Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

1 Volumes

Chapter Twenty Reconstruction and Railroads

Chapter Twenty Reconstruction and Railroads

Riverline: Camden and Amboy Revival

The RiverLine, a sort of diesel-powered overgrown trolley car line, has just opened on the Conrail tracks from Camden to Trenton. It runs every 30 minutes in both directions but unfortunately stops at 10 PM to let Conrail run freight trains at night. That's almost a perfect fit for the two operations, although it can leave baseball fans stranded at a night game at Campbell Park, or concertgoers at the Tweeter Center. The trains are running fairly full, partly because of their novelty, and partly because of the initial decision not to collect the $1.10 fare on Sunday, but mostly because the Riverline proved to be a better idea than anyone realized it would be. It's considerably cheaper for Philadelphia commuters to Wall Street to take the Riverline and transfer to New Jersey Transit at Trenton, for one thing. Even Amtrak encourages that, because high gasoline prices have filled up the Amtrak trains.

It's well worth a historical excursion on the RiverLine, which runs on the former right of way of the Camden and Amboy RR, the first railroad in New Jersey, chartered in 1830 by Robert L. Stevens. A genius of many talents, Stevens invented the iron rail which looks like an inverted "T," held in place by a system of plates and broad-headed spikes. The system is still in use today. Stevens also devised the use of wooden cross ties rather than granite ones, finding they resulted in a smoother ride. In 1834, he joined forces with another many-talented genius, Robert F. Stockton, who had earlier constructed a canal from New Brunswick to Trenton. Stevens then built a railroad beside the canal, subsequently extending it from Trenton to Camden. Stockton ran ferry boats from Perth Amboy to New York, and from Camden to Philadelphia. The full trip from New York to Philadelphia took nine hours, a remarkable improvement over the horse-drawn competition. The partnership also got the Legislature to confer monopoly rights, so the arrangement was highly profitable as well as an engineering marvel. Sixty years later, the Sherman Act would declare such monopolies to be crimes, but in 1830 they were considered a clever way for Legislatures to stimulate risky investment. The Pennsylvania Railroad bought the partnership and its monopoly in 1871, but preferred to bridge the Delaware River at Trenton, so the towns and track along the Jersey side of the river soon dwindled away. The RiverLine now provides a pleasant one-hour excursion along the riverbank, down the main streets of some cute little towns, past some remarkable woods and wilderness up near Trenton, and past Camden's urban revival at the other end.

Rail Station at Broad and Washington

Washington Avenue was called Prime Street before the Civil War and was an important trans-shipment center for the whole country. Rail traffic, coming down from New York and New England, came through New Jersey on the Camden and (Perth)Amboy RR, disembarked, and ferried over Delaware to the foot of Prime Street/Washington Avenue. Passengers then took horse-drawn cabs up Prime Street to Broad, or else they walked. At that point, travelers bound for further South would enter the imposing Rail terminus of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore RR, to re-embark. Philadelphia hotel operators hoped they would stay overnight; Philadelphia merchants hoped they would just transact their business locally, then go back home. Taking nine hours from New York, it was an inefficient transportation method by today's standards, but the Prime Street interruption served local economic purposes, which Chicago keeps in mind, even today.

Sketch map showing the area between Philadelphia and Baltimore
indicating drainage, cities and towns, roads, and railroads.
Consolidated February 5, 1838.

The interruption also worked the other way, inducing Southerners to go no further North with their business, thus strongly contributing to pro-Southern sympathies before the Civil War. Philadelphia was indeed the most northern of the Southern cities until the 1856 Republican convention (at Musical Fund Hall) started to remind other Philadelphians that the anti-slavery Quakers perhaps had a point. Even so, pro-Southern feeling in Philadelphia was wide-spread, even in the early months of the war.

John Brown

For example, in 1859 John Brown's body was brought forth on the PWB railroad, precipitating a pro-Southern riot at the Broad and Prime Station. There was a second riot the following year.

