No Coal; No Peace – The Story of Philadelphia’s 1918 Coal Famine

Northeast Corner of 10th Street and Washington Avenue, September 15, 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

Northeast Corner of 10th Street and Washington Avenue, September 15, 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

Every day in the depths of winter, coal cars trundled down Washington Avenue supplying the city’s lifeblood. You wouldn’t know it looking at the trackless six lanes of blacktop today, but locomotives once hauled hundreds of thousands of tons of anthracite to at least thirty coal yards between 2nd and 25th Streets.

Coal powered nearly every factory and heated nearly every shop, school, theater and home—a quarter of a million of them. On extremely cold days, a  large school, just one of the city’s 231, would consume as much as 10 tons. The University of Pennsylvania needed 150 tons to stay open. In all, the city could burn as much as 19,000 tons. Every day.

And on the first frigid week of January 1918, it all ground to a halt.

The temperature dropped below zero during the final days of December 1917 and would remain in the single digits for more than a week. The flow of coal from upstate stopped, and soon so would the city itself. Frigid, coal-less Philadelphians turned to the dealers of Washington Avenue, but their stockpiles were quickly exhausted. William Bryant at 10th Street had been promised a shipment of 50 tons, but by the time the coal cars arrived, four-fifths of the contents were gone. The coal famine of January 1918 had turned citizens into coal hoarders and coal thieves. And as mobs they would decimate the coal supply of Washington Avenue.

South Side Washington Avenue-East of 11th Street, March 16, 1915 (PhillyHistory.org)

South Side Washington Avenue-East of 11th Street, March 16, 1915 (PhillyHistory.org)

City officials estimated as much as “half the population was without coal.” Mayor Thomas Smith urged “public recreation centers, school buildings, churches, theaters, moving picture houses and hospitals be thrown open to receive suffers and keep them warm.” As schools and factories began to close down, he appealed to “good Samaritans to take cold neighbors in.”

Philadelphia’s coal famine threatened “social and economic catastrophe.” On January 2, 1918, the coal-less poor, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants, took the matter into their own hands.

“Driven to desperation after burning fence rails, old furniture and every bit of available fuel, the poor began a series of raids on coal cars on Washington avenue” reported The Philadelphia Tribune. “Men, women and children with buckets, bags, push carts, baskets, toy express wagons and even baby buggies, worked like beavers in and among the switching crews carrying the precious fuel to their homes. There were at least 2,000 persons in these crowds and the police and railroad crews did not interfere, as the people were freezing and desperate… Women and children, for days, had stood shivering at the yards weeping and begging for coal.”

“We’re almost starving, my babies and me,” a widow sobbed to an Inquirer reporter. “It’s all right to almost starve. We’re pretty near used to that, but we can’t freeze. I could, but my babies can’t.”

“You must help us!” shouted cold and hungry women and children to the police called in to stop them. “The officers shrugged their shoulders and turned their backs” on the crowd and the coal cars. The mob took that as encouragement. Children quickly “crawled over the heads of the police…on the coal cars.”

Samuel Young, Coal. 17th Street and Washington Avenue, February 17, 1917. (PhillyHistory.org)

Samuel Young, Coal. 17th Street and Washington Avenue, February 7, 1917. (PhillyHistory.org)

“In a second…  a black shower descended upon the ground near the cars. As fast as the bits of coal struck the ground they were picked up and stored carefully away in a bag or a bucket or an apron.”

“What can we do?” asked one of the policemen,. “The poor devils are hungry and cold. …When a woman, lugging a baby to her breast, pushes me aside… why, I am not going to be the one to stop her.”

“I’ve seen more real misery in the last few days down here around these coal cars than I ever saw in all my police experience,” he added.

More than 150 tons of anthracite would be liberated on Washington Avenue’s coal-yard corridor that first week of 1918. According to the Inquirer, “most of the coal stolen was consigned to the J. W. Matthews Coal Company, Tenth street and Washington avenue;  William A. Bryant, of Tenth street and Washington avenue, and S. Margolis, of 815 Washington avenue.” At 12th and Washington, men and boys emptied a coal car.

And while the police turned the other way, the railroad did not. “In the midst of the raid on one of the cars came the chugging of a freight engine. No one paid the slightest attention. The engine was hastily coupled to the car. It drew away. Not one of the coal-seekers jumped. They still continued to toss out bucket after bucket of coal.”

On the ground, “those…left behind followed the slow-moving engine and car, picking up fuel as it was thrown to them. This was only one of several raids by persons driven frantic by the want of fuel, …who, armed with buckets, bags, wheelbarrows and pushcarts, defied the police and railroad guards and mobbed trains of coal when they arrived along Washington Avenue.”

South Philly’s “coal-hunters were undaunted.”

[Sources: “Coal Lack Closes 43 Public Schools; Blame Cold Alone …Severe Weather Conditions Halt Coal Train On Way Here,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1918; “Suffering Crowds Storm Coal Yards; Railroads Helpless,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 4, 1918; “Coal Famine Grips Our City—Much Suffering,” The Philadelphia  Tribune, January 5, 1918;  R.R. Stockholders…Ask Refuge for 100,000 Suffering From Cold Here,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 1918;  Men, Women and Children Empty Cars of Fuel Despite Efforts of Policemen and Guards,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 6, 1918.]

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Life Finds a Way On The Locust Strip

East on Locust Street from 13th Street, October 30, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

Bon Bon Club (formerly The Top Hat Cafe), looking East on Locust Street from 13th, October 30, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Top Hat Cafe opened at 1235 Locust in the early 50s, and almost immediately slid off the rails.

Outside the bar, on March 1, 1952, Nicholas Virgilio “was slapping around a 16-year old girl…when a sailor grabbed his hand to stop him.” Virgilio, 23, known as “Lothario of the taprooms” a/k/a “Nicky the Blade” “swung around, grabbed a switchblade from his pocket and plunged it into Glenn Long, 19, a sailor at the Navy Yard.” It would be the first of several murders by Virgilio, the most notorious of which would be the 1978 bar room execution of an ex-judge in Atlantic City.

The new captain of the police station at 12th and Pine, Frank L. Rizzo, knew a bad thing when he saw it. Rizzo chose the Top Hat for his very first raid.

The mayor-to-be showed up at the stationhouse at 3:30A.M. on Friday, May 30. He and three other officers walked two blocks north to The Top Hat Café. “Within minutes, Rizzo and his team had arrested the bartender, two waitresses, the owner, nine patrons” one of whom scuffled with Rizzo, ripping the captain’s new suit.

For Rizzo, that raid would be the first of hundreds targeting the Locust Strip.

