POWELTON VILLAGE

"THE TOWN THAT NEVER WAS"

It will perhaps come as a shock to many to learn that prior to 1955 there was no such settlement as Powelton Village. If the name was applied to anything at all it came from the extensive estate of the Powel family and from Powelton Avenue which cut through it.

Perhaps the first use of the title ''Powelton Village" came in the late 1930's when one Max Pfeiffer applied it to a group of houses he owned on 32nd Street.

Later, in the early 1940's field workers from the Health and Welfare Council and other social organizations began characterizing the area north of Powelton Avenue from 38th Street east as the "Powelton area," a neighborhood where many so-called "hard-core" problem families lived. The section had degenerated to a social and economic low and its concerns were not helped by the presence of the vicious "Bottoms" gangs that infested the area. It was among these gangs that the Crime Prevention Association, then a fledgling organization under the directorship of the late J. Francis Finnegan, was working.

About 1955 Gerard H. Bye and same of his neighbors, intent upon rejuvenating the neighborhood, created a company which had for its main purpose the preservation and restoration of this fine neighborhood of Victorian structures in the area from 34th Street to 38th, between Lancaster Avenue and Spring Garden Street. In order to dramatize their community and garb it with the cloak of historical dignity they called it Powelton Village, terming their company The Powelton Village Development Associates.

The story of Powelton goes back to the very beginning of Philadelphia. William Powel, or Powell (Welsh, ap Howell, or son of Howell) a carpenter, was one of the early settlers of Blockley. When William Penn arrived in 1682 he authorized the establishment of a ferry over the Schuylkill River at Market (High) Street. For years this was the only public method of crossing the river, and the ferry keeper, one Samuel England, seems to have taken full advantage of his monopoly. He was a churlish fellow who had little regard for his passengers' convenience. Complaints of his service, or rather the lack of it, were so numerous that the Provincial Council warned him that he faced the loss of his franchise unless he improved his methods.

The enterprising Powel, seizing the opportunity of competing with England's poor service, opened a ferry at what is now the site of the Spring Garden Street Bridge. On June 27, 1693 England memorialized the Council saying that Powel "did ferrie people over the Schuylkill, to the petitioner's great damage."

Powel in answer exhibited a document from the Grand Jury 1692 endorsing his ferry as a public convenience (which it was to travellers from that direction). He was, therefore, permitted to continue his conveyance.

At this point, no doubt under prodding from the contentious England, the Proprietor entered the scene, declaring through his agents, that neither the Assembly nor the Court could grant a license for a ferry, and forbade Powel to run his ferry. Powel, who by this time had seen a fine profit in the business, now resorted to subterfuge. He sought to avoid the Proprietor's injunction by transferring his ferry to a company and employing one Nathan Muliinax to do the actual ferrying. Both Powel and Mullinax were charged with contempt, and Mullinax went to prison. (One wonders by what machinations Powel stayed out).

Thereupon the Welsh settlers from Merion and Haverford raised an outcry that the discontinuance of the Upper Ferry, as it was called, was prejudicial to them. Penn, who was already in the Welshmen's bad graces, began to reconsider. It was not until 1700, however, that he gave Powel permission to run his ferry, provided that "after nightfall he was not to ferrie any strangers across."

Powel immediately built a house on the west bank which offered accommodations to the traveller. The approach to Powel's Ferry from the south was by a poorly developed road that was known as Upper Ferry Road and later as Schuylkill Street and was the genesis of the present 30th Street north of Market.

From the northwest was another bad road that zig-zagged through the hills. In June 1700, the road was developed from Powel's Ferry to Haverford Meeting House and eventually to Goshen in Chester County. This is the present Haverford Avenue.

When the Lancaster Pike was opened in 1750 the ferry became busier as it provided an easier method of reaching the District of Spring Garden where most of the slaughter houses were, (the road from the eastern bank connecting with the extension of Callowhill Street). Sometime between that time and 1750 Powel retired from the ferry, for in the latter year we find it operated by a man named Schull, who also was the host at the inn, now called the Upper Ferry Tavern.

About 1785 the ferry and tavern were owned by one Ashton. Impelled by the constantly increasing number of herds and teams that were crossing the river, Ashton did away with the ferry and built a bridge made by chaining together logs and fastening them at each bank of the river. This precarious crossing was perhaps more practical for his clientele, but when the load became too heavy the bridge would sink until the water almost reached the floors of the wagons. In January 1789 the bridge was washed away by a fresher. It was restored and lasted until 1810 when it suffered a like fate. (By that time the owner was one Abraham Sheridan.)

The following year the Legislature authorized the erection of a permanent covered bridge. The architect was Lewis Wernwag, a native of Roxborough, who was becoming famous as a bridge designer, and on April 28, 1812 the cornerstone was laid with proper Masonic ceremonies. In January 1813 it was opened to the public. It is related that Wernwag tested its strength by loading the bridge from end to end with cartloads of stone. A road was then cut through connecting the bridge with Lancaster Pike. Then called Bridge Street, it is the present Spring Garden Street.

