A 15-foot marble obelisk is meant to be seen, which makes the current location of the Newkirk Viaduct Monument unfortunate.
One of the oldest public artworks in a city famous for them, the spike of white marble stands in the trash-strewn shadow of the 49th Street Bridge, a four-lane roadway in the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood of Kingsessing. To find it, hike along the bridge’s weedy sidewalk and lean over the concrete railing. Or catch a glimpse from a passing train: the obelisk sits along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor right-of-way, by tracks that also serve SEPTA’s Airport Line.
Neither view gives the 1839 monument its due. The obelisk’s four sides carry detailed inscriptions: the names of four railroad companies and dozens of their executives and engineers. Now worn by time and obscured by graffiti, the chiseled letters still bear witness to an achievement of vast importance: the completion of a rail link from the young nation’s largest metropolis to the burgeoning cities to the south.
Once upon a time the Newkirk Viaduct Monument stood proudly near the foot of its eponymous bridge near the western bank of the Schuylkill River. Now it sits in obscurity about a quarter-mile inland. What happened?
And what might we do about it?
Green: Western foot of the Newkirk Viaduct (1839-1902).
Red: Current location of the Monument.
A crucial crossing
In the early 1830s, railroads were a newish invention of such promise that the governments of Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania chartered a quartet of companies to pioneer a route from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Within seven years, their line was complete, except for two river crossings. The builders declared a truce with the Susquehanna River, where a railroad ferry would operate for nearly three decades, but they were determined to bridge the Schuylkill. They chose a well-traveled route.
For more than a century, Philadelphia’s gateway to points south had nestled in a bend of the river just below the mouth of West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek. A rope-operated ferry had operated there since 1674; by the 1740s, it was known as “Gray’s Ferry” after its gregarious proprietor, the patriot, politician, innkeeper, and landowner George Gray.
[Ed. note: Distinguishing between Gray’s Ferry and Grays Ferry is often difficult. We tried to use Gray’s when most appropriate in the historical context, and Grays referring to the modern nomenclature.]
Sandwiched between the great estates that are today The Woodlands and Bartram’s Garden, Gray’s Inn and its surrounding gardens were a popular day-trip destination for Philadelphians escaping the summer heat. (And not just any Philadelphians; history records trips across the ferry by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the future Dolley Madison, and, on at least four occasions, George Washington.) Of somewhat broader import, the river crossing linked Philadelphia via the King’s Highway to Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore, Md.
In 1777, British troops occupied the city. To assuage the strategic need for a southbound route of retreat, they established the first bridge at the spot by lashing together floating logs and adding a layer of planks. The rickety contraption proved so useful that the Pennsylvania government retained it after the war, replacing it as necessary after floods.
It was the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad, formed of the four state-chartered firms, that built the first permanent bridge at Gray’s Ferry. Opened in 1838, the 800-foot covered truss carried one track and one road lane, and an unusual telescoping draw span to allow boats to pass.
The bridge was not sturdy enough to carry even the small locomotives of the day, but this mattered little, for Philadelphia did not generally permit such smoke-belching and untrustworthy contraptions past its city limits. Northbound trains stopped west of the bridge, where the cars were uncoupled and then hitched to horses for the four-mile run to 11th and Market. (The railroad would later build a grand terminal at Broad Street and Prime Street—today’s Washington Avenue—which would become the great Civil War debarkation point for Philly men headed to the fight.)
The railroad named the bridge for its president, Matthew Newkirk, a local businessman (and Temperance activist) who had long been part of the campaign to drive a rail link south from Philly. (Philaphilia has a much funnier and profane description of the bridge HERE.)
To commemorate their achievement, the PW&B’s executives commissioned a monument to stand at the bridge’s western approach. They did not stint in their choice of designer: Thomas Ustick Walter. Already one of the country’s most prominent architects, Walter would go on to build the dome of the U.S. Capitol. History judges him the dean of American architecture between the 1820 death of Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the emergence of Henry Hobson Richardson in the 1870s.
Walter drew up plans for an obelisk, about seven feet high, on a square base of roughly equal height. The monument cost $1,100 (nearly $23,000 today), according to Walter’s account book, preserved at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. Of that sum, all but $70 went to Findley Highlands for “marble work, lettering, hauling, & setting.” It’s unclear why Walter, accustomed to designing mansions and banks, would have taken such a minor job, but it may have simply been a small favor for a big client. Walter had designed Newkirk’s Philadelphia mansion a half-decade earlier; he may have envisioned future contracts for PW&B railroad stations.
The monument was set up in 1839 near the western end of the bridge, and that is where our mystery begins: just where was that?
Where was it?
Clues to the Monument’s original location are not exactly thick upon the ground, but there’s a good one in an 1856 guidebook published by the PW&B. In the book, a Philadelphia-bound narrator describes the sights out his window as his train bears northeast from Baltimore. Just this side of the Schuylkill, he spies the “neat obelisk upon our left near the bridge which we are now approaching.”