Le Bon Bon Club replaced the Top Hat in the mid ’50s, with new neon, but otherwise the story was the same: strippers mixing with patrons, after hours service, under aged drinking, B-girls solicitation of drinks and other nefarious services. The naked city, literally and figuratively in all its gritty glory.

A decade later, Rizzo testified in Washington before the Senate Rackets Subcommittee about Philadelphia’s “‘exotic’dancers-turned-B-girls” of the Locust Strip. “These obscene and indecent shows will simply not be tolerated,” he told the Press. “They must clean up and run respectable places of business or get out…This is the beginning. We’re going to keep after them until they clean up.”

And Rizzo’s sustained campaign seemed to make a difference—for a while, anyway. “For the time being, the personality of Locust St. is being suppressed.,” wrote  Joseph Daughen in The Bulletin. “The awesome image of Rizzo’s Raiders has apparently thrown fear into the hearts of the stripperie operators, and the come hither hostesses are now thither.”

Le Bon Bon Club, 1235 Locust Street, October 6, 1955 (PhillyHistory.org)

Le Bon Bon Club, 1235 Locust Street, October 6, 1955 (PhillyHistory.org)

Cork Club, Continuous All-Girl Revue, Ber-Mar and Hotel, 1212-1215 Locust Street (PhillyHistory.org)

Cork Club, Continuous All-Girl Revue, Ber-Mar and Hotel, 1212-1215 Locust Street (PhillyHistory.org)

But as Jeff Goldblum (playing Dr. Ian Malcolm, a chaos theory expert in Jurassic Park) put itLife, uh… finds a way.”

Nine years later, the Locust Strip was “a collage of schlock on a one night stand,” wrote Fred Hamilton in The Bulletin. “The present Locust st. bust-out joint” lies “somewhere between the cult of the 33 RPM record and the era of Day-Glo paint. … “It has all the glamour of post nasal drip.”

“The Strip is not blaring music and flashing neon,” he wrote. “It is a handful of broken-down joints… It is busty girls and scratchy records played full volume and all the flat black painted walls you’ll ever want to see. The strip is a cliché…”

A year later, Sandy Grady noted yet another crackdown on “B-girls.” “Last week District Attorney Arlen Specter buried The Strip under a ton of padlocks.” Nine bars in all, were closed, including the Bag of Nails 1231 Locust, The HMS Pinafore, 1233 Locust and The Revolution, 1219 Locust.

“The Strip looks like the inside of Grant’s tomb,” wrote Grady.

He found an enraged cabbie: “Look mac, if you’re from out of town hunting action forget! Locust Street is dead. Go over to Jersey. Listen Mac, this is the fourth biggest town in the country and it’s a graveyard,” the cabbie fumed. “The do-gooders killed this town.”

“It’s just dirty” complained “a girl in a see-through blouse” to Bulletin reporter L. Stuart Ditzen, “Every city has its strip.”

“Yeah agreed a timid looking man in a brown suit who said he was a patron of the padlock bars. ‘Every city has its strip.’”

The Why Not Lounge at 1305 claimed to be the final holdout. In May 1974, the Why Not went away, too. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board had ended an era. Or so they thought.

Three years later, The Bulletin’s D. I. Strunk went in search of the Locust Strip and found it alive, if not very well. He visited the PGA Bunny Club, Salsa, Footlights Lounge and Bag of Nails. He encountered “girls… dressed in pasties and tiny bikinis.” He saw them “dance and gyrate against mirrors…so smeared that a ton of Windex couldn’t clean them.”

Strunk saw the “potpourri of racial and social and economic classes who come to drink and look…men with knit caps, sailors, businessman, customers, clerks, lawyers” all coming “to sit and drink and watch together under the same roof.”

“I come down here to think and forget about other things,” said one regular, lawyer named Tom.

“Everybody has their eyes on somebody else’s fancy,” philosophized another, Jerome, standing in the shadows outside All in the Family Lounge.

Life finds a way.

[Sources: “Two Girls, 16, Testify They Got Liquor in Cafe,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1952; “Fiery Hearing Climaxes Raid on Cafe by Rizzo,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 31, 1952; “Rizzo Vows Midcity Cleanup, Nabs 13 in Raids on 3 Clubs,” Philadelphia Daily News, July 25, 1961; “Center-City Booze Bistros Have Lost Their A-Peal,” by Joseph Daughen The Bulletin, June 14, 1962 ; “Locust Street Strip—a Collage of Schlock and Lots of Hard Sell,” by Fred Hamilton, The Bulletin, August 13, 1971; “Dancers and Barmaids Are Glum as 9 ‘Strip’ Bars Close,” by L. Stuart Ditzen, The Bulletin, June 10, 1972 ; “That Crackdown on B-Girls Ends All Our Worries,” by Sandy Grady, The Bulletin, June 13, 1972; “Era is Ending as Bars Close on Locust St.,” by Joseph D. McCaffrey, The Bulletin, May 15, 1974; “They Try to Keep Locust Lushland Sedately Sinful,” by D. I. Strunk, The Bulletin, October 16, 1977; S. A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America (Camino Books, 1993); “‘The Blade’ is Cut Down: Killer Nicholas Virgilio dies in Prison,” by Kitty Caparella, The Philadelphia Daily News, March 18, 1995.]

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Philadelphia and the American Infatuation with Tear Gas

Policeman Guy Parsons and Other Officer with Gas Masks, [1922] (PhillyHistory.org)

Policeman Guy Parsons and Other Officer with Gas Masks, [1923] (PhillyHistory.org)

“I rob banks,” Willie Sutton famously quipped, “because that’s where the money is.” Sutton didn’t realize that’s also where the tear gas was.

Disguised as postal messengers early one morning in February 1933, Sutton and a partner in crime gained entrance to the Corn Exchange National Bank & Trust at 60th and Ludlow Streets. They tied a guard to a chair, but the guard freed himself, managed to release tear gas—and foiled the robbery.

Tear gas had become an accepted law enforcement tool—one of the more successful technology transfers from the battlefields of World War I to urban America. Months before the Treaty of Versailles, military leaders were gung ho to demonstrate the potential of tear gas in places like Philadelphia.  “More effective than clubs, and less dangerous than bullets,” they boasted.

Brass in Army Chemical Warfare Service promised that tear gas had positive “psychological impacts.” It could offer police “the ability to demoralize and disperse a crowd without firing live ammunition.” Tear gas, according to recent history in The Atlantic “could evaporate from the scene without leaving traces of blood or bruises, making it appear better for police-public relations than crowd control through physical force.”

