If you’ve only been up to Manayunk to see the Philly Cycling Classic, it may seem a little too apt that people believe the name of the place is derived from a Lenape word for “a place to drink,” but that’s the story. Originally known as Flat Rock, after a rock alongside one of the bridges, Manayunk received its modern name in 1824, an anglicized version of the word “manaiung,” which is believed to mean, “where we go to drink”—referring to the Schuylkill River as a source of water.
The name of the town is important, because for a while, during the years when Philadelphia was known as “The Workshop of the World,” the denizens of Manayunk were there own breed of people. There are still some left, but once upon a time it was a blue collar community with a distinctive character. People from Manayunk were called “Yunkers.” Odds are, you just read that word wrong. If you were from there, you’d know “Yunker” is pronounced “yoonker” and “Manayunk” is pronounced “Manayoonk” to its old timers.
The original Lenape word could also mean “raging waters.” According to Deborah Del Collo’s Roxborough, the Schuylkill was, in those days, a raging river. It’s hard to imagine the ambling water way that way now, but it had to be calmed down. The story of Manayunk’s development is dependent on navigable waters.
Manayunk was a sparsely populated, bucolic farming settlement of only a few dozen people until the the Schuylkill Navigation Company began selling waterpower in 1818 or 1819 (accounts differ). From the beginning of power from the dam, however, things began to change rapidly in the area and the town began to grow as quickly. The first census of the area was conducted by a local pastor in 1827. He found 1,098 people living in the town, most of them working for textile mills.
The growth would continue. If you think of the textile industry before the Civil War at all, you probably think of the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. In Workshop of the World—A Selective Guide to the Industrial Archeology of Philadelphia, the writers argue that Manayunk differed from Lowell in that its various mills were all privately held by families. This gave the families much more leeway in how to conduct their business, so that the Mananyunk mills were making a greater diversity of cloths, dyes and patterns. They were also ploughing much of their profits back into the business, so that in time the mills would dominate the banks of the Manayunk Canals.
At first, Manayunk’s mill owners were more inclined to invest in their plants than in housing for workers. Workers had to find their own places to live or build their own homes. As the 19th century wore on, that would change. More and more mill owners owned real estate and began to build cheap tenement housing further up the hill, away from the homes of the more prosperous nearer the mills and the rivers.
In 1854, the township would be annexed into Philadelphia and officially be part of the city forever more.
The town would have three industrial cycles. Shipping on the canal would peak in 1859 and end in 1917. At the end of the Civil War, Manayunk would be recognized as a major textile center, but that would unravel with the Great Depression. However, Manayunk would remain important as an industrial center, primarily by way of paper mills, up through the 70s to early 80s. Then it would go into a period of decline.
In the 2000s, Manayunk started to come back, but primarily as a residential area. Today, Main Street Manayunk is a social and shopping destination and a gathering place for the new denizens of the neighborhood. There’s been some tension in the neighborhood as longtime residents grapple with gentrification. Even as the Bike Race and the Manayunk Arts Festival bring a decidedly different sort of traffic to what has become something of a bedroom community within the dense Southeast Pennsylvania region, some vestiges of an older Manayunk hang on, such as the Hi-Spot Lanes bowling alley on Hermit Street.