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ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERNIANS - DIVISION 51

History of Fishtown

GOD BLESS AMERICA - I. BERLIN
SUNG BY KATE SMITH

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WELCOME TO THE HISTORY OF FISHTOWN

Fishtown is a neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is one of the last truly "Family Neighborhoods" in Philadelphia. Most of the people here are cousin's or 2nd cousins, and have lived in the same homes for most of their lives.

 

Located immediately northeast of Center City, Fishtown's borders are somewhat disputed today due to many factors, but are roughly defined by the triangle created by the Delaware River, Frankford Avenue, and York Street. Newer residents of the area consider it to go all the way up to Lehigh Avenue, while some older residents maintain the upper border to be Norris Street.

 

HISTORY OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD

 

PRE-1800

 

The area was originally inhabited by members of the Turtle Clan of the Lenni Lenape Indian tribe (who the Europeans named the Delaware Indian Tribe). The first European settlers were a group of 6 Swedish farming families, later replaced by British landed gentry, then British shipbuilders and German fishermen.

 

1800-1950

 

Within a few generations there was another influx of German immigrants, then still later in the late 19th century Polish and Irish Catholic immigrants. The two Roman Catholic Churches, St. Laurentius and Holy Name of Jesus, were built by these immigrants. Saint Laurentius, built by the Polish immigrants, and Holy Name, built by predominantly Irish and German immigrants, continue to serve the community.

 

MODERN HISTORY

 

The neighborhood has been working class for centuries. While poverty grew after jobs left in the de-industrialization which afflicted many "rust belt" cities, Fishtown's workers continued to maintain a stable working-class community. Most long-time residents trace their ancestry to Irish, German, and Polish Catholic immigrants.

 

In recent years Fishtown has experienced moderate gentrification characterized by significant rises in housing prices and the opening or upscaling of art, entertainment, and dining establishments. An influx of artists and professionals has joined the ranks of police officers, fire fighters, carpenters, electricians, stone masons, plumbers, sheet-metal workers, and teamsters.

 

The neighborhood has been chosen by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to be the site of the SugarHouse gaming complex, leading to some controversy within the neighborhood.

BORDERS DISPUTED

 

Fishtown is actually the eastern most triangle of the larger surrounding Kensington District, created out of Northern Liberties Township in 1820. The Kensington District, when created, had a Northern border of Norris Street, an Eastern border of the Delaware River, a Southern border of the Cohocksink Creek, and a Western border of 6th Street. The Kensington District is not to be confused with the Kensington neighborhood of today.

 

There has never been an official designation of this area as "Fishtown." Locals who lived in the eastern part of the Kensington district, namely those in Philadelphia’s 18th Political Ward, referred to it as Lower Kensington, as seen in early buildings and churches, until the late 1800's. Fishtown stuck as the nickname because of the shipping and fishing industries along the Delaware River. By the 2nd and 3rd quarter of the 20th century, the area was no longer being called Kensington or Lower Kensington.

 

With the Eastern border locked as the Delaware River, the Southern border has become where Laurel Street, Frankford Avenue and Delaware Avenue meet. The Western border follows Laurel Street west to Front Street, then north on Front Street to Norris Street. The northern border is disputed by different peoples as either Norris Street, York Street, or Lehigh Avenue. There are three main reasons for this dispute:

 

POLITICAL BORDER (Norris Street)

 

The northern border of the Kensington District, founded in 1820, was Norris Street. The northern border of Philadelphia's 18th Ward, drawn in 1854, is Norris Street. Norris Street is actually the only street that cuts straight through the neighborhood.

 

RELIGIOUS BORDER & INDUSTRIAL BORDER (York Street)

 

With a large influx of Roman Catholic immigrants to the area, a new Roman Catholic parish, Holy Name of Jesus, was created in 1905. Its northern border was designated, and remains, York Street. Meaning that any child who lived south of York Street must go to Holy Name School, in the center of Fishtown. Children born north of York Street must go to St. Ann’s School in Port Richmond. The neighborhood identity of thousands of people, families and children, have been molded by this 102 year old “border.”

 

York Street is a wide multiple lane avenue, once the home of an industrial metal-stamping company, a larger printing company, and numerous food distributors. It was common to see dozens of 18-wheeled trucks blocking traffic and neighborhood flow. For this reason, York Street became a psychological northern border.

 

CURRENT GENTRIFICATION & REAL ESTATE MARKET BORDER (Lehigh Avenue)

 

With a recent development boom in the area created in the triangle south of York Street, developers and realtors have made it fashionable to “extend” the name of Fishtown to any surrounding area, even though there is no historical basis.

 

Newer residents of the area, who may not know the historical basis for “neighborhood identity” frequently “expand” the boundaries also.

PENN'S TREATY
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BENJAMIN WEST

THE NAME

 

The name "Fishtown" is derived from the area's former role as the center of the shad fishing industry on the Delaware River. The name comes from the fact that a number of 18th and early 19th century German & German-American families bought up the fishing rights on both sides of the Delaware River from Trenton Falls down to Cape May, NJ.

 

The apocryphal local legend traces the name of Fishtown to Charles Dickens who purportedly visited the neighborhood in March 1842, but records show this to be false, as it was named Fishtown prior to his visiting.

 

In the 1830's, refrigeration was for the rich (Ice Houses), so the ships that brought their catch into the docks along the Delaware River would take their bounty to the smoke houses along the Ave, and the fish would be pickled, salted or smoked for preserving. Because of the odor's from this area, the name Fishtown was born and remains the name to this day, although the odors have long since gone.