Getting taxpayers to pay for the deployment of gas-filled bombs on their hometown streets would be a hard sell. After all, as early as 1899, the Hague Conventions prohibited “projectiles filled with poison gas.” And then there was the recent horror of poison gas on the battlefields of France. But military chemists claimed they had reconstituted formulas, making them tame enough for use in peacetime America. At least that’s what Major Stephen Delanoy, fresh back from France “where he had been for more than a year perfecting various gases for the government” promised.

Gas Squad, June 5, 1923 (PhillyHistory.org)

Gas Squad, June 5, 1923 (PhillyHistory.org)

To demonstrate “how efficacious gas could be” Delanoy came to Philadelphia where he had a friend in Philadelphia police Superintendent William B. Mills. Together, they choreographed a high-profile experiment where 200 “volunteers” from the Philadelphia police force would be gassed at the city’s Model Farm near Fort Mifflin in South Philadelphia.

On July 19, 1921, according to The New York Times, “Police Supt. Mills took a battalion of his huskiest men into a roped-off enclosure with instructions to capture six men who were armed with 150 tear gas bombs. Three times they charged but each time we’re driven back weeping violently as they came within range of the charged vapor.”

“Before they entered the mimic battle,” Delanoy “assured the men that the substance was ‘absolutely not dangerous.’ It is merely a tear-producing, choking, nauseating gas,” he said. “But be careful you don’t swallow too much.” Philadelphia’s guinea pigs apparently swallowed just the right amount. The “sham attack” sold them on the stuff.

“The effectiveness of teargas as a mop dispeller received the emphatic endorsement of 200 stalwart Philadelphia policemen today,” reported the Times. “Police officials said the test had undoubtedly proved the value of tear gas in police work. Not only is it immediately effective in disbursing a mob, but it might be used to drive a fugitive from a barricaded building.” They imagined how a “container… placed in a bank vault…would also thwart burglaries…”

“Bullets as mob-quellers now belong to the Dark Ages” declared The Literary Digest. Police would get “gutta-percha hand-grenades containing chemical gas” and their victims would choke and copious tears would flow. “One of these bombs or grenades is equal to a hundred police clubs in a riot,” declared the officer in charge, after the Philadelphia test.”

“This method of dealing with offenders against the peace has many obvious advantages,” stated The Inquirer. “It is humane, for one thing. Riding down or shooting into a mob may cause needless injuries or deaths, sometimes of innocent bystanders.”

Within a few months, City Council approved a $2,500 appropriation to supply equipment for a new fifty-man, “gas battalion” with the Philadelphia police. Amos Fries, chief of the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service, who had been working “to redeploy the technology for everyday uses” provided “chemicals, material and equipment free of cost to the city.” Philadelphia taxpayers only needed to purchase “masks and other paraphernalia for local use.” Within a few years, police departments from New York to San Francisco were stocking up on tear-gas supplies.

Philadelphia police, anxious to make good on their investment, considered ways to put tear gas to work fighting a spate of unsolved robberies. Officials ordered their “bandit-chasing squad” to carry “tear bombs along with sawed-off shotguns…to end the robbers’ activities.” They didn’t have long to wait for the opportunity.

The opportunity came on October 7, 1922, when police learned of the “ransacking” at the “dressmaking establishment” of R.A. and J. A. Brown, 1530 Sansom Street. One officer fired two rounds at the suspects, and missed. They had hidden behind packing cases. No problem. Police “hurled a tear bomb against the wall directly above” their hiding spot. For the first time in an American city, plumes of tear gas filled the air. One suspect crashed through a window and escaped into a side alley.

Police captured the other suspect. According to The Inquirer: “When the air cleared sufficiently, the policemen entered the room and found George Rex, colored, twenty years old, of 18th and Lombard streets, in a stupefied condition, temporarily blinded.”

Trench warfare had come home.

[Sources: Willie Sutton’s Robberies. (PDF); Tear Gas For Mobs, U. S. Colonel’s Plan, The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 26, 1919; “New gas with K. O. Wallop May Help Police In Battles,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 19, 1921; “200 Philadelphia Policeman Weep in Flight From Tear Gas in Sham Attack,” The New York Times, July 20, 1921; “Knockout Gas for Mobs,” The Literary Digest (Funk & Wagnalls), Vol. 70, August 20, 1921; “City Police to use Gas Bombs Shortly,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 26, 1921; “Gas Bombs Prove Nemesis to Bandits,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 1922 and Anna Feigenbaum, “100 Years of Tear Gas: a Chemical Weapon Drifts off the Battlefield and into the Streets,” The Atlantic, August 16, 2014.]

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West Philadelphia’s Satterlee Hospital (Part I)

The site of Satterlee Hospital, 43rd and Chester Avenue, May 15, 1956.

The site of Satterlee Hospital, 43rd and Chester Avenue, May 15, 1956.

Excerpt from “The Wound-Dresser” by Walt Whitman

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

Nowadays, it is the Saturday farmers’ market draws crowds to verdant Clark Park, the heart of West Philadelphia’s Spruce Hill neighborhood.  Yet only a few short steps from the stands displaying pink heirloom tomatoes and canned Amish chowchow is a large chunk of rock pulled from the Gettysburg battlefield.

It is the only reminder of what stood here a century-and-a-half ago: America’s largest Civil War military hospital. During the worst years of fighting, over 5,000 wounded soliders lived here, many suffering from debilitating, horrendous injuries.

According to the late historian Shelby Foote, the reason for the high casualties during the Civil War was that the cutting-edge weapons of industrial warfare were far ahead of the generals’ Napoleonic tactics.  Massed infantry charges met with very accurate, withering fire from the newfangled rifled musket and heavy artillery. When using a rifled musket when paired with the conical Minie ball, a soldier could kill an enemy at half-a-mile.  After a major battle, the statistics printed in Northern and Southern newspapers were so vast as to be almost minded numbing.  At the 1862 Battle of Antietam, for example, an estimated 87,000 Union soldiers under the leadership of Philadelphia-born General George B. McClellan faced off against 37,000 Confederates under the command of General Robert E. Lee.  September 17, 1862 remains the bloodiest day in American military history: 3,600 men killed, 17,000 wounded, and 1,800 captured or missing on the banks of a creek in rural Maryland.

The Battle of Gettysburg, which took place 10 months after Antietam, ended with a decisive Union victory, but there were over 50,000 casualties on both sides over three hot July days.  Yet many Northerners did not herald General U.S. Grant as a hero.  First Lady Mary Lincoln derided him as “Butcher Grant.” In response, President Lincoln said, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

Where did these thousands of “wounded” men go?  Some recovered from relatively minor injuries, and then donned their uniforms again to fight another day.  But then there were the amputees, whose shattered legs and arms were sawn off in makeshift battlefield hospitals.  In the days before sterilization, Army surgeons would reuse the same blood-soaked saws again and again.  For the poor patient, the only anesthesia was a slug of whiskey. Infection ran rampant. And then there were men whose faces had been gruesomely disfigured.  They were missing eyes, ears, even parts of their jaws.  Many of them ended up addicted to the opium-based drugs that doctors freely distributed to them to alleviate their intense physical and psychological pain.

