There has always been something strange about Frankford Creek. The land where the tributary meets the Delaware River has long confused travelers. From a distance, it appears to be a point, but on closer approach it does not. Or maybe it does. This lack of definition inspired the peculiar name, Point No Point, which has been inscribed on maps since the mid-1700s.
Point No Point proved to be a prophetic name for the future site of Bridesburg. The history of this shapeshifting area includes piers, ferries, bridges, houses, hotels, and factories that come and go. This land, its watery perimeter, and its inhabitants have engaged in two centuries of transformation that demonstrate the ephemeral nature of development along an urban waterfront as well as the unfortunate consequences of shortsighted 20th century planning ideas.
Our story begins with a bucolic setting along a four-mile road that ran straight from Kensington to the puzzling point. The riverfront soil was ideal for agriculture and Point No Point Road (now Richmond Street) was lined with attractive and productive farms. Even John Adams, who clearly preferred Boston over Philadelphia, was impressed when he rode by. He wrote to his wife Abigail in a 1777 letter “The Meadows, Pastures, and Grass Plotts are as Green as Leeks. There are many Fruit Trees and fine orchards, set with the nicest Regularity. But the Fields of Grain, the Rye, and Wheat, exceed all Description.”
The potential of this land attracted Joseph Kirkbride from upriver. He was the grandson of the elder Joseph Kirkbride who had worked for William Penn and amassed enormous quantities of land in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In addition to collecting land, the Kirkbrides ran the ferry that crossed the Delaware River between Morrisville and Trenton.
In 1795, the Commonwealth granted the younger Kirkbride authorization to continue the family trade and provide ferry service across Frankford Creek. The ferry connected Point No Point to the north and proved to be a successful venture. In 1800, Kirkbride purchased the farm on the south side of the creek and subdivided it into 21 plots, depicted in the following map. The prominent road running north and south on the map is Bridge Street, which crosses Point No Point Road and runs straight to the Delaware River.
Kirkbride’s layout follows an ancient pattern. The celebratory act with which Roman towns and encampments were founded was the striking of two principal streets. The main street ran between the north and south gates and was called the Cardo, which can be translated as either main or heart. The second street, the Decumanus, ran east to west and crossed the Cardo at its center where the Forum was typically located. To the Romans, the cardinal orientation of the street grid drew significance from its alignment with the cosmos beyond.
Kirkbride may not have thought of the cosmos when he drew his subdivision plan, but there is a direct correspondence between Bridge Street and the Cardo and between Point No Point Road and the Decumanus. And just like the Cardo, at each end of Bridge Street was a gateway. To the north was the crossing over Frankford Creek and to the south was the Delaware River, where Kirkbride built a pier. He initially called his settlement Kirkbridesburg, but this was soon shortened to the more pleasant sounding Bridesburg.
For the next two decades the Kirkbrides were busy constructing their new settlement. They replaced the Frankford Creek ferry with a toll bridge, built houses, planted trees, and opened the Steamboat Hotel overlooking the river. In 1824, the building spree came to a halt and Kirkbride’s son, John, put a number of properties up for sale including the family’s “beautiful country Seat,” as described in the newspaper notice. The real estate sales went well, but it was an unfortunate year for the family. Kirkbride’s son, “an interesting child” who had just attained the age of six, according to the National Gazette, drowned in Frankford Creek. Not long afterwards, the elder Joseph Kirkbride passed away.
We can imagine these events dampened Kirkbride’s enthusiasm for the town he and his father had built. He put the toll bridge and the other remaining structures up for sale and moved to 9th and Market Street. Perhaps his sorrow was assuaged by the profit from his riverfront investment. The 1839 Philadelphia directory lists his occupation as “gentleman,” and he was invited to join the board of directors of the Girard Bank and Trust.
The Steamboat Hotel continued to operate successfully after its sale. According to a 1824 notice, the hotel “command’s a genteel custom, it being a convenient distance and a pleasant ride from the city.” The name may seem somewhat out of place, as steamboats are not commonly associated with the Delaware River. In fact, the Delaware was the site of the steamboat’s origin, and the name linked the hotel to the most modern form of transit available.
The first steamboat in the country was built by John Fitch, who came to Philadelphia from Connecticut with this goal in mind. He hired a local clockmaker to help construct a 42-foot boat with six canoe-type paddles along each side connected by a series of rods and wheels to a steam engine. In 1787, he held a demonstration for the delegates of the Constitutional Congress. The vehicle attained a speed of four miles per hour, and Fitch received “certificates of the perfect success of this attempt.”
