Historic Sites

Washington Avenue: A Representative Example of Philadelphia’s Industrial Past, Background History

Philadelphia was once a major industrial center in the late 1900’s and the first part of the 20th century, deservedly earning the title “workshop to the world”. Unlike other cities that were centered around a single industry, i.e. Pittsburgh and steel or Detroit and automobiles, Philadelphia had a spectrum of different industries. There were knitting mills in Kensington, steel mills in Nicetown and breweries in Brewerytown to name a few representatives.1 Today much of the manufacturing activity in Philadelphia is gone. Competition from overseas and limited capability for expansion within the confines of an urban setting are some of the contributing factors that have led to this demise. While many of the buildings that housed these industries have either been demolished or lie vacant, photographs from the City Archives displayed by serve as a wonderful reminder to us of what once was a thriving manufacturing city. To gain an appreciation of the diversity of Philadelphia’s industrial past, there is probably no better place to start than on Washington Avenue which runs east to west across the city.

Before commencing on our journey down Washington Avenue, a little history is in order as to why this became an industrial area for Philadelphia. In 1838, the Philadelphia Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad (PW&B) entered the city of Philadelphia via a railroad bridge at Grays Ferry and proceeded to lay track down Washington Avenue to Broad Street.2 The ability to ship goods by rail, particularly to other major cities such as Baltimore, immediately attracted various industries who located adjacent to the railroad. Concomitant with industries locating along the line, housing for workers in the form of the Philadelphia rowhouse quickly sprang up in the surrounding area. Nice examples of this architecture can be found along Federal Street and other streets that ran parallel to Washington Avenue. By 1881, the rail line was absorbed by the Pennsylvania Railroad who had gained controlling interest of the PW&B. At about the same time, the rail line originally built by the Southwark Railroad running along Washington Avenue from Broad Street to the Delaware River was also absorbed by the Pennsylvania Railroad.3

As we begin our journey it is probably worth noting additional source material that is useful for identifying the industries along Washington Avenue. Of particular value are maps noting where various industries are located. Many of these maps can be viewed online by going to and clicking on Resource Browser. From there, one can access many useful maps including ones created by Bromley,4 Hexamer,5 and Baist6 as well as maps that date back to the turn of the century or earlier. More contemporary maps include the Land Use Maps of Philadelphia from 19427 and 1962.8 Perhaps the most accurate maps are the Sanborn Insurance Maps that can be viewed at the Free Library in Philadelphia. One other useful tool is a Pennsylvania Railroad publication called the CT1000. In these books, every railroad siding and the company that used the siding are listed. While not all industries have a railroad siding, many along Washington Avenue did. It should be remembered that industries along Washington Avenue were constantly changing; some would move to other locations and be replaced by yet other industries. In many ways the industrial flux on Washington Avenue very much reflected what was happening citywide.

For more information about industry on Washington Avenue, please read “Washington Avenue: A Representative Example of Philadelphia’s Industrial Past, Part I.”


[1] Scranton, Philip, Walter Licht. Work Sights: Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1986.

[2] Penrose, Robert L. (1988) “The PRR’s Delaware Avenue Branch”. The High Line (Philadelphia Chapter, Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society) 9 (1), p. 7.

[3] Ibid., p. 8.

[4] Atlas of the City of Philadelphia, 1901. George W. & Walter S. Bromley, Civil Engineers.

[5] Hexamer General Surveys, 1866-1896. Ernest Hexamer.

[6] Baist’s Property Atlas of the City and County of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1895. G. Wm. Baist.

[7] Philadelphia Land Use Map, 1942. Plans & Registry Division, Bureau of Engineering Surveys & Zoning, Department of Public Works, Federal Works Progress Administration for Pennsylvania.

[8] Philadelphia Land Use Map, 1962. Plans & Registry Division, Bureau of Engineering Surveys & Zoning, Department of Public Works, Federal Works Progress Administration for Pennsylvania.