Philadelphia in the mid-19th century was arguably the preeminent American medical city.  The University of Pennsylvania, still located at 8th and Chestnut, was more famous for its medical school and teaching hospital than its undergraduate programs. Due to its relatively close proximity to the killing fields of Virginia, not to mention its large and well-trained medical community, Philadelphia was a logical place for a new hospital for convalescing veterans.   In 1862, Surgeon-General William Alexander Hammond appointed Philadelphia physician Isaac Israel Hayes to construct a new Army hospital on 15 acres in then-rural West Philadelphia.  The setting was woodsy and pastoral, and Washington’s Army brass hoped that the clean country air of the Philadelphia suburbs would not only hasten the soldiers’ recovery, but also uplift their spirits.

Hayes was a natural choice. Not only was he an esteemed physician, but a brilliant planner.  After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1853, the young Quaker signed on as ship’s surgeon in one of many expeditions in search of lost British explorer Sir John Franklin, and on a later Arctic expedition allegedly became the first European to tread the shores of Ellesmere Island.   The logistics of planning a 4,500-bed hospital from scratch, and in a hurry, dwarfed even those of planning a multi-year Arctic expedition, but Hayes was not deterred.  He put pen to paper and laid out a temporary city of canvas tents and wood structures on the site.  It was later calculated that that at its peak, Satterlee consumed 800,000 pounds of bread, 16,000 pounds of butter and 334,000 quarts of milk per year, all of which had to be brought in by horse-and-wagon on muddy, rutted Baltimore Pike.

Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes. Source: Wikipedia.

Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes. Source: Wikipedia.

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Birdseye view of Satterlee Hospital. Image from Pinterest.

For Hayes, who had just returned from the Arctic, being thrown into the bloody cauldron of the Civil War was a rude awakening, as he had been away from America for so much of his adult life.  His years of sailing through fields of icebergs in search of Franklin and the Northwest Passage were as if “set down in a dream.”

To augment the ranks of professional physicians, Hayes partnered with the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity, who would live in an adjacent convent.   Twenty or so nuns would change the bed sheets, empty the chamber pots, dress festering wounds, and most importantly, offer emotional solace to those lonely men in agony, far from home and loved ones.  According to biographer Douglas W. Wamsley, Dr. Hayes instructed the medical staff to do whatever it took to avoid amputations, thus keeping the soldiers’ bodies whole.  Given the lack of sterilization, this policy might have actually prevented deaths from infection.

Walt Whitman’s poem: “The Wound-Dresser.” Whitman served as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War.

Sources: 

Faith Charlton, “1832 Cholera Outbreak in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut,” PAHRC, Sisters of Charity, http://www.pahrc.net/tag/sisters-of-charity/, accessed November 1, 2016.

Albin J. Kowalewski, “The Civil War’s Rip Van Winkle,” The New York Times, April 29, 2012, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/author/albin-j-kowalewski/, accessed November 1, 2012.

“U.S. Grant (transcript),” The American Experience, WGBH, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/transcript/grant-transcript/?flavour=mobile, accessed November 1, 2016.

“The Civil War’s Satterlee Hospital,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 25, 2013. http://www.philly.com/philly/video/inquirer/20130625_NDN_INQUIRER_Civil_War_s_Satterlee_Hospital.html, accessed November 1, 2016.

“U.S. Grant,” The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/1600/presidents/ulyssessgrant, accessed November 1, 2016.

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Philadelphia’s Zombie Apocalypse? Lippard’s “Last Day of the Quaker City”

Looking Across the Delaware in 1914 (PhillyHistory.org)

Seventy years after Lippard imagined “a fleet of coffins” on the Delaware River (PhillyHistory.org)

“The river became the scene of a strange and awful spectacle.

“The waves were suddenly crowded by a fleet of coffins, tossed wildly to and fro, each coffin borne upon the surface of the waters like a boat, with the foam dashing over its dull dark outlines. And in each coffin sat a corpse, with the death-shroud enfolding its limbs and waving along the blackness of the night, while it urged its grave-boat merrily over the waters, using a thigh-bone for an oar. And at the foot of every coffin, which served for the prow of the unearthly boat, was a lurid light burning in a skull, and flinging its radiance around over the waters, over the faces of the dead and over the fluttering folds of each death-shroud. Ten thousand coffins, each bearing its boatman in the form of a shrouded corpse, floated on the surging waves of the river, ten thousand lurid lights, each flaring from the eyeless sockets of a skull, gave a terrible radiance to the scene, and the river, far as the eye could see, was crowded by this fleet of grave-boats with their shrouded oarsmen, tossing the water aside with the skeleton bone for an oar.

“On the south, with a broad path of waves between, another grim line of coffins extended from the island to the river, the white shrouds of the corpses borne aloft by the wind, while ten thousand deathly hands swung the thigh-bone wildly overhead. In front of each line of coffins burned the lights, flaring from the orbless eyes of a skull, and now as the lurid rays gave strange radiance to the scene, the faces of each corpse, the leaden eyes, the blue lips and the brow all green and clammy with decay, became fired with deadly rage, and beating the thigh-bone on the side of each coffin, the antagonist lines of the dead began to move slowly towards each other.

“Then an unearthly peal of music broke upon the air the music of the hollow skull echoing to the blow of the skeleton-bone from side to side it swelled, it rose clanking to the heavens, it deafened the ear of night with its infernal din. Nearer and nearer to each other the opposing lines of coffins drew, faster and faster they glided over the waves, wilder and more terrible swelled the music of the skeleton-bone and the skull!

George Lippard. The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall. A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery and Crime. (Philadelphia, 1876). (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

George Lippard. The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall. A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery and Crime. (Philadelphia, 1876). (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

“Now the opposing lines of the dead glared in each other’s faces. Now they raised their stiffened hands as if eager for the onset, and waved their white shrouds if the air. Now a thin line of water lay between each division of the dead. Hissing and whirling and plunging, the combatants drew near each other, with a low muttered groan, far more terrible than the loudest shout, each party hailed the approach of its opponent, and then with one deafening crash they closed together, corpse fighting with corpse, dead throttling dead! Coffin meeting with coffin, each urged onward by the heaving waves, each crashing madly into the prow of its antagonist, while the dead arise, and leaning over the side of their death-boats, they reach forth their arms and grasp each other in the clutch of an infernal hate! Then how the fires flaring from the orbless eyes of skulls danced to and fro. Now the river grew alive with the white robes of shrouds fluttering on the air, with the gleam of lights hissing as they sank beneath the waters, with that horrible groan of the corpse as it fought with its fellow corpse!

