Yes, Bad Things Did Happen on Election Day. . . in 1849

“One of the most dreadful and sanguinary riots” Philadelphia had ever seen—and by 1849, Philadelphia had seen more than a few—took place on an election night. The events were so dreadful and so sanguinary, gothic novelist George Lippard adopted them, without embellishment, as fiction.

“A cry at once arose that a white man was shot, and the attention of the mob was directed to the California House, at the corner of Sixth and St. Mary street. From George Lippard’s Life and Adventures of Charles Anderson Chester (Philadelphia: Yates and Smith, 1849/50). (Courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Newspapers had the story first: “The California house, at the corner of St. Mary [now Rodman] and Sixth streets, had long been an object of hostility to the whites.” The riot, or ”outbreak,” as some called it, “was one of those sudden explosions of brutal passions, which could not have been foreseen.” But those who the residents of St. Mary’s Street knew better. With gangs like the Killers and the Stingers dominating the streets, they saw it coming.

“It was the whites against the blacks,” another news account tells us. “The keeper of a black tavern, the California house, was charged with having a white woman for a wife, or with living with her as though she was his wife; and to put an end to or to punish this indecency, or this profligacy, or whatever it was, the mob took the matter in hand, and proceeded, as usual, a la Lynch.”

Not far from St. Mary’s (aka Rodman Street) was a court not unlike George Lippard’s fictional Runnel’s Court in the Moyamensing district. “One of those blots upon the civilization of the Nineteenth Century,” wrote Lippard, where as many as “twenty-four families managed to exist, or rather to die by a slow torture, within…six houses…Whites and Blacks, old and young, rumsellers and their customers, were packed together… amid noxious smells, rags and filth, as thick and foul as insects in a decaying carcase.” And, Lippard added, it could get even worse. “A groggery in a court is a kind of hell within a hell.”
Rear of 714-716 South 7th Street, November 8, 1918. (

We switch to Lippard’s “fictional” account of the context, and the tumultuous situation:

“On that night the city and districts of Philadelphia were alive with excitement. Every street had its bonfire; crowds of voters were collected around every poll; bar-room and groggery overflowed with drunken men. The city and the districts were astir. And through the darkness of night, a murmur rose at intervals like the tramp of an immense army.

“It was election night. The good citizens were engaged in making a Sheriff who might prove an honest man and a faithful officer or who might heap up wealth, by stolen fees, and leave the county to riot and murder, while he grew rich upon the misery of the people. The good citizens were also engaged in electing Members of Assembly who might go to Harrisburg and do their duty like men, or who might go there as the especial hirelings of Bank speculators, paid to enact laws that give wealth to one class, and poverty and drunkenness to another. There was a stirring time around the State house: the entire vicinity ran over with patriotism and brandy. Vote for Moggs the People’s friend! Vote for Hoggs the sterling patriot! Don’t forget Boggs the hero of Squamdog! Appeals like these glared from the placards on the walls, and flashed from the election lanterns, carried in the hands of sturdy politicians. In fine, all over the county, the boys had their bonfires, the men their brandy and politics, the Candidates their agonies of suspense.”

Lippard continues: “There was one district, however, which added a new feature to the excitement of election night. It was that district, which partly comprised in the City Proper, and partly in Moyamensing, swarms with hovels, courts, groggeries—with dens of every grade of misery and of drunkenness—festering there, thick and rank, as insects in a tainted cheese. It cannot be denied that hard-working and honest people, reside in the Barbarian District. Nor can it be denied that it is the miserable refuge of the largest portion of the Outcast population of Philadelphia county.”

Two of the Killers. ca. 1848. Lithograph by J. Childs. (The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Thanks to the Killers and the Stingers, two of the city’s growing number of gangs, that “district [had] for two years been the scene of perpetual outrage. Here, huddled in rooms thick with foul air, and drunk on poison that can be purchased for a penny a glass, you may see white and black, young and old, man and woman, cramped together in crowds that fester with wretchedness, disease and crime.”

One crime that election day was a bold and brutal attack on the California House.  

“Through this district, at an early hour on the night of election, a furniture car, filled with blazing tar barrels, was dragged by a number of men and boys, who yelled like demons, as they whirled their locomotive bonfire through the streets. It was first taken through a narrow street, known as St. Mary street” and rammed into the California House, which was soon aflame.

Again, from Lippard: “Many were wounded, and many killed. It was an infernal scene. The faces of the mob reddened by the glare, the houses whirling in flames, the streets slippery with blood, and a roar like the yells of a thousand tigers let loose upon their prey, all combined, gave the appearance of a sacked and ravaged town, to the District which spreads around Sixth and St. Mary street. The rioters and spectators in the streets were not the only sufferers. Men and women sheltered within their homes, were shot by the stray missiles of the cowardly combatants.”

Where were the police? Occupied elsewhere, throughout the city. It was election night.

“Shortly before midnight,” we learn from the Inquirer, “a body of Police forced their way to the scene of action, fire, and bloodshed,” but the entire area was out of control. Chaos continued into the next morning when “six or eight military companies headed by the Sheriff and Mayor marched to the scene of action, took possession of the disturbed district, and planted cannon in the streets to prevent the encroachment of the crowd.”

Cannon in the streets of the Quaker city? Lippard knew he couldn’t improve on this reality for his fiction.

“There is not a city in the Union more shamefully mob-ridden than Philadelphia,” reported The National Era. This most “mobocratic” city cannot be redeemed from the curse of the mob, wrote Frederick Douglass, who called out the “bitterness and baseness of the hatred with which colored people are regarded in Philadelphia. “

This city is home to the “most foul and cruel mobs” waging war “against the people of color” Douglass continued. Philadelphia “is now justly regarded as one of the most disorderly and insecure cities in the Union. No man is safe—his life—his property—and all that he holds dear, are in the hands of a mob, which may come upon him at any moment—at midnight or mid-day, and deprive him of his all.

“Shame upon the guilty city! Shame upon its law-makers, and law administrators!”

But there was little shame in the city that would, over time, earn notoriety in a book by Lincoln Stephens titled The Shame of the Cities. Philadelphia’s chapter? “Corrupt and Contented.”

[Sources: “Postscript. Dreadful Riot. Houses Burned, and Several Persons Killed and Wounded.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 10, 1849; “Mob at Philadelphia,” The Columbia Democrat, October 20, 1849; “A Terrible Riot Took Place in Philadelphia,” Jeffersonian Republican, October 18, 1849; George Lippard, Matt Cohen, and Edlie L. Wong. The Killers: a Narrative of Real Life in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).]


The Rise of Big Sugar

Once upon a time, sugar was little more than “an exotic spice, [a] medicinal glaze or sweetener for elite palates.” Then slavery changed everything and sugar went global.

Cane harvested in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and eventually the Philippines and Hawaii was processed into raw sugar, poured into sacks weighing hundreds of pounds each and loaded onto ships bound for America’s urban centers, where refineries produced what came to be known as table sugar.

