Philadelphia: Decline and Fall (1900-2060)
The world's richest industrial city in 1900, was defeated and dejected by 1950. Why? Digby Baltzell blamed it on the Quakers. Others blame the Erie Canal, and Andrew Jackson, or maybe Martin van Buren. Some say the city-county consolidation of 1858. Others blame the unions. We rather favor the decline of family business and the rise of the modern corporation in its place.
They made their fortunes in the West, but spent them in Philadelphia. Until they settled in the West, themselves.
Philadelphia's Gilded AgeNew topic 2013-06-21 19:47:25 contents
|Meg Sharp Walton|
Recently, the director of Glen Foerd on the Delaware, Meg Sharp Walton, told the Right Angle Club all about the mansion, the industrial titans who owned it, and the surrounding community which keeps it going. Glen Foerd Mansion sits on the small bluff where the Poquessing Creek enters the Delaware. It's on the south bank of the creek, so it is just inside the Philadelphia boundary. Charles Macalester, who built the original mansion was a financier who sat on the board of the Second National Bank. So it is not surprising that he built a summer place just downriver from Nicholas Biddle's "Andalusia", which is on the north side of the creek. The Philadelphia consolidation of city and county government left one mansion in Philadelphia, and the other one in Bucks County. The region is perhaps better known for the little company town of Torresdale, and even better known for the Torresdale water inlet, where much of Philadelphia's water comes from the Delaware. The Torresdale stop on SEPTA makes it an easy commute from Philadelphia, as does I-95, some of the time. The creek's inlet into the Delaware is swampy, as most such confluences are, and is a favorite place for bird watchers and nature lovers. The tidal nature of the Delaware at that point is quite apparent; at some times of the day, much of the bank of the inlet is bare ground.
Charles Macalester may well have been the right sort, but he sold the property and left his estate to Macalester College in Minnesota, so Philadelphia doesn't find much to remember him by. After all, the early Quakers wouldn't even consent to put their names on tombstones, let alone name colleges after themselves. Robert Foerderer bought the property around 1850, and embarked on an elaborate renovation project. He had made his pile of money by purchasing the French patent for making kid leather, and eventually had 5000 employees in Frankford making the material for kid gloves. The mansion on the river could be said to be the apex of an industrial empire, quite typical of how Philadelphia, particularly Northeast Philadelphia, did things. He was said to have been quite a benevolent emperor of this kid glove empire, including the little company town of Torresdale, until there was an industrial uproar of the 19th Century variety. Whereupon, he abruptly shut the whole business down, just as John Roebling did when his company town across the river wanted to run its own town. There's a sort of European flavor to this sort of story, sort of an opera about a principality on the Rhine River. This area of northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County has a number of principalities with this sort of town cohesiveness, where families who work there are clustered around their factory center, and children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren tend to stay in one place to live a life which ignores the rest of the world. Someone has to be the boss of such communities, tends to regard the position as hereditary, and definitely resents the idea that anyone else has much to say. Central to the concept is the Horatio Alger story of the hard working youngster who gets to the top by merit, leading to the conviction that if someone else wants to be at the top of a heap, let him first build his own heap. Somehow, the Foerderer story seems to add realistic color to what was true about this social system.
|Robert H. Foerderer|
Robert Foerderer died fairly young, having married Caroline Fischer, and producing a daughter, Florence Foerderer Tonner who married a New York hosiery tycoon named Tonner. The ornate decorations of Glen Foerd, the idiosyncratic taste in art, the parties and the ostentatious social circle, all add up to the sniffy description of "new" money, the so-called nouveau riche. The hundred older families of the Philadelphia establishment were very cautious about mixing socially with such newcomers and their often unexpected behavior, although there were notable exceptions. In all this uproar you can see the origins of the two present political parties, with the "old money" rich people displaying a quite surprising preference for redistributionist economics and environmental protectionism. It's easy to exaggerate, but a good part of this enduring split is due to social resistance of the older settler families to new ways of doing things, particularly when new ways have not demonstrated unequivocal value.