“Then how merrily the music of the skeleton-bone and the hollow skull shrieked over the waters, and mingling with the low-muttered groans of ten thousand thousand corpses, rose echoing to the heavens above ! Then crash upon crash with horrible yells of laughter, the shrouded dead again urged their coffins full upon each other, and fought like living men upon a battle-field! With ghastly faces mouldering with corruption, yet fired by all the passions of life, upturned to the sky, with the waves rearing and plunging all around them, with their shrouds tossing madly on the air, while the skull-fires danced to and fro they closed together in terrible combat, and fought amidst the howling of the waters.

“Another peal of the skeleton-bone and the skull, another wild burst of laughter. Like a flash of lightning the scene was changed.

“The river was calm as the joy of the Saint, first awakening from the sleep of the grave into the peace of God s own sweet rest. Pure, serene, and placid. It lay like a mirror before the eyes. Yet still in the sky overhead, hung the cloud with its letters of flame,—Wo unto Sodom—still from the letters of flame a lurid light fell over the waters, now so calm and tranquil. And the dark mass of walls and roofs which marked the position of the city, with the lofty steeples and proud domes steeped in livid light, was reflected in the calm waters, like a magnificent picture, delineated by some unearthly hand.”

[Source: Excerpted from the chapter entitled “The Last Day of the Quaker City,” found at this archive.org version of George Lippard’s classic Gothic novel, The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall: a Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime, originally published in Philadelphia in 1844-45.]

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Campo’s Delicatessen and Our Lady of Loreto (Part II)

Campo butcher shop 1954.ashx

Campo’s Butcher Shop, intersection of Carpenter and 9th Street, August 3, 1954.

To read Part I, click here

In the 1930s, Ferdinando’s son young Ambrose went to work at his uncle’s butcher’s shop in South Philadelphia, which he would eventually take over. Because few families owned cars during the lean years of the Great Depression, most Philadelphians still shopped for food in their neighborhoods, bringing home only what they could carry. Meat was expensive. Housewives would usually pick out a live turkey, chicken, or goose, have the butcher do the slaughtering, and then take the carcass home to pluck and dress themselves. “The animals were our pets all year,” remembered Ferdinando’s grandson Michael Sr. “Well, until Eastertime.”

In 1947, joining the postwar exodus of second and third generation Italians out of South Philly, Ambrose Campo set up a new establishment at 2401 S.62nd Street in a squat, two-story brick building decorated with pressed-tin bay windows and cornices. Like countless Philadelphia business owners, the Campos ran their butcher shop on the first floor and lived in an apartment on the second floor. Everyone in the family was expected to help out, whether it was mixing meatballs, manning the cash register, or sweeping up at closing time.

By the 1970s, as supermarkets squeezed family butcher shops out of business, Ambrose’s son Frank decided to remake Campo’s as a delicatessen. The delicatessen was originally a German concept: it served sandwiches and other prepared meals to sit-down customers, and also catered meals for family events and local fraternal organizations. Jewish delicatessens served only kosher meats (pastrami, corned beef, brisket) and sold no dairy products, while Italian and German ones served plenty of pork products (salami, prosciutto, soppresata) and specialty cheeses such as provolone. “Butcher shops were becoming a thing of the past,” said 33-year old Frank Campo, grandson of Ambrose, “and after some years of decreased sales my father started making sandwiches with the shop’s steaks and sausages.”

Campo's Deli at 62nd and Grays Avenue,

Campo’s Deli at 62nd and Grays Avenue,

Ambrose Campo holding a slaughtered calf, 1956. Image courtesy of Michael Campo.

Ambrose Campo holding a slaughtered calf, 1956. Image courtesy of Michael Campo.

Yet despite this adaptation, the old Italian-American community in Southwest Philadelphia that had sustained Campo’s Deli continued to disperse. Many of the residents moved to newly constructed automobile suburbs in South Jersey and Delaware County, a pattern followed in other mostly-Catholic neighborhoods such as Grays Ferry. In 2001, Campo’s Deli closed its 62nd Street location and moved to a new site at 214 Market Street in Old City, and also opened concession stands in Citizens Bank Ballpark. Not long after that, the Philadelphia Archdiocese announced that Our Lady of Loreto parish was to be shuttered. “Yes the area has become somewhat economically depressed and church attendance has declined,” wrote Damian D’Orsaneo to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003, “but is that any reason to close a church? I’m not a biblical scholar, but one thing I remember from 12 years of Catholic schooling is that Jesus’ followers were, for the most part, the poor and downtrodden. If this church provides peace and comfort to even a few, isn’t that a good enough reason to keep its doors open?”

The church thankfully did not meet the wrecking ball, and continues to serve local worshipers as Grace Christian Fellowship. Its colorful murals and Art Deco facade still attract the attention of airport-bound motorists hoping to avoid traffic on I-76.

Sources:

Campo family history provided to Steven Ujifusa by Michael Campo, June 23, 2016.

Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, June 23, 2016.

Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, October 18, 2016.

Anna Maria Chupa, “St. Joseph’s Day Altars,” Louisiana Project, Houston Institute for Culture, http://www.houstonculture.org/laproject/stjo.html, accessed October 16, 2016.

Damian D’Orsaneo, “The Sad Fate of Our Lady of Loreto,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 27, 2003, http://articles.philly.com/2003-05-27/news/25459497_1_church-attendance-final-mass-parish-school, accessed October 14, 2016.

Interview of Ron Donatucci by Steven Ujifusa, January 26, 2016.

Natalie Hardwick, “Top 10 Foods to Try in Sicily,” BBC Good Food, http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/top-10-foods-try-sicily, accessed October 14, 2016.

David Rosengarten, “The Cuisine of Abruzzo: Easy to Love, Not So Easy to Describe,” The Huffington Post, August 6, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-rosengarten/the-cuisine-of-abruzzo_b_5651554.html, accessed October 14, 2016.

Inga Saffron, “Good Eye: This Catholic Church Celebrates the Miracle of Flight Two Ways,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 2016, http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/inga_saffron/20161016_Good_Eye__This_Catholic_church_celebrates_the_miracle_of_flight_two_ways.html?photo_3, accessed October 15, 2016.

“Puglia,” Rustico Cooking, http://www.rusticocooking.com/puglia.htm, accessed October 14, 2016.

“The Best Food of Calabria,” Walks of Italy, https://www.walksofitaly.com/blog/food-and-wine/food-of-calabria, accessed October 20, 2016.

