Birds eye view of Philadelphia showing location of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad (c.1870).
An overview of South Philadelphia bounded by the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. League Island is at the bottom and the home of the Philadelphia Naval Ship Yard.
© John Mayer,
Workshop of the
World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).
South Philadelphia comprises
all of the city below South Street and is bounded by the
Delaware River on the east and south and by the
Schuylkill River on the west. The industrial development
of South Philadelphia has been strongly tied to the
waterfront from the earliest settlement period and later,
the rail transportation networks that emerged in the
The South Philadelphia neighborhoods of Southwark, Moyamensing and Passyunk are some of the oldest districts of Philadelphia County, having been settled by Swedes in the seventeenth century. 1 These districts developed slowly along both the riverfront and early post roads but remained sparsely settled until the mid-1800s.
South Philadelphia's sparse population and marshy areas made it an appropriate site for slaughterhouses, leather works, and fertilizer and chemical companies whose noxious fumes were unwelcome in the center of the city. The natural clay in the soil also attracted brickyards to the area. Six of the nine brickmakers listed in McElroy's 1859 city directory were located in South Philadelphia, primarily along Grays Ferry Road. 2 Along the waterfront shipyards, ropewalks, and wharves spread southward along both rivers. The Federal Street Navy Yard, with two large ship building sheds, became one of the most familiar landmarks in the district. 3
The introduction of steam power in the early decades of the nineteenth-century stimulated the development of factories through out the district. With the emergence of railroads, Washington Avenue became a major east-west rail connection giving South Philadelphia manufacturers an efficient means of obtaining supplies and shipping their products. 4
Today, large scale operations dominate the waterfront, including the Philadelphia Naval Ship Yard, the Atlantic Refining Company, the Schuylkill and Delaware River Power Stations, and the Packer Avenue Terminal to name a few. The South Philadelphia Food Distribution Center on Pattison Avenue, built beginning in 1950, replaced the Dock Street Market and today plays a vital role in wholesale distribution of food for the region.
Although industry has declined dramatically in the district, the scale of South Philadelphia's industrial past is evident in the existing landscape. The abandoned factories that line Washington Avenue and the few remaining warehouses and piers along Delaware Avenue are reminders of South Philadelphia's important place in the industrial development of the city.
1 Joseph Jackson, Encyclopedia of Philadelphia, Vol. IV, (Harrisburg, 1933), pp. 1099-1100.
2 McElroy's Philadelphia Directory, (Philadelphia, 1859), p. 809.
3 Robert Teitelman, Birch's Views of Philadelphia, (Philadelphia, 1982), p. 30.
4 Miller, et al, Still Philadelphia, (Philadelphia, 1986).
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Harold E. Spaulding, who provided research data on many of the sites in this chapter. Thanks also to Jack Steelman, who provided insights on the Schuylkill Generating Station. Thanks to Jeffrey Ray, who contributed information on the Gas Works and Atlantic Refinery, and helped with photography. Special thanks to Dr. David Orr, who supplied research materials on the Philadelphia Gas Works.