Editor’s Note: The writer and editor Bradley Peniston put together this history of St. Bernard Street, a somewhat hidden north-south residential street that runs for nine blocks between 49th and 50th Street in West Philadelphia, as a housewarming present for his brother, who was moving in. He published it originally on his blog navybook.com and we thought it might inspire other similar efforts. Much of the research was done using the Philadelphia Geohistory Project, but there is a great deal of information and insight hidden in the links throughout the text (and related to each year).
In West Philly, Saint Bernard Street is less a street name than a collective noun.
It is the designation given to six discrete segments of pavement, all between 49th and 50th Street yet strewn across more than two miles of urban grid. Perhaps because of its fragmented nature, St. Bernard has left relatively little imprint upon the written (and digital) records of a city suffused with history and with people and organizations who labor to document it.
But let us consider just its longest segment–the three blocks of South St. Bernard Street bounded by Florence and Chester Avenues, in the neighborhood of Cedar Park–and inquire: what can the Web tell us about it?
1777: The plots of land that will one day become 800-1000 S. St. Bernard Street (henceforth, simply “S. St. Bernard Street”) are owned by Neels Johnson and James Bartram, whose brother John turned his own estate on the Schuylkill into a world-class center of horticulture.
1847: It’s still mostly farms and fields beyond 41st Street, although mills are working hard at the dammed Mill Creek.
1852: The West Chester & Philadelphia Railroad grades the trackbed that will one day define the eastern end of S. St. Bernard Street. Having obtained a strip of land from the Woodlands Cemetery along the Schuylkill River, the WC&P hires Daniel Tyler & Co. to build a line that heads south from 30th and Market Streets, then curves westward.
1853: The WC&P lays tracks past the future S. St. Bernard Street to Kellyville (today’s Gladstone station). Completing the connection to West Chester will take another five years. After that, the line will be purchased by the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad in 1871, absorbed into the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1879, electrified in 1925, merged with Penn Central in 1968, taken over by Conrail in 1976, and turned into SEPTA’s R3 (Media) line in 1978.
1886: It’s hard to see in this tiny corner of a panoramic drawing of Philadelphia, but there just might be some buildings north of the 49th Street Station.
1888: Philadelphia Mayor Edwin M. Fitler approves a city council ordinance to grade and pave St. Bernard Place, the future 1000 block of S. St. Bernard Street. Property owners must grade, curb, and pave the sidewalks.
1889: Improvements are planned to the bridge that carries Chester Avenue over the PRR tracks.
1890: A city directory lists six residences on St. Bernard Place: Rev. & Mrs. E. Palmer Gould, at 1000 St. Bernard Place; Mr. & Mrs. Ralph Peverley, 1009; Mr. & Mrs. Wm. D. Phillips, 1011; Mr. & Mrs Henry Ogden, 1013; Mr. & Mrs. Elmer B. Stretch, 1006; and Winfield S. Bird, 1008.
1895: The land that would become the 800 block and the southern half of the 900 block (even-numbered addresses) is owned by Hugh McInness, who has sold the northern half to John McCoach et al. No buildings are recorded.
1897: In an apparent attempt at standardization, two small streets north of Market Street–49 1/2th and Ackley–are renamed N. St. Bernard Street.
Around 1900: Streetcar service comes to the east end of S. St. Bernard Street when the Darby & Yeadon Street Railway Company lays trolley tracks from Center City down Chester Avenue to Kingsessing and 65th. The tracks and the company will be absorbed in 1904 by the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company, in 1939 by the Philadelphia Transportation Co., and by SEPTA in 1968.
1901: Some 2,000 spectators gather at the Belmont Cricket Club to watch Philly’s first international soccer match. (Thanks, Nicola!)
1904: On May 25, Miss Anne Conway passes away at her home at 925 S. St. Bernard Street. Miss Conway was born in Ireland in 1830 and buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon.
1908: New houses march down the 800 block of S. St. Bernard Street.
1910: A map shows the 800 and 900 blocks of S. St. Bernard Street laid out with duplex houses.
1910: Miss Lucy H. Irwin, an assistant with the state’s medical laboratories, lives at 930 S. St. Bernard Street.
1914: The outbreak of World War I leads Belmont Cricket Club to close, along with the rest of the Philly Big Four. The land is purchased by the city and turned into Kingsessing Park. The clubhouse is
turned into replaced by (thanks, Daniel!) Kingsessing Recreation Center. (“The Board of Recreation desires to make this exceed in utility and landscape treatment anything in Philadelphia,” the board says in its 1914 report. “Kingsessing is a happy sight and will in time become one of the show places of Philadelphia.”) Five years later, the Kingsessing branch of the Philadelphia Free Library, one of the last of the 25 branches funded by Andrew Carnegie, opens at the park’s southwestern end.
1918: Ethel A. Hanson, who lives at 921 S. St. Bernard Street, works for the State of Pennsylvania’s administrative division from August 1 to August 30.
1919: 927 S. St. Bernard Street is occupied by Dr. John A. Kolmer, M.D., M. Sc., assistant professor of experimental pathology in the University of Pennsylvania; professor of pathology and pathologist to the Department of Dermatological Research, Philadelphia Polyclinic; pathologist to the Philadelphia Hospital for Contagious Diseases; serologist to St. Agnes and St. Timothy’s Hospitals; and since 1914, a fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
1920: An Army Reserve chaplain, Capt. William Renwick Graham, born Feb. 6, 1882, lives at 937 S. St. Bernard Street.
1923: The Pennsylvania Railroad electrifies its West Chester branch, ending the passing of steam locomotives that spread smoke and soot over the neighborhood several times each day.
1998: The West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. S. St. Bernard Street is the southwestern boundary.
1999: A kerosene heater catches fire, burning the house at 916/918 S. St. Bernard Street to the ground.
2000: The Chester Avenue bridge over SEPTA Tracks and 49th Street Station is rebuilt.
2001: On March 5, Sean Agnew of R5 Productions switches the venue of his quadruple-bill concert to the “Garlic House,” aka 927 S. St. Bernard Street. The show includes Zegota, Great Clearing Off, Sound of Failure (later Distress Signal), and Mischief Brew (when it was just Erik Petersen, solo). This was one month after Agnew helped launch The Rotunda and two years before a Harper’s Magazine article propelled his career into overdrive.
2012: Community gardeners manage to persuade the city to buy their garden lot at 1010 S. St. Bernard Street after it went up for sale, saving at least half of the garden space.