 

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Philadelphia’s Scarlet Streak

Police Department – 750 Race Street (PhillyHistory.org)

1966 Plymouth Fury Patrol Cars at Police Headquarters, 750 Race Street (PhillyHistory.org)

Even though he despised the color, as long as Frank Rizzo carried a badge the patrol cars of the Philadelphia Police were lipstick red. Rizzo snapped at officers who spoke of them as “red cars” and one can only imagine what he said when he heard them referred to as “rotten tomatoes” or “red devils.”

As soon as Rizzo rose to the position of police commissioner in 1967, he announced a plan to replace the red with a less strident blue and white. But Mayor James H. J. Tate made it clear: such decisions were above Rizzo’s pay grade. Traditional red would reign five more years.

The order came down Tuesday January 4, 1972—Rizzo’s first full day as mayor. He barely minded the ribbing that his brother Joe, the fire commissioner, would be able to tell them apart from vehicles in his department. For the newly inaugurated mayor, “Blue Tuesday,” as the newspapers called it, was a Red Letter Day.

Why, exactly, was red so objectionable?

Philadelphia’s scarlet streak dated back to 1929, a time when color, let alone bright colors, were rare on your basic, Henry-Ford-black automobile. And 1929 was anything but an ordinary year for the Philadelphia police. The department was in a tailspin, having been documented as systemically corrupt.

Historians tell us that “spreading gangland warfare” and simmering scandal “exploded” into “a spectacular grand jury investigation” in August 1928. The city’s annual, underground, Prohibition-era economy of alcohol and other “amusements” had soared to $40 million. Nearly 1,200 bars remained open. Across the city were 13,000 speakeasies and 300 “bawdy houses.” And half of the total proceeds were skimmed off for “protection.” Investigators learned that much of that $20 million passed through the hands of police officers and district captains handpicked by ward leaders. The Philadelphia Police Department wasn’t part of the solution; it was the city’s crime problem.

Mayor Harry Mackey ordered a complete, city-wide “clean up” of the department, including redistricting. In the shakeup, 4,500 officers were transferred; at least 85 were dismissed. Precautions assuring visibility and accountability of the reconfigured force were put in place.

Red had long been associated with Philadelphia, usually in a positive way. S. Weir Mitchell titled his Philadelphia-based historical romance The Red CityElizabeth Robbins Pennell waxed in Our Philadelphiaa book-length love letter, how “peace breathed, exuded from the red brick houses with white marble steps…” But there was also a distinct downside to Philadelphia red. Gothic novelist George Lippard considered the infatuation excessive. “The eye is wearied by one unvarying sameness of dull red brick” he noted in The Quaker City, observing that “the man who paints a house blue or yellow or pink or white, or any other hue…than this monotonous red, is…set down by his neighbors, as slightly weak minded or positively crazy.”

And then there was the notable role for the color in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s popular American classic, The Scarlet Letter, where red stood out as Hester Prynne’s badge of public shame after being found guilty of adultery.

When reform-minded leaders instituted the “Red Car System” in 1929, it almost certainly was not an allusion to Hawthorne’s tale. But less than a year after revelations of deep, widespread, systemic corruption, the choice of scarlet for patrol cars would have been at the forefront of any attempt to increase visibility and accountability. Years later, some might well have considered the color as a vestige, a residual echo of a precaution aimed at introducing transparency for a disgraced police force. They could still feel the punitive stridency of red.

As commissioner in 1969, Rizzo took delivery of 255 new, red Ford V-8s with air-conditioning, power brakes, power steering and bucket seats. From the city’s point of view, Pacifico Ford’s $911,802 price tag was the lowest of three required bids. This would be among the city’s last orders for red cruisers.

Public reaction was largely positive a few years later, when the city shifted to blue and white. “I like it,” said a woman on Market Street. “It doesn’t scream at you.” But a cabbie worried: “It just didn’t stand out like the red.”

Absolutely right.

After 43 years, Philadelphia’s scarlet streak had come to an end.

[Sources: “Huge Rum Bribes to Police Bared in Philadelphia,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 1, 1928; William G. Shepherd, “The Price of Liquor,” Colliers, December 1, 1928; “Graft Findings Hit 85 Philadelphia Police,” The Washington Post, March 14, 1929; Albert C. Wagner, “Crime and Economic Change in Philadelphia, 1925-1934,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 27, Issue 4, Winter 1936; “Police Cars to Stay Red, The Bulletin, May 22, 1968; City Gets Low Bid of $2530 Apiece for 255 Red Cars,” The Bulletin, November 11, 1969; “Rizzo Gets His Way on Police Cars,” The Bulletin, January 4, 1972; John Clancy and Don McDonough, “It’s a Blue Tuesday for Police Red Cars,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 1972; William A. Lovejoy, “Phila.’s Blue “Red Cars ” Draw Favorable Comment,” The Bulletin, February 17, 1972.]

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Campo’s and Our Lady of Loreto (Part I)

The oldest surviving cookbook, De re coquinaria (On Cookery), was compiled by Marcus Gavius Apicius in the first century A.D., the high water mark of the Roman Empire.  Each region of Italy has been reveling in its own favorites ever since: “pane con la milza” (open-faced pork spleen sandwich) from Sicily, coretello (minced lamb and lamb innards) from Abruzzo, ‘Nduja (spreadable sausage) from Calabria, and penne with arugula and tomatoes from Puglia.

For Italian immigrant families who came to the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s, village recipes were crucial parts ties to their familial and regional pasts, and they died hard in the American urban melting pot.  The Philly cheese steak, supposedly “invented” by brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri, did not come along until the 1930s, and originally called for an Italian roll and provolone cheese, not the Americanized orange cheese product.

To Ronald Donatucci, the current registrar of wills and native of the Girard Estates neighborhood, the Jews and the Italian-Americans of Philadelphia shared many common cultural traits, among them a love of food, a focus on education, and (more often than not), a strong mother figure. “They’re so similar,” Donatucci recalled. “My father instilled education in myself and my siblings.” Like the Jews, with whom they often coexisted in tightly-packed rowhouse blocks, Italian immigrants quickly applied the trades they learned back in the old country to the streets of Philadelphia, especially in culinary and the building trades.  And they kept these businesses in the family. Bakeries, cheese shops, and confectionaries flourished in Italian neighborhoods. Older women in various neighborhoods would go to the early Sunday Mass at their local parish church, then do their grocery shopping for the week.  Young boys were expected to help them with their bags.

Food was not just central to regular family gatherings, but also to the myriad feast days and festivals of the Roman Catholic calendar year.  Each village had its own patron saint.  One of the biggest, of course, was the Festa di San Giuseppe (Feast of St. Joseph, patron saint of Sicily), celebrated every March 19 with limes, wine, fava beans, cookies, breadcrumbs (representing the sawdust from Joseph’s carpenter shop), and zeppole cakes.