|Glen Foerd Manison|
But returning to Glen Foerd, the name is a composite of the original Glengarry and the newer Foerderer. Florence Tonner got one of the first television sets to be produced, and put it in the middle of her gallery of fine art. She sat there watching her favorite TV shows, why not. In her will she left the estate to the Lutheran Church, but during the Depression the church had trouble keeping it up. Someone discovered a clause in her will which provided, that in the event the Church could not support the estate, it was to be given to the residents of Torresdale. Since Torresdale only consisted of two streets, not including East Torresdale, West Torresdale, and any other splinter communities, the ownership of the estate was pretty closely held. This small group of true believers took up the burden and tried to make the estate survive. The house was opened to visitors, and available for weddings and events. Adult education courses, small-scale Chautauquas, bird-watching and nature walks were established. Slowly, the residents have been succeeding in making a go of it, but the original residents are getting older and dying off. It's going to be a hard struggle to make the place self-sustaining on every necessary level. But we wish them well, and certainly admire their spirit.
Gas House Gang is what Leo Durocher called the St. Louis Cardinals because of their scruffy appearance. One suspects he was really bragging about his once playing for the New York Yankees, a distinctly upscale background, in his view.
|Gas House Gang|
But there really once were gas houses, and a somewhat used one still exists on the Foerderer estate, Glen Foerd, open to the public (on request) in the tiny village of Torresdale. We have this information from Meg Sharp Walton, the director of the Glen Foerd Museum. Waltons have lived in the area since 1675, about a decade before William Penn arrived, so they ought to know about these things. According to her, the gas house supplied gas for the surrounding houses before the days of household electricity. Every Monday, the gas house burned something she knows not what, to produce gas.
What else would you call such a place, except a gas house?
We tend to think of 1776 as the beginning of American history, but in fact the region around Easton was settled a hundred-forty years before 1776, and the forests were pretty well lumbered out. The backwoods lumbermen around the junction of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers were about to move further west, when Washington crossed the Delaware and fought the battle of Trenton. This region nevertheless had three essential ingredients for becoming the "Arsenal of the Revolution": It was close to the war zone but protected by mountains, it had a network of rivers, and it had coal. The hard coal of Anthracite had the problem it was slow to catch fire, and iron making in the region didn't really get started big-time until a Welsh iron maker named David Thomas discovered that anthracite for iron making would work if the air blast was pre-heated before introducing it into a "blast" furnace. A local iron maker travelled to England to license the patent from Thomas, whereupon Thomas' wife persuaded her husband to move to Pennsylvania. Blast furnaces only got started into production by 1840, but by 1870 there were 55 furnaces along the Lehigh Canal. For thirty years this was America's greatest iron producing region. In fact, Bethlehem Steel only closed its last plant in 1995.