Pier 40 – South Wharves – Christian Street, Cargo of 8,700 tons of raw sugar on upper deck. Dept of Wharves, Docks and Ferries, Phila., March 23, 1916 (

“Gleaming white crystals would eventually be served in sugar bowls, complete with silver tongs and spoons as part of refined table settings. wrote April Merleaux in Sugar and Civilization. “The ensemble of material goods . . . together with rules for proper use of those items, signified that the eater was fully civilized.”

Refined sugar – superfine and super white – symbolized an elevated social rank, an idea that goes back to the 1870s, when refiners “waged a public campaign to dissuade Americans from eating raw sugar.” We learn from David Singerman’s article, “The Shady History of Big Sugar,”  that one advertisement “featured a disgusting insect that supposedly inhabited raw sugar and caused an ailment called ‘grocer’s itch’ in those who handled it.” As racial theorist Ellsworth Huntington put it, we refined sugar “not only to tickle our palates, but to please our eyes by its whiteness.”

“For middle-class people in the United States, writes Merleaux, “to eat refined white sugar was also to internalize a colonial and racial division of labor.” Protected by high tariffs, American sugar refiners enjoyed protections that “maintained the racial hierarchy encoded through the contrast between civilized and uncivilized, technology and nature, refined and raw, white and brown.”

“The government got hooked on sugar, too,” writes Singerman, “by 1880, sugar accounted for a sixth of the federal budget.” And sugar came to play a significant role in government policies. Annexation of Hawaii in 1898 helped guarantee the steady flow of raw sugar to refineries on the mainland. So did a temporary occupation of Cuba and the retention of Puerto Rico and the Philippines as U.S. territories.

Municipal Pier No. 40 – South. 8,700 tons of raw sugar on [—-] deck. Dept of Wharves, Docks and Ferries, Phila., March 23, 1916 (

At the start of the 20th century, “the American Sugar Refining Company formed as a holding company, and grew into one of the nation’s -largest industrial corporations. According to Merleaux , “sugar refiners were repeatedly the subject of antitrust investigations by the Department of Justice and muckraking journalists.” Indeed, the “Sugar Trust” became “one of the most notorious and successful monopolies of the Gilded Age.”

The City of Philadelphia did what it could to support Big Sugar, including the construction of several state-of-the art piers (including Piers 38 and 40 South) aimed at increasing commerce.  Philadelphia’s refineries were able to ramp up production to more than 5.2 million pounds of sugar per day. Philadelphia ranked as the second largest sugar producing city in the world.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that while politicians and industrialists were doling out advantages for Big Sugar, physicians and nutritionists were influencing consumers to believe that sugar consumption was, in fact, a “healthy ‘fuel-food,’ necessary to proper nutrition and crucial for people performing heavy labor.” American per capita consumption more than doubled from 32 pounds per year in 1870 to 80 pounds per year in 1910.

“Some years ago,” recalled editors at the Inquirer in 1916,  “when the nutritive value of sugar came to be fully realized, an unrestricted use of sweets was advocated in many quarters.… Many mothers were so obsessed with the idea of ‘nutritive value’ that they were inclined to place sugar on a pinnacle, naturally to their children’s delight.” But American sugar consumption had gone too far, claimed the editors, observing that “to a large extent nowadays among the poor classes” mothers are enabling sugar consumption that previously “would have made our mothers’ hair stand on end.”

Pier No. 40 – South Delaware Wharves. Cargo of 8,700 tons of raw sugar on upper deck. March 23, 1916 (

American sugar consumption remained, then as now, very high, about twice the recommended daily limit. And the reason was more than the appeal of sugar’s sweet taste.

By the 1950s and 1960s, scientists had become aware of links between sugar and obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But, according to more recent revelations after a deep dive into archival documents, researchers found that the Sugar Research Foundation, a trade group set up to lobby on behalf of sugar, paid Harvard researchers to direct blame away from sugar and aim it specifically toward fat. Their article, published in the prestigious and generally venerable New England Journal of Medicine presented results that “exonerated sugar as a major risk factor for coronary heart disease.”

About the same time Big Sugar was manipulating what was known about the dangers of sugar, this writer was a middle school student in Mr. Donohoe’s history class at Leeds Junior High School in East Mount Airy. After all these years, one specific, ahistorical claim still stands out in memory.

“America is a sugar-eatin’ country,” declared Mr. Donohoe, in class, glowing with national pride.

Couldn’t argue then; can’t argue today. But all these many years later, with real history in hand, the truth has swapped patriotism with cynicism.

[Sources: “Sweets Place Recognized.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1916; April Merleaux, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness (University of North Carolina Press: 2015); Kearns, Cristin E et al. “Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents.” JAMA internal medicine vol. 176,11 (2016): 1680-1685; Anahad O’Connor, “How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat,” The New York Times, September, 12, 2016; David Singerman, “The Shady History of Big Sugar,” The New York Times, September 16, 2016; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, “The Sugar that Saturates the American Diet has a Barbaric History as the ‘White Gold’ that Fueled Slavery,” The New York Times, August, 14, 2019]


Culture War at 19th & Chestnut Streets

W hat’s all this about the City of Brotherly Love? Philadelphia was a flat-out racist city a century ago.

Raymond Pace Alexander, the first Black graduate of Penn’s Wharton School in 1920 returned home with a law degree from Harvard three years later. He would later recall: “Excepting only the restaurants in the John Wanamaker store and the Broad Street, Station, a Negro in 1923 could not be served in the restaurant or café of any first-class hotels in Philadelphia, nor could he obtain food in any of the central city restaurants. … [The] only place he could obtain food in central Philadelphia was in the Automats, which were colorblind … restaurants away from the central section and those in the suburban area were even worse. Their method of refusal sometimes took the form of violence.”

Likewise, the city’s many movie theaters, ostensibly palaces for the people, were offenders. Theater managers deployed an array of tactics to keep Blacks from entering. When Marian Dawley and a few friends went to the movies at 59th and Market Streets, they were told “all tickets for colored people have been sold.” When the new Aldine at 19th and Chestnut opened in 1921, its manager, with a pocketful of outdated tickets and stubs, regularly switched them to turn away Black customers.

The brand new Aldine Theater. December 8, 1921. Southeast corner of 19th and Chestnut Streets (

How would the city’s Black community deal with this? Two options were acceptance and building theaters for Black audiences. The Dunbar Theatre, which opened in 1920 at Broad and Lombard, would be “owned and controlled by citizens of color.”  A third alternative? Use the law to challenge, if not change, Philadelphia’s racist ways.

By 1924, Alexander was ready to face the challenge. He had already garnered experience—and some success—in civil rights litigation. During the summer of 1921, between his first and second years of law school, Alexander brought his very first civil rights suit against New York’s Madison Square Garden for denying him use of their swimming pool. At Harvard, where residence in dormitories was made compulsory for first year students, Alexander took on their contradictory rule prohibiting occupancy by Black students. His essay “Voices From Harvard’s Own Negroes” argued for change, drew praise from professor Felix Frankfurter (a future Supreme Court Justice) and contributed to the reversal of Harvard’s exclusion policy.

