Excelsior Steam Saw and Planing Mill
Main Street at Leverington Avenue, Philadelphia PA
© Sara Jane Elk, Workshop of
the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).
The S.S. Keely Planing Mill
stands at the northern end of Main Street, at the
intersection of Leverington Avenue. The three-story
structure remains as one of the few mills of its era
along the upper portion of the canal. Constructed in
1876-77 by Samuel Streeper Keely, the rubble stone
structure with contrasting brick arched lintels and a
brick dentiled cornice, marked an advance in Keely's
lumber, construction and manufacturing enterprise.
S.S. Keely began working as an apprentice carpenter in 1839 for John Lewis at the corner of Silverwood and Carson Streets. When his employer met an untimely death by drowning in 1845, Keely purchased the property and equipment and engaged in various forms of carpentry and contracting, including the manufacturing of wooden packing boxes. 2 Shortly thereafter, he opened an office at Leverington Avenue and Umbria Street, then Washington Street for dealing in lumber and building supplies. In 1860 he purchased an estate which included the site of the present planing mill. The property ran on the river side of the PG&N and Pennsylvania Railroad tracks from his office site and included frontage on the canal. A portion of this lot contained the Robert M. Harris sawmill, erected in 1848, establishing the use of the site for lumber production. Initially, Keely operated the sawmill and leased the portion of the site around the mill to a coal merchant.
Keely established himself as a contractor with the construction of such buildings as the Washington School in 1854, the Temperance Hall and the Manayunk Baptist Church. Although his position as School Director of the district prior to the construction of the school, and his activity with the Manayunk Division of the Sons of Temperance may have contributed to the contracts, he went on to construct a great deal of Manayunk and Roxborough. Keely's involvement in the construction of Manayunk mills is of particular interest in the study of industrial architecture in Manayunk. He built and rebuilt several of the largest stone textile mills of the mid to late nineteenth century, many of which survive. 3 As a group they clearly resemble his planing mill, leading one to believe that Keely was responsible for the distinctive character of the surviving Manayunk mill buildings. Before such assertions can be made, further research and analysis of each of the buildings is required.
The mills constructed by S.S. Keely which still stand include the remaining portion of Sevill Schofield's Economy Mills (Manayunk Canal at Lock Street), the David Wallace Lincoln Mills (4074 Main Street), the Rice and Bean Harmony Textile Mill (116 Shurs Lane), and the Robert Wilde and Son Yarn Mill (on Wilde Street at Leverington Avenue), Little Falls Mill (north side of Krams Street, south of Silverwood Street). 4 Each of these mills contain brick arched lintels and decorative brick cornices. The roofs are shallowly pitched and in the gable ends, a semicircular operable window allowed for ventilation in the dusty mills and also served as a hoisting bay. All were constructed of Wissahickon schist in a rubble fashion, with large quoins fashioning the corners. Based on these similarities, a number of other mills may have been constructed by him as well. They include the T. Kenworthy and Brother Shurs Lane Mills (400-428 Shurs Lane), the Canton Mills (Leverington Avenue and Baker Street), Keystone Shoddy Mills (Leverington Avenue and Silverwood Street), the Roxborough Mills (Shurs Lane and Lauriston Street), the Freeland Mills (4105 Freeland Avenue), the first portion of John Wilde and Brother Carpet Yarn Mill (3737 Main Street), and perhaps the rebuilding of the Blantyre Mills (Cotton Street and Main Street).
As a builder, Keely was also engaged in land development and the leasing of property. On atlases of the late nineteenth century, the name S. S. Keely dots the landscape, assigned to numerous vacant parcels. He owned the five-story Enterprise Mill constructed in December of 1879, and another multi-story mill above the Green Lane bridge along the riverside of the canal, in addition to many private dwellings. According to George J. Kennedy in Roxborough , Wissahickon and Manayunk in 1891, “of the latter [dwellings], he still owns about one hundred and fifty.” 5
S.S. Keely, the manufacturer, began in his packing box factory when he was situated at the Silverwood and Carson Streets location. By 1860, he began installing labor-saving devices in the mill operated by steam power, setting the stage for what was to come in his new planing mill. After five years of operation in the new mill, Richard Edwards, writing in Industries of Philadelphia in 1881, described the S.S. Keely & Sons Planing Mill production as:
“Door and Window Frames, Shutters, Blinds, Sash and all kinds of Wood Work. The firm enjoys a large trade distributed throughout the city and other more remote points. The stock is valued at $50,000, and a business from, $125,000 .” 6
Samuel Keely operated the mill with his sons until his death in 1899. Descendants of the family continued manufacturing in the mill into the 1970s. 7
1 Goshow, p. 118.
2 Goshow, p. 119. John Lewis had carried on the construction and contracting business of Perry Levering. As Keely's mother was a Levering descendent, it may be surmised the family relationship advanced his position.
3 Franklin Davenport Edmunds, The Public Schools of Philadelphia from 1853 to 1867 , (Philadelphia, 1917), p. 25. The two-story school contained eight classroom and was constructed in 1854. Located on the south side of Shurs Lane above Carson Street, it no longer stands; see also Goshow, p. 120.
4 Goshow, p. 119.
5 Goshow, p. 120.
6 Goshow, p. 118.
7 Goshow, p. 118.
Update May 2007 (by Sara Jane Elk):
Samuel Keely operated the mill with his sons until his death in 1899. Descendants of the family continued manufacturing in the mill into the 1970s. More recently it has been used for a variety of retail businesses. In 2005 the former lumber yard behind the mill was developed as a multilevel condominium along the canal.