Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

RDG 78825 Jack Frost Sugar
Reading Railroad covered hopper car #78825 was specifically assigned to Jack Frost to carry refined sugar to customers. The blue patch near the left end of the car just to the right of the "25" reads "For sugar loading only. When empty return to RDG Co Pt Rch, Pier 43".

Jack Frost Sugar Refinery
, c.1901-1940
1001-1071 Penn Street, Philadelphia PA 19125

Stuart Paul Dixon, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

In 1881, Fishtown's first sugar refinery, owned by the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company, began operating in the area bounded by the Delaware River to the south, Laurel Street to the west, Penn Street to the north, and Shackamaxon Street to the east. The complex also includes one building on the east side of Shackamaxon Street connected to the rest of the complex by an above-ground conveyor system. The National Sugar Refining Company, better known as Jack Frost, acquired Penn Sugar in 1947. Active sugar refining at the complex halted in 1984 after National Sugar sold the property.
 
Composed of approximately eighteen buildings on the Fishtown waterfront, the Jack Frost complex today stands as a silent reminder of Fishtown's past industrial vitality. Among these eighteen buildings are a by-products building, pan house, melter house, char house, bagging facility, boiler house, pump house, storage sheds, an office building, and a shipping and receiving building. The complex was described in 1937 as rising "in a strangely shaped geometrical brick mass, from which protrude at fantastic angles a variety of tanks and metal pipes."
1 This description depicts the complex's appearance to this day.
 
Beginning at the northwest corner of the complex, a six-story reinforced-concrete building, eight bays in width faces Penn Street. Built in 1924, this structure functioned as the by-products building. East of it is a six-story, three-bay building; according to an 1950 Sanborn insurance map, it contained a laboratory with filler tanks. A seven-story, 10-bay pan house with a raised brick cornice and a shallowly-sloped center gable, stands to the east of the preceding two buildings. A date stone set in the pediment of the gable gives 1901 as the year of construction. Remodeled in 1927, this structure contained pulverizers on the first and second floors and dry ovens on the third floor; the dry ovens were used in preparing the raw sugar for melting. East of the 1901 pan house, a three-story boiler house stands with eleven exhaust stacks protruding above its roof. The boiler house was described by the 1950 Sanborn as containing engines and dynamos on the first floor, and economizers on the second. A three-story warehouse and office building stands to the east of the boiler house; behind it is a twelve-story char house.  A one story shipping and receiving building, erected in 1940 stands to the east of the office building across Shackamaxon Street.
 
Buildings to the rear of these structures consist of a seven-story melter house, a six-story fire tower, a nine-story refinery, and a seven-story char house; the char house was constructed in 1901. Another three-story boiler house lies to the rear along, with a nine-story, five-bay by thirteen-bay-deep pump house with coal bunkers. A five-story steel-frame warehouse built in 1915 sits on a pier in the Delaware River, along with a three-story storage house, a three-story facility for the bagging and storage of raw sugar, and a three-story wharf house. A four-story rum and gin storage house rises on another pier into the Delaware River.
 
When the Pennsylvania Sugar Refining Company began operations at this site in early 1881, it occupied five buildings rebuilt from an earlier soap and oil works. From molasses and syrup, Penn Sugar manufactured soft and brown sugar, employing approximately 40 men in the process. Two boilers were used to refine the sugar, while a 100 h.p. engine drove 24 centrifugal machines. The original brick and frame buildings were demolished as Penn Sugar expanded and rebuilt the facilities to their near-present state in the early twentieth century. Penn Sugar appears as six brick buildings in a 1895 atlas. A 1910 atlas shows three large brick buildings and a frame wharf. In 1916, Penn Sugar employed over 300 men and women, and had an office staff of 73 people.
 
In the 1930s, the refinery imported dark brown, raw sugar in 325-pound bags from Caribbean and Pacific basin islands.
2 Unloaded at the refinery's docks on the Delaware, the sugar was dumped into hoppers and conveyed to the melter house where the sugar crystals were saturated with syrup in minglers. Centrifugals, similar to clothes dryers, washed the now fluid sugar free of impurities and molasses. The fluid sugar was then converted into a thick syrup in the melters, "a maze of piping and tanks." After filtering through metal cloth covered with silica, the syrup was pumped "to the char house, a 12-story building filled with an array of pumps, piping, batteries of filters 10 feet in diameter by 25 feet deep, and oil-burning kilns for revivifying the char."
 
The filtered liquid then proceeded to the pan house, where "large tanks built of heavy copper plates and fitted with steam coils, a condenser, and a vacuum pump" lowered the temperature of the syrup, compelling the liquid to form crystals. The size of the crystals varied from fine "caster sugar" to one-quarter-inch rock candy. "Centrifugals (bronze baskets 40 inches in diameter, with finely perforated screen perimeters) spin toplike at a speed of 1,000 revolutions per minute, ejecting the syrup while the crystals remain on the screen to be washed. The wet sugar is delivered to the revolving dryers for drying and separation into various sizes." Automatic weighing and packing machines filled the sugar into bags and cartons that had capacities ranging from 2 to 100 pounds. For some customers the sugar was packed in wooden barrels that contained 350 pounds.
 
Cubes and tablets were made in cylindrical presses, while powdered sugar was made in pulverizers from standard sugar. The last product of the refining process, called black strap molasses, was sent to the by-products building. "Here it is used for alcohol production, being mixed with yeast which breaks up the glucose into alcohol and carbonic acid gas." The gas had its alcohol content boiled off in a continuous still and was then packed for sale as an antifreeze, a flavoring, and a solvent.

1  Federal Writers Project, Works Progress Administration, Philadelphia, A Guide to the Nation's Birthplace, (Harrisburg, 1937), p. 532.
2  The description of the following sugar production process was taken from the WPA Guide to Philadelphia (1937), pp. 532-33.


Pasted Graphic
Demolition (1997).

Update May 2007 (by Torben Jenk):
On June 29, 1997, the ten-story Jack Frost Sugary Refinery withstood multiple attempts to destroy it with explosives. On Nov 2, 1997, with 700 lbs of explosive set in 4,000 charges, the remaining building was successfully imploded through "controlled demolition." After a detailed structural analysis, a minimum amount of explosives is strategically placed in holes drilled in critical support columns or strapped to support beams. These are detonated in an exquisitely timed sequence lasting from milliseconds to a full nine seconds. Weight and gravity do the rest. The goal is to implode things down, usually collapsing a structure inward within its footprint but sometimes the building is laid down in a predetermined direction to avoid damage to adjacent structures.

In December 2006, this site was one of two selected for a casino along the Delaware River in Philadelphia. The investors are promoting it as the "Sugar House Casino" and propose a $550 million casino and entertainment project with up to 5,000 slot machines operating 24 hours a day. The legislation permitting casinos was introduced by state politicians seeking new revenues for Pennsylvania, supported by wealthy local investors. Because the enabling legislation limited the voice of neighboring residents and even the Philadelphia Zoning Board, lawsuits and petitions have been filed and are winding their way through the courts.

See also:
History of the Pennsylvania Sugar Company—Jack Frost, Ken Milano (presentation May 24, 2006).