 

The Neighborhood has some historical locations, for instance Penn Treaty Park. This is where William Penn is said to have made his treaty with the local Native Americans. The area is now occupied by mainly Irish Catholics. But the First People to set foot in what is now called Fishtown were probably Swede's or Finn's. Two Families that were first to settle here were the "Cocks and Rambo's", the Cock's being Swede's and Rambo's may have been English Quaker

.

Two Men whose names are synonymous with Fishtown are William Cramp and Anthony Palmer. Cramp opened a shipyard on the Delaware river at Fishtown in 1830, which at that time built wooden sailing ships. The ship yard was still producing ships during world war 2, and employed over 18,000 people at that time.

 

Anthony Palmer was an English Merchant from Barbados, before arriving in Philadelphia in 1730. Captain Palmer purchased about 600 acres for his plantation. All that remains of the Palmer plantation are the Palmer Burial Grounds, Palmer Park (St Mary's Park) and the street named after him, Palmer Street. Palmer later sold his original lands and purchased the "Fairman Estate" which was a smaller parcel of land, but closer to the Delaware River, and included the Fairman Mansion at what is now Penn Treaty Park (Delaware & Columbia Avenues).

 

During the Revolution for Independence, the English soldiers headed by General Howe, camped in the area, after taking control of the city of Philadelphia, which was then a couple of miles south of Fishtown. The British supposedly camped out close to the roads heading north toward New York, which was Kings Highway, or Frankford Road.

 

In the 1855, The Bishop of Philadelphia, John Neumann founded an Order of Sisters called the Third Order of St Francis. Within 5 years, these Sisters opened a fifteen bed hospital which grew larger (42 beds) after the Civil War. St Mary's quickly became known in the Medical World. On December 19th, 1887, the first successful brain surgery was performed at St Mary's by Dr. W. W. Keen. The process of cleaning wounds was also perfected at St. Mary's, by Sister Mary Xavier, when she decided to wrap the dressing to be applied to the wound, in a clean towel, and "baked" it in the oven. It worked!

 

In 1915, the first fireproof hospital building was erected at St. Mary's to replace the original structures. St Mary's Hospital was where most of the people of Fishtown were born. What was once St. Mary's Hospital is now a senior citizen residence names Neumann Senior Residence.

 

Although there are no signs at the off ramps from I-95 that say" Fishtown ", the people who come from this area know where it is. You won't see the name Fishtown on many maps either. Old maps show this area as being a part of the" District of Kensington ",  But being a Fishtowner is a way of life or a frame of mind. A Fishtowner clings to the name like he would to his most precious possessions. Even when people move away, they always say that they are from "Fishtown". That's what makes the neighborhood so special; a spirit that will never die.

 

The area has changed in recent years but it hasn't gone to the dogs. Many people are realizing how nice and convenient Fishtown really is, and many "newbies" are buying the large, old house in the neighborhood, much like they did in the 70s and 80s in the Fairmount neighborhood. It takes approximately 15 - 20 minutes to get into Center City on the Frankford "El" or by car. Many people from Fishtown commute the short distance to work in center city each day. The influx of new property owners has brought about a tremendous increase in the property values of the neighborhood. Some older Fishtowners are selling their homes and are moving to the Jersey shore or to the suburbs. These changes have started to write a new chapter in the History of Fishtown. Some of the changes have been good for the neighborhood, while the jury is still out on others. The most important thing is that no one looses sight of what it truly means to be a Fishtowner; it's about a community spirit, a willingness to help your neighbor, and a sense of "family". Fishtowners love their neighborhood, and whether they still live here or not, will always come "home" to help support the "old neighborhood".

DID YOU KNOW...?

 

Major League Baseball's were made right here in Fishtown? The A.J. Reach Sporting Goods Co. was located near Palmer and Tulip Streets. The company was started in the 1880's by Al Reach, a former Major Leaguer who played for Boston the Old National League. His partner in the Sporting Goods Co. was Ben Shibe, who was President of the Philadelphia Athletics when Connie Mack was managing in the early part of the 20th century. Ben Shibe was a team mate of Al Reach, who along with A.G. Spalding, later purchased the company from Al Reach.

 

Reach had a contract to supply baseballs to the new American League as the official ball. He originally paid the teams a dollar a dozen to use his baseballs. Shibe was the person responsible for the building "Shibe Park" at 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue in 1909. Later the stadium name would be changed to Connie Mack Stadium, in honor of the man who became President and owner of the Philadelphia Athletics years later.

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Street's of Fishtown...

 

We all take for granted the streets we drive or walk down everyday, as if they were always there. Some of the streets in our neighborhood have been here a long time; the streets of Fishtown tell a story just like many of the people who settled in the area way back when. The area where Fishtown is located was originally part of the District of Kensington. The name Fishtown is more mid - 19th Century, and was given to the area along Girard Avenue, where most of the

fishermen from the boats along the Delaware lived and sold their catch. Fishtown expanded, and according to who you talk to, the boundaries change from person to person.

 

What follows is a brief summary of how Fishtown's streets received their names. There is actually a book of Philadelphia street names from which some of this information came. The book is called "The Story Behind Philadelphia Street Names" by Robert I. Alotta.

