Manayunk’s iconic concrete rail bridge enjoyed its first full season back in service (for pedestrians and cyclists) in 2016 after it was incorporated into the Cynwyd Heritage Trail. Last year, local officials adapted another, lesser-known Schuylkill River rail bridge adapted for pedestrian and cycling use: the one-lane Pencoyd Bridge that crosses the Schuylkill near Ridge Avenue. Freshly painted light green, the bridge is visible from Main Street in Manayunk. Shrouded in weeds and abandoned for years, the 117-year-old double-span Parker truss bridge was built by Pencoyd Iron Works in 1900 to connect their factory in Lower Merion with customers across the river. The span is now accessible to the public as part of the new Pencoyd Trail.
The Pencoyd Bridge was restored by riverfront real estate investors O’Neill Properties. The curious piece of land wedged between I-76 and the railroad right-of-way—a mostly forgotten industrial remediation site—is at present being redeveloped by Penn Real Estate Group for Pencoyd Landing, a mixed-use apartment community. The area was once a summer fishing ground for the Lenape tribe and was later incorporated by Welshman John Roberts as the farm and village of Pencoyd (from the Welsh amalgamation of words “Penn-y-Chlawd,” meaning “treetops” and pronounced “Pencode”). It was also the site of an old ferry crossing. Redevelopment of the foundry site is in the beginning stages. It includes a recently restored 130-plus year-old brick structure believed to have been designed by the architect Frank Furness.
The Welsh Tract
In November 1683, John Roberts, a Quaker, sailed the Morning Star from England to Philadelphia to claim his acreage derived from the famed Welsh Tract, a subdivision sold to a pair of Welsh Quakers directly from William Penn earlier that year. The tract—originally thought by the assembled investors to be a contiguous piece of land—was scattered among the hills west of the Schuylkill, from Merion throughout Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware counties.
John Robert’s section adjoined that of a fellow ocean traveler, Ms. Gaynor Roberts. Her father had signed an agreement for land, but passed away before disembarking Wales to receive his purchase. His daughter, Gaynor, was destined to be John Robert’s future wife, and their romance was likely kindled on the Morning Star. This precipitous coupling netted their future family a total of 180 acres, spreading from today’s City Line Avenue to Conshohocken State Road along the river. The following spring the Roberts were the first to be married in the new Merion Meeting House, the oldest Quaker meeting house in the United States and still extant a few miles up on Montgomery Road. The newlyweds quickly went about creating a farm, starting a family, and building their home. The estate was named Pencoid, meaning “head of the woods” in their native language. The family home was demolished in 1964, making way for a Lord & Taylor department store, Presidential Boulevard, and the sprawl of City Line Avenue.
During the summer, the Lenape fished for shad along the Schuylkill shores between the falls near today’s namesake Falls Bridge and up to Flat Rock, a natural crossing near the top of Manayunk. River Road was eventually built along the shore, as the new settlers established shad fisheries in this area throughout the 18th century. At the northern edge of the estate Peter Righter established a rope ferry crossing in 1741. The road and landing was located exactly where the Pencoyd Bridge crosses to Manayunk today.
8o years later, fifth generation Isaac Warner Roberts continued farming the land into the early 19th century, supplying dairy and beef to Philadelphia downriver.
Anthracite: Pennsylvania’s Gold
In 1808, East Falls industrialist Josiah White discovered how to burn anthracite coal, a mineral which lay rich in the upper Schuylkill mountains past Reading. The breakthrough sparked a boom in extraction and transportation of the potentially inexpensive domestic and industrial fuel downriver from Pottsville to Philadelphia and its Delaware River ports. The Schuylkill Navigation Company, builder of canals for shipping and railroads, quickly went about securing property and water rights alongside both shores of the river, over 90 miles needed to reach tidewater in the city. Although the Manayunk section of the canal (called a “reach”) extends exactly opposite of this site, the navigation also included 46 miles of slack water areas known as “levels.” The Roberts’ side was a level likely used to return boats back upriver when empty and easier to maneuver on natural waters. The Manayunk Tow Path can be seen on the site’s Hexamer survey of 1883.
