Frankford’s Fate in Post-Industrial Philadelphia

Well-intentioned officials pose at the start of the flood mitigation project on Frankford Creek in 1950.

Once upon a time it didn’t matter that the Frankford Creek flooded. But that was before people lived and worked in Frankford Creek’s flood plain.

Then Frankford got its mills and its mill workers, thousands of them. Overwhelmingly, these were textile mills built during the 19th century with immigrant know-how and operated by immigrant labor. Frankforders combed, carded, spun, winded, wove, warped, bleached, dyed, starched and produced. First came woolen blankets and calico printing, then felt, then carpet, and more. In the 1820s, at least eight textile firms operated in or near Frankford. By mid-century, thirty mills produced textiles in Frankford. By the 1890s, there were no fewer than 38 employing more than 3,100 workers. Several mills were situated squarely in the floodplain.

Just about every year and ofttimes many  more, floods threated the health and welfare of Frankford’s citizens and impeded the productivity of its mills. At the turn of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania Department of Health took a hard look at the situation, realized that “Frankford Creek is in a foul and insanitary condition” and something had to be done. Harrisburg officials agreed to consider a “comprehensive sewage plan for the collection and disposal of the sewage of the entire Frankford Creek drainage district.”

Those were dry times, in 1912, when a city photographer made this charming view from Powder Mill Road past the perennially water-logged Frogmoor Street down to Frankford Creek. The early round of improvements had been made, but proved not aggressive enough. In 1946, another study found that “in 17 years only three years passed without flood damage.” Something serious had to be done.

This time, City Fathers took more drastic measures. In 1950, they chose to widen the path of the creek, forfeit any hope of the reestablishing natural banks and build a dedicated, concrete channel. The idea was to relieve the drainage problem, protect the water supply and enable unfettered production in the mills.

North Wall at Tremont Mills before modification.

The Fates had other ideas. From the mid-20th century and into the 21st, manufacturing employment in Philadelphia tumbled from 365,500 jobs to 29,800. (And that was before the Great Recession.) Just as the Frankford Creek was being transformed into the Frankford channel, mill owners were starting to abandon Frankford’s century-and-a-half tradition in textiles. Victims of the global economy, Frogmoor Mills, Frankford Hosiery, Frankford Dye Works, and Hughes Spool Cotton, La France Textile, and others sold, left town, or simply shut down. The oldest building at Tremont Mills (and possibly the first textile mill in Frankford: Samuel Pilling’s Calico Print & Dye Works of the 1820s ) was still in operation. As the city widened Wingahocking Street during the flood mitigation project someone thought to document and preserve, rather than demolish, Tremont’s (and possibly Frankford’s) oldest mill . At least two-thirds of it, anyway.

More than sixty years later, the abbreviated ruins of Tremont await their fate, boarded up above, biding time as a car parts shop, below. And like the picturesque ruins of Rome, Tremont is a survivor with a growing and appreciative following.

The time is right. Tremont is one of ten structures and the only mill in Frankford recommended for historic designation in the Philadelphia’s 2035 District Plan for the Lower Northeast. The Draft Plan was released for public comment on August 21. And the comment period ends October 1st. Now’s the time to speak up and secure Frankford’s post-industrial fate.

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