 

«     Berks Street. Originally named Vienna Street, ran from Wildey Street to Belgrade St. and was confirmed by "The Road Jury" in 1807. Vienna Street was extended to Beach St in 1825 and was extended again to Frankford Ave. in 1831. So Berks Street, which stretched from river to 63rd St, originated in Fishtown. In 1901 Vienna St. officially became Berks St.

 

«     Girard Avenue, of course is named for Stephen Girard, a Man who did more for Philadelphia, and was misunderstood more then any other Man. Girard founded Girard College and Girard Bank, and was responsible for providing the funding to make Delaware Avenue a usable thoroughfare. In 1845, Girard Ave extended from Ridge Ave to Corinthian, next to Girard College. It was extended from 6th Street to Frankford Ave and from Frankford to Norris Street around 1858. (The road from Frankford to Norris was known as Prince St or Ave before being changed to Girard Avenue in Fishtown).

 

«     Kensington Avenue was the main street of the town of Kensington prior to 1854, when the city of Philadelphia was officially established and the surrounding towns were consolidated into the new city. Kensington Ave appears in official records starting in 1851. I know some might say that Kensington Ave is outside of Fishtown, but read on. The district of Kensington was laid out by Anthony Palmer, a man who owned most of the area, and was named for the section of London known as Kensington. Later, part of lower Kensington was unofficially renamed Fishtown, due to the principal industry of the residents of Kensington. This also explains how we got Palmer Street, Palmer cemetery and Palmer Park.

 

«     Blair Street. named for Blair County, which was founded in 1846. Blair County was named for a Philadelphia resident, John Blair. The original Blair Street, from Norris Street to Trenton Ave was dedicated by the District of Kensington, which became consolidated with The City of Philadelphia in 1854. Blair Street, between Oxford Street and Montgomery Ave was known as Leib Street until just before 1900. Originally, Blair Street between Montgomery and Norris was known as Warder and Garden Streets.

 

«     Trenton Avenue - No, it's not the road to Trenton New Jersey. It is assumed that the name comes from Thomas Trent, the founder of the city of Trenton, who may have owned land along the route which is now Trenton Avenue. Trenton Avenue runs from Hewson Street in Fishtown to Margaret Street which is located in Frankford. The oldest section of Trenton Ave. is from Hewson to Norris Street, and was originally named Maple street, then Neff Street, before being changed to Trenton Ave in 1895. Trent did live in Philadelphia, and is said to have sold his "slate roofed house" to Isaac Norris.

 

«     Norris Street, named for previously mentioned Isaac Norris, a wealthy merchant and diplomat who arrived in Philadelphia from London, in 1693. Isaac Norris had an active civic life, including speaker of the assembly, a member of the Provincial Council, and as Mayor of Philadelphia. The road that later became Norris Street, was originally Lancaster Street and ran from the Delaware River to 2nd Street. The name changed from Lancaster to Norris in 1858, due mainly to the land surrounding the road once being owned by the Norris Family.

 

As you can see, some of best known streets in Philadelphia originated right here in what is now Fishtown. Few maps will show you where Fishtown is located. Old maps show the area as Kensington, and that included Port Richmond and Bridesburg; that's how old this area is.

 

The area around what is now Fishtown is actually older then Philadelphia itself. In November 1678, a three hundred acre tract of land, located at an area on the western side of the Delaware river, at the town or village known as Sachamexin, now known as Shackamaxon, was granted to a Swede named Laurens Cock. The entire area of Shackamaxon was said to be approximately 1800 acres. Later, William Penn landed in an area near Chester, and moved north to the area around Penns Landing where he settled Philadelphia. Shackamaxon as we know was just north of the city of Philadelphia at that time. Shackamaxon Street was opened in 1816 and extended from the river to Richmond Street. It was later extended to Frankford Avenue and beyond before the civil war.

 

«     York Street is another street important to Fishtowners. To this day it is a major Street in Fishtown, taking traffic from Frankford Avenue to the entrance to I-95 at Aramingo Avenue. That section of York Street is now both residential and commercial in use. York Street originated before 1855 per city records, and extended from Richmond Street to 4th Street at that time. The street was named for York County, which was named for The Duke of York, James Stuart. He later became King James II. Stuart was a good friend to William Penn's father, Admiral Penn. York Street runs between what was once the Norris and Sepviva Estates.

 

«     Aramingo Avenue, which now extends from Girard Avenue in Fishtown, to Harbison Avenue in Wissinoming, was actually named for a stream located in the Old District of Northern Liberties. The stream was called "Tumanaraming" by the local natives and meant "Wolf Walk", due to the extremely large numbers of wolves infesting the area. The English called the stream "Gunner's Run". Aramingo was an abbreviated version of the Indian name for the stream. Aramingo Avenue was originally part of the Borough of Aramingo (1850), which was incorporated into the City of Philadelphia 4 years later.

 

«     Beach Street, running parallel to the Delaware River, extended from the Cohocksink Creek (Canal Street), to Berks Street in 1808. Some called Beach Street Washington Avenue, and some records may reflect that, but other records show Beach Street at it's present location in 1804. By 1824, Beach Street extended from the Cohocksink Creek to Gunner's Run Creek in Northern Liberties. Delaware Avenue was also known as Beach Street in very early records.