1106-1114 South Street 5.3.1930ashx

Campo Butcher Shop on the 1100 block of South Street, May 3, 1930.

One such culinary family was the Campo clan–friends of the Donatuccis–who settled in Southwest Philadelphia in the parish of Our Lady of Loreto.   In 1905, the three Campo brothers (Fernando, Francesco, and Venerando) arrived in Philadelphia on the Red Star liner SS Friesland.  They were natives of the Sicilian village of Cesaro. According to Ferdinando’s great-grandson Michael Campo, the family had been butchers for generation: there were at least seven men named Campo operating butcher shops in Sicily in the early 1900s.   Most likely through family help and local Italian-American banks, Venerando raised enough capital to open his own butcher shop at the intersection of Carpenter and South 9th Street in Philadelphia. In the meantime, his brother Ferdinando opened a similar establishment in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Eventually, Ferdinando’s son Ambrose opened another butcher’s shop, this one at 62nd and Grays Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, and joined a brand new parish that had opened its doors in the neighborhood.  The church, finished in 1938, was the anchor of a neighborhood of tidy brick rowhouses surrounding the main thoroughfare leading from West Philadelphia to the new Philadelphia Municipal Airport.  When aviator Charles Lindbergh dedicated the airport shortly after his epic 1927 transatlantic flight, Philadelphia’s city fathers named this arterial street in his honor. Designed in the fashionable Art Deco style by local architect Frank L. Petrillo, Our Lady of Loreto was a radical departure from the baroque and Byzantine revival popular with church architects such as Henry Dagit and Edward F. Durang.  Inside and out, Our Lady of Loreto (the patron saint of air travel) looked more like a 1930s airport terminal than a church.  According to Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, “Petrillo’s design cleverly links that story with the great technical advance of the 1930s: commercial air travel. Because streamline moderne’s strong, horizontal lines evoked speed, it was a favorite architectural choice for new airports’ terminals.” The airplane theme didn’t stop with the building envelope.  According to church teaching, on May 10, 1291, a flock of angels flew the house where the Virgin Mary was born from the Holy Land to the comparative safety of the Italian village of Loreto.

The mural on the church’s facade depicted this miracle as propeller-driven planes swoop around the heavy-lifting angels.

Feast of St. Anthony, c.1985. Image courtesy of Michael Campo.

Feast of St. Anthony, c.1985. Image courtesy of Michael Campo/Our Lady of Loreto Facebook group.

The modern style of the church reflected the forward-looking aspirations of the 1,200 or so families who belonged to the parish,  They saw Southwest Philadelphia as a step up from cluttered old South Philadelphia.  For the members of this parish, the most important festival was the feast of St. Anthony, which took place on the first week of June. “I remember being a kid and my parents giving me a dollar to pin on the St. Anthony statue, for which I would get a blessed roll,” remembered Michael Campo. “The roll was from Mattera’s Bakery, which was the neighborhood bakery, and located on the same intersection of 62nd and Grays Avenue, as the Church and Campo’s.”  Following the parade was a carnival, complete with fireworks and a dunk-the-clown contest.  “Looking back on it, it was probably a couple roman candles,” Campo said of the fireworks dislay, “but when I was 10, It felt like I was at Disney World.”

Sources: 

Campo family history provided to Steven Ujifusa by Michael Campo, June 23, 2016.

Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, June 23, 2016.

Email correspondence, Michael Campo to Steven Ujifusa, October 18, 2016.

Anna Maria Chupa, “St. Joseph’s Day Altars,” Louisiana Project, Houston Institute for Culture, http://www.houstonculture.org/laproject/stjo.html, accessed October 16, 2016.

Damian D’Orsaneo, “The Sad Fate of Our Lady of Loreto,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 27, 2003, http://articles.philly.com/2003-05-27/news/25459497_1_church-attendance-final-mass-parish-school, accessed October 14, 2016.

Interview of Ron Donatucci by Steven Ujifusa, January 26, 2016.

Natalie Hardwick, “Top 10 Foods to Try in Sicily,” BBC Good Food, http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/top-10-foods-try-sicily, accessed October 14, 2016.

David Rosengarten, “The Cuisine of Abruzzo: Easy to Love, Not So Easy to Describe,” The Huffington Post, August 6, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-rosengarten/the-cuisine-of-abruzzo_b_5651554.html, accessed October 14, 2016.

Inga Saffron, “Good Eye: This Catholic Church Celebrates the Miracle of Flight Two Ways,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 2016, http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/inga_saffron/20161016_Good_Eye__This_Catholic_church_celebrates_the_miracle_of_flight_two_ways.html?photo_3, accessed October 15, 2016.

“Puglia,” Rustico Cooking, http://www.rusticocooking.com/puglia.htm, accessed October 14, 2016.

“The Best Food of Calabria,” Walks of Italy, https://www.walksofitaly.com/blog/food-and-wine/food-of-calabria, accessed October 20, 2016.

 

 

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Philadelphia Politics and the Presidential Campaign of 1932

Reception to President Hoover-Reyburn Plaza, October 31, 1932 (PhillyHistory,org)

Reception for President Herbert Hoover at Reyburn Plaza, October 31, 1932 (PhillyHistory,org)

Herbert Hoover wasn’t in Philadelphia long during his campaign swing for re-election in October 1932, and he didn’t have much to say. In fact, Hoover’s entire visit lasted only 30 minutes. Still, Philadelphians turned out in a major way for the Republican incumbent—an estimated 30,000—“the biggest assemblage massed in the central city district in years” reported The New York Times.

Proof positive that “William S. Vare, the…still powerful leader of the Philadelphia Republican organization, really had determined…to send his machine all the way down for the President.”

“It was Mr. Vare’s show,” wrote The Times. “His political henchmen were there in person and had enough support to throng Reyburn and City Hall Plazas and nearby streets.” The crowd cheered Vare when he rose to introduce the President. Then “boos” echoed across the plazas as Hoover rose to speak and continued throughout his very brief remarks. (Hoover “took no notice” of the “boos” and the next morning they were explained away as the handiwork of Communists.)

He looked over the crowd, paused, and then took a few moments to praise William Penn, the Liberty Bell, and “the greatness of this city and of this Commonwealth”—anything to avoid acknowledging the fact that the Great Depression had left at least one in four Philadelphians unemployed. Anything to keep from reminding the crowd that only two months earlier, police attacked 1,500 jobless “hunger marchers” in an incident come to be known as the “Battle of Reyburn Plaza.”

