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Matthias Baldwin in Wissinoming

The history articles on this website are generally about the history of sites within two blocks of Matthias Baldwin Park. These land-based articles are occasionally interspersed with articles about Matthias Baldwin himself. This is one of those biographical articles, specifically discussing the Frankford and Wissinoming sections of Philadelphia. Baldwin got his Philadelphia start in Frankford in 1811, and spent much of his last years in the Wissinoming section of Frankford until his death in 1866. This article will examine the Baldwin presence in Frankford and the changes to his property in Wissinoming since his death.

To recap material that was discussed in another website article here:

Matthias Baldwin (1795-1866) was born in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. His father was a carriage maker who died when Matthias was four years old. Matthias was educated by his mother and moved to Frankford when he was sixteen to serve a five-year jeweler's apprenticeship with the Woolworth Brothers, Richard Champion Woolworth and Danforth Woolworth. The Woolworths were first cousins of Oren Colton, Baldwin’s future brother-in-law, and that may have been the connection that earned him his apprenticeship.

Richardson Wright of Frankford served with Baldwin in the State Legislature and through his descendants left some biographical notes to the Frankford Historical Society. According to this information, Matthias Baldwin lived at the northwest corner of Pine and Main Street (now Church and Frankford Streets respectively) in the house later purchased by Doctor J. F. Lamb. Baldwin’s first jewelry shop was at the southwest corner of Orthodox and Main Streets, a few blocks north.

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1849 map of Frankford from here. North is to the right. The blue dot represents Baldwin’s living quarters at what is now Frankford and Church, and the red dot his work space at Orthodox and Frankford (Main Street).

The Baldwin name along Paul Street (4401 Paul Street) in the lower center of the map belongs to William Baldwin; no close relation to Matthias.

In 1817 Baldwin found work as a journeyman jeweler at the esteemed shops of Fletcher and Gardiner at 130 Chestnut Street. In 1819 he decided to start his own jewelry and engraving business at 1 College Avenue, near today's 10th and Market Streets, just in time for jewelry to fall out of fashion. He struggled in the jewelry business until, in 1825, saying that he was tired of making "gewgaws," he joined with friend David Mason and started a business making machines to print book bindings and calico cloth. This was in a narrow alley above Walnut Street between 4th and 5th Streets. His inventiveness in the production meant that these machines no longer had to be imported, and the business did well. In 1828, Mason dropped out of the business and Matthias moved from "Bank-Coffee House Alley" to 14 Minor Street a few blocks away. He built a stationary steam engine in 1829 to better serve the power needs of the factory, and in 1831 he built a small-scale passenger locomotive for Franklin Peale's museum. Engines became his business. In 1831 he moved again, to 1 Lodge Alley, across the street from where the Woolworth brothers had lived from 1823 to 1825 at 2 Lodge Alley. He and Peale cajoled a security guard into letting them have a look at a recent locomotive imported from England, and Baldwin decided that he could build an engine of this size as well. In 1832 he reverse-engineered a full-scale locomotive, Old Ironsides, for the Philadelphia Germantown & Norristown Railroad. Other orders followed, and he outgrew his small shop in Lodge Alley. In 1835 he moved to a factory at Broad and Hamilton and gradually expanded the business westward until it reached 19th Street.

 


Baldwin did well. He bought a plot of land in the 1850s and built a mansion as a summer home, just south of where Wissinoming Creek emptied into the Delaware River. After his death in 1866 the mansion became a home for older women.

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Portion of Barnes map of 1855 shows the Baldwin presence in the center of image. Wissinoming Creek and Little Wissinoming Creek have since been culverted and paved over. The site of the Frankford Arsenal (1816-1977) is in the lower left of the image, just downriver from the Baldwin Mansion. The Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad tracks parallel the Delaware River.

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This photo is from the back cover of the 1893 Annual Report of the Old Ladies’ Home and shows the Baldwin Mansion before it was renovated and enlarged.

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Home in 1898 after additions on each side.

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Colorized postcard circa 1916 with symmetrical lateral additions. The original Baldwin Mansion is barely discernable.

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1870 map of the Baldwin Estate as shown four years after his death. The mansion, greenhouse, stables, and pig pen can be seen on the image below from source here.

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Enlarged section of the above 1870 map of the Baldwin Estate.

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The Wissinoming Station on the Philadelphia and Trenton line was built directly across from Baldwin’s home. North is towards the top.