Back home in Philadelphia, the newly-minted lawyer took what he learned in the dormitory victory to shape civil rights work that would last for decades, according to Kenneth Mack. Pennsylvania’s 1887 Equal Rights law “lacked “teeth,” Alexander would later admit, but provided enough traction “to file suits against discrimination.”

Where would Alexander launch his campaign? By repeatedly refusing tickets purchased by Black citizens and denying them passage through the damask-brocaded, marble-encrusted, crystal-laden lobby of the Aldine, Center City Philadelphia’s “most brilliantly lit” movie house, manager Charles Starkosh provided Alexander with exactly what was needed. And with the screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s “mighty dramatic spectacle,” The Ten Commandments, the case had the potential to be both iconic and ironic.

“The Aldine’s choice to exclude Black theatergoers sparked perhaps the most sustained set of conflicts over public accommodations in the city” during the 1920s, writes Mack. After an initial loss in court, Alexander came forward with additional plaintiffs and the court “condemned the Aldine’s actions, prompting a settlement.” Theater management “issued a public apology and promised to end its discriminatory policy.”

Aldine Theater marquee and signage for The Singing Fool, starring Al Jolson, October 2, 1928. Southeast corner of 19th and Chestnut Street (

Alexander’s civil rights cases and his boycotts, combined with the Black vote, would help guide the passage of a new Pennsylvania Equal Rights Law in 1935, which, according to Alexander, would have “some nasty, sharp–edged teeth.”

1900 Chestnut Street, law offices of Raymond Pace Alexander, built for Alexander in 1935 by Frank E. Hahn. (University Archives – Penn Archives Digital Collection)

Still, Philadelphia’s prevailing culture remained steeped in systemic racism. In October 1928, three years after Alexander’s victory, the Aldine screened The Singing Fool featuring Al Jolson, the “shameful poster boy” of blackface (as he would be called). For the film’s entire run, giant portraits of Jolson—in blackface—loomed over the intersection of 19th and Chestnut.

Jolson’s ephemeral image, of course, would soon be taken down. And by 1935, the same year as Pennsylvania’s new Equal Rights Law, Alexander’s practice had become successful enough to acquire land and commission a brand new, three-story building “in the heart of the almost exclusively white Center City of Philadelphia.” The location: right across 19th Street from the Aldine. There, with his wife/partner, lawyer/economist Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and others in the firm, Alexander would do much more to advance the cause of civil rights.

Raymond Pace Alexander had made sure to have the last word in the battle for the soul of 19th and Chestnut Streets. This time it would be set in stone.


[Sources: David A. Canton, Raymond Pace Alexander: A New Negro Lawyer Fights for Civil Rights in Philadelphia, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013); Ted Gioia, “A Megastar Long Buried Under a Layer Of Blackface.” The New York Times, October 22, 2000; Kenneth W. Mack, “Rethinking Civil Rights Lawyering and Politics in the Era Before Brown,” The Yale Law Journal; New Haven Vol. 115, no. 2, (Nov 2005); Bradley Maule, “Paced For Growth At 1900 Chestnut,” Hidden City, May 8, 2014; Colin A. Palmer, editor. “Raymond Pace Alexander,” Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History,. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006); “All Seats For Colored People Are Sold Out,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 8, 1919; Philadelphia to Soon Have a New Colored Play House, Philadelphia Tribune, November 8, 1919; “Theatre Employee Accused of “Switching” Tickets to Colored Patrons,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 29, 1924;Aldine Theatre Case Settled in Manager’s Favor, Philadelphia Tribune, March 2, 1925; Aldine Theatre Opens, Inquirer, November 12, 1921; “The Singing Fool” Begins at Aldine,” Inquirer, October 2, 1928.]


Decision Time: The Centennial Columbus

Christopher Columbus Statue at the Centennial Exhibition, 1876. ( Library of Philadelphia)

No one had a clue as to what Christopher Columbus actually looked like.

No matter, American artists from Benjamin West onward invented images of Columbus in a host of biographically inspired settings that played both into and off of the truth. Washington Irving’s best-selling biography first issued in 1828 would go through 39 American and 51 international printings popularizing, fictionalizing, mythologizing all the way.

Americans, Thomas Schlereth explains, “configured and contested Columbus differently as a national symbol” in an expanding nation determined to revise, augment, justify and glorify its founding narrative. Columbus served a purpose, appearing again and again, in everything and seemingly everywhere from “painting and philately, monuments and sculpture [to] civic iconography… national coinage, pageants and plays.”

Nineteenth-century America, you might say, discovered Columbus. And in a very real way, writes Schlereth, this century-long, re-creation of Columbus enabled and informed a “larger, many-sided quest for an American national character.”

Where the earliest American monument to the idea of Columbus came in the form of a 40-foot tall obelisk dedicated in Baltimore in 1792, 19th-century Americans would come to expect representations of the person Columbus in the form of statues and busts populating “city parks, civic spaces, and government buildings.”

In 1844, Congress dedicated the “first piece of statuary that was ever purchased by the government,” according to William Eleroy Curtis. Luigi Persico’s Discovery of America presented Columbus “clad in a totally inaccurate suit of European armor” carrying in his right hand an orb (“America”) beside “a semi nude Native American female, the Indian princess of colonial America, [who] crouches awkwardly by his side, ready to flee.”

The Discovery of America, also known as The Discovery Group, 1844. Marble sculpture by Luigi Persico originally at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia)

While some accepted the Persico’s sculpture “as an appropriate symbolization of their nation’s manifest destiny and racial supremacy,” as Vivien Green Fryd tells us, others debated the sculpture’s merits, its meaning and its message. Here was another example of “the nation’s perennial search for self-identity.” This time, and in many to follow, it came in a fictional form, figure and face of the so-called “Discoverer.”

By the 400th anniversary of 1492, Schlereth points out, American cities, including Philadelphia, would have 28 monuments to Columbus—more than any other country. Columbus appeared “atop pedestals, fountains, triumphal arches, socles, and freestanding columns.” And for the most part, these depicted Columbus as “independent, destined, and triumphant; he invariably appears as a young, clear-thinking conqueror, the prescient visionary of the first voyage, not the beleaguered mariner of the last expeditions.”

Columbus was no longer abstract; no longer an idea. He was, as Claudia Bushman points out discussing the Persico group at the Capitol in Washington, embodied in a Caucasian male representing racial domination, a statement in stone that, among other things, “underscored and supported the government’s Indian removal policy.” And in the context of the other sculpture flanking the same staircase at the Capitol, Horatio Greenough’s sculpture of a violent encounter between a hatchet-wielding Native American warrior and a Caucasian pioneer family (The Rescue—popularly known as Daniel Boone Protecting His Family), the pair of statues became the target of ongoing controversy.

Both sculptures, according to Bushman,“proved offensive to Americans” and in 1939 a joint congressional resolution proposed “that The Rescue be ‘ground into dust, and scattered to the four winds, that no more remembrance may be perpetuated of our barbaric past, and that it may not be a constant reminder to our American Indian citizens…’.”

