Inventor, Publisher, Celebrity, Diplomat. Environmentalist? Inside Ben Franklin’s Battle Over Philadelphia Pollution

June 6, 2024 | by Kyle Bagenstose

A book illustration by William Breton from 1833 shows the landing of William Penn at Philadelphia via Dock Creek in 1682. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

Plenty of visitors to Philadelphia have caught a glimpse of Benjamin Franklin’s old privy well, encased in glass amidst the old foundations of his former home at 4th and Market Streets in Old City. It’s a bit of an odd landmark for sure: most old homesteads urge people to ponder how their historical inhabitants lived, not what they ate.

However, in Franklin’s day, the prevailing odors in the area in fact did not emanate from his toilet. Instead, it was that of the slaughterhouses, tanneries, and breweries that dotted his neighborhood and dumped their putrid waste into nearby Dock Creek.

That waterway, which once snaked its way through Old City along two primary branches, has long since been buried and converted into a sewer, but its remnants can still be found, as can a history of Franklin’s fight against the creek’s degradation.

During an April 2024 visit to Philadelphia to attend a conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Bill Kovarik, a historian and professor at Radford University, hosted a historical tour on Franklin’s water war. Leading a group down the course of the buried creek, much of which now runs underneath the serpentine, cobblestoned, and aptly named Dock Street, Kovarik explained Franklin’s support for a 1739 petition that sought to expel polluting industries from the surrounding area.

Kovarik, also a veteran environmental journalist, has taken a deep interest in Franklin’s fight for clean water. In his view, Franklin’s work here offers a powerful testimonial that advocating for the environment was not a new-age concept borne out of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, but indeed has a cultural heritage that stretches all the way back to one of the nation’s most renowned founding fathers.

In this interview Kovarik reveals more about Franklin’s environmental streak and its historical significance.

A bird’s eye view from 1702 of Philadelphia from Camden, New Jersey. The entrance confluence of Dock Creek and the Delaware River can be seen at left. | Image: Public Domain

Kyle Bagenstose: Many people are familiar with Ben Franklin the inventor, Ben Franklin the diplomat, Ben Franklin the printer. I imagine far fewer know Ben Franklin the environmentalist. Bring us up to speed.

William Kovarik: Ben Franklin was sort of the original, prototypical, civically-engaged journalist and concerned citizen. A lot of things that he called “small matters” were on his radar. We tend to think of him as somebody who was engaged in grand political alliances, but some of the stuff he did on a civic level, especially when he was younger, gets overlooked. He was really concerned about ordinary people and the way their lives were affected by what was going on around them. For example, he was really worried about smoke and so he advocated chimneys and invented the Franklin stove to help with indoor air pollution.

Dock Creek was originally a way for working farmers to bring their produce and things to market in the inner city. You could sail a boat, and that was by far the easiest way to move goods around. You could land firewood there and sell it. So, the Dock had an economic purpose and connected the rural with the urban environment. So when it became clogged with horns, and hides, and offal, and rotting carcasses, it must have been just horrible. And that was on his list of civic improvements that he felt he had to address.

It is also important to note that later, in his final act in his life, in his will, he provided money to build a drinking water line from the Schuylkill River to provide fresh, wholesome water for the people in downtown Philadelphia. They didn’t do exactly what he wanted, but created the Fairmount Water Works in the early 1800s.

Civic virtue, personal hygiene, breathing clean air–all of those things came together in this one controversy against vested interests. Against establishment people who didn’t want to spend more money to clean up their own mess.

KB: Readers also might be not familiar with what Dock Creek was, or the significance it had to Colonial Philadelphia. Can you describe what the landscape looked like in that day?

WK: Dock Creek was a small, meandering stream flowing through the heart of what became historic Philadelphia. The outlet to the Delaware River was the site of what is called Penn’s Landing, even though there was already a bit of a settlement there before Willliam Penn came in 1682. The Blue Anchor Tavern was there, and there was no bridge yet. Dock Creek was free flowing. There was a Native American settlement on the south side, and, as the Dock went up, there were two main branches. It was about 50 yards wide.

By the 1700s, there were several thousand houses, but very scattered out. There’d be a big house with a garden plot and a dirt or gravel street, and then maybe another one a couple of doors down, so there were big spaces between the houses. As time went on, the area around Dock Creek began to fill in and became commercial.

After Dock Creek was covered over the area became very close townhouses and eventually became the Dock Street Market. 

This woodcut from 1822 shows Dock Creek and the Blue Anchor Tavern, Philadelphia’s first public house, as it would have looked after the tavern was built in the 1860s. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

KB: So tell us about Franklin’s fight over this waterway.

WK: First, this was part of an ongoing rivalry between Franklin and Andrew Bradford (another Philadelphia-based printer and publisher, whose American Weekly Mercury newspaper was the top rival of Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette). Franklin has a civic improvement plan, and he’s got a foil in Bradford that he has to kind of beat in the marketplace. He’s got a plan to do that, and Dock Creek kind of works into that plan.