When iron-making got started, the local industrial revolution really took off, but the more fundamental step was to dig canals to transport the coal to other regions. Canals were the dominant form of transportation for only thirty years until railroads took over, and the entire Northeast of the nation was laced with canals. Curiously, the South had relatively few canals, so their industrialization was too late for canals, and too early for railroads, to help much in the Civil War. The Erie Canal was the big winner, but Pennsylvania had many networks of canals in competition, leading to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, whereas the Erie Canal was more headed toward the Great Lakes and Chicago. Eventually, J.P. Morgan put an end to this race by financing the Pennsylvania Railroad, and moving the steel industry to Pittsburgh, where bituminous coal was the fuel of choice. This industrial rivalry was at the heart of the enduring rivalry of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as the commercial rivalry between New York and Philadelphia. It was more or less the end of the flousishing economy of the "Reach" including Easton, Bethlehem and Allentown. A reach is a geographic unit sort of bigger than a county, in local parlance. But you might as well include the city of Reading, which concentrated more on railroads and commerce with the Dutch Country. Out of danger from the British Fleet on the ocean, but close enough for war, the "reach" was more or less the forerunner of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in VietNam in several later wars. The Lehigh Canal stretched from Easton to Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe), the so-called Switzerland of Pennsylvania, only a mile or two West of the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
The Allegheny Mountains stretch across the State of Pennsylvania, and the most easterly of these mountains is locally called "Blue" mountain because of its hazy appearance from the East, when seen across a lush and prosperous coastal plain. It represents the farthest extent of the several glaciers in the region, and the two sides of it present quite a sociological contrast. The Pennsylvania Dutch found themselves on the richest farming land in the world, whereas the inhabitants of the other side of the mountain had to subsist on pebbles. The mountain levels down at the Delaware River, so the Dutch farmers and the late immigrants from Central Europe mixed, in the time and region of industrial prosperity. Gradually, the miners and the steel workers began to drift away, but the Pennsylvania Germans tended to remain where they had been before all the fuss. So the Kutztown Fair is full of Seven Sweets and Seven Sours, the farm houses are large and ample, and mostly remain the way they were, too. You have little trouble finding a twang of Pennsylvania Dutch accents. But Bucks County in Pennsylvania was cut in half by the glacier, and north of the borderline you can see lots of pickup trucks with gun racks behind the driver. Everything is amicable, you understand, but for some reason the tax revenues of the two halves of the County are forbidden to be transferred, even within the same county. Better that way.
The Lehigh River runs along the North side of Blue Mountain, and trickles down to join the Delaware at the town of Easton. There were only 11 houses in the town in 1776, and now you can see several miles of formerly elegant early Nineteenth century town houses. At the point where the two rivers join, a lovely little park has been built to celebrate the high point of Colonial canal-making. Hugh Moore, the founder of the Dixie Cup Company is responsible for this historic memory, well worth a trip to see. If you have called ahead for reservations, you can have a genuine canal boat ride, pulled by two genuine mules. When you hear that the boat captain and his family used to live on the boat (Poppa steered, Momma cooked, and the children tended the mules), it seems small and cramped. But when you climb aboard, you find it holds a hundred people for dinner with plates in their laps. The food is partly Polish, partly Hungarian and partly other things Central European. And the captain plays guitar and fiddle, singing old songs he mostly composed himself. Surprisingly, no Stephen Foster, who held forth about four hundred miles to the West, until he drank himself to death at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Foster was a member of a rival tribe of canal boaters, the ones who travelled down to Pittsburgh via the Erie Canal. Along the Reach, you hear about three canals, the Lehigh, Delaware, and Morris. The first two are obvious enough, since they and the railroads which subsequently followed ran along the banks of two rivers joined. The Morris was Robert Morris, at one time the richest man in America, who bought Morrisville across from Trenton on the speculation he could persuade his friends to put the Nation's Capital there. It didn't work out, so he bought and went broke with the District of Columbia. Anyway, the Morris canal went on to New York harbor, where it prospered mightily shipping iron to New York, and iron for the rolling mills of Boston. The Morris Canal went over the Delaware River on a bridge that carried an aqueduct, over to Philipsburg; and then across the wasp waist of New Jersey.
Glen Foerd, Torresdale, and the Feudal Industrial Style
The owner of the many mansions of Glen Foerd was unabashedly nouveau riche, and like John Roebling, tolerated no threat to the Imperial style of industrial organization.
Gas House, the Real Thing
Gas Houses have disappeared, and what remains is Leo Durocher's phrase for the St. Louis Cardinals: gashouse gang. But gas houses were a real thing, and one even survives at Glen Foerd, the Foederer estate.
Pennsylvania's First Industrial Revolution
By 1776, a hundred forty years of lumbering had just about exhausted the forests on the upper Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. The Revolutionary War then created a use for munitions and iron products in a region which discovered it was on top of Anthracite, and connected to the fighting by a network of rivers.