On September 1, 1838 the bridge was destroyed by fire believed to be of an incendiary nature. Four years later it was replaced by a wire suspension bridge built by Charles Ellet for the Commissioners of the District of Spring Garden. This bridge gradually deteriorated and was replaced in 1875 by the present double-decker.

The next illustrious Powel was Samuel (173993). By this time the family was wealthy and influential in the City. Samuel was the Mayor of Philadelphia during the Revolution. He was the last Mayor under the City Charter of 1701 and the first under the new City Corporation established 1789. His palatial residence at 242 South 3rd Street has been restored and is open to the public.

Samuel added to the Powel holdings west of the river by purchasing from Thomas Willing 80 acres of fast land and 16 acres of marsh northwest of the west end of the Market Street Bridge and for the first time we hear the estate being call Powelton. At his death the land passed to his wife Elizabeth, who, in turn, willed it to her adopted son.

It was Hare Powel who erected the fine mansion on additional land that he bought from the English banking family named Baring. The imposing front of the mansion adorned with massive granite columns and its lawn extended down to the river. Hare Powel was another of those legendary Philadelphia hosts. He was a man of great culture and a breeder of fine horses and cattle.

Powelton was the site of a great Whig celebration for some important political victory in April 1834 Says one account "A committee of one hundred was appointed to make the necessary preparation. They acted with great liberality and there was placed upon the ground an immense stock of provisions - boiled ham, beef tongue, crackers and cheese, bread, and other articles - with a large stock of ale, beer, porter, and cider. Refreshment stands were set up in various parts of the ground, and everybody could eat and drink without stint. A matter unusual was the throwing open of the bridges at High and Callowhill Streets to all passengers free of toll. This was a great novelty and had considerable influence in swelling the crowd, the number of which was computed to be sixty thousand persons. In the City many stores and factories were shut and all who were usually engaged therein went out to the Powelton Jubilee."

Gradually settlements began encroaching on the large open spaces. We have remarked before that the growth of West Philadelphia was paced by facility in crossing the Schuylkill. After the erection of the bridges at Market and Spring Garden (Bridge) Streets, Mantua and Blockley began to grow. The Powel heirs, like the Hamiltons, began disposing of parcels of their acreage. By 1872 all that remained in the name of a Powel was a small part on 33rd Street between Howell (taken from the Welsh) and Race Streets.

In 1852 a great part of the Powel land passed into the hands of the Pennsylvania Railroad. The block from Powelton Avenue to Race Street west of 32nd Street on which stood the mansion house (for a short while 32nd Street had been known as Mansion Street) was sold to E. Spencer Miller who resided there until 1883. It then became the property of Evert J. Wendell, of the firm of Wendell and Smith, builders, who developed much of that area. Summer and Winter Streets were cut through and rows of homes erected.

The success of the Wendell firm inspired other builders to develop the area. One of these was Samuel Hutchinson, who himself lived on the northwest corner of 84th and Haverford Road across from the famous Van Meter family home on the northeast corner.

Just before the Consolidation Act went into effect in 1854 it became known that the new "consolidated" City would assume liability for all the contracts held by the various component settlements. There was a rush by the townships and boroughs to enter into self-improvement agreements. The District of West Philadelphia began to bargain for the purchase of the entire Powelton Estate along the Schuylkill River from Bridge Street (Spring Garden) to Market Street for ~75,000.00. The ground was to be used as a public park. Public outcry against this "steal" caused the plan to be abandoned.

On October 7, 1856 the United States Agricultural Exhibit, a forerunner of the series of world's expositions, was opened on the grounds at Powelton Avenue. It is estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 persons visited the Exhibit. Perhaps the most imposing of the churches in the Powelton area was first organized in 1819 under the name of St. Mark's, Mantua, at 36th and Sycamore (Fairmount Avenue) Streets. It struggled along until 1830 when its buildings were sold at Sheriff's Sale. Shortly thereafter the building was burned by incendiaries. In 1851 the ground was regained, the ruins repaired and the church opened the next year as St. Andrew's, Mantua. In 1865 a lot at 36th and Baring Streets was purchased and a new church built. On April 5, 1884 the cornerstone of a completely new building was laid and formally opened exactly one year later. By now the church was known as St. Andrew's Protestant Episcopal Church.

When the church moved from its old location at 36th and Sycamore Streets in 1865, that building was purchased by the Catholic diocese and remodeled, and opened as St. Agatha's Church. In 1878 the church moved to new buildings at 38th and Spring Garden Streets.

The Pennsylvania Working Home for Blind Men was established in 1874 on Lancaster Avenue below 36th Street and still occupies the site and adjoining buildings. The Industrial Home for Blind Women which had opened in 1869 on Locust Street below 45th in Hamilton Village moved to the corner of Saunders and Powelton Avenues in 1880.


Originally published in 1963.
Reprinted with permission of the West Philadelphia Partnership.


go to next section

go to Table of Contents

go to University City Historical Society homepage