 

«     Delaware Avenue should actually be called Girard Avenue if you think about it. The original section of Delaware Avenue extended from Vine to South Street, and was made possible by funding from the will of Stephen Girard. Due to the poor conditions of the approach to the waterfront, Girard, a merchant and philanthropist, left $500,000.00 dollars to make improvements and to maintain the road at the water front. The roadway is named for the river, which was named for William West, The Baron DeLaWarr, who the English thought discovered the river. The Delaware River was actually discovered by Henry Hudson. Delaware Avenue was extended at various times in the 19th and 20th century.

 

PENN TREATY PARK
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DELAWARE & COLUMBIA AVENUES

And near where Penn made the treaty with the Lenni-Lenape, somewhere near Shackamaxon and Allen Streets, there once stood a building named "Batchelor's Hall". Not named for someone named Batchelor, but called Batchelor's Hall because of the unmarried men that frequented the building. A men's club of sorts. On the grounds of Batchelor's Hall was the First Botanical Gardens used mainly for medicinal purposes. In other words, they grew plants used to make medicines. Bartram's Gardens in southwest Philadelphia was not used for medicinal plantings at that time.

 

Batchelor's Hall was at one time where the Philadelphia "Junto Club" met, among other places in and around Philadelphia in the early 18th century. The "Junto" was started by Benjamin Franklin and a group of young free thinkers of that era, and was basically a philosophy/poetry group. Ben Franklin came to Philadelphia from Boston in the year 1723, at the tender age of 17 years. Franklin was an apprentice printer in Boston, but was better qualified than most journeymen when he arrived here. Franklin was kind of a rebel towards the British crown and the local governments in Philadelphia and Boston. He would write letters to the local papers questioning the actions of government, while using a fake name, known only to his closest friends. Through his contacts in the printing business, he acquired the friends that would become his "Junto". His writings, as well as the other member's writings, poems or thoughts were the topics discussed by the "Junto".

 

To think that Benjamin Franklin and many of the greatest minds in the 18th century, prior to the American Revolution with Great Britain, spent a great deal of time in what is now Fishtown. And to think that the estate at Shackamaxon and Allen Streets known as Batchelor's Hall also contributed to the medical world with it's medicinal gardens. Much of the early history of this area is unknown to the common person. I think we should make people aware of how much actually happened right here, literally, in our own backyards.   

MORE HISTORY OF FISHTOWN...

 

The following information was compiled by Rich Remer, and became an article written by Ken Milano for the Fishtown Star a few years back. The information was edited slightly because of length.

 

In the 1730's Anthony Palmer purchased land just north of what was then colonial Philadelphia. Captain Palmer, a businessman from England by way of Barbados, wanted to build his town like the area in London where Kensington Palace is located. The area that eventually became known as Fishtown was a small section in the northeast corner of the District of Kensington, located up against the Delaware River. Ship building would become big business in the area for the English, while other immigrant residents who were unable to break into the ship building trade, did their best to survive in other lines of work. In the late 1700's and early 1800's, German immigrants were surviving by fishing the waters of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Soon, after the Schuylkill River was dammed, the Delaware River became the best fishing grounds and were very profitable for the German Immigrants. Most notable of these German Immigrants Families were the Fonz or Faunce, the Reiss and Krampf's, later to be Americanized to Cramp.

 

Other families not as famous, but just as important in the fishing trade at that time, were the Baker's, Beideman, Collar, Gosser, Hill, Hoffman and Pote Families. Descendants of many of the original Fishing Families are still residing in this area. Another family that became quite wealthy starting out as Fishermen were the Shibe Family. Ben Shibe would eventually own the Philadelphia Athletics and build his own ball park at 22nd and Lehigh, Shibe Park. The research also showed that while most of these families moved on into other trades or businesses like glass works or ship building, most kept an interest in the fishing trade. It should also be noted that eventually, these same fishermen bought all of the fishing rights for both sides of the Delaware, from Cape May to Trenton NJ.

 

The small area where these Fishermen lived and worked would eventually get the name Fishtown. While some people would like to think that Charles Dickens visited the area during his first trip to America in 1842, based on information gathered, this little area, virtually 3 blocks square, was known as Fishtown much earlier then 1842 and Dickens first visit. There is no proof that Dickens traveled outside of Philadelphia, which ended at Vine Street in 1842.

 

It seems that the people who worked and lived in that small area of Kensington, close to the Delaware, and made their living on that river, often called the area Fishtown. Articles written on the subject by Charles Cramp in the late 1800's and an article written in 1910 by someone calling himself "Mr. Penn", also  mention Fishtown and its original boundaries. An article written for a paper called the "One Man News" helps to solve the mystery of the Fishtown boundaries and how the name came to be.

 

The "One Man News", was published by Francis T. Wilcox in 1939. Mr. Wilcox, a pharmacist by trade, lived on the 2200 block of Almond Street in Fishtown. Mr. Wilcox asked some residents of Fishtown to set the boundaries of the neighborhood, which started a controversy among the neighbors. Eventually Mr. Wilcox was told a story by another older resident of Fishtown, Mr. Jacob Faber who was a hardware store owner in Fishtown. Mr. Faber was born in 1861 and as a youth remembers being told of the original area known as Fishtown. Mr. Faber related that "an Old Timer known as Old Uncle Ben" described the boundaries as follows: From the Delaware River west on Otis Street (Susquehanna Avenue) to the east side of Moyer Street, south on Moyer to

the north side of Cherry Street (Montgomery Avenue) east on Cherry to Richmond Street, south along Richmond to the north side of Palmer Street and east to the Delaware River. These boundary lines coincided with the area occupied by the fishermen and their families from the mid 1700's to the late 1800's based on relatives still living in the area in 1939. Given the age of Mr. Faber when he was told the story (17) in 1879 by Old Uncle Ben, assumed to be in his senior years, the area that eventually became Fishtown was known as such probably as early as the 1820's. This was years before Dickens came to Philadelphia for the first time.