Eight years later, city surveyor Samuel Smedley completed his 1863 map, which shows the PW&B mainline coming up from the south-southwest, curving to cross the 25-year-old Viaduct, and heading east toward the Broad Street terminal. The word “Newkirk” appears just outside the curve, at a spot that could fit the guidebook’s description. Might this have marked the Monument?
Over the next two decades, Philadelphia came into its own as America’s manufacturing powerhouse, and its railroads built furiously to keep pace. Nowhere was the impact greater than the once-rural area around the old Gray’s Inn. In 1863, a new shortline linked the PW&B to the Pennsylvania Railroad and other lines north and west; in 1872, the railroad built a new route to Chester with dreams of fostering a southwest version of the PRR’s upscale Main Line. (A century later, the new route would become part of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor; the original, part of SEPTA’s Airport Line.) To serve these new junctions, the railroad built railyards, a bigger roundhouse, service facilities, and a new Gray’s Ferry station at 49th Street. By 1886, the area was barely recognizable.
One landmark survived the upheaval. Amid the railyards and the coal chutes, Newkirk’s obelisk still stood sentinel, albeit along tracks now leased to the Reading Railroad. With the unmistakable label “MONUMENT,” Baist’s 1886 map confirms our speculation about Smedley’s map, and places the stone just northeast of the notional intersection of 48th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue.
When and why?
With the mystery of the Monument’s original location laid to rest, can we figure out when and why it was moved?
It was still there in 1894, even as plans were being laid to replace the bridge it commemorated. For years, the city of Philadelphia had pushed for a broader road bridge to take the place of the old, much-repaired Viaduct. In 1894, the Department of Public Works sketched a proposal for a new double-deck bridge. The detailed drawing shows the Monument ensconced in its little cast-iron fence. (The gritty railyards have somehow become a sylvan playground, a reminder that project drawings have ever looked better than reality.)
It was still there in 1927, when it was caught by the Dallin Aerial Survey company making some of the first high-quality aerial photos. The Monument sits on its embankment above the Reading line, although it’s not clear whether any remnant of its fence still surrounds it.
The photo also contains a clue about why the Monument was moved. If we look some 200 yards farther west, we can see a two-story, twin-gabled building in the shadow of the 49th Street Bridge. This is Grays Ferry station, built for the new Chester route in 1872. (By the time of this photo, the PW&B had become the Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington Railroad, a key subsidiary of the sprawling Pennsy system.) That station sits right where the Monument does today.
Today, no trace of the station remains, nor of the Newkirk Viaduct itself. In 1901, the city opened Gray’s Ferry Bridge, whose four-lane roadway and streetcar tracks provided a capacious new thoroughfare across the Schuylkill. The following year, the PW&B built the single-track Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Bridge No. 1 and tore down the Viaduct. Both new bridges served until 1976, when the road bridge was replaced by today’s Grays Ferry Avenue Bridge and the railroad swing bridge, by then owned by Conrail, was locked open and abandoned to the elements.
And the Monument? It’s not clear when it arrived at its current location, though it would likely have been no earlier than the late 1930s, when Grays Ferry Station ceases to appear on PRR timetables and this map of the PRR’s Philadelphia Terminal Division.
And why? Here is where the available evidence leaves off, although the answer may be waiting among the thousands of linear feet of PRR documents held at Temple University, the Hagley Library, and elsewhere. It seems reasonable to think, however, that a history-minded PRR official decided that the Monument should be rescued from the railyards that had grown up around it. The vacant lot left by the Grays Ferry Station, along the main line, may have seemed a suitable new home.
This much is certain: the Monument stands for more than the completion of an early American truss bridge. It stands for railroads, which became the sinews of a young nation. It heralded the fruition of the Industrial Revolution, as represented by the myriad factories of Philadelphia. It even bore witness to the earliest glimmering of our own era’s information revolution. In 1846, copper telegraph wires were installed over the Newkirk Viaduct, completing the first telecommunications link between New York and Washington, D.C. (The wires were disconnected every time the draw opened, so that every schooner and scallop boat that plied the Schuylkill interrupted telegraph service between the nation’s capital and its financial centers.) In short, few monuments have so much bound up in them.
A proposal: move the Monument back to its original location—or closer to it, anyway—as part of the proposed Bartram’s Mile public greenspace project, whose planning is currently underway. This would put the Monument along the Schuylkill Banks trail that is to be extended from the new Grays Ferry Crescent segment, and it would create a perfect centerpiece for the proposal’s industrial archaeology segment. Why just post signs about history when you can have history itself?
At last, one of Philly’s oldest and most distinguished memorials might be restored to dignity, ready to spur us once again to memory and reflection.
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[For additional links and references, visit Bradley Peniston’s web site HERE.]