The Schuylkill Navigation Company thrived for decades, but the railroad proved to be the more efficient method for moving coal and freight, the economic engine which fueled 19th century industrial growth. The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad acquired rights all the way up the river and finished the final section of its anthracite coal line in 1839. Although not much is known of the nature of the transaction, this right-of-way cut the Roberts’ property from the waterfront as the viaduct ran alongside the Schuylkill River on the way to the black gold of Pottsville. A double arch provided access from the upper property to the shoreline of the Schuylkill and the road still known today as Righters Ferry Road.
Cousins in Iron
Isaac Warner Roberts’ ninth son, Algernon, didn’t want to take over the family farm and went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York to learn the iron business with the intention of using some of his father’s property for a foundry. Investing $5,000 of family money (roughly $144,000 in 2017), he partnered with cousin Percival Roberts on building an iron works on their ancestral river tract. On June 21, 1852 the men hired four carpenters, a boy, and a few laborers and began construction on their first building. The first hammer forge equipment was purchased from James Rowland & Co. Their maiden order, recorded as “10 or 20 axles,” was placed by A. Whitney & Sons on October 8 of the same year.
Entries in the business log describe receiving coal by team (a carriage pulled by horses) and unloading sand from canal boats from the river below. The railroad siding should have provided ideal delivery of raw materials and transportation of finished goods, but, curiously, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad would not immediately accommodate the entrepreneurs with a railroad siding. As a bicycle ride today would confirm, Righter’s Ferry Road is very steep and, back in the days of horse teams, this could not be a preferred entry or exit to the foundry. Instead, the natural endowment of river access would keep business going until the proper rail spur was installed.
As with many factories, a small community began to grow along the site, called, naturally, Pencoyd Village. Reports of a rowdy tavern at the north end of the site made for lively news in its day. Records for the Continental Hotel describe a large structure near the ferry landing. Small houses for workers were built on Righter’s Ferry Road, and a small row survives today opposite of the lower cemetery gates.
The hills above Pencoyd had been estates owned by several families. In 1869, the property of Anthony Anderson, George Ott, and others was purchased to establish West Mount Laurel Cemetery. A Sunday afternoon escape to a Sylvan country cemetery was a popular Victorian-era pastime, and, with the city’s old Mt. Laurel reaching its capacity, the somewhat remote nature and dramatic hilltop siting of West Laurel would have been a solid business venture. The train station was eventually rebuilt on the north side of Righter’s Ferry Road to better serve the cemetery visitors.
The Pencoyd foundry started out with smaller-scale soft wrought iron parts like railroad axles and bridge parts. The firm tentatively moved into structural members, engineering, and design. By 1859 the foundry added “Bridge Company” to it’s name. The firm’s big break came from the 1876 Centennial World’s Fair. The engineers in charge of the Centennial had to rush to put up an entire city-within-a-city; to open in time, they specified prefabricated iron and glass designs, especially for the massive Machinery Hall and the Main Building, at 21.5 acres of floor space the largest building in the world. To the surprise of many larger competitors, A & P Roberts Pencoyd Iron Works was awarded the massive contract, even though the mill could not at that time make parts long enough to satisfy the designs. The Hexamer survey shows the diminutive plant around the time of the World’s Fair commission, although some fabrication work was done off site in Edge Moor.
Expansions and Mergers
Through the late 19th century Pencoyd would grow exponentially covering the entire river site with buildings and the addition of rail tracks along the river. The railroad connected a short line across the property to Venice Island in Manayunk with an elegant curving single-track bridge that remains in use today. Pencoyd Bridge was installed in 1900 to connect with lower Manayunk for additional rail access and, as noted by the cemetery’s contemporary marketing, walking traffic from the city to West Mount Laurel.