During the Civil War itself, the PWB railroad was a major military transport, carrying military supplies and troops to the battles, and bringing the many wounded troops back home for treatment. Quite a large military hospital was built across Broad Street from the rail station. All in all, the corner of Broad and Prime was a major center of the war, and may well have been one of General Lee's objectives when he launched the invasion that got stopped at Gettysburg.

B& O Railroad

After the Civil War was over, attention was finally paid to the need for better North-South rail transport along the Eastern Seaboard. Up to that time, European investment had pushed American railroading in an East-West direction. The Baltimore and Ohio were aimed at the Mid-West, while the New York railroads aimed at Chicago and beyond. Local politics in the seaboard cities tended to keep the competitors from linking and thus potentially capturing trade between the manufacturing North and agrarian South.

The Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore was the key link in the series of mergers which created the dominant Pennsylvania Railroad. Bringing northern traffic in through North Philadelphia to the new 30th Street Station,

30th Station

and then linking it to the stub of the P, W, BRR, the way was being paved for Ascella Express trains to shoot from Boston to Washington, perhaps eventually to Florida. The side-track from West Philadelphia to Broad and Washington was allowed to wither, and of course, the whole Camden and Amboy RR became scarcely more than a trolley line All that was left as a challenge to the Pennsy was to get past B and O obstructionism in Baltimore. This last step was finally accomplished with the discovery of some legal loopholes related to an existing right of way for a local commuter line in Baltimore, where permission for a branch line was broadly interpreted, and a surprise tunnel dug to link it up to the other parts of the Pennsy. Amtrak passengers nowadays usually move through the Baltimore tunnel systems without noticing them, but occasionally a train breaks down inside the tunnels. Then, they prove to be rather dark and damp as the passengers with their laptops are transferred to another train.

The Missouri Compromise

{William Bingham}
William Bingham

The Louisiana Purchase took place in 1804. Napoleon insisted on payment in gold, which the United States government didn't have. William Bingham of 3rd and Spruce Street graciously supplied the necessary gold as a loan, eventually repaid around the time of the Civil War, long after Bingham had died. It's an interesting question whether Nicholas Biddle might have been involved in the financing of the Louisiana Purchase, too. He was part of the American diplomatic mission in France and definitely had a hand in the details of the treaty. Philadelphia was a pretty small town at that time, so it seems certain he knew Bingham, although his own future banking career was not yet visible.

{Henry Clay}
Henry Clay

By fifteen years after the purchase, settlers from the South had poured into what is now Missouri, taking their slaves along with them, and petitioning to be admitted as a state. While slave owners had every right to do so, anti-slavery forces in the North were distressed to see slavery spreading into the new western territories, and particularly upset to see two new pro-slavery Senators from Missouri upset the deadlock that kept either side from advancing its cause by statute. Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had three main components. Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, but -- slavery in the new territories would otherwise not be permitted north of the southern boundary of Missouri in the future, and the voting balance in the Senate would be preserved by carving out a new state of Maine from Massachusetts.


The Maine part brings us back to Philadelphia and William Bingham because the Bingham estate largely owned the land that would become the new State of Maine. To go back a little, Massachusetts had earlier sold off three million acres to General Henry Knox, later Washington's Secretary of War, in order to pay its Revolutionary War debts. Knox was not wealthy and soon found the purchase was more than he could manage. William Bingham was always looking for good investments and acquired the land for $250,000, or ten cents an acre. Just about everything Bingham touched soon turned to gold, but Maine proved to be one of his more mediocre investments. As farmland, it was pretty poor.

Not only was Maine cold, but it had also been scraped down to the rock by the earlier glaciers. Bingham's gamble was that settlers would be forced to go North instead of West by uncertainty about the Indians. The managers of his estate switched attention from farming to lumbering and eventually made out reasonably well, but it wasn't what Bingham had hoped for. Ohio had the topsoil that had been scraped from Maine, George Washington owned 5,000 acres of Kentucky and 33,000 elsewhere. Aaron Burr had dreams of a Western empire of his own, Andrew Jackson was willing to drive Indians tribes thousands of miles if they got in the way. Bingham had essentially stepped on his own toes, and the Louisiana Purchase offered such cheap fertile farmland that the West made Maine look pretty unattractive to settlers by comparison. Meanwhile, Bingham was betting against many of the political leaders of the country. Oh, well, you can't win & all.

