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Main Street Manayunk Historic District

The Main Street Manayunk National Register was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Text, below, is adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.


The Schuylkill Canal - Historical Context

During the mid-19th century the tow path waterway provided an importantly means for the transportation of goods and materials in the United States. The Manayunk Canal formed a segment of the Schuylkill Canal System, constructed to provide a navigable waterway along the Schuylkill River, linking the Delaware River and the coal regions above Reading. The Schuylkill Canal System, part of a broader canal system, provided the crucial link to the west. The openings of the canal forged a link between the land located regions of western Pennsylvania and the port of Philadelphia, creating a tow path water transportation which enabled the cheap transport of anthracite coal to markets all along the eastern seaboard.

A plan to provide a navigable link between the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers had been conceived by William Penn in 1690. However, such a link was not a reality until 1825. In the interim, surveys for a possible canal were completed in the mid-18th century, and isolated improvements made to the river channel. The first serious planning for a canal began in 1731 when a group of Philadelphia citizens led by Robert Morris organized the Society for Improvements of Roads and Inland Navigation. As a result of their efforts, the State of Pennsylvania chartered the first two canal projects in America, the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Navigation Company, and the Delaware and Schuylkill Navigation Company, forerunner of the Schuylkill Navigation Company. The State authorized $440,000 for the projects, however, by 1794 only 15 miles of canal was completed, funds had been exhausted and work stopped on both projects.

The motivating force behind the eventual construction of the Schuylkill Canal System was Joshua White, credited with developing a method for burning hard anthracite to process iron ore. He understood the potential of the canal to reduce the cost of transporting anthracite coal from the coal fields above Reading to industries along the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. White petitioned the State for the right to improve the river but his proposal was rejected. In 1815, the State of Pennsylvania chartered the foundation of the Schuylkill Navigation Company. The Company, established by Philadelphia financiers and headed by Cadwallader Evans was granted a charter to construct a canal from Philadelphia to Port Carbon, just below Pottsville.

The Schuylkill Navigation Company and the Schuylkill Canal

The Schuylkill Canal was not a continuous canal, but a series of waterways constructed to bypass unnavigated sections of the river. The Schuylkill navigation system covered a distance of 108 miles; 62 miles by canal and 46 miles by slack water navigation created by dams in the river. The system included 92 locks to overcome a 9,588 foot difference in elevation. Locks were typically 75' to 80' long and eight to 17 feet wide. By 1828 there was no effective competition to the canal and rates were high. As a result of this monopoly, the State Legislature authorized construction of the Reading Railroad. On January 13, 1842, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was opened to Pottsville in direct competition to the canal, and by 1844 it carried more coal than the canal. To meet the railroad competition, the canal was enlarged, and costs were lowered. Tonnage increased as a result and the period 1850-1860 marked the Golden Age of the Canal. During this period, the canal showed the greatest profit and carried the greatest tonnage, peaking at 1.7 million tons.

The Manayunk Section of the Canal

After incorporation, the Navigation Company began construction in both Philadelphia and Reading. In 1815, construction began on the Flat Rock Dam, designed to convert seven of the most dangerous miles of the Schuylkill into navigable water. The canal was constructed through a low lying swamp area then known as "Dead Waters." The quality of the original construction was poor, utilizing little formal engineering techniques, and much of the work had to be redone. Floods caused extensive damage during construction and the company had problems attracting working capital. The Manayunk section of the canal was completed on October 18, 1818, and opened for travel in 1822. The original lock system consisted of a single channel at the upper lock and multiple channels at the lower lock.

The Manayunk section of the canal is today a focus of recreational activity. The City, in the first step in realizing this concept, cleaned and dredged the waterway and constructed a boardwalk and tow path along the Main Street side of the canal.

Economic Development of Manayunk

The development of Manayunk as a significant regional and national industrial center was due to construction of the Manayunk Canal. While Manayunk continued to flourish as a manufacturing center into the 1930's, it is the 19th century industrial development which is of historic significance. Before the canal was opened in 1819, industry located in Manayunk because of the access to water; pre-canal industries included grist mills, glass and paper, iron rolling and wood screw production. Industries were typically small scale, serving a local market. After completion of the canal, Manayunk quickly expanded as a center of diverse small scale industrial production including cotton, drugs, oak grinding, and the manufacturing of hat bodies and paper.

The construction of the canal brought three potential benefits for industry:

  1. The availability of coal for industrial production
  2. The availability of water power
  3. Transportation of raw materials and finished goods

Realizing the value of the newly available water power, the Schuylkill Navigation Company began marketing this valuable industrial commodity. The first water power was sold to Captain John Towers on April 19, 1819, and he proceeded to construct the first mill in Manayunk, on land formerly part of the Levering estate. In 1820, Charles Hagner constructed the second mill, between Green Lane and Leverington Street, for the preparation of oil and grinding of drugs, and subsequently other mills were constructed.

