Wrong Turn, Wrong Street, Wrong Day

Break in Sewer - Thompson Street West of 8th, 9/19/ 1913 - 7012 (PhillyHistory.org)

Break in Sewer – Thompson Street West of 8th, September 19, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

That morning, just like any other Thursday, John Connor stepped out of his family’s two-story rowhouse, near 13th and Moore Streets, and made his way up Passyunk Avenue to his job in Center City. Summer still lingered in the sunny September air, and the 23-year-old Connor looked forward to another day behind the wheel of Merchant & Evans’ new, custom-made delivery truck.

Merchant & Evans had just about outgrown their building at 517 Arch Street. They’d done quite well since the Civil War, when Clark Merchant retired from the Navy and built a business in brass, bronze, copper and tin. Over time, he aligned the company with the building trades. And by now, 1913, with Powell Evans, of International Sprinkler Company fame at the helm, success was only the beginning. Under Evans, the firm had expanded its offerings. Their fireproof products would soon be standard everywhere, if the insurance companies had their say about it—and they did. Soon, few large structures rose without sprinklers, fireproof metal doors and shutters. But more: Evans saw potential in the automobile market and turned the company’s talents to the manufacture of clutches, alignment joints, rear axles, jackshaft transmissions, grease cups and metal tire cases. Before long, Merchant & Evans would even build their own “motor trucks,” not too unlike the models they assembled for deliveries and pickups in Philadelphia. The company was widely recognized as “one of the premier metal houses of the United States” with plants in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Wheeling, West Virginia and offices from New York to Kansas.

As Connor approached Merchant & Evans’ loading dock on Cuthbert Street side of the building, his delivery truck was already packed. This September morning, just as he did every day, Connor headed out from company headquarters with a full load of metal products that just about doubled the weight of his 3-ton truck.

Connor navigated the grid Philadelphia making stops and gradually unburdening some of his heavy load. In Northern Liberties he skirted the well-known stretch near 2nd and Germantown, where a cave-in of the Cohocksink, rumors had it, nearly claimed at horse-drawn streetcar in the 1880s. But Connor knew this wasn’t a rumor, he knew this wily underground creek-turned-sewer had nearly claimed a trolley car filled with passengers only one year before. And it would grab him too, if he made the wrong turn, on the wrong street, on the wrong day. Especially in a truck weighing more than two-and-a-half times what a Model-T Ford did—standing completely empty.

By late afternoon, Connor trundled through the busy traffic of North 9th Street, stopping, as his work orders dictated, at building sites, mills, wagon works, machine shops and hardware factories. As he approached the Girard Avenue Farmers Market and the new Girard Avenue Train Station, Connor knew from experience he had to avoid the intersection of 9th and Girard. And so he made a left turn onto Thompson Street.

Heading east to quieter quarters, with Seyferts’ Foundry and the American Smelting Company fading in his rearview mirror, Connor passed narrow Darien Street and glimpsed two church steeples straight ahead, at Thompson and Franklin. Then, in front of Heickhaus’s Groceries and Provisions, Connor saw out of the corner of his eye a “hump in the cobblestone paving.” He swerved; but too little, too late. With no further warning, Connor “felt the street suddenly sinking beneath him” and “plunged head-on into a collapsing mass of cobblestones and dirt.” As the truck dropped, Connor didn’t have time to think, he just “threw himself backward.” Then, as the debris-covered front of the truck shuttered and steamed, he saw water shooting from both front and back of the chasm. Worse, he smelled natural gas. Connor “clawed his way upward along the tilting surface” of the truck. “The odor of escaping gas was so powerful Connor had barely enough strength to climb over the edge…and stagger to safety.” But stagger he did, and safe he was. Connor escaped “scarcely a minute” before a great explosion echoed throughout the neighborhood.

As for Merchant & Evans, they survived, too, and rolled onward. Within a few years, Powell Evans moved the entire Philadelphia operation to a new plant near 20th Street and Washington Avenue. And the company proclaimed in advertisements that “rapid motor trucks” of their “own manufacture” were “used daily to make free delivery in all parts of the city.” No word as to whether John Connor ever got behind the wheel again.

[Source: The Philadelphia Inquirer, September, 19, 1913. “Huge Truck in Sewer Cave-In, Large Vehicle Falls Through Street When Old Cohocksink Collapses.”]

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