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Asa Whitney Car Wheel Works

Painting by Samuel Sartain circa 1860 of the Asa Whitney and Sons' Car Wheel Works on the north side of the 1600 block of Callowhill Street.

This is now the site of a Community College of Philadelphia parking garage.

This is the story of a Baldwin Locomotive Works spinoff. Asa Whitney (1791-1874) was a machinist in New York prior to moving to Philadelphia in 1842, where he became a partner in the young Baldwin Locomotive Works. He left Baldwin in 1846 to start his own business, in 1848 moving to the north side of the 1600 block of Callowhill Street, covering the entire block between Callowhill Street and the rail line on Pennsylvania Avenue. He had perfected a method (described here) of manufacturing cast-iron railroad wheels and became the largest manufacturer of car wheels in the country. Asa Whitney would leave the firm to his sons in 1860 to become president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad.

Asa died in 1874 at his home at 249 North 18th Street, leaving an estate valued at $1 million ($23 million adjusted to today's dollars). This house, just south of Vine Street and next to the future Gynacean Hospital, was demolished in 1950 for the Vine Street widening project. His sons George, John, and James managed the business until bankruptcy in 1891, as reported in the New York Times here. George had died in 1885, leaving an estate of $300,000 ($6 million today). All the properties were sold off at a sheriff's sale in 1896 and 1897, with the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad acquiring the Car Wheel Works site.

Caveat: if you research Asa Whitney it can get confusing. An unrelated and contemporaneous Asa Whitney (1797-1872) was a New York merchant who in 1844 had proposed a transcontinental railroad across the United States. The information on and pictures of the two men are often interpolated. 

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For almost half the nineteenth century, the company started by Matthias Baldwin did not bear his name. It was Baldwin & Whitney from 1842 to 1846, as this 1920 listing shows.
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Portion of 1888 City Atlas showing the Whitney facility between 16th and 17th Streets adjoining the surface tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue.
In 1866 the Whitney business also bought the upper half of the block to the west of the Car Wheel Works, seen connected to the works by train tracks from the Pennsylvania Avenue line.
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Asa Whitney wheels on Baldwin Locomotive #1154 at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park.
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Photos from 2020 showing a locomotive in the Franklin Institute and a close-up of the wheels. Asa Whitney's patent on the annealing process for solid wheels made heavier and more powerful locomotives possible. Train wheels are like automobile wheels: there is a wheel around which a tire is placed. In the case of trains, the tires were three-inch thick iron which could be worn and replaced more easily than replacing the whole wheel.
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The children of the nouveau riche often developed expensive collections.
George Whitney, by the time he died in 1885, had acquired a significant art collection, including this 1867 painting by Stephen Guy which would end up hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The title of the painting, Making a Train, may be a pun, as train wheel magnate Whitney reviewed the painting while it was being painted.
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Photo from 16th Street in 1899 showing the completed Callowhill Cut. The abandoned Whitney shops are on the left. The Sellers shops are on the right.
William Sellers read the obituary of George Whitney at the American Philosophical Society, as found here (free registration required).
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Portion of 1901 map showing the annihilation of the Whitney shop and replacement by a Philadelphia and Reading Railroad freight yard and a coal yard in the southwest corner of the former Whitney site.
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1955 view from SE corner of 16th and Callowhill looking west. 1600 Callowhill on left, cylindrical Reading RR coal silos in the southwest corner of the old Whitney site are on the right. The granary appears just under One Way sign.
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Portion of a 1985 aerial survey showing the Community College of Philadelphia parking lot as the white rectangle in center.
In the upper left can be seen a path across the future Baldwin Park site, which in 1985 is empty for the first time since the 1850's.
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Photo in 2020 looking west down the 1600 block of Callowhill Street. The parking lot on the left is on the former Whitney site, occupying the length of the block as Whitney did.
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Google Earth view of the top of the garage in 2020.
Most neighbors who live below five stories do not know there is a sports deck on the roof. 

The garage, built in 1984, is bordered to the north and east by a few of the rare unbuilt lots in the neighborhood. There are just over 1,000 parking spots in the garage.
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Obelisk at the grave of Asa Whitney and his wife in Woodlands Cemetery.
authored by Joe Walsh,  June 2021
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