The resolution failed to pass. But in 1958, “when the capitol building was to be extended, the government removed all the sculptural works in the vicinity. Most of the art works were later returned to their placed, but the two offending works…disappeared forever.” Word has it they reside in a Smithsonian storage facility somewhere in Maryland. And, since a crane accident in 1976, The Rescue is reduced to a “pile of fragments.”

As for The Discovery Group, its figures stare into the empty space of a warehouse that presumably looks something like the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Will Philadelphia’s Columbus have a similar fate? Should it?

[Sources: Bushman, Claudia L. America Discovers Columbus: How an Italian Explorer Became an American Hero (Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1992); William Eleroy Curtis, “The Columbus Monuments,” The Chautauquan, Vol 16, Oct 1892-March 1893; Vivien Green Fryd, “Two Sculptures for the Capitol: Horatio Greenough’s ‘Rescue’ and Luigi Persico’s ‘Discovery of America,’” The American Art Journal, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring, 1987); Thomas J. Schlereth, “Columbia, Columbus, and Columbianism,” The Journal of American History, Dec. 1992, Vol. 79, No. 3.]


Legendary Lifting at Cramp’s

Cramp’s Derrick at Chestnut Street Pier, May 24, 1898 (

“The cornerstone of Philadelphia’s Iron Age,” wrote Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies in a remarkable chapter on the city’s industrialization, consisted of three companies: the Pennsylvania Railroad, Baldwin Locomotive Works and Cramp Shipbuilding Company.

Today we focus on the last, a company formed in the 1840s that employed 5,600 by the mid-1890s at its 31-acre shipyard in Port Richmond. According to The Scientific American, Cramp had “some 282 vessels” to its credit by the end of 1894 and would, by the time of its final closing after World War II, have 500.

Passenger steamers were Cramp’s bread and butter. They built 112 from the Albatross in 1849 to the Evangeline in 1927.  The latter was known for its service on the Clyde line’s Miami-Havana service. Another, the Great Northern, set speed records from Honolulu to San Francisco and for a round trip crossing of the Atlantic: 14 days, 4 hours, 30 minutes.

Cramp’s fast ships attracted clients from around the world to Port Richmond. The Zabiaka, built in 1880 as part of an order for the Imperial Russian Navy, would be clocked as “the fastest cruiser in the world.”

Vessels for another client,  the United States Navy, included 65 destroyers from the Smith in 1909 to the Paul Jones in 1920; 31 cruisers from the Chattanooga in 1864 to the Youngstown in the 1940s; 23 submarines from Thrasher in 1912 to Wolfish in the 1940s and 22 battleships – from the Indiana and the Massachusetts in 1893 to the Wyoming in 1911.

Two dozen cargo steamers, could—and often did—serve civilian or military purposes. In 1907, Cramp launched the 375’ Massachusetts for the New England Navigation Company. Through a series of owners and name changes, this ship became the Ogala with the U.S. Navy’s the Mine Division. The Ogala happened to be stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was sunk and subsequently put back into service.

In 1874, Cramp launched ten, 240-foot-long colliers—coal carriers—including six for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company (appropriately named Reading, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Williamsport, Allentown and Pottsville). Over time, Cramp produced 58 barges, 27 tugboats, seven tankers, a handful of ice boats and, of course, ferryboats.

Steam Crane Atlas placing a 70-ton boiler in the hold of Armor Cruiser New York. “The work of raising the boiler, carrying it a distance of 80 feet and lowering it into position was accomplished in the remarkably short time of twenty-six minutes.” Scientific American, December 29, 1894. (GoogleBooks)

Cramp also made a tool that helped modernize scaled-up shipbuilding. This “monster floating derrick,” the “largest piece of machinery of its kind in the world” staked its claim to “some really remarkable performances” handling with dispatch the heaviest boilers and canon, up to 125 tons. The four boilers of the battleship Indiana, each weighing 72 tons, were choreographed from wharf to vessel in half a day. The 80-ton boiler for the Navy’s cruiser Minneapolis was moved into position, more than 100 feet, in 26 minutes.

The “lifting and traversing gear” of this floating 116-foot tall derrick, its “boom, mast, braces, collars, helmet, and all its lifting and traversing gear… [were] formed of the toughest steel possible.” Its iron pontoon measured 73-by 62-feet by 13-feet deep. The diameter of this derrick’s distinctive cone: 40 feet at the base. This derrick could lift “with ease the heaviest boiler constructed”—as much as 125 tons.

What to name a giant of such strength and speed? Cramp turned to ancient mythology and chose the name of the god responsible for nothing less than holding up the celestial heavens. Their machine at the heart of Philadelphia’s Iron Age would be known as Atlas.

[Sources: Nathaniel Burt and Wallace E. Davies, “The Iron Age, 1876-1905,” in Russell Weigley, Philadelphia: A 300 Year History (W. W. Norton & Company, 1982)]; Farr, Gail E., and Brett F. Bostwick with the assistance of Merville Willis.  Shipbuilding at Cramp & Sons: A History and Guide to Collections of the William Cramp & Sons Ship and engine Building Company (1830-1927) and the Cramp Shipbuilding Company ((1941-46) of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1991. (pdf); Jeffery M. Dorwart, Shipbuilding and Shipyards, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia; The Cramp Ship Yards, Scientific American, (New York) December 29, 1894, 62, no. 26; Millington Miller. “Cramp’s Shipyard and the New United States Navy”, Frank Lesley’s Popular Monthly,  vol. 38, July to December 1894; “Building War-ships at Cramps,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17, 1894; “Warships Nearly Finished,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug 3, 1900; Waldon Fawcett, “Mechanical Appliances in Modem Shipbuilding,” Technical World, vol. 2, no. 1 September 1894; Waldon Fawcett, “Floating Cranes Steel and Iron,” American Manufacturer and Iron World, vol. 69, No. 18, October 31,  1901.]

William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company. August 15, 1917 (


The Rise and Fall of Southwark

“When you enter the plaza,” reported the Inquirer in 1981, “Southwark surprises you with the makings of a nice community. The towers look into a community center, open squares and trees, and from these extend little streets of rowhouses with hedges and yards. It is a campus-like setting full of potential…”

That was the idea, anyway.

South 4th Street, Christian to Washington, 1964 (

Inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, architects including Louis I. Kahn and Oscar Stonorov designed three dozen high-rise housing projects for thousands of Philadelphia’s low-income families. Edmund Bacon at the city planning commission led the charge. Bacon, John F. Bauman put it, “viewed public housing as part of the process of excising away Philadelphia’s obsolescent industrial past and ushering in a modern and more physically attractive future for a ‘Better Philadelphia.’”

Through the 1950s and 1960s, according to Alexander van Hoffman, urban high-rise projects “rising out of vast expanses of grass and greenery” came to “dominate the image of American public housing.” The “movement for tall modernism…gained support from city officials and developers who saw sleek skyscrapers as a way of modernizing the aging urban landscapes of postwar America.”

A few designers worried they might be creating a new generation of “supertenements.” No matter. According to van Hoffman, officials “in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Chicago, embraced high-rise design with an almost insane tenaciousness.” By 1960, Philadelphia had 22 low-income towers with another dozen, including three at Southwark Plaza, by Stonorov & Haws, on the drawing boards. By the late 1970s, 5,000 Philadelphia families occupied 36 high-rise projects, a social experiment that would soon become recognized as a profound city planning failure.

