The Power Plant Previously At Paine’s Park

 

Paine's Park opening | Photo: Jessie Fox

The opening of Paine’s Park, a long way removed from the Hestonville powerhouse | Photo: Jessie Fox

The long anticipated Franklin’s Paine Skatepark, opened on May 22nd, creates a new link between the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Schuylkill River, directly below the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The 2.5 acre, tiered concrete and brick park takes over a once grassy triangular spot with several towering trees. Handsome specimens of these trees still provide shade to the plaza. As far back as the original Ben Franklin Parkway project in the 1920s, this plot has been considered for green space.

Prior to that, however, the Paine’s Park site hosted a diverse group of industrial enterprises located right on the eastern shore of the Schuylkill. Specifically, the city’s street cleaning department, at least one coal yard, an ice plant, a soap works, a door and sash factory, at least one textile mill, a powerhouse for trolleys, and even a city dump each maintained facilities along that stretch of tidal waterfront during the fifty or so years before the Parkway’s inception. (See Chris Dougherty’s “Archaeology of Philadelphia’s Waste” for more about the place’s use as a waste collection site.) A few roads, including Callowhill Street, passed through this zone as well. It was also very likely the site of a Hoovertown during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

City Hall Tower and the dome of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul are visible in the background of this early postcard, which shows the Schuylkill River’s east bank just a bit south of the site of Paine’s Park. (Image via vintage early 20th century penny postcard.)

These varied industrial sites required access to the Schuylkill for the cheap and convenient delivery of raw material and coal, and also for the shipping of finished goods. They consequently lined the east bank of the river with a collection of irregular wooden wharves and docks.

The “powerhouse for trolleys” was originally built for the Hestonville, Mantua & Fairmount Passenger Railway, which since 1895 had its electrical generating plant at 26th and Callowhill Streets—opposite the reservoirs of the Fairmount Water Works. This spot is now the northwestern edge of Paine’s Park.

The Hestonville, Mantua & Fairmount Railway incorporated as a horsecar line in 1859 to provide service from West Philadelphia to downtown Philadelphia. (Hestonville is the name of a hamlet that was at about 52nd Street and Girard Avenue near the Old Cathedral Cemetery.) The line crossed over the Schuylkill River via the Fairmount Wire Bridge at first and then via the stronger span that replaced it by 1874. They were replaced by the 1960s era Spring Garden Street Bridge. The railway entered Fairmount Park at three points along the way and had its offices at 4300 Lancaster Avenue.

By 1886, the line ran to the east, all the way to Front and Arch Streets. This horsecar route, called the “Arch Street Line,” may have been responsible for the central section of the Smythe’s Stores building at the northwest corner of Front and Arch being removed in 1913 to allow for a trolley turnabout. (The section was reproduced with fiberglass in the early 1980s when the structure was converted to apartments.) The Hestonville railway later operated routes on Race and Vine Streets, for a total of about 24 miles of trackage around Philadelphia. The Union Traction Company leased the entire railway for 999 years on February 1, 1890.

1922 Atlas of the City of Philadelphia (top); 1895 Philadelphia Atlas (bottom) (each G.W. Bromley & Co.)

When Hestonville decided to electrify in the 1890s, it placed its powerhouse on the location of a passenger depot that it had occupied for years at 26th and Callowhill Streets. The electrical plant was made of Hummelstown brownstone and Pompeian brick with terra cotta trimming, and was one of the most attractive generating facilities in the city. Completed in 1895, it got quite a bit of press in national engineering journals of the day.

Boats unloaded coal onto a conveyor system at the powerhouse’s wharf on the Schuylkill River. The facility stored over 2,000 tons of coal on site, so its octagonal smokestack belched smoke relentlessly. This stack was huge: 160 high and twelve feet in diameter at the base. The plant had eight Babcock & Wilcox watertube boilers arranged in batteries of two each. They fed four 500 horsepower tandem compound condensing steam engines directly coupled to 400 kilowatt GE generators with flywheels eighteen feet in diameter revolving at 100 revolutions per minute. The boilers drew water from a well connected to the Schuylkill. And since the building was built so close to the river, its foundations required particular care.

The Hestonville, Mantua & Fairmount Passenger Railway’s power plant, from The Street Railway Journal (1896)

The Hestonville railway leased the plant to the Philadelphia Electric Company as a generating station in 1898. PECO converted the “Callowhill Street Operating Station” into an alternating current station with the addition of a 1,000 kilowatt generator driven by a Corliss cross-compound steam engine. Three more power units were ultimately added.

The Callowhill Street Station was considered experimental. Alternating current generated there was sent via underground cables to the old Edison Station at 908 Sansom Street and converted into direct current for use and distribution by that station. The Callowhill Station also later supplied steam to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The power plant, by Hexamer (top) and The Street Railway Journal (1896) (bottom).

Along with the other coal-burning factories along the Schuylkill River, this powerhouse must have made that riverside quarter a dirty, smoky, and cacophonous zone. Not exactly the well tended, well attended green ribbon called the Schuylkill Banks and indeed Paine’s Park now.

To the immediate east of this vicinity, adding to the noise and smoke, are the railroad tracks that hug the east bank of the Schuylkill. These were put in by the B&O Railroad years ago, currently owned by CSX. The line heads into a tunnel under Eakins Oval and proceeds northward under the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While the stone and concrete portal indicates that this tunnel was completed in 1921 (in anticipation of the museum), Bromley’s 1895 and 1910 Philadelphia Atlases shows the tunnel beginning under Callowhill Street at that spot.

The Callowhill power plant and the other riverfront facilities were fairly dilapidated and generally outdated by the 1920s when the Ben Franklin Parkway’s construction began the long process of cleaning up the northwest sector of downtown Philadelphia. The east bank of the central Schuylkill waterfront was seen as a detrimental eyesore and an obstacle to the betterment of that part of the city. This mindset was plainly declared in Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill (subtitled The River as It Was, The River as It Is, The River as It Should Be (1924). The clearing of these motley factories and wharves was part of the City Beautiful movement that had engendered the Parkway in the first place.

The Callowhill Street Operating Station, from The Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill (1924).

Early plans for the Parkway show all of the industrial structures replaced by greenery. This eventually happened by the 1930s—except for the former Hestonville powerhouse. It remained, all by its lonesome, for at least two decades. The exact year of demolition is difficult to determine, but it was still standing in 1953 and was definitely gone by 1965.

How much the station was used by PECO in its latter days is unknown. Indeed, it seems to have been abandoned early on, as its experimental performance was deemed a success after only two years of its 1898 conversion. By 1900, PECO had decided to replace it with a brand new plant on the Schuylkill River: the huge Schuylkill Station at 28th and Christian Streets. This was planned to be the largest generating station in the world when it commenced operating in 1903.

The Callowhill Street Station looks somewhat shortened in this shot from the 1950 Annual Report of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Philadelphia. This may be because of the construction of Lower River Drive—now long gone—in the 1930s or so. Also, note the cars passing between the Washington Monument and the Ericsson Fountain. (The Price Fountain, next to the monument opposite Ericsson, wasn’t installed until about 1967.)

The western part of the old Callowhill Station was evidently eliminated due to the construction of Lower River Drive in the late 1930s. (See the image from the 1950 Annual Report of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.) Lower River Drive passed through the Paine’s Park site for about thirty years, until the roads in those environs were rerouted in 1966-67. Also, Callowhill Street had crossed through the Paine’s Park locale until the 1920s or 1930s, when that area’s industrial buildings—save the power station—were removed.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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  1. Great informative article! Thanks!

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