The President turned away from the podium and with his entourage walked back to Broad Street Station to take a train to New York City were a crowd at Madison Square Garden—only 21,000 this time—heard Hoover’s major speech. This was no ordinary presidential campaign, he said. Americans were in the midst of “a contest between two philosophies of Government.” Hoover’s opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was “appealing to the people in their fear and their distress…proposing changes and so-called new deals which would destroy the very foundations of the American system of life.”

“We are told that we must have a change, that we must have a new deal.” But this, Hoover declared, would “alter the whole foundations of our national life;” it would undo “generations of testing and struggle.” This new deal, he stressed, would rock “the principles upon which we have made this Nation.”

Roosevelt would be risky. “Be safe with Hoover,” implored the campaign slogan.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s “brain trust” crafted a campaign strategy around not committing “any gaffes that might take the public’s attention away from Hoover’s inadequacies and the nation’s troubles.”

Three years into the Great Depression, Hoover was deeply unpopular, even in Philadelphia, with 553,435 voters registered Republicans and 85,236 Democrats. By summer, Roosevelt had developed a strong lead in the polls. But by late October, that lead had shrunk and Hoover had a narrow chance of winning Pennsylvania, If only he could dominate in its most populous city.

That’s where Vare came in. Come election day, only 39% of the nation’s voters got behind Hoover; Roosevelt won by a landslide with 57%. His command of electoral votes was even more stunning: 472 to 59. Roosevelt carried 42 states, earning 206 more than the 266 electoral votes needed to win. But he didn’t carry the Keystone State. Of Hoover’s 59 electoral votes, 36 were from Pennsylvania.

Thanks to the Vare machine.

By the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration day in early March 1933, more than 9,000 American banks had failed, industrial production had been cut in half and at something like 13 million wage earners were without jobs –more than 280,000 in Philadelphia.

What could the freshly minted president possibly say?

“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Now that would be a speech worth getting out for.

[Sources: Lawrence Davies, “Vare Gears Machine To Win Philadelphia,The New York Times, November 6, 1932;  “Reds Blamed for Boos At Philadelphia,” Associated Press, Philadelphia October 31, 1932;  “Great Depression,The Encyclopedia of Greater PhiladelphiaUnited States Presidential Election of 1932, The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica; The American Presidency Project, Papers of Herbert Hoover; Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address, March 3, 1933.]

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The Walnut Lane Bridge: Poetry in Poured Concrete

Walnut Lane Bridge 4-12-1907 (PhillyHistory.org)

Walnut Lane Bridge 4-12-1907 (PhillyHistory.org)

Sauntering in the deep recesses of Fairmount Park a century ago, Christopher Morley and his know-everything guide were just about “to sentimentalize upon the beauty of nature and how it shames the crass work of man” when they came upon “what is perhaps the loveliest thing along the Wissahickon – the Walnut Lane Bridge.”

“Leaping high in the air from the very domes of the trees, curving in a sheer smooth superb span that catches the last western light on its concrete flanks, it flashes across the darkened valley as nobly as an old Roman viaduct of southern France. It is a thrilling thing, and I scrambled up the bank to know down the names of the artists who planned it. The tablet is dated 1906, and bears the names of George S. Webster, chief engineer; Henry H. Quimby, assistant engineer; Reilly & Riddle, contractors. Many poets have written versus both good and bad about the Wissahickon, but Messrs. Reilly & Riddle have spanned it with the poem that will long endure.”

As Chief Engineer of the Department of Public Works and Bureau of Surveys, Webster “had long argued that a high-level bridge between Roxborough and Germantown would eliminate a hilly five-or six-mile detour into the Wissahickon Creek valley.” He considered proposing “a steel viaduct with a wooden floor,” but thought better of it. Webster envisioned a bridge more appropriate for the “natural park scenery of rocky and wooded slopes.”

In 1905, City Council grated Webster his wish, authorizing construction of an elegant arched bridge, and allocated funds to unite the two neighborhoods “at the narrowest point of the ravine, along the line of Walnut Lane.” The project would begin July 5, 1906 and lasted two dramatic years.

Walnut Lane Bridge 1910 (PhillyHistory.org)

Walnut Lane Bridge 1910 (PhillyHistory.org)

When complete, Walnut Lane would be the largest concrete bridge in the world, inspired “structurally and aesthetically” by the Pont Adolphe over the Pétrusse River in Luxembourg, completed only two years before.

Forty thousand tons of concrete never looked so much like a line of poetry. Giant arches stretched across the ravine providing a path more than 145 feet above “the most picturesque portion of the Park.” It seemed as if the bridge was “literally springing from out the foliage of the tree tops.”

Reilly & Riddle poured concrete arches atop a gigantic falsework of steel and lumber that, “for the sake of economy” was used twice, once for each rib. In a demonstration of skill, faith and engineering finesse, “four temporary concrete piers in the stream bed supported the falsework and provided a glide path for shifting it from under the first finished rib to where the second one would rise. To move the falsework, thirty men operated a massive ball-bearing jack at pier level, nudging the 900-ton falsework 34 feet, inch by inch. The operation took three days. At the conclusion of the job, Reilly & Riddle demolished the concrete piers with dynamite, returning the creek bed to nature.

“It is the greatest bridge of its kind in the world,” glowed Mayor John Reyburn at the dedication, where school children from Roxborough, Manayunk and Germantown sang in unison. “It was conceived and executed by our own men,” he boasted, proudly suggesting that fact alone made it worth the price. Never mind that it’s status as the largest concrete arch in the world was quickly surpassed by the New Detroit-Rocky River Bridge in Cleveland and the Grafton Bridge in Auckland, New Zealand. In a city of makers, Philadelphians had made more than a bridge, they had created “one of the wonders of the world.”

Whatever became of all that construction debris, in particular the 900 tons of lumber used to build the temporary falsework? On March 29, 1908 an advertisement in the Inquirer put out the word: 300,000 feet of new pine lumber, “all sizes and lengths to 30 feet long” was available at the bargain rate of $14 per thousand feet. Come to the bridge, take your pick, haul it away. The advertisement didn’t bother to specify which side of the bridge, Germantown or Roxborough. But since the bridge had opened, that detail no longer mattered. East and West were almost one and the same.

[Sources: Walnut Lane Bridge. Pennsylvania Historic Bridges Recording Project -II, Historic American Engineering Record, (PDF); The Walnut Lane Bridge;J. A. Stewart, “The New Bridge Over the Wissahickon at Philadelphia,Scientific American, November 30, 1907; George S. Webster and Henry H. Quimby, “Walnut Lane Bridge, Philadelphia,” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Vol. 65, 1909; The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Mammoth Arch to Span Wissahickon,” March 20, 1906;  The Philadelphia Inquirer, “New Walnut Lane Bridge is Dedicated to City’s Use,” December 17, 1908.]

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