Built in 1963 for about $12 million (the equivalent of more than $100 million in today’s dollars) Southwark’s three 26-story towers, along with adjacent low-rise neighbors, housed more than 2,700 residents in 886 units. Cheek-by-jowl and steeped in poverty, everyone there lived with crime, drugs, unrepaired plumbing and perennially dysfunctional elevators. “It’s like living in hell, only worse,” one resident told a Bulletin reporter in 1977. “In hell, at least you are dead.”

Aerial View from Southwark Building, May 11, 1965 (

Southwark quickly became known as a “model of the misguided public housing policies of the day: Build cheap, then pack ’em in,” wrote the Inquirer’s Frank Lewis. This project was nothing short of “notorious for its failure in terms of people’s lives,” urban designer Jon Lang later wrote. “One of the city’s worst public housing sites,” confirmed John Kromer in Fixing Broken Cities.

The police “dreaded” Southwark. Responding to complaints, “they used the ‘three-car’ approach—three police vehicles dispatched to handle one complaint. One set of officers was needed to guard the cars. Bricks flew from the high-rises, pelting cops and their vehicles.”

If Southwark stood out at all,” wrote Buzz Bissinger in A Prayer for the City, “if there was anything that distinguished the complex, it was in the color of those…towers—a clammy, sickly yellow the human skin gets from chronic fever and stale air.”

“One didn’t have to be a social scientist or an expert in public housing to understand a place like Southwark… Any adult…or any child, for that matter—could look at those towers in their ugly incongruous setting … and know that they had been doomed to failure from the very beginning, casting a potentially fatal effect not only on those who were sentenced to live there but also those who lived anywhere close to them.”

“There were poor people in the city who desperately needed housing,” wrote Bissinger, “but not like this.”

“Around the same time,” reported the Inquirer, “everyone had seemed to come to the same conclusion … high-rises and low incomes just don’t mix.

The successful explosives felling of [Southwark Residential Towers] two, 331’ tall, 26-story, reinforced concrete apartment structures, 8:30 AM on Sunday, January 23, 2000. (Controlled Demolition, Inc.)
And so, early one frigid millennial morning [January 23, 2000], scores of police officers “cordoned off an area bordered by Sixth, Moyamensing, Queen and Wharton.” Traffic on I-95 was temporarily halted. Eighty-five pounds of explosives had been strategically affixed to 650 concrete uprights in each of two towers.

“At 8:31 a.m. as light snow fell and police, officials and hundreds of residents watched, the two 26-story towers at Washington and Fourth Streets were imploded into giant piles of rubble. Loud bangs rang out, and for an instant, the towers stood intact. Then another bang sounded and the buildings crumbled straight down.” Finally, “a giant ball of light-brown dust rose and spread” over a good part of South Philadelphia.

Southwark was hardly the only low-income, high rise to meet its fate with a bang and a cloud of dust. For two decades, starting in the mid-1990s, no fewer than 23 low-income high rises came down. And implosion was the method of choice. The 8-tower Raymond Rosen Apartments in 1995 was followed a year later by the Schuylkill Falls Apartments. The Martin Luther King Plaza came down in 1999, one year before Southwark, two years before Cambridge Plaza and three years before the Mill Creek Apartments.

Philadelphia, it seemed, had come to its senses as to what constitutes humane, low-income housing. And Philadelphians found themselves engaged in a newfound, post-modern spectator sport.

[Sources: From The Philadelphia Inquirer: Bob Frump, “Why ‘Projects” is a Dirty Word in Housing, April 16, 1978; Andrew Wallace, “Southwark: Trash,” April 16, 1978; Mark Randall, “At Southwark Plaza…” Our Town, Today Magazine, November 1, 1981; Laura Bunch, Vacant Towers Coming Down Amid Hope of Better Housing,” December 2, 1996; Thom Guarnieri, “Towers’ Rubble Clears the Way for a Fresh Start,” January 24, 2000; Larry Eichel, “Rising from Ruins,” December 4, 2005. From The Philadelphia Daily News:  Leon Taylor, “Project’s Towers go from Dream to Dust, April 18, 1995; Christine Bahls, MLK Towers Tumble Down, October 18, 1999. A Citizen’s Guide to Housing and Urban Renewal in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Housing Association, 1960); John F. Bauman, Public Housing, Race, and Urban Renewal: Urban Planning in Philadelphia, 1920–1974 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987); John F. Bauman, “Row Housing as Public Housing: The Philadelphia Story, 1957–2013,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol.138, no. 4 (2014): Buzz Bissinger, A Prayer for the City (Vintage, 1998); Ryan Briggs, “Bidding Farewell To Queen Lane, Looking Ahead For PHA,” Hidden City, September 12, 2014; Jon Lang, Urban Design: The American Experience (John Wiley & Sons, 1994); Frank Lewis, “The Philadelphia Experiment,” Philadelphia City Paper,  April 17–24, 1997; John L. Puckett, Public Housing’s Backstory, Part of Diverse Stories: Public Housing in West Philadelphia, (West Philadelphia Collaborative History); Alexander van Hoffman, “High Ambitions: The Past and the Future of American Low-Income Housing Policy,” Housing Policy Debate, vol. 8, no. 3, 1996.]


More Jane Jacobs’ Philadelphia

The great Jane Jacobs, as we saw in our last post, had a lot to say about cities in general and Philadelphia in particular. We couldn’t resist sharing more:

On demolishing City Hall: “I’m glad they didn’t!” declared Jacobs in 1962. “That courtyard space is one of the most attractive things of its kind in any city I ever saw. More should be done with it, of course, though you don’t want anything chic or flossy or cutesy.”

“Philadelphia’s embrace of the new, after long years of apathy, has by some miracle not meant the usual rejection of whatever is old. When a city can carry on a love affair with its old and its new at once, it has terrific vitality.”

Jane Jacobs wrote that the new Independence mall was “embalming Independence Hall in its grand distances like a fly in amber” admitted that “the Hall is a fly in amber – whole, stimulating to the sense of wonder, but infinitely, infinitely remote.”  And, she added, “the quaintsy lamps, urns and pedestals that irritate the mall’s edges are a pathetic try and concealing the joints between then-and-now, but the design that counts is the long, tree-lined vista which acknowledges the Hall is an exhibit that most people first view at 35 mph.” Independence Mall, June 6, 1966 (

“Mrs. Jacobs shook her head disapprovingly,” wrote Frederick Pillsbury of Jacobs’ reaction to Penn Center. Planners and urban renewal experts “have this notion of taking a superblock and spotting buildings on it” believing “that a development like this helps what’s around it.” But, she added, “it’s done nothing for the other side of the street. It’s an island instead of part of the continuing fabric.”  Penn Center Ice Skating, October 1963 (