The first regular steamboat service began on the Delaware River in 1809, two years prior to their introduction to the Mississippi River. The boats left the Chestnut Street wharf and traveled up the river to Bordentown, stopping at Bridesburg and Riverton along the way. Passengers could then take horse-drawn coaches across New Jersey to South Amboy and then embark again on a steamboat up the Hudson River to Manhattan.
In the 1850s, Captain John Cone formed the Upper Delaware River Transportation Company and began operating steamboats between Philadelphia and Trenton. The north Delaware fleet came to include four steamers that left the Chestnut Street wharf four times a day during weekdays and on Sundays. The USS Columbia was purchased for the 1876 Centennial and it was considered the most luxurious of the fleet. Its afternoon trips and nighttime dance excursions were always accompanied by the Chestnut Street Theatre Orchestra.
The city administration considered the Bridesburg terminal important enough that in 1898 the notable architectural firm, Hazelhurst and Huckel, was hired to design a double-decker pavilion. The upper level provided an elevated view of the river, which was helpful for determining if the steamboat was on its way and it also served as a Bridesburg’s point of riverfront reverie. As Herman Melville wrote in 1850, “as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”
Captain Cone died at the turn of the century, and the steamboats were sold to the newly formed Delaware River Navigation Company. Unfortunately, competition from the railroads was too much for the steamboats, and the new company’s short history included lawsuits, bankruptcy, and the Burlington office furniture thrown into the street by the police. The ships were auctioned off in 1918, and the Columbia served as a boarding house for dock workers during World War I. It ran a few excursion trips in 1925 and then again in 1930. The Columbia was the last of the Delaware River steamboats, and it was destroyed by fire in 1932 while docked at a South Philadelphia pier. Subsequently, the history of the Delaware River steamboats faded into the past.
The railroads hastened the end of steamboats, but they did not, initially, sever Bridesburg from the river. The Kensington and Tacony Railroad was established in 1884 to serve the riverfront industries. The tracks ran along the river’s edge supported on pilings, which allowed private boats to be pulled though the pilings to the boathouses along the river. Each of the boathouses had a balcony on the second floor with views over the tracks to the river. The occasional freight train rumbled through, but as can be seen in the following image, the residents were quite accustomed to the tracks.
Today, this interpenetrated arrangement might be praised as an inventive way to share a waterfront. This blend of uses represents the type of porosity that urbanist Richard Sennet praises in his recent essay, Boundaries and Borders, as the essence of urban vitality. However, it ran contrary to a basic doctrine of 20th century city planning: separation of use. The city authorities could not allow this situation to continue and compelled the residents to move, demolished the boathouses, and dedicated the river’s edge to industrial use.
Industry had begun arriving in Bridesburg back in the days of Kirkbride. The proximity to the river and the availability of land were ideal for industrial enterprises. In 1816, President James Madison purchased 20 acres on the opposite side of Frankford Creek for an arsenal that fabricated weapons for the next 161 years. In 1820, Alfred Jencks founded the Bridesburg Manufacturing Company, which built textile machinery for mills around the country. In the 1840s Nicholas Lennig moved his chemical factory from Port Richmond to Bridesburg where he produced metallic salts for textile dies.
Other industries settled around the perimeter of the town over the years and the activities ranged from transforming coal into coke, making mothballs, and producing acrylic for airplane cockpits. The demand for workers fueled Bridesburg’s population growth. It incorporated into a borough in 1848, but that status did not last long. The area was annexed to Philadelphia with the 1854 Act of Consolidation, along with the other municipalities surrounding the city.
Trapping the Creek
As residential and industrial development continued in and around Bridesburg, the land became increasingly impervious and lost its ability to absorb stormwater. As a result, the flooding of Frankford Creek grew in intensity year by year. Some businesses embraced the occurrence as a marketing opportunity, but this was an exception.
The repeated overflow of the creek was a costly problem and, as was typical for the time, the City sought a highly engineered solution. Rather than reducing flooding by increasing the ability of the land to absorb rainwater, as the Philadelphia Water Department is now attempting through its Green City, Green Waters plan, the midcentury solution was to relocate the creek. The waterway was disconnected from its natural path and sent through a concrete channel to hit the Delaware River a mile downriver. The pristine rendering below of the channelized creek was intended to generate support for the costly solution. This image contrasts greatly with the muddy reality of moving the creek, which is revealed in the subsequent image.
The original path of Frankford Creek remained as an inert, amputated arm of water that rose and fell with the river’s tides. The former creek became a stagnant ghost, which held a dark secret. Without the creek’s flow, runoff from the adjacent chemical plant settled into the water. Just two weeks after the relocation, the former creek erupted into 150-foot-tall flames that engulfed six adjacent tractor trailers.