 

Why all the fuss over the boundaries and the name? Well so many things have changed in the last 200 years, why not the boundaries of Fishtown? And while some people still want to believe that Fishtown got its name from Charles Dickens, it would appear that some people used that name for a part of Old Kensington before Dickens visited. And even if he did come north of Vine Street, there was nothing in his journals mentioning "A Fishtown". But the tale is a great one, and one I have told from time to time. I believe that even back in the early 1800's, people wanted their own identity. And it would seem likely that the people of the fishing town were responsible for the name Fishtown.

PALMER CEMETERY

 

Neighborhood Committee Restores Ancient Philadelphia Cemetery...

The Palmer Cemetery is located in one of the oldest sections of Philadelphia, a district known, for reasons lost in the mists of history, by the inelegant name of "Fishtown." The cemetery was dedicated in 1749 by Mrs. Thomas Keith for the free interment of local residents. She deeded the seven-acre tract in obedience to the wishes of her father, Anthony Palmer, a ship captain and merchant who was acting governor of Pennsylvania in 1747 and 1748. Captain Palmer is buried in the cemetery of Old Christ Church, which also contains the grave of Benjamin Franklin.

The will directed that a church and schoolhouse were to be erected on the property. A memorial monument erected by the Elm Street Post, American Legion, now marks the former site of these buildings.

The cemetery is bounded by Palmer and Memphis Streets, and Montgomery and Belgrade Avenues. It is in a residential neighborhood, part of the Kensington section of Philadelphia.

Until about thirty-odd years ago, the Kensington Burial Ground (its earlier name) was well maintained. As the effects of the Depression were felt, however, it began to deteriorate rapidly. Because the deed prohibited interment fees (even today, only $60 is charged, for opening and closing a grave), there were no funds to hire maintenance personnel.

Sporadic attempts were made to restore the property. The city assigned WPA work crews, but their efforts were ineffective. Trees fell down and smashed the iron fencing, which was then crudely patched with wooden pickets. Children set the undergrowth on fire, smashed the overturned stones, and broke windows in a vacant building once used by the caretaker. Poison ivy, rodents, and insect colonies flourished. The unkempt grounds were littered with papers, garbage, and other debris.

Hurricane Hazel administered the coup de grace. Twenty-seven large trees were blown down, smashing vaults and memorial stones. The ancient cemetery became more than an unpleasant eyesore; it was a macabre blight upon an otherwise orderly community.

Everyone decried the tragic unsightliness of the ancient burial ground, but no one did anything about it. Then, one spring evening, two local men were sitting on their front steps, talking together. The conversation got around to the disgraceful appearance of the cemetery across the way.

They decided to cut down some of the weeds on the other side of the tottering fence, at least in the portion directly opposite their homes. Armed with sickles and grass whips, they attacked the jungle of' undergrowth.

When they saw the improvement that resulted, the men began to widen their operations. Others joined them, and within a few days, 15 of them were afflicted with poison ivy rashes.

No money was expended at this stage. The men and women brought their own tools and wielded them as long as the few hours of after-work daylight and weekend time allowed. When a hoist was needed to lift the stones, one was improvised. Hard labor and enthusiasm were their only assets, and with them, the volunteers accomplished a miraculous transformation in the old cemetery.

Every evening, after their labors, they would sit together for awhile, talking about what they had done and what was left to do. The project soon reached the point where hand labor and good will were not enough. Windows were needed for the boarded-up caretaker's building (a small, attractive Victorian-type structure). The time had come to buy mowers, grass whips, and other tools to supplement those owned by the volunteers.

So a fund-raising committee was formed, with Ray Liebowitz, commander of the Elm Tree American Legion post, as chairman; James Downs as secretary, and the late George Shrives as treasurer. Helen Ruoff became the treasurer upon Mr. Shrives' death.

Mrs. Ruoff sent letters to businessmen who served the area, to other residents, and to the descendants of persons interred in the cemetery. "The response to this first solicitation was wonderful," Mrs. Ruoff recalls. "From then on we were in business."

The temporary committee was replaced by the permanent organization that now directs the maintenance and improvement of the cemetery. William Sweeney was elected president; Jim McCue, vice president; and Harry Masterson, co-treasurer, and custodian. Martin Ruoff, Jim Early and Charles Hock were named as trustees. Monthly trustee meetings were scheduled.

KENSINGTON'S HISTORICAL BURIAL GROUND

 

The Kensington Burial Ground, also known as Palmer Cemetery, is perhaps one of the oldest free neighborhood burial grounds in the nation.  The cemetery has the remains of a number of well known persons in Kensington history; the Cramp shipbuilding family, lumber merchant & education advocate Alexander Adair, Revolutionary War Hero and first calico printer in America, John Hewson, as well as many of the early families of fishermen and shipbuilders that made Kensington and Fishtown so famous (an ancestor of baseball man Benjamin Shibe, of Shibe Park fame was one of these fishermen). The cemetery also includes a number of soldiers from the Revolutionary War and Civil War. It is also alleged that a Lenni Lenape tribal chief is buried on the hill at Memphis & Montgomery.

