmericanJuly181943PhoenixvilleBigInch.pngAfter the war, the pipelines were privatized and sold to TETCO, and converted for use transporting natural gas. Little Big Inch was converted back to oil around 1957. Both Big Inch and Little Big Inch are on the National Register of Historic Places.

If you want to know more about the Big Inch, its Wikipedia page has more.

And a very good summary put out by TETCO is at this link.

Phoenixville Phriday: The Public Market Places

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ordinance.pngAs we’ve said before, this blog devoted to random snippets of history from Albany, Schenectady, and Troy will certainly not be stooping so low as to have a feature called “Phoenixville Phriday” just because we’ve moved to a new town far from our roots.

Just because it’s Friday, and just because this one’s about Phoenixville, be assured that this is not a “Phoenixville Phriday” post.

But still . . . the ordinances of the Borough of Phoenixville, “passed by the Burgess and Town Council” between 1852 and 1857, contained this interesting requirement regarding public market places in the borough:

“…There shall be established two market places, one on the north and the other on the south side of French creek; on the north side to be located on Main street, commencing at Vanderslice’s store, thence along the north side of said Main street, to John Mullin’s store. The market place on the south side of French creek, to be located on Bridge street, commencing at Samuel Kreamer’s store, and thence along the south sidewalk of said Bridge street to Main street, and thence along Main street to Church street, and these places to be and remain, and are hereby declared to be and remain Public Market Places, for the buying and selling of all kinds of provisions, victuals, and things of country produce and manufacture, on the days of Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of every week, and that all manner of persons shall have liberty to expose to sale their meats, provisions, victuals, or country produce and manufacture, from carts or wagons, backed up to the curbs, or on such shambles, stalls booths, or other stands, not to extend more than five feet from the curb, . . . .”

The market was to be open 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. October through March, and 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. during the warmer months. The whole thing was under the control of an appointed Clerk of the Markets, who was to ensure fair weights and measures, with particular attention paid to proper sale of butter by weight. Those shorting their customers could see their butter seized:

“One third part of all butter lawfully seized shall be for the use of the clerk, and the remaining two-thirds for such use as the law directs.”

A pretty powerful incentive for the clerk to find something wrong with the scales.

Phoenixville Phriday: Phoenixville Bridge Works

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TrumansburghViaductPhoenixvilleBridgeWorks.pngIn a non-regular feature that we will not be calling “Phoenixville Phriday,” Hoxsie is going to step away from chronicling historical trivia of its ancestral lands and momentarily turn its attention to the history of its new hometown, Phoenixville, PA.  Phoenixville was a small steel town that also cranked out finished bridges; if you chance to drive across the Troy-Menands Bridge, you’re being kept out of the Hudson by one of the company’s works. The Manhattan Bridge is probably their grandest work, but hundreds of their graceful structures spanned rivers and ravines all over the place. In 1873, “The Manufacturer and Builder” wrote effusively of The Phoenixville Bridge Works:

One of the most encouraging signs of progress, as well in artistic taste as in ingenious application of scientific principles, are the beautifully illustrated catalogues or albums from prominent manufacturing establishments from time to time issued and distributed among those interested. We have one of these before, published by Clarke, Reeves & Co., of the Phoenix Iron Company, at Phoenixville, office 410 Walnut street, Philadelphia, Pa., which company can concentrate all their resources upon bridge building to such a degree as to turn out one hundred feet of finished iron bridge for each working day of the year.

In these works everything is done upon the premises, and the next to worthless iron ore from the mine is, by a succession of operations, changed into the most elegant structures for conveying passengers and merchandise across rivers and over valleys. It is something marvelous to see a single company which does so much on their premises, from the manufacture of pig-iron to the final machine labor that completes the most elaborate structures ready for erection . . .

Messrs. Clarke, Reeves & Co., who make iron bridge-building a specialty, are prepared to construct any style of wrought-iron bridges according to any specified dimensions and weight, but at the same time call the attention of engineers and railway men to that style of bridge which they have been building for the last five years, which has stood the test of use, with the marked approbation of experts in these matters, and in which the material is judiciously distributed, containing nowhere any of it that does not directly contribute to its strength, a feature which cannot be claimed for the majority of bridges in existence.

[In general, in the late 19th century, there was no such thing as praise too florid. But read on, and see if you can spot the Schenectady connection.]

This special style referred to is that kind of truss which was originally developed in wood by Pratt, and in iron by Whipple, and being proved by experience especially adapted for railroads, it is now more in use here than any other . . .

Messrs. Clarke, Reeves & Co. have built some 70 or 80 railroad bridges, of a total length of nearly 40,000 feet, or over 7 miles, which, notwithstanding being much stronger and more reliable than other styles, were cheaper for reason of their facilities on account of reduplication of parts, and lessening as well the cost of erection as of manufacture.

We give on the opposite page an engraving taken from a photograph of the Trumansburgh [sic – it’s Trumansburg, N.Y.] viaduct on the Geneva & Ithaca Railroad. This road runs along the west shore of Cayuga Lake, is about 42 miles long, and connects these two flourishing inland cities, and will eventually become a great coal feeder to central New York and Canada . . . The road crosses several streams flowing into Seneca Lake, over one of which is built this structure, which is 300 feet long, about 40 feet high. It is made of Phoenix posts and rolled beams well braced together, so that trains cross it at full speed without vibration. This firm also furnished the other bridges and viaducts, and have recently finished on the Geneva, Ithaca & Elmira Railroad tow much larger viaducts; one at a place called Deep Gorge, 500 feet long, and 125 feet deep; another over Block House Hollow, 600 feet long, and 80 feet deep. These viaducts cost about $60 per lineal foot, and are altogether the most economical mode of crossing deep hollows with a permanent structure. The rapidity with which they can be constructed is also a matter of great importance to railway companies.

These two viaducts, 1,100 feet long and averaging 100 feet high, were completed and passed trains over in little over three months after the order was given for their construction. They could have been done in two months if the railroad company had been ready for them. All this will give a clear idea of the simplicity, strength, economy, and adaptability of this system for all kinds of localities.

We will say in conclusion that the Phoenixville Iron Works, where these bridges are built, are among the oldest in the United States, being erected in 1790, and passing, in 1827, into the possession of the late Daniel Reeves, who by his energy increased their capacity, till they now employ constantly over 1,500 hands, being now one of the largest manufactures of iron bridges in the country. They ship their bridges to Canada and South America, and are now in negotiation for large orders in British India.