“I was sure she would pan the new, flying-saucer tourist center on the north side of the hall,” wrote Bulletin reporter Frederick Pillsbury, “but she surprised me. I like that,” she commented. “A little flashy, perhaps, but appropriate, and fun.”Hospitality Center – 16th and Parkway. September 23, 1960 (

“Mrs. Jacobs frowned,” wrote Pillsbury. “‘This is what happens when you start arranging cultural things,’” she said. “‘The library has no business being out here and neither do the Art Museum or the Franklin Institute. They belong right at the center of things. Thank God they didn’t move the Academy of Music out here! But I do like the fountains. Philadelphia should have more fountains like those.’”  Fountain, Logan Circle, April 13, 1949 (

“We drove around Rittenhouse Square,” wrote Pilsbury. “This is nifty,” [Jacobs] said. “I’ve never seen it looking prettier. See how much more interesting it is than those big projects set off by themselves. But if it gets too popular and expensive it will be doomed. To keep it healthy you should have a variety of buildings and uses, as you have now, and a variety of people and ages.” Rittenhouse Square – 18th and Walnut Streets, January 13, 1935 (
“Downtown Philadelphia has dozens upon dozens of reborn blocks. This is an immensely healthy development, worth far more than the street widening and highway bisection which – in ignorance or in ruthlessness – help thwart such upgrading in many cities.”

“Hundreds of thousands of people with hundreds of thousands of plans and purposes built the city and only they will rebuild the city. All else can only be oases in the desert.”

“And still the deserts of the city have grown and still they are growing, the awful endless blocks, the endless miles of drabness and chaos.”

“Little good can happen to people or to buildings when a sense of neighborhood is missing.”

“The street works harder than any other part of downtown. It is the nervous system; it communicates the flavor, the feel, the sights. … Users of downtown know that downtown needs not fewer streets, but more, especially for pedestrians.”

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Near 3rd and Spruce Streets Jacobs “looked over the first buildings of the Society Hill project. ‘I don’t ‘like them,’” she said of some new buildings in Society Hill, “They’re pretending to be something they’re not.”

Visiting 10th and Tasker Streets in South Philadelphia, Jacobs observed: “There were people sitting on front steps, talking out windows. Children played on the sidewalks under the eyes of neighbors and parents. There were corner stores. … ‘This looks healthy to me… This is much better than Society Hill will ever be. It’s the kind of area a city ought to cherish and respect. These people live here. The people who set policy for the city ought to listen to these people down here.’”

“Now this is nice!” [Jacobs] said at [Fitler Square] 23rd and Pine Streets. . . She settled back on the seat and lit a cigarette. ‘City zoning needs a complete overhaul,’ she said presently. ‘Look at this: stores and gardens spotted everywhere. They’re not standing in the way of rehabilitation, are they? There’s a whole fiction about what’s blighting. The planners haven’t looked and seen what city life is all about.'”  Fitler Park – 23rd and Pine Streets. January 21, 1947 (

McKee's Alley, east of 1320 Lombard Street, February 27, 1930 (
“We cut down to Lombard Street and inspected its old, small houses, many recently fixed up, many, undergoing face-liftings. ‘Now this is important,’ Mrs. Jacobs said. ‘It’s not broken up with a lot of woozy open space.’ We had a glimpse of an inner courtyard through an open doorway. ‘That’s one of the wonderful things about Philadelphia,’ she said, ‘those little courtyards behind houses. Yet they flout every regulation about urban renewal.'”  McKee’s Alley, east of 1320 Lombard Street, February 27, 1930 (

“We saw two of the city’s recent examples of urban renewal- simple two-story apartment houses with strips of green around them. Mrs. Jacobs said they showed ‘a great vacuum of thought.’ It was wrong, she said, to herd people of one income together, because you got too many similar problems in one place and too little variety.”  Tenth Street, Brown to Parrish Streets, December 4, 1959 (

[Sources: [Jane Jacobs], “A Lesson in Urban Redevelopment: Philadelphia’s Redevelopment, A Progress Report,” Architectural Forum 103 (July 1955); Frederick Pillsbury, ”’I Like Philadelphia with some big IFs and BUTs.” An Interview with Jane Jacobs,” The Sunday Bulletin Magazine, June 24, 1962.]


Jane Jacobs’ Philadelphia

Site of Society Hill Towers, July 7, 1961 ( with Frederick Pillsbury. “We viewed the acres of rubble that one day will be apartment house towers and new houses. ‘You see, the planners always want to make a big deal of everything they do,’ Mrs. Jacobs said. ‘In urban renewal you need new buildings—I have no quarrel with that—but there were plenty of good buildings here. Why tear them all down?'”

‘You’ve got to get out and walk!’ urban journalist Jane Jacobs implored her readers.

It was 1958 and her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wouldn’t appear for another three years. Jacobs ideas were still forming, still considered “radical and outlandish.” In time, her approach would prevail and come to influence both urban theory and redevelopment.

So why not take the occasion of Jacobs’ 104th birthday, to share some of her thoughts on urban design in general, and Philadelphia in particular? Jane Jacobs had much to say about both.

“Look at some lively old parts of the city,” she wrote. “Notice the tenement with the stoop and sidewalk and how that stoop and sidewalk belong to the people there. … Notice the stores and the converted store fronts. …think about these examples of the plaza, the market place and the forum, all very ugly and makeshift but very much belonging to the inhabitants, very intimate and informal. … the least we can do is to respect—in the deepest sense—strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.”

That “weird wisdom,” wrote Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic, “was the wisdom of crowds: the customs and habits that people in cities, left to their own devices.” And it was often counter to what planners wanted. “The planners had been guided by aesthetic concerns, favoring clean lines, geometric shapes, and vast boulevards that were beautiful so long as they were seen from the window of an airplane. But Americans didn’t need a new utopia,” says Rich. “They already had a system that, while messy and imperfect, produced a thriving society.”

As Jacobs studied “the ecology of cities,” she would reveal “nothing less than a new ‘system of thought’ about the city.” And, when “compared to the bird’s-eye view and arm’s-length approach of professional theorists,” according to Peter L. Laurence, Jacobs’ “approach, like her activism, was eye level and hands on; her urban theory was the corollary of her activism, and vice versa.”

10th Street, Brown to Parrish Streets, December 4, 1959 ( “We drove through a dreary, rundown area on North 11th Street.” Frederick Pillsbury “asked Mrs. Jacobs what she would do about it if she had the authority. ‘I don’t believe in panaceas,’ she said. ‘The problems in a place like this are too complicated for offhand suggestions. The first thing would be to learn about the life here.'”

Jacobs’ “great accomplishment, writes Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “would be to translate that ‘weird wisdom’ into terms we could all understand.”

And, one might argue, it all started in 1954, when the editors of Architectural Forum assigned Jacobs’ to cover the legendary Philadelphia city planner Edmund N. Bacon. According to Alice Sparberg Alexiou, Bacon, “like everybody else at the time believed wholeheartedly in the bulldozer approach to urban renewal.”