 

The cemetery is located in the oldest section of Kensington, now called Fishtown, and contains the block that is bounded by current day Belgrade, Palmer, Memphis, and Montgomery Streets. This area of Kensington was originally laid out by Kensington’s founder, Anthony Palmer (1673-1749) in the early 1730’s. Palmer was a wealthy English merchant who came to Philadelphia by way of Barbados. Palmer’s intention was to create a burial ground for the Kensington community, but he died before he was able to establish it. The cemetery was apparently in use as a family burial ground since as early as 1730’s and was confirmed in writing, as a public burial ground by Palmer’s heirs when they acted on his wishes with a “deed of trust” in 1765, for the use of the cemetery for those living within the boundaries of the original town of Kensington as laid out by Anthony Palmer. 

 

Since it’s founding, the cemetery has had a self-perpetuating board of trustees to look over its affairs. The board has included such notables as the Emmanuel and Jehu Eyre, shipbuilders to the Continental Navy. The board of trustees has kept the cemetery independent over all these years and has also withstood an attempt by a local church to usurp it.

 

The current President of the Board of Trustees (2002), James D. B. Weiss, has held his position for the past 24 years.  President Weiss, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for about 100 years, stated that the current boundaries for those eligible to be buried in the cemetery is a little larger then the original boundaries and that they now accept those living in the triangle formed by the Delaware River, Frankford Avenue, and York Street.  Anyone living within this area at the time of their death can have a lot in the cemetery for free, but will have to pay for the burial. The method of deciding where to bury is simple; the family chooses a spot, a pole is used to poke the ground to see if there are any obstructions, if there are no obstructions they can bury, otherwise you keep poking. 

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THE REST OF THE HISTORY

 

It is interesting to take notice of the neighborhoods' chroniclers of yesteryear. These people, in their own way, have helped to create and mould our neighborhoods.

 

An interesting piece that appeared in the "One Man News" of June 1939 is one of the more important pieces of Fishtown history to appear in print. In the article, an old-timer gives the exact dimensions of Fishtown as told to him when he was a "young lad in the 1870's." At that time, in the 1870's, an old timer had told him these boundaries too and that it was true when he was a boy as well, which pushes these boundaries back to the time when the name of Fishtown first started in the 1820's, and thus helped to dispel the myth of Charles Dickens naming the area Fishtown.

 

The "One Man News," a penny paper, was written and published by Fishtown's Francis T. Wilcox, as way of making a buck during the depression. It was loaded with advertisements and local stories and in a sense, could be considered the forerunner to the Penn Treaty Gazette, later today's Fishtown Star.

 

Another local historian, George W. Baker, was probably the first person to start writing seriously about Kensington's history. An engineer, employed locally by PE's Engineering Design Department, he lived on Palmer Street, but moved to the suburbs by retirement age. His father was superintendent at the old Kensington shipyard of Neafie and Levy. Mr. Baker wrote historical articles for local papers, lectured at local historical societies, and elsewhere. He did a substantial amount of research, with much of his research obviously mined from Scharf & Wescott's three-volume "History of Philadelphia," as well as John Watson's three-volume work, "Annals of Philadelphia." There also appears to have been some research done with deed, census, and city directory records, and various family paper collections as well.

 

Baker's short work "Kensington, Tight Little Isle," is a fairly good history of Kensington, but there is no bibliography, or notes, thus making it time consuming to find what sources he actually used. Baker wrote from about the late 1930's to perhaps the early 1980's, certainly the longest running historian of the neighborhood.

 

One of Baker's lasting contributions was an excellent map done in 1950, entitled, "Kensington - Her Official Boundaries and Neighbors before Absorption by Philadelphia in 1854," and it is still today, one of the best maps that have been put together.

 

Dr. J. Hampton Hoch, the son of a Frankford Avenue pharmacist and later a professor of Pharmacy at the Medical College of South Carolina, also recorded Kensington's history. In November of 1957, Hoch wrote to George Baker, " I think it would be a good thing if we could find about a half dozen people who would work together to compile a real history of Kensington." It never happened. Baker and Hoch continued to correspond about Kensington history for another decade, with Hoch writing nicely researched pieces on "Bachelor's Hall" "Lasse Cock and the Log House Lot" "Thomas Fairman and the Governor's House" and a number of other interesting articles.

 

Many of Hoch's articles were written up in 1960 and given to the Philadelphia Historical Commission in the hopes they would do something with them to preserve historic structures in Fishtown and Kensington. In a letter dated September 11, 1960 and written to Grant M. Simon, of Philadelphia, he states "Exert your best efforts to see that Kensington is not deprived of its rightful recognition." Hoch is asking Simon to exert his effort because Simon was the chairman of the Historical Commission in Philadelphia.

 

Another letter from Hoch to Simon has Hoch asking Simon if the commission and Dr. Tinkcom gathered any old pertinent data on old structures in Kensington. Dr. Tinkcom was the same person who would later direct the efforts of the Pennsylvania Historical and Salvage Council. Hoch tried to motivate the Historical Commission to recognize Fishtown's historical significance by his letter writing campaign and thoroughly researched articles. Nothing seems to have ever come of Hoch's efforts, but it was not for his lack of trying. It appears again that Nathaniel Burt's adage, "Proper Philadelphians did not go north of Vine Street" won out.

 

Early on in my studies into the history of Kensington, I told myself that one day I would make the trip "across the pond," to see the original "Kensington," in England. I wanted to know what was it about this place in England that moved Anthony Palmer to name his town after it.

