Urban Planning

The Hidden River, Part Two


In the early decades of the twentieth century, Philadelphia matured into a fully-grown industrial city. Awash in new office buildings, new factories, new neighborhoods, and new citizens, the city underwent a dramatic transformation. Immigrant newspapers proliferated. South Philadelphia developed into an enclave for Italian immigrants. German immigrants headed into North Philadelphia and Germantown. And many middle-class workers capitalized on their newfound economic stability and headed across the Schuylkill River. There they made West Philadelphia the city’s first true suburb.

As the largest tributary of the Delaware River, the Schuylkill River was an integral part of Philadelphia’s growth. Inland sections of the river brought coal and other goods into the city from Pennsylvania’s interior. The open areas along the river’s southern regions were also developed. Large oil refineries were built to service Philadelphia and beyond. Transport vessels became ubiquitous on the river. Workers filled tankers with oil along the river’s banks while smoke billowed from tall smokestacks in the background. Many of the vessels crossed the Atlantic and helped supply the nations of Europe with the oil they needed to continue their own industrial growth. The Hidden River, it seemed, was not so hidden anymore.


The largest of the refineries constructed along the Schuylkill was that of the Atlantic Refining Company. Originally founded in 1866 as the Atlantic Petroleum Storage Company, the company did not come into its own until it was bought out by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller in 1874 and integrated into his Standard Oil Trust. The break-up of Standard Oil in 1911 left Atlantic on its own and in control of the oil supply for Pennsylvania and Delaware (Standard Oil of New Jersey had jurisdiction in that state). The large refinery located near the Point Breeze section of the Schuylkill became the hub of its operations.

By the time the Great Depression swept the nation in the 1930s, Atlantic had expanded west and into the field of oil production. Despite its broad corporate goals however, the company remained rooted in Philadelphia along the Schuylkill. In 1966, Atlantic merged with Richfield Oil, a California based company, to form ARCO, one of the nation’s largest oil-companies. Later, after a series of mergers and spin-offs in the 1970s and 1980s, Atlantic was purchased by Sunoco, another Philadelphia-based oil company with a presence along the Schuylkill.


Today, Philadelphia is the largest oil-refining center on the eastern seaboard with seven oil refining plants producing over $100 million in petroleum and oil-based products. Yet, the legacy of industrialization, oil, and refining along the Schuylkill is mixed. Years of overuse and neglect along the river have led to dramatic environmental changes that continue to plague the river and those that inhabit the neighborhoods close to its shores. Decades of conservation efforts on the part of the city and community groups have helped restore some of the Schuylkill’s lost beauty although this work is not complete. The increased presence of new, environmentally-friendly technologies within the oil industry offers hope that commerce and environment will find a way to amicably coexist along the shores of the Hidden River.