An excerpt from

Annals of Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania in the olden time;
being a collection of memoirs, anecdotes, and incidents
of the city and its inhabitants...

by John Fanning Watson

Enlarged, with many revisions and additions, by Willis P. Hazard.
Three volumes. Philadelphia: Edwin S. Stuart, 1905.

Volume 1, pages 485-488

The reflections in this excerpt were written in 1842, from which all other dates can be figured.

Before Philadelphia City absorbed the rest of Philadelphia County under the Act of Consolidation
in 1854, the city covered roughly two square miles, bounded on the south and north by
South and Vine streets, and the east and west by the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.

The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers

Compiled by Adam Levine
Historical Consultant
Philadelphia Water Department
HomeCreek to sewerDown underarchivesmapsAdam LevineLinks

Minnow Run, with Schuylkill River on left
From Scot & Allardice Map of Philadelphia, 1794

Within the short period of forty years of the memory of the writer, the progress of change and improvement in the western bounds of the city has been very great. If we take a survey of that section of the city lying south of Walnut street and westward of Sixth street, we shall say that it does not exceed thirty-five years since all the houses out Walnut street were built, a still shorter period for those out Spruce street, and still later than either out Pine street. Before the houses were built they were generally open commons, clothed with short grass for cows and swine, &c.

When the Roman Catholic church at the corner of Sixth and Spruce streets was built [ca. 1790], it was deemed far out of town, --a long and muddy walk, for there were then no streets paved near to it, and no houses were then nigh. From this neighbourhood to the Pennsylvania Hospital, then having its front of access on its eastern gate, was quite beyond civilization. There were not streets enough marked through the waste lots in the western parts of the city to tell a traveller on what square he was travelling. Jamestown weeds and briers then abounded.

We shall be within bounds to say, that 35 years ago so few owners enclosed their lots towards Schuylkill, that the street roads of Walnut, Spruce, and Pine streets, &c., could not be traced by the eye beyond Broad street, and even that was then known but upon paper drafts. Roads traversed the commons at the convenience of the traveller; and brick kilns and their ponds were the chief enclosures or settlements that you saw. The whole area, however, was very verdant, and of course agreeable in summer.

The ground forming the square from Chestnut street to Walnut street, and from Sixth to Seventh streets, was all a grass meadow under fence, down to the year 1794, when it was sold out for the benefit of the Gilpin and Fisher families. (Persons of but seventy years of age remember when they were accustomed as boys to gather blackberries there.) On the Chestnut street side it was high, and had steps of ascent cut into the bank, and across it went a footpath as a short cut to the Almshouse out Spruce street; towards the Walnut street side, the ground declined, so as in winter to form a little ice-pond for the skaters near the north-west corner of Sixth and Walnut streets. On page 238 of my MS. Annals in the City Library, is a picture of a military parade as seen there in 1795, and showing that then there was nothing but open field--the fences being then removed. The only houses to be seen, PAGE 486] were the low brick building once the Logan Library, on Sixth street in 1793 made an asylum for the orphans; and the Episcopal Academy, built in 1780, on Chestnut street, vis-à-vis the Arcade, converted afterwards into Oeller's hotel. About the year 1191 or '98, "Ricket's Circus," of brick, was constructed upon the south-west corner of Chestnut and Sixth streets, which burnt down in 1799. As it stood vis-à-vis the Chestnut street Theatre, and combined theatrical farces, it excited rivalship. The theatre, to cast the Circus into ridicule, used to exhibit "scrub races," and performances called "Across the Gutter."

At the south-east corner of Seventh and Chestnut streets, when Waln's house was afterwards erected, stood an old red-painted frame house, looking strangely to the eye, by being elevated at its ground floor full fifteen feet higher than the common level of the street. By cutting through the street there, the whole cellar stood exposed, and the house was got up to by a coarse flight of steps on the outside of the house. The next square beyond, westward, was Norris' pasture lot, where the boys sometimes made their battle ground--afterwards made into Morris' square, to ruin him in the erection of an intended palace. On the north-west corner of Chestnut and Seventh streets was a high grass lot in a rail fence extending half-way to Eighth street. Except one or two brick houses at the corner of Eighth street, you met not another house to Schuylkill.

There were no houses built out Arch or Race street, save here and there a mean low box of wood beyond Sixth street, -of course no pavements, but wide ranges or grass commons "close cropt by nibbling sheep." None of the present regular and genteel rows, in long lines of uniformity, were known there beyond 35 years ago, and those now beyond Tenth street are the fabric of the last twenty years.

'Tis but lately that about sixty large houses have been constructed by William Sansom, Esq., and others, at the place called Palmyra square, out Vine street beyond Tenth street. Thirty years ago, or even twenty, to have made such an investment of capital would have been deemed gross folly, but now such is the march of improvement westward, that the houses are all occupied, and the whole is fairly united to what was before the older city.

From the west side of Fourth street north of Vine street out to Spring Garden, except a row of two story brick houses called the " Sixteen Row," on the present Crown street, there was not to he seen a single house, nor any line of a street, -it was all green commons, without any fences any where, till you got among the butchers at Spring Garden, where they formed a little village far off by themselves . From the corner of Vine and Sixth streets the commons was traversed to Pegg's run in a north-easterly direction by a deep and wide ravine-the same route in which a concealed tunnel is now embedded. The run was called Minnow run, and afforded many of them and ray-fish too.