Pea Patch Island

{Fort Delaware}
Fort Delaware

There's a tradition that a boatload of peas ran aground on the mudflats of Delaware Bay near Salem in the Sixteenth Century, turning the flats into a patch of peas. In any event, the island is known to have been growing in size for centuries, and now is home to about 12,000 families of Herons. The number of mosquito families has not been accurately counted as yet, but they are even more numerous. The island doubled in size when the Army Corps of Engineers built the present Fort Delaware on it in 1847-59.

The War of 1812, which included the burning of Washington DC and bombardment of Baltimore, propelled America into a frenzy of coastal defense, and the first fortification of Pea Patch Island took place in 1813. A plan was adopted by Congress in 1816 to build 200 coastal forts, and about forty of them were actually completed by the time of the Civil War. These forts all had a similar appearance; the most notable example of the style was at Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina, which was nearly complete by the time of its famous bombardment. In fact, it was first hastily occupied by Northern defenders arriving just in time to be evicted. In essence, these forts were huge walls of bricks with a concrete outer shell, holding a couple dozen very large cannons and a parade ground.

The new river defenses of Philadelphia were to be provided by three forts, Fort DuPont at the mouth of the old Delaware-Chesapeake canal, Fort Delaware on the island, and Fort Mott on the New Jersey side. You can now take a ferry ride to all three, between April and September; it's a pleasant afternoon excursion. Not so many years ago, you had to go into an ominous little taproom in Delaware City and ask in a loud voice if someone wanted to take you to Pea Patch in a fishing boat. The scene was reminiscent of old movies about derelicts hanging out in Key West, complete with George Raft and Ernest Hemingway, but now the National Park Service has given it the characteristic NPS spruce-up, with pamphlets and restrooms.

The place never had any serious military activity except when it was used to house Confederate prisoners after the Battle of Gettysburg. Over 12,000 prisoners were brought there, and there were about 3000 deaths among them. Historians have compared the treatment of Confederate prisoners with the treatment of Union prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia, and it would be hard to say which place was worse. There are certain diseases of poor sanitation, like typhoid, cholera, amoebic and bacillary dysentery, and hepatitis, which decimate all concentration camps at all times. And adding to them the mosquito-borne diseases of both Delaware and Georgia at the time, you don't really need to assert prisoner mistreatment to account for the morbidity and mortality. Undoubtedly there was some of that.

When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia

A young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, once wandered around 19th Century America, went home to write a book about what he observed, and had as much impact on American sociology as any American author ever did. We now observe a young Englishman, Peter McCaffery, setting out to do the same thing. His insightful book, written from the sanctuary of Great Britain, is called When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia .

One must forgive his concluding fifty pages of notes and bibliography, and the first fifty pages of fumbling around, as signs of stage fright when the message is both novel and unwelcome. It's likely that an English study which purports to dissect American politics might really be a disguised attack on some English situation. But who cares. Once McCaffrey gets going, he tells a Pennsylvania story succinctly and remorselessly.

When Bosses Ruled

On one level, McCaffrey satisfactorily settles two nagging questions of American political bossism: Why are big-city political machines almost always Democrats, and why was Philadelphia for seventy years the one Republican exception to this rule? To do so, he forces the reader to examine the sins and merits of urban politics, and to ask the ultimate question of democracy: why do decent citizens of a decent city, put up with it? When he is done, the author leaves the reader with a feeling of grudging admiration for the cleverness, as well as horror at the unscrupulousness, of hard-ball urban politicians.

The Philadelphia Republican machine was really two machines, a feudal barony started by James McManus, followed after a few decades by a dictatorship run by Matthew S. Quay. These names are quaintly unfamiliar, unlike Penrose and Vare, as if the author of our book might have pointedly chosen to refer to the Franklin Roosevelt era as the era of Jim Farley. He is indeed making a pointed observation. One of the time-honored rules for being effective as a political boss is to remain outside the nominal hierarchy of government, for the very practical reason that it permits political bribery without any direct bribing of elected officials. Public outrage would be strong, and the laws are quite specific that you mustn't give bribes to a politician. McCaffrey is here pointing out that it really isn't necessary to give the money to a politician.