The firm merged with the venerable American Bridge Company at the beginning of the 20th century. Providing truss bridges all around the continent, Pencoyd continued to expand at a prodigious rate. A special highlight for the firm would be the Upper Steel Arch Bridge over Niagara Falls, completed in 1898. It was the longest steel arch span in the world at that time. Percival Roberts, Jr. was chairman during this golden age, his co-founder father vacating this position upon dying of exhaustion. Mr. Roberts retired on May 24, 1901 after 25 years of service which began shortly after the Centennial. The man was celebrated with a gala on January 18, 1902 at the company’s clubhouse located across the river at Manayunk Avenue and Osborn Street with all of the foundry’s employees in attendance. This property was later donated to the City of Philadelphia for the construction of a library, gifted by the company’s new chairman, Andrew Carnegie, who absorbed Pencoyd into his colossal United States Steel Company.
Consolidation, competition, and technological advancements arrived with the new century. Pencoyd was a busy factory throughout WWI, but then began to decline with the powerhouse steel centers of Pittsburgh and the Rust Belt capable of expanding their capacities well beyond the production abilities of Pencoyd’s little 19th century river tract. A new rail connection to the Cynwyd line was established at the north side of the site, with the existing viaduct showing the opening date as 1917. Landlocked and exhausted by the Great Depression, the factory steadily declined, finally shutting down the furnaces on December 31, 1943. Today, the Interstate 76 cuts across the top of the property, just above the rail corridor, further isolating this forgotten industrial campus. For years the site remained vacant or disused, with recent owner Connelly Containers maintaining some industrial buildings and a very busy health club doing business on the southern end of the tract.
The “Furness Building” and Pencoyd Landing
Development of the Pencoyd site is well underway. Royal Athena, an apartment complex owned by O’Neill Properties, was quickly built in 2016. With the Pencoyd Landing project, Penn Real Estate Group has laid out plans for redeveloping the core area surrounding Righter’s Ferry Road with an apartment, retail, and hotel complex designed by J. Davis Architects. In anticipation of the development Penn Real Estate Group renovated an old brick building on the site for their offices, the only original foundry building to survive and believed to have been the work of architect Frank Furness. The restored building may have been an office and and drawing room with pumping equipment inside. Appearing to be integrated in design with the attached machine shop, this would have been a significant commission for Furness.
The new owners have correctly identified Furness-like brick features such as the lovely corbeled cornice. Curiously, in 1889 Furness & Evans Inc. designed a house for foundry family member George B. Roberts in Bala Cynwyd (since demolished). Alas, no record exists for the factory and office/pump house in Furness’ papers. Photographs of the 1889 Roberts house reveal a standard country home and indicate that Evans was likely behind the design. Also, Evans was likely contracted for the commission by virtue of relation to the Roberts family through marriage, choosing to run the project through the firm as opposed to solo. In the end, no information has been unearthed to confirm (or deny) that the remaining foundry building was designed by Furness.
Visiting Pencoyd Today
Along with commercial development comes the expansion of the Pencoyd Trail, slated to link with the Cynwyd Heritage Trail by way of a hidden 1917 viaduct past the Venice Island bridge at the northern extreme of the property. Today, this densely overgrown strip contains only a few vestiges of the site’s history, including an abandoned rail car and weed-encased tracks entombed in an urban forest.
The existing metal buildings are not original to the Pencoyd complex and will be razed. However, the steel gantry structure along the water looks to be a relic from the iron works and will be retained in the new design for the site. The original retaining wall under the rail viaduct runs the entire length of the tract and is an enduring reminder of the land’s rich history. This wall actually formed the interior wall for some factory buildings, and severed iron still protrudes from the wall. Paddlers on the Schuylkill River can inspect the bridges, ancient granite quay, and the crumbling valley stream culverts from the waterline. A lovely view of the entire tract can be gleaned from the peaks of West Laurel Hill Cemetery.