According to Alexiou, Jacobs would later recall Bacon taking her “on a tour of a black neighborhood . . . to show her a recent renewal project. ‘He took me along a crowded street, where there were a lot of recent arrivals in the Great Migration, . . . Obviously they were very poor people, but enjoying themselves and each other. Then we went one street over [where there were the new high-rise projects]. Ed Bacon said, ‘Let me show you what we’re doing.’ He wanted me to see the lovely vista. There was no human being on the street except for a little boy kicking a tire. I said, ‘Where are the people?’ He didn’t answer. He only said, ‘They don’t appreciate these things.’”

In an instant, “Jacobs realized that the high-rise projects that Bacon was so proud of had been designed with total disregard for the people who inhabit them.”

“What a revelation that was to me!” said Jacobs of her encounter with Bacon. She returned to New York with the realization that “all the hyped new projects the planners and architects were building in cities… bore no relation to what people actually needed.”

Jacobs had learned the truth by trusting “what her own eyes told her, what she had seen in Philadelphia.”

[Sources: Alice Sparberg Alexiou, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2006); [Jane Jacobs], “A Lesson in Urban Redevelopment: Philadelphia’s Redevelopment, A Progress Report,” Architectural Forum (July 1955); [Jane Jacobs], “The Missing Link in City Redevelopment,” Architectural Forum (June 1956); Peter L. Laurence, “Jane Jacobs Before Death and Life,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, (March 2007); Frederick Pillsbury, ”’I Like Philadelphia with some big IFs and BUTs.’” An Interview with Jane Jacobs,” The Sunday Bulletin Magazine, June 24, 1962; Nathaniel Rich, “The Prophecies of Jane Jacobs,”, The Atlantic, November 2016; Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “An Ad Hoc Affair: Jane Jacobs’s clear-eyed vision of humanity.” The Nation, February 3, 2017.]

Next Time: More of Jane Jacobs’ Philadelphia


Ulysses S. Grant’s Philadelphia

Detail. Grant’s Cabin. Lemon Hill Drive and Sedgley Drive, East Fairmount Park, February 21, 1950 (

Philadelphians did all they could to welcome Julia and Ulysses Grant to their newly-adopted city.

Not long after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the Grants moved into the townhouse at 2009 Chestnut, a gift of, as Julia referred to them, “a number of strange gentlemen of Philadelphia” who spared no expense outfitting the place.

As we saw in our previous post, Grant thanked the city’s generosity by making an unusual gift:  the log cabin in City Point, Virginia where he directed the final months of the Civil War. Both the General and Julia had fond memories of the place, which also served as the family’s temporary home. According biographer Ron Chernow, “When Julia joined [the general there] …she domesticated the rough-hewn cabin…and took her meals on equal terms with his officers. She brightened up the table by draping a makeshift cloth over it and had a way of cheering the men with her vivacity and attending to anyone who was ailing.”

“I am snugly nestled away in my husband’s log cabin,” she once confided to a friend.

It must to have been a fond reunion, then, when the family, newly settled in Philadelphia, took the two-mile carriage ride from their new townhouse to Lemon Hill Drive in Fairmount Park where the cabin had been reassembled, log-by-log and brick-by-brick.

Grant’s Cabin. Lemon Hill Drive and Sedgley Drive, East Fairmount Park, February 21, 1950 (

But even without the presence of this “oversized souvenir,” as Thomas Hine would later call it, the Grants really had hoped to stay in Philadelphia.

“I have a horror of living in Washington,” the General privately admitted “and never intend to do it.” But, as Chernow relates, living in the District of Columbia “proved inseparable from high command.  [Grant] fantasized about living in Philadelphia and commuting to the capital weekly.” But “upon occupying the house in May [1865] Grant discovered he had woefully underestimated the time he had to spend in Washington. Predictably he became a prisoner of his heavy workload and Julia, after four years apart from her husband, hated being stranded in another city.”

The Grants also underestimated the cost of upkeep. And in November 1865, after only a few months in their Chestnut Street mansion, they “rented out the Philadelphia house … and relocated to Washington, decorating their new home, with furniture from Philadelphia.” For the next twenty years they rented out the Philadelphia house, finally disposing it in 1885 at auction.

Meanwhile, Grant’s cabin, which the Inquirer predicted would be “an ornament to Fairmount Park” and “an object of great historical interest to Americans” remained an attraction until it, too, lost its allure.

“In the 1940s and 1950s,” we learn from archaeologist David Orr, “ the cabin barely survived the threats of fire and vandalism; by the 1970s, correspondence between the National Park Service and the City of Philadelphia … culminated in a letter requesting the transfer of Grant’s Cabin to the National Park Service to relocate it to its original City Point site.”

“The 117-year-old cabin, rotting and scarred with graffiti,” reported The New York Times, “has been difficult for the city to keep secure.”

“It is a blessing it is going,” admitted John McIlhenny, historian for the Fairmount Park Commission, which voted in 1981 “to give the building to the National Park Service. I am certainly glad it’s going home” said McIlhenny. Once again a demolition crew numbered each log and chimney brick and cut “the larger pieces of the building…along the rafters and joints, so that they could be put on a truck.”

”We had to throw a lot of rotten stuff on the trash heap,” admitted Henry Magaziner, the historical architect. But what could be saved was shipped back to Virginia and “re-erected slightly askew” on its original site, as not to disturb archaeological assets.

Cabin used by General U.S. Grant during the Siege of Petersburg at City Point, VA. (

Is Grant remembered in Philadelphia today?

About a mile from the former site of Grant’s Cabin, at the intersection of Kelly Drive and Fountain Green Drive, stands a monumental equestrian statue by sculptors Daniel Chester French and Edward C. Potter.

French, according to the Inquirer, selected the site “himself after a careful consideration of many available spots in the park.”

Grant, Kelly Drive at Fountain Green Drive, March 31, 1959 (

“We endeavored in the figure of Grant to give something of the latent force of the man, manifesting itself through perfect passivity,” said French. “The expression is sober thoughtful,” observed the Inquirer. “The spectator fancies that the man is pondering over some stupendous military maneuver. The work is rather restful than dramatic, a quality which gives to the bronze representation some small suggestion of that reserved force which was—according to those who know him best—the secret of Grant’s mysterious power over this troops.”

“If the statue impresses the beholder by its force as having character and stillness,” said French,” it will have fulfilled its mission.”

In 1896 the statue was cast in fourteen sections at the Bureau Brothers Foundry, 21st Street and Allegheny Avenue. And on April 27, 1899, it was ceremoniously unveiled.

Today (the day of this post) is 121 years after that dedication and 198 years since the birth of Ulysses S. Grant.

[Sources: Ron Chernow, Grant (New York: Penguin Press, 2017); David G. Orr, “Cabin in Command, The City Point Headquarters of Ulysses S. Grant,”  chapter in Huts and history : the Historical Archaeology of Military Encampment During the American Civil War, edited by Clarence R. Geier, David G. Orr, Matthew B. Reeves. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, [2006]); David Gerald Orr, “Work in Progress: The City Point Headquarters Cabin of Ulysses S. Grant,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 1 (1982), pp. 195-199; Thomas Hine, “Cabin Used by Gen. Grant Being Repatriated to Va.” The Inquirer, Sept 11, 1981; “The Grant Statue,” The Inquirer, September 26, 1897; “Gen. Grant’s Philadelphia House. The New York Times, May 11, 1885; “Grant’s Civil War Cabin Set to Move,” The New York Times, September 13, 1981.]