There really seems to have been quite a lot of graft in Philadelphia's past. Some of it was pretty crude, but the biggest source of the graft was known as "clean graft", where an adjustment of zoning laws, or public construction, or urban redevelopment can be shifted in the direction of putting favored friends in a position to exploit advance knowledge or win the bidding on public contracts. The author cites the Gas Works, the Ben Franklin Parkway, the Roosevelt Boulevard, and a list of other public achievements as primary vehicles for rewarding those who reward you. There probably is a lot of awful truth buried in those fifty pages of footnotes.

But that's the lesser half of it. What emerges here is the disheartening reality of the bosses relentlessly controlling the nomination process, ensuring that pliable, "cooperative", elected officials are placed in a position to divert the public bidding process in one direction, and the public investigative process in another. Colorless candidates are definitely preferred; public leaders who acquire a public following are disagreeably hard to control. The bosses positively liked to see some personal flaws; alcoholism, woman-chasing, and similar peccadilloes mean that the bosses "had something on them". The appalling consequence of such a system is that it deliberately sets out to avoid good public leadership, and intentionally prefers incompetence to competence.

In the early, or McManes, days of this system, the city was ruled by a hundred fierce warlords, who duked it out with vigor. Many recent sociologists have praised the urban machines for serving a useful function in providing needed social services to politically isolated groups. Our author McCaffrey will have none of that. These bosses were in it for the power and the money and had almost no interest in the ideological issues which purportedly supported the political party they nominally served. They were neither Republicans nor Democrats, they were members of the political class. In his opinion, the transformation of the Darwinism of McManes to the dictatorship of Quay was inspired by the growth of utility corporations, with the names of Widener and Elkins prominently featured. Large, geographically scattered trolley, electricity, gas utility, telephone, and similar corporations could not afford to negotiate innumerable bribes with every local bartender's brother. They didn't mind the cost, which could be passed on to the consumer. The new goal was not an absence of graft, but rather efficient one-stop graft. From the briber's perspective, that goal requires a powerful boss in charge of local government, able to keep lesser officials in line so they will remain largely satisfied with how he distributes the tribute.

And the reformers? Well, Philadelphia had one huge convulsion of municipal reform in 1911, when Mayor Blankenhorn drove the money-changers from the Temple. But our English author tells us this brief episode had a little lasting effect because a few officials at the top cannot transform an organization which is organized among thousands of city officials, right down to the humblest clerk. According to McCaffrey, the political bosses simply manipulated Blankenhorn's election to rid themselves of many of their own uncooperative enemies, and then patiently waited for public indignation to subside. It only took one election cycle. The technique for controlling reform types is quite standard: deflect them in the direction of state and national politics, where they won't get in the road. And where they don't matter.

One comes away from this book with an appalling realization how difficult it is for simple honest souls to root out corruption in their local governments. Unless you are part of the game, you don't even know the rules. In fact, you even have to wonder if having a large earnest and honest population might actually be a magnet for con artists.


When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: Peter Mc Caffery ISBN-13: 978-0271034300 Amazon


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5 Blogs

Riverline: Camden and Amboy Revival
One of the oldest rail lines in America is coming back to life, and maybe bringing the towns along with it back to life, too.

Rail Station at Broad and Washington

The Missouri Compromise
Pennsylvania's contribution to this bargain between the slave-holding South and abolitionist North was that William Bingham owned much of what was to become the state of Maine. That gave the free states two new senators to balance two slave-holding senators for Missouri.

Pea Patch Island
A string of three forts at the level of the Delaware-Chesapeake Canal once guarded the approaches to Philadelphia but were never needed. After the Battle of Gettysburg, Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island served as a deplorable prison camp for Confederate prisoners; it's now a tourist stop.

When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia
Starting with the gas works, a scholar makes the point that modern big-city political machines are financed by Utility companies. Utilities prefer one-stop payoffs to a lot of petty grafters, and being monopolies, they pass the cost to the customers.