The controversy comes along in 1739, at a time when Franklin has already won the printing contract from the government of Pennsylvania and he’s already won the postmastership. There’s a little lull in the action, so I think it was calculated. What we know is a group of citizens file a petition with the Pennsylvania House on May 15, 1739, and it’s accepted. The group might have included Franklin. He certainly must have encouraged them.

From the way it was reported in both The Mercury and The Gazette, what it asked for was for the tanneries to move out of town. Then, in the ideal world of Benjamin Franklin, they could bring in the tanned leather for the tan works, the tradesman in town, and the Dock would be open.

Describing the problem, Franklin noted that “many offensive and unwholesome smells do arise from the Tan-Yards, much to the great Annoyance of the Neighborhood.” In an article in his newspaper, Franklin said the tanners “…choaked the Dock–which was formerly navigable as high as Third Street–with the Tan, Horns, etc.”

The tanners responded with their own petition, proposing to wash the pavement once a day, build a fence around the tan yards, and release the waste into Dock Creek only at high tide. They also found a champion in Bradford, whose American Mercury defended the liberty and property rights of the tanners.

Franklin, in return, argued for public rights. He said that the restraints on the liberty of the tanners would be “but a trifle” compared to the “damage done to others, and the city, by remaining where they are.” Franklin also noted a compromise position: “If the tanners could be so regulated to become inoffensive, the Petitioners declar’d that they should be therewith satisfied.”

KB: What happened with the original petition?

WK: In August 1739, there’s a hearing, and the tanneries are of course up in arms, and the papers are writing competing editorials. The Assembly heard both sides, but what happened next is unclear. Apparently, Bradford’s Mercury carried an article falsely stating that the environmentalists’ petition had been rejected. Its headline was: “A Daring Attempt on the Liberties of the Tradesmen of Philadelphia.”

Franklin’s temper boiled at this misinformation, and he printed the full text of the Assembly resolution, which supported the environmentalists. The resolution declared that the water pollution was indeed a nuisance and that regulations should be drawn up. But it didn’t say the tanneries had to move out of town either.

Two years later there’s a yellow fever epidemic. A lot of the city’s medical establishment weigh in, and they decide that the thing to do was turn Dock Creek into a closed sewer, and they start closing it off. The tanneries eventually move out of town because the real estate values changed. Franklin of course had to move onto other things.

A photograph from 1860 of Naylor’s Hotel which was built on the west bank of Dock Creek. | Photo courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

KB: Franklin had his own businesses in the area. Was he just self-interested or was there really something more principled taking place?

WK: Which side is Franklin on here? He’s a reformer. He’s trying to clean up these tanneries. When I started looking at it, I realized, the other side is the old Pennsylvania establishment. It turned out that the Hudson family (relatives of William Hudson, Philadelphia mayor from 1725-26) owned a lot of these tanneries and slaughterhouses. What is now the park where the Liberty Bell is was originally called Hudson’s Court. They were aligned with the Penn family, which is one reason they were able to resist the pressure from reformers like Franklin, who were obviously concerned about pollution and Dock Creek.

The movement of highly polluting industries out of town had already taken place in Baltimore, Boston, and New York City. Doing that in Philadelphia should have been easy, but it wasn’t because the old time establishment folks liked having the convenience of easy waste disposal.

Franklin was the leather-apron worker’s champion here, and Bradford was the mouthpiece of the establishment. The establishment was really what Franklin was taking on. In other contexts and countries, not only would he not have won, it would have cost him pretty seriously. But in a new country where you know, possibilities are endless, people like Franklin were valued for their civic engagement and spirit.

A map of Dock Creek and stages of its conversion into a sewer over time. | Image courtesy of American Philosophical Society

KB: What value does Franklin, sitting at this intersection of journalism, environmentalism, and civic virtue, have for you as a modern environmental journalist?

WK: There have been accusations that the idea of environmental history and environmental journalism is really a kind of quasi-religion. That we’re just, you know, rejects from the 1960s who wanted to sabotage the great upward progress of science and America. We were being painted by rightwing extremists as having no science, no history, nothing to back us up.

We thought, well no, this is wrong. There’s got to be concern about the environment before the 1960s, before Rachel Carson (author of the influential 1962 book Silent Spring, which helped launch the modern environmental movement). So, we said, let’s go back to the historical record, and we found that for many, many decades, all through human history, people have been concerned with pollution of the environment.

Dock Creek was only one episode, but there were lots of others. There were concerns about water pollution in London in the 1850s, especially due to public health concerns like the spread of cholera, typhoid, and yellow fever. There were enormous efforts towards “smoke abatement” in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s like an unbroken thread.

Editor’s note: William Kovarik has written extensively on the subject of Benjamin Franklin and environmentalism on his personal website, from which some language in this interview was adapted. He is currently working on his own petition, to the Society of Professional Journalists, to install a historic plaque in Old City noting Franklin’s fight for Dock Creek.


About the Author

Kyle Bagenstose is an independent journalist based in East Mt. Airy. Previously with USA Today, he writes primarily about environmental and urban topics.

One Comment:

  1. Bill Double says:

    A detailed account of the Dock Creek’s history and Franklin’s early environmental activism is provided in my report published by the Independence National Historical Park. It is titled “Scenic Stream to City Sewer: Dock Creek from 1682 to 1849.”

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