No Ordinary Log Cabin

In December 1864, philanthropist, abolitionist, and Presbyterian educator George H. Stuart made an offer to Ulysses S. Grant. “I incidentally asked him if there was anything I could do for him in Philadelphia.”

“No thank you,” quickly responded General Grant, who was occupied fighting the Civil War.

Then the General paused. “But on second thought, he said: ‘Yes, perhaps you can help me.’” Grant’s wife Julia, then in Burlington, New Jersey, had been “anxious to move to Philadelphia” had been “deterred by the high rates that are asked for houses.”

Could Stuart possibly help “get a furnished house ready for Mrs. Grant?”

The Chestnut Street home in Philadelphia given outright as a gift to the Grants. (

The well-connected Stuart immediately reached out to monied friends and associates, including A.J. Drexel, George W. Childs, and Jay Cooke, and “found no difficulty raising the money” – $40,000 in all – the equivalent of more than $633,000 in today’s dollars.

Stuart and a few of his top donors wrote Grant a letter dated January 2, 1865 confirming their plan to buy a house: “It affords us great pleasure to present to yourself and family a house furnished and ready in our ‘city of homes.’ As citizens of Philadelphia, feeling that it would be a high honor to have you a fellow-townsman, we present it as a token of the welcome which our entire city extends to your family while you are still fighting the battles of the nation and which we will most heartily extend to yourself when the war shall be over.”

Ensconced in his sparse cabin at City Point, Virginia, Grant responded immediately: “It is with gratitude and pride that I accept this substantial testimonial of the esteem of your loyal citizens. … I will not predict a day when we will have peace again, with a Union restored, but that that day will come is as sure as the rising of to-morrow’s sun. I have never doubted this in the darkest days of this dark and terrible rebellion. Until this happy day of peace does come my family will occupy and enjoy your magnificent present. But until then I do not expect nor desire to see much of the enjoyment of a home fireside.”

Then Grant got back to the business of war.

Three days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, on April 12th, the group purchased the four-story brick townhouse at 2009 Chestnut Street, furnished it, stocked its dining room with “fine silver,” filled its closets with “snowy linen” and its larders with supplies. When Ulysses and Julia Grant arrived in the city on May 3rd, they had no idea the house was a fait accompli.

Stuart’s committee had arranged for “a handsome luncheon” welcoming the Grants at the house “the purchase of which had been kept as a profound secret from him and his family.” With another of his co-conspirators, Stuart went down to the Walnut Street wharf “to meet and escort General Grant and his family to their future residence. After reaching the house, where they were introduced to the ladies assembled,” related Stuart, “I suggested to Mrs. Grant that she go upstairs and take off her bonnet, which she thought was unnecessary, as they were only going to stay for lunch.”

“When all were assembled in the parlor,” Stuart continued, “I opened a silver case, which had been presented by J. E. Caldwell & Co., and which contained the handsomest engrossed deed that I had ever seen… Standing with my back to the fireplace opposite to General Grant as he sat upon the sofa, I said to him, ‘ Permit me, General Grant, to present you with a deed for this house and lot, from a few of your Philadelphia friends and admirers, with their best wishes that you and your dear family may live long to enjoy this your new home…”

The stunned General “arose seeming quite overcome with the gift, and, thanking us with tears in his eyes… Soon after, we repaired to the large dining-room, where a bountiful repast had been spread with all the delicacies of the season…”

“It will be gratifying for our citizens to know that Lieutenant General Grant will hereafter be a permanent resident of Philadelphia,” declared the Inquirer the following day. “He will vote at our elections, associate with our citizens, will doubtless take an interest in our municipal concerns, and in every sense of the word, will be a citizen of the city of Philadelphia.” And then the newspaper offered good wishes: “May the General’s future life in this city be as happy and peaceful as the past four years of his career have been stormy and tempestuous.”

The next morning, Stuart pulled up to the house in Chestnut Street in an open buggy to introduce the General to his new city. He introduced Grant to Independence Hall, where a crowd gathered, and Fairmount Park, where, as president eleven years later, Grant would ceremoniously open the Centennial Exposition. On this ride, Grant doubtless contemplated ways to thank the city for its generosity.

By mid-July, 1865, Grant had arranged a gift. “In return for the house which I was instrumental in presenting to him,” Stuart later wrote, “General Grant presented … the log cabin in which he had spent the last months of the war.”

This was no ordinary log cabin, according to Adam Badeau of Grant’s staff.

Grant’s Cabin. Lemon Hill Drive and Sedgley Drive, East Fairmount Park, February 21, 1950 (

“The last four months of the rebellion . . . were passed by [Grant] within its walls. Here he received the reports of his great subordinates almost daily, and sent them each their orders and their rewards. Here he watched Sherman’s route as he came across the continent to the sea. . . Here he received the President, Gen. Sherman, Gen. Sheridan, Gen. Meade, and Admiral Porter. . . Here the last orders for all these generals were penned before the commencement of the great campaign which terminated the war.”

Where would Philadelphia install such a venerable souvenir? Possibly “one of the public squares of Philadelphia,” suggest one report. “Fairmount Park or Rittenhouse Square will be selected,” said another. Stuart “chartered a vessel to bring the cabin to Philadelphia” and by early August, a crew had re-assembled it on a bluff near Lemon Hill, overlooking the Schuylkill “exactly as it stood on the banks of the James River.”

“We now have in our midst,” reported the Inquirer of August 4th, “…no less a relic of General Grant than the . . . log cabin erected expressly for his head-quarters at City Point, Va. . . . This cabin will, as long as it can be kept together, be an object of great historical interest to Americans, and every visitor to the city will be desirous of viewing it.” Grant’s cabin immediately attracted “hosts of visitors.” Photographers seized the moment. Peregrine F. Cooper offered souvenir photographs individually and “$60 per thousand.” Cooper wasn’t the only photographer to visit Grant’s Cabin, which quickly became a staple of Philadelphia tourism.

Today, more than a century-and-a-half later, the bluff in Fairmount Park stands overgrown and empty. And 2009 Chestnut is an anonymous commercial space.

[Sources: The Philadelphia Inquirer, “General Grant And Family Take Up Their Residence in Philadelphia,” May 4, 1865; “Presentation of a Log Cabin,” July 13, 1865; “From Fortress Monroe,” July 13, 1865; “Arrival of General Grant’s Log Cabin,” July 15, 1865; “Relic of the War – General Grant’s Log Cabin,” August 4, 1865;  “Gen Grant’s Log Cabin,” August 8, 1865; [Advertisement] “A Fine Photographic View of General Grant’s Log Cabin at Fairmount Park, August 19, 1865; “General Grant’s City House,” December 16, 1879; George H. Stuart, The Life of George H. Stuart, Written by Himself (Philadelphia, J. M. Stoddard and co. 1890).]

Next Time: What became of Grant’s Cabin and his city house.