During the 1820's, the scale of industrial production magnified, and operations increasingly focused on cotton textile production. By 1928, 10 mills were in operation with 6 homes under construction. A commentator described Manayunk in 1828 as follows: "I rode over to a new village called Manayunk, lying about 4 miles above me on the left bank of the Schuylkill, it is flourishing and increasing in dwelling houses and mills. I visited the largest cotton factory, belonging to Mr. Boris and Mr. Jerome Keating. These gentlemen have a four story stone building, two hundred feet long, containing 4,500 spindles and one hundred and twenty power looms, all worked by about 200 persons." Many of the area's first factories combined assembly line production with forms of cottage industry. Because a large portion of Manayunk labor force was unskilled, there was substantial technological innovation. In contrast, competing textile centers such as Kensington, with its skilled hand weavers, were slow to adopt mechanization. Mechanization led to increased labor organization and some of the first unions were organized in Manayunk in the 1830's. The national depression of the late 1830's ended the early diverse phase of industrial growth and reinforced cotton textile manufacturing as the dominant industry of Manayunk. The scale of production continued to increase, many of the first mill structures were demolished and redeveloped as larger, multi-story structures to accommodate new industrial processes.

With the commencement of the Civil War, cotton from the South became unavailable resulting in the closing of many mills. Surviving mill owners switched to wool to supply the needs of the Union Army. After the war, wool and wool blend textiles continued to be an important aspect of Manayunk industry while cotton industries declined. Because of competition from mills in the South, industrial specialization prevailed with factories linking their output to a few steps in the production process, selling their materials to other factories. By the end of the century, Manayunk factories were producing standard cotton and wool fabrics, as well as carpet yarns, silks, "shoddy" blends, hosiery, dress goods, cashmere, jeans, and other articles. Despite this diversification, the first generation of mill owners such as Ripka and Schofield, who prospered before the Civil War, continued to define the structure of Manayunk industry. After the war, the rate of industrial expansion declined and the new mills were generally less profitable. While textile and textile related production continued to be important through the 1920's, the manufacture of paper, soap, chemicals increased in importance until the Depression.

Today, although no longer a regionally significant location for industrial activity, Manayunk remains a relatively satisfactory location for existing industries. Factors contributing to the area's longevity include easy access to the interstate highway system, a stable community, availability of water, and physical isolation from the deteriorated sections of the City.

Manayunk Social Development

The development of Manayunk as an important industrial center impacted the social development of the community. The town of Manayunk received its name at the first town meeting, May 4, 1824. Originally the area was known as "Flat Rock" because of a large, flat rock formation at the lower side of the Flat Rock Bridge. The name was changed to Manayunk for the Indian word "Maniung" meaning "where to go to drink."

After completion of the canal, the population of Manayunk increased rapidly. From 1818 to 1822, Manayunk's population grew from 60 to 800. A census taken in April 1827, counted a population of 1,088. By 1840 he population of what is now the 21st ward (Manayunk, Roxborough & Wissahickon) was 5,797 people, and Manayunk had grown sufficiently large to incorporate as a separate entity, withdrawing from the township of Roxborough. In 1854, with a population of over 6,000 people, Manayunk was incorporated into the City of Philadelphia. However, it continued to remain a somewhat socially isolated area because of its own industrial base and hilly topography.

Physical Development of Manayunk

The Industry of Venice Island

The pattern of physical growth and development in Manayunk during the nineteenth century was determined by the location of the Manayunk Canal as a transportation route and power source. With the decline of the canal and the increasing importance of railroad transportation, the construction of a railroad spur adjacent to the canal maintained Manayunk as an important industrial location. Industrial development and redevelopment occurred during the 19th and early 20th centuries in response to changes in technology and market condition favoring new industries.

After completion of the canal, Venice Island, located between the river channel and the canal, became the principal location for Manayunk industry. By the 1860's a substantial number of mill complexes had been developed both on the eastern and central parts of Venice Island, and the south side of Main Street, near the lower locks. Principal mill structures at the lower locks included Roxborough Mills, and the Littlewood and Lancaster Mill. Cotton mills clustered in an area east of Green Lane Bridge, while west of the Leverington Street Bridge, a wider variety of mill industries developed including paper mills (Flat Rock Paper Mill), grist mills (Mt. Vernon Grist Mill), and Knitting Works (Pennsylvania Knitting Works). Coal was now the major source of power for the mill complexes with the Philadelphia and Norristown Railroad servicing the coal depots on the south side of Cresson Street.