Further problems from industrial pollution surfaced in the final decades of the 20th century. Residents were disheartened to learn that their sources of employment were emitting dangerous toxins into the surroundings. A 1980s study revealed that Bridesburg had some of the highest rates of cancer in the city. This was a low point in Bridesburg’s history. The creek was a stagnant well of industrial runoff, and the residents were being poisoned by industrial pollution.
The situation improved with some bad news. Koppers Coke factory ceased operations in 1982 and the chemical plant was purchased and shut down by Dow Chemicals in 2009. These closures impacted local jobs but significantly improved the health of the surrounding air, water, and residents. Demolition of the facilities and EPA cleanups were completed in the subsequent decades. An enormous amount of toxins were removed from the ground, but not enough to allow either of these sites to be used for residential purposes. Industry is again returning to the vacated land, but the new uses are less noxious than the previous ones, and the facilities are designed to avoid spreading toxins into the surroundings.
The creek was gone but the river remained. At some point in the first half of the 20th century the two-story pavilion at Bridge Street Pier was replaced with a simple roof, but the pier continued to serve a public role. According to Kathleen O’Hanlon, president of the Bridesburg Historical Society, it was the prime destination for family promenades. The pier was also the favorite place for kids to throw stones into the river and to overcome their fears and jump into the water–and occasionally drown. The steamboats were long gone, but the water did not lose its lure. Bridge Street Pier and riverfront meditation seemed wedded forever, to paraphrase the words of Melville.
One day, in 1961, a young O’Hanlon walked down to the pier with her parents and they were surprised to find it surrounded by a fence. The City had sold the pier and the surrounding land to the chemical company Rohm and Haas without notice or discussion. Bridesburg’s residents were disappointed, but no one thought of complaining. “In those days you didn’t question things,” O’Hanlon explains. The community lost its viewing platform, its historic connection to the age of steamboats, and the founding terminus of its Cardo. At this point, all access to the river was closed to Bridesburg.
The completion of the Master Plan for the Central Delaware in 2011 signified a transformation of the City’s approach to the waterfront. The planning process included extensive public engagement to understand the desires and needs of the riverfront communities. The Riverfront North Partnership continued the plan further up the river and published the Riverfront North Master Plan, which states the primary mission of improving “connectivity between Northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods and the riverfront.”
The final stages of planning and design have been completed for the first part of the plan to touch Bridesburg–a 10 acre park on a vacant industrial site where Delaware Avenue meets Orthodox Street. Environmental remediation is scheduled to begin fall 2021, and park construction will begin the following spring. Bridesburg Riverfront Park will eventually contain a stage, a picnic pavilion, a boardwalk, and serve as a trailhead for the planned extension of Delaware Avenue.
The continuation of Delaware Avenue has appeared on maps since the early 1900s. Its realization finally seems to be approaching, and it will follow the abandoned line of the Kensington and Tacony Railroad. The future two-lane road will include a recreational path that links with the Riverfront North Greenway and the 3,000 mile East Coast Greenway joining many other Rails to Trails transformations. Unfortunately, there is one important element missing from these plans: Bridge Street Pier.
Getting to the Point
Early one morning last month, photographer Michael Froio and I set out in search of the remains of Bridge Street Pier. The southern end of Bridge Street no longer makes it to the river. It trails off into roughly paved lots with piles of industrial cast-offs. Steel containers and miscellaneous vehicles parked at odd angles under a bridgework of methane pipes all combine to create an unwelcoming setting. We had turned back from this point once before.
The significance of the potential discovery pushed us forward. On the far side of the parking lot the river’s edge was obscured by a thick band of rogue trees lined by a chain link fence. We oriented ourselves to Bridge Street behind us, walked through an assemblage of dumpsters, and found a barely noticeable break in the vegetation. Trying to avoid poison ivy, we made our way through the foliage, which suddenly opened to the vastness of the river. We were standing on a concrete platform projecting above the water. We had found the remains of Bridge Street Pier.
We could not claim to be the first 21st century explorers to find the pier. Someone else had been there previously and had dragged a white plastic chair out to the platform. The chair was evidence that, even in its state of abandonment, the pier continues to be a point of contemplation for at least one soul and perhaps a fishing spot, which is pretty much the same thing.
Here is Point No Point’s gateway, its connection to the past, to the river, to the sky, and even the cosmos. It’s time to plan the recreational trail that will return the waterfront to Bridesburg. To create the most meaningful connection between the neighborhood and the river, those plans must include the revitalization of Bridge Street Pier.