 

In the summer of 1996, I finally got my chance. I got what one could call the poor man's sabbatical, that is, unemployment checks for the summer. My new teaching position was not going to start until September and with unemployment checks coming in, I made plans to go to Europe. I planned a ten-day research vacation in England.

 

I spent the time walking the streets of London, researching in its repositories, and took an additional short trip to Cambridge, to visit and research at Cambridge University, the prestigious medieval institution of learning.

 

My trip to Cambridge was due to the fact that they had in their library a collection of West Indies genealogical papers, which hopefully was going to help me in identifying the genealogical roots of our Kensington's founder.

 

I searched the archives at Cambridge and found some things that were helpful. I also sat on the green outside of King's College and smoked a Cuban cigar. As I did this I thought to myself, America is a great country; how many working stiffs can say they sat on the green at Cambridge and smoked a big fat Cuban cigar while on unemployment? Only in America I thought.

 

While in London, I spent several days walking her streets. The more narrow and crooked, the more interesting I found to walk it. I can safely say I walked the whole of the ancient city of London; from Kensington Gardens to Whitechapel, from Clerkenwall to Paddington, from Regent's Park to Chelsea, and all through the Docklands, all the while seeking out the haunts and homes of my favorite authors.

 

I dined at the "Olde Cheshire Cheese," on Fleet Street, a pub frequented by Dickens and Thackeray, visited Gray's Inn, famed in the writings of Boswell. I even stopped at the home of Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, and later paid tribute to Twickenham, outside of London, which was the home of neo-classical poet Alexander Pope, where I lunched at his grotto. On this same trip I walked through the area known as Richmond, a suburb of London, and the place where our own Philadelphia neighborhood of Port Richmond had gotten its name.

 

London's East End, the old working class neighborhood, mostly populated with Pakistani and Indians now, and their wonderful restaurants, was also a destination of mine. While in the East End, I visited Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where the original Liberty Bell was cast and All Hallows-by-the Tower Chapel, where President John Quincy Adams was married. Toynbee Hall, the place that marks the first Settlement House in history is also located here, and in their garden was a statue of Jane Addams, the great American social reformer of Hull House, in Chicago. This social movement founded our own neighborhood Lutheran Settlement House.

 

I spent one whole day simply touring the area known as Kensington, a wealthy section west of Central London. It is here that the famous Kensington Gardens are located, as well as the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Albert Hall. Kensington's High Street is considered one of the major shopping districts in all of London. While there I took a tour of the architecture and while viewing an old church a procession of people in a parade like fashion came out led by a woman who was the mayor of Kensington.

 

However, the best and grandest of all was my visit to Kensington Palace, the royal residence of the British Monarchs and their children since it was first founded in 1689. Most parts are off limits, but some historic rooms are open for tourists. Queen Victoria was brought up here and Princess Diana lived here as well.

 

In recounting my trip, it would seem that Anthony Palmer founded his town of Kensington in Pennsylvania, not only to honor the British Monarch, but to have a fancy name as well. He named his development after the King's residence. People at that time would have known the name of Kensington and thus it was catchy and sounded fancy.  Palmer's development was really no different then what we see today when a suburban developer comes along, buys an old farm and lays out streets with nice sounding names like Morning Glory and Sunset Dream and then names the development something like Hearthstone, or Eden Brooke, and charges you a half a million dollars to live there. It happened 275 years ago and it still happens today.

 

We had seen previously that Dr. J. Hampton Hoch had tried several times to interest Grant Simon of the Historical Commission of Philadelphia in the historical buildings of the area and to see if they would take action to preserve these structures before further deterioration, or development, removed them permanently from the landscape. Hoch had researched and written a number of articles to back up his arguments.

 

Others in the community, people like Joseph P. McGough of Palmer street and William S. Earley on Berks Street, had similar interests and took similar actions. These two gentlemen, like Hoch, corresponded with the Philadelphia Historical Commission about preserving the community's heritage.

 

In the early 1960's there was an upsurge of historical interest to protect the buildings and restore Palmer Cemetery. The building of I-95 highway and the bulldozing of block after block of houses along Fishtown's waterfront woke up neighbors, but after the I-95 was built, passivity and apathy worked its way back into the fabric of most of the residents, and much of the historical work of the previous historians was forgotten, but for a few who remained active.

 

James Smart in the early 1960's was writing local history articles in the Philadelphia Bulletin. Smart published a number of historical articles on Kensington and Fishtown. The Bulletin was not the only paper in town talking up Fishtown. In September of 1963 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a featured story on Fishtown in their Sunday Today Magazine. It featured some paintings by B. Eisenstat and pretty much said the same old things about the neighborhood.

 

On July 3, 1968, the old "Penn Treaty Gazette, " the precursor to the "Fishtown Star," began a series of articles on the history of Kensington. The articles ran over the course of the summer with at least eight articles being published. These articles were researched and written by Joseph S. Molmer and followed much what George Baker and Hampton Hoch had researched and written.

While Molmer and Baker continued along with their pursuits, the year 1982 marked the 300-year anniversary of Philadelphia. Much effort was done by the then group called the Fishtown Civic Association, with their efforts to expand Penn Treaty Park and with their publication of "Fishtown, a Slice of Life; 300 Years in Philadelphia, 1682-1982." The book had many contributors, in the likes of George Baker, Karen Grant, Ken Robertson, Julia Robinson, & Sandy Salzman, as well as others. The "Slice of Life" book was finally giving Fishtown a "book" about its history. While still not a scholarly publication, it was indeed a furthering of Baker, Hoch, and Molmer's work.