Finally, we shall close this article by some of the observations and [PAGE 487] musings of Robert Proud, the historian, made by him in the year 1787, as he made his walk over these western ranges, at a period anterior to those scenes and impressions, which I have also attempted to trace. They may afford some interest by their comparison with things now. Withal it comes to us like the visit of an old friend, and leaves us almost the only specimen we have from the historian--of the picturesque or sensitive, to wit:

"In the afternoon of the 18th of 8 mo. 1787, I left the place of my usual residence in Fifth street, about three o'clock in the afternoon; I went up Arch street two or three squares, from which, turning up to Race street, I passed between the brick-kilns and Byrne's, then turning to the right I proceeded directly to Vine street, or the north boundary of the city plan, which led me westward to near the place called Bush Hill, formerly the property of Governor Hamilton, where, opposite to his former mansion house, I went over the fence, and stood and sometimes walked under a grove of trees for about a quarter of an hour.

"Here I contemplated a small water-course which ran pleasantly under these trees, near Vine street, south of Hamilton's house, and which, as far as I could here observe, came hither from the northeast through some low meadows, and in appearance might probably originate somewhere about John Pemberton's ground, near Wissahiccon road, westward of Joseph Morris' old villa. From the place where I now was, this stream runs west, southward, to the Schuylkill, being increased in its passage by some springs issuing from the high grounds about Bush Hill and Springetsbury, &c., but wasting nearly in proportion." [We may now (in 1842) make the general remark, that all of the western commons is so far built upon and the streets so generally run and paved, as no longer to present any open commons, --well built houses now extend out to the Schuylkill, and from Callowhill to South streets, so as to leave little room for any further remark or observation. The most of this change has been effected on the Schuylkill side in the course of only ten years.]

"I thence passed on within the fence, in Hamilton's meadow, to the western boundary of the field, and westward of the house; from thence turning north I kept that course, between Springetsbury and Bush Hill, along the eastern side of the fence, or Hamilton's western boundary, where grew many plants, shrubs, bushes, wild flowers, &c., watered by a small stream, issuing from the springs in the higher grounds, a little above, northward, --here I broke off a sprig of American willow, observing along the water-course a variety of plants and wild flowers, and raising divers wild fowl on passing along, till I ascended the high ground, north-westward from Hamilton's house aforesaid. From thence turning round on the right hand above, or northward of the place where the gardens formerly belonging thereto used to be, I directed my course towards the east, observing, as before, many plants and flowers in bloom.

"But what more particularly drew my notice and reflection in this [PAGE 488] place, was, in observing the ground formerly occupied by pleasant large gardens, walks, groves and woods, now all naked and desolate, without a tree, and laid in common, like a barren wilderness or desert, heightened by the sight of the ruins at the place called the Vineyard, near the same--the woods entirely gone, fences down, the garden places covered with wild shrubs and bushes, and joined to the common ground, a kind of general desolation! &C., [caused no doubt by the presence of the British army] a few years ago exhibiting a very different appearance to me, when I have visited those then pleasant places, &c., now affording cause of solemn reflection on the transitoriness and uncertainty of human affairs, besides the neglectful management of the present owner, which may properly bear such strictures as at present I forbear to make.

"Passing along, eastward, through divers fields now laid in commons, fences down, &c., I directed my course towards the city, here in full view from one end of it to the other, appearing, as it were, under or lower than my feet, --a beautiful prospect; thence going right forward over divers fields, I came to John Pemberton's ground in a lower situation, where I stood awhile to look about und consider where I was; for at first I did not know, though I had often been here many years ago; so great a change had taken place, even in this part of the vicinity of Philadelphia, &c. In this ground I noticed a spring of water which I had formerly observed when here; this spring in its course from its fountain forms a pretty large stream running towards the city, to a still lower ground; I followed it till I came to a low place, where it divides into two. One stream manifestly appeared to me to run south-westward towards Schuylkill, as before observed, south of Hamilton's house or Bush Hill, and the other, eastward to the Delaware, neither of them appearing to have much fall or descent, except the former, where it approaches near Schuylkill. I followed the latter through divers fields, till I came near the brick-kilns before observed, when this stream, crossing the Wissahiccon road, forms what is called Pegg's run, and falls into Delaware river northward of the city plan.

"From my observation it appeared to me, that probably by means of these two streams, and other circumstances, which two streams manifestly appear to form at present one water-course between the two rivers, aided by other springs issuing from the high lands about Bush Hill and Springetsbury, &c., a very useful canal of water might easily be effected, and that without very much expense, to the great future utility of the city and vicinity in divers respects, all the way or space between the two rivers, at or near the boundary of the city plan, where the ground is lowest.

"From this place I came home by David Rittenhouse's new dwelling, north-west corner of Arch and Seventh streets; after this I immediately wrote these notes, --this in the space of an hour and a half nearly, slowly walking, and sometimes standing."


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