Over the next fifteen years, development continued along the eastern and central parts of Venice Island as far west as Fountain Street. Major mill complexes east of Green Lane included the Schuylkill Cotton Mill at Rector Street, Hardings Paper Mills and Ripka Cotton Mills at Carson Street. Typically each mill had operation on both sides of the waters, linked by bridges across the canal, with the mill offices located on the Main Street side. By 1875 a substantial number of paper and wood pulp mills had been constructed west of the Fountain Street bridge. Among these mills were the American Wood Pulp Company, Flat Rock Mills, and Philadelphia Pulp Works. Race channels, cut across Venice Island from the canal to the main channel, supplied water for each mill. Gas became a new source of energy for Manayunk industries, provided by the Manayunk Gas Works located on Venice Island, east of the Leverington Street Bridge.

In the 1880's, rail transportation became increasingly important and a second rail line serving Manayunk, the Pennsylvania Schuylkill Valley Railroad, was completed. Before the 1880s, Flat Rock Road and the canal provided the only direct means of transporting raw materials and finished goods from the Island Mills. Now the transformation of Venice Island industry transportation from water to rail transportation was complete with the construction of the Venice Island branch of the Reading Railroad on the tow path right-of-way, and the elimination of the canal tow path system. At the turn of the century, most of the mills were still in operation, although new types of industry began developing with the construction of the railroad spur to Venice Island.

With increasing competition from textile production in the South, and a reorientation of Manayunk industry to pulp, soap, and chemical production, further development and redevelopment occurred in the first two decades of the 20th century. Some major textile mills remained, such as Imperial Wollens and Elton Textiles Mills, while new industries such as the Zane Soap and Chemical Co., National Waste Co., and the National Milling and Chemical Co. (NAMCO), opened. No significant new industrial development occurred in Manayunk after the 1920's, heightening the decline in importance of Manayunk as an industrial center.

Today, Venice Island provides both industrial and recreational uses. While the west end of the Island remains industrial, some of the old abandoned textile mills at the east end have been cleared for active recreational uses. Although many of the older mills have been demolished, these Venice Island sites may at some future time yield valuable archaeological information relating to nineteenth century industrial technology.

Main Street Manayunk

Although the industrial areas of Venice Island were substantially developed by the 1870's, Main Street did not reach the peak of its development as a commercial and retail center until the early 20th century. In the mid-19th century, Main Street served as the principal land route for the transportation of people and goods in and out of Manayunk. It initially developed as a residential street and business center, responding to the industrial growth of Venice Island. In 1850, the Girard College and Manayunk horse drawn street car line operating on Main Street was completed linking Manayunk to the City via Ridge Avenue. At this time, the south side of Main Street was largely open to the canal. Bridges at cross streets connected Main Street to Venice Island. The north side of Main Street was almost fully developed between Pennsdale and Carson with residential development on side streets north of Main Street extended as far up as Silverwood Street.

Through the 1870's industrial development on Venice Island continued and the business center grew as commercial development spread along the south side of Main Street between Lock and Grape Streets. Much of this growth came in the form of mill offices. With the increasing importance of Main Street as a business center, hotels were developed on the north side of Main Street, near the railroad station, and also banks, such as the Manayunk National Bank at Levering and Main. By 1890 the development of the south side of Main Street extended west to the 4300 block of Main Street, including the Manayunk Trust Company at 4336 Main Street. By the close of the century Main Street had become the commerce and institutional center for Manayunk.

Main Street in the early 1900's remained a business and commerce center tied to Venice Island industry rather than a retail shopping district. By the 1920's, the south side of Main Street was fully developed, breaking any visual link between the commercial district and the canal industrial zone. However, as suburban residential growth occurred in Roxborough, the character of Main Street shifted to retail shopping and entertainment catering to the local trade. The Empress Theater was constructed on the site of the last remaining hotel on Main Street at number 4439, and department stores such as the Foster Department Store at number 4268 and Propper Brothers at Levering Street north of Main.

The Depression years brought the closing of many mills in Manayunk and the decline of Main Street as a community retail center. New retail activity concentrated first on the strip shopping district along Ridge Avenue, and then in the freestanding shopping centers, further west on Ridge Avenue. After a long period of decline evidenced by many vacant stores, there is renewed interest in the commercial strip as antique shops and restaurants, seeking out low rent locations, have established businesses on Main Street. Recently, one of the larger structures on Main Street has been renovated for professional office use.

School District: Philadelphia

Manayunk Map

Street Names
Carson Street • Conarroe Street • Cotton Street • Cresson Street • Gay Street • Grape Street • Green Lane • Levering Street • Maiden Street • Main Street • Rector Street • Roxborough Avenue • Silverwood Street • St Davids Street

**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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