 

Today, with the advancement and possibilities of casinos descending on the area, there is again an interest brewing in the history of the area. The developers, contractors, realtors, and gentrifiers, have already converged on the community over the last several years, in some cases that they done a good job in preserving and restoring our architecture, but in other cases the buildings have been drastically altered.

 

One only has to look at the southeast corner of Hewson Street & Girard Avenue to the building with the hideous zigzag design. This home is one of a group of homes that sit along Hewson Street and along Berks Street east of Girard Avenue, and they were original homes of Dr. Thomas Dyott's utopian Dyottsville Glassworks. Built for glassworkers, these homes date to the about the 1820's-1830's, and were lived in by mainly German glassblowers. Dyott provided housing, a school, church services, and a bank, to his mainly male workers, 100 glassblowers, and about 200 apprentices

 

Perhaps now is the time when neighbors, old and new, can again begin talking about preserving Fishtown's heritage. Most of our 18th century homes are gone, but there are many interesting early 19th century homes intact, as well as important industrial buildings as well. Perhaps if the area tried to get some sort of historic designation, one would not have to worry about developers coming in and altering the landscape with structures that are out of character of the community and projects like the controversy being debated on Moyer Street would perhaps be a mute point?

 

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AMERICAN SHAD

AND THE STORY CONTINUES...

 

"When the Lord made shad The Devil was mad, For it seemed such a feast of delight.

So to poison the scheme He jumped in the stream, And stuck in the bones out of spite.

 

- An old fisherman's poem

 

Rich Remer is one of the founders (along with Torben Jenk and Ken Milano) of the Kensington History Project, a local group that researches, publishes, and lectures on the history of Kensington and Fishtown. Remer has done a tremendous amount of research on the Shad fishing of the early fishing families of Fishtown (try saying that ten times real fast).

 

According to Remer, Shad was once the second most popular fish in the United States after Cod and there was a time when the Delaware River was teeming with Shad. The "Kensington shadders" as Remer calls them, were a tight knit group, often intermarrying and living in the same general neighborhood, that being the original section of Kensington that became Fishtown and had as its borders the old creek called Gunner's Run (Aramingo Avenue & Dyott Street) on the north, the Delaware River on the east, Palmer Street on the south, and roughly Moyer Street on the west. This small section of Kensington (after all it was all Kensington before it was Fishtown) became known as Fishtown because many of the Delaware River's fishermen lived here, married here, and died here.

 

Remer's research has found that over the course of the 19th century, the fishermen families of Fishtown had "gradually bought or leased the shore fisheries of the lower Delaware River estuary and by mid-century they controlled the catch. The neighborhood was called Fishtown because these families controlled the fishing; it was "the" home for fishermen, not just for Kensington, or Philadelphia, but the whole of the Delaware Valley.

 

The surnames of these early fishermen stand out as beacons of the history of the community: Baker, Bakeoven, Bennett, Collar, Cramp, Faunce, Gosser, Pote, Rice, Shibe, Tees, and Tuttle. Of these families, the main fishing families were the Bennetts, Cramps, Faunces, Gossers, and Rices. However, many of these families served or founded local social institutions and churches, as well as played major roles in the development of Kensington's Fishtown section. Even Benjamin Shibe, the owner of the old Philadelphia Athletics baseball team hailed from a Fishtown fishing family, as well as the great shipbuilding family of William Cramp. If you stroll through Palmer Cemetery (Memphis & Palmer Streets), you will see many of these early fishermen buried on the hill along the Memphis Street side.

 

The foot of Susquehanna Avenue had been the main dock for the fishermen and it was here where you had a "veritable fish market with numerous skiffs and catboats" and it would not be uncommon to see women with baskets of fish on their heads. "Purchasers would come to the wharf and make their purchases, the "catties" and eels being skinned in their presence thus guaranteeing fresh fish." However, much of the selling of the fish was handled in town, at the fish market on Dock Street.

 

Over time the shad fisheries came to an end. The combined pressures of "over fishing, pollution, and environmental degradation." Fishtown's fishermen were left to find work elsewhere. A number of them had funneled their monies into local real estate; others went into that other popular neighborhood business of shipbuilding. Today, after "peaking in the early 1900's," Remer says that the Delaware River shad fishery has now dwindled to "one operating commercial establishment, the Lewis Fishery of Lamberton, New Jersey, and Fishtown's glorious shad seasons are forever gone."

- Special Thanks to all of the chroniclers of Fishtown's History; Jim Kingsmill, Ken Milano, Rich Remer, George Baker and many, many others. It is through their efforts that the history of our great neighborhood will be kept alive for future generations. Anyone who can help me with the histories of "Old Brick" Church, the Kensington Soup Kitchen, the Soupy Island Ferry, or other Fishtown landmarks; PLEASE contact me at aoh51phil@yahoo.com.


 

Sketches of Fishtown

By Jeff Kilpatrick

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These are just a few of the many sketches Jeff has done honoring the people, places and things that make Fishtown a great community. Check out Volume 1 and 2 of Sketches of Fishtown, and watch the Fishtown Spirit every week for new "Sketches of Fishtown".

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DIVISION 51 - FISHTOWN
1617 East Eyre Street, Philadelphia PA 19125