By the time of this map, the Baldwin Homestead Association of Wissinoming, incorporated in 1888, owned the two adjoining rectangular lots at the center right of image. On the left of the image is the Robert Cornelius estate, he of the first photographic selfie in 1839, with the estate becoming today’s expansive Wissinoming Park. The Lardner estate is the current site of the Lardner Pumping Station, which pumps treated water from the Baxter plant to most of the Baldwin Park neighborhood.

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Blow-up of a portion of the above map shows the pink building on the right denoting the Baldwin Mansion on State Road between Comly (bottom) and Benner (top) Streets. The Wissinoming Station provided easy access for Baldwin to get from his city homes, the last being at 1118 Chestnut Street.

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Google Earth image of the current state of the defunct Wissinoming Stations, which are now abandoned shells. They are on either side of the tracks at the left center. State Street runs vertically on the right and Comly Street runs horizontally on the bottom, with the bridge over Comly Street seen at bottom left.

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Portion of map from 1888 showing the proposed development of the first allotment of sites from the Baldwin estate. There would be a second allotment of proposed residential sites between the Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad tracks and the Delaware River, both running vertically on the right, but this second allotment with easy rail and river access would be developed as industrial properties.

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By 1894 the subdividing has begun. North is to the right. Baldwin Street is a proposed Street running just south of his former mansion, which in 1876 was converted into the Old Ladies’ Home. The Baldwin estate is by the time of this image mostly in the redefined 35th Ward. Comly Street running just south of the Baldwin estate bears the maiden name of the wife of Robert Cornelius.

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Notice from the Philadelphia Inquirer of January 20, 1905, clarifies the admission criteria for the Old Ladies’ Home: woman, Pennsylvanian, over age 65, can afford $250, and white. This last criterion would have made Matthias Baldwin, a staunch supporter of racial equity, roll over in his grave.

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Ad in the Inquirer from September 24, 1919, showing the staff was also segregated. As can be seen in the three ads, discrimination was pervasive in hiring.

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The entrance to the Old Ladies’ Home from Tacony Street is seen on the right in 1905. State Road in the Tacony and Frankford sections of Philadelphia was renamed today’s Tacony Street in 1894. Interstate-95 would take the place of the houses on the left in the 1960s.

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Another view of the entrance. Date uncertain.

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This 1916 plan of a municipal recreation pier at Comly Street was rejected, but a smaller version was built. This would have been right at the location of the Old Ladies’ Home. A locomotive pulling several cars can be seen on the Kensington and Tacony (K&T) tracks in center background. The K&T was a local rail line used for freight. It was built east of the Philadelphia and Trenton line, very close to the Delaware River.

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Google Earth view of Comly Street on the far left, the now-dilapidated pier just to its north, and the Wissinoming Yacht Club at the upper right.

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The Old Ladies’ Home circa 1940, when 111 women over the age of 65 were living there. Over the years multiple additions had been built onto the original Baldwin mansion. This is the last known photo before the home burned down in 1959.

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End of the road for the Old Ladies’ Home in 1954. At this time the home had 40 residents. The home had been ordered closed in January of 1954 after solicitations did not achieve enough funding to do necessary repairs. The building was vacant when it burned down in December of 1954.

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This first ad for the Quaker City Flea Market appeared in the June 14, 1974 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The market is still going strong after 50 years. It is on the southern edge of the Baldwin home site.

The Frankford Arsenal was just downriver from the Baldwin estate, and the Tacony Iron Works was just upriver. Home associations like the Wissinoming Mutual Land and Improvement Association (incorporated 1884) and the Baldwin Homestead Association helped workers in the surrounding industries find affordable building lots in Wissinoming’s verdant riverfront neighborhood. In 1887 there were only 69 houses in Wissinoming; by 1909 there were 900, plus 70 new businesses and four churches.

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This was at Devereaux Street on the north end of the former Baldwin property.

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Portion of 1962 land use map  showing the row of tiny boathouses (labeled “D”) along the former Baldwin property. North is towards the upper right corner. The Wissinoming Station of the Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad is at top left. The Reading Railroad’s Kensington & Tacony Railroad borders the Baldwin property towards the Delaware River. Both of these rail lines will be discussed below. The flag-shaped boat pier for the Wissinoming Yacht Club is seen at top right.

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A 1908 postcard from here showing the river level boat houses

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Venice on the Delaware: Boathouses along the Delaware River in 1935. These houses would be demolished in the 1950s to make room for expansion of the Quaker City Rubber Company. Electrical power transmission lines used the Kensington & Tacony Railroad right-of-way and can be seen above the houses. The houses were wedged in between the train tracks and the river, as seen on the 1962 land use map above.

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The Baldwin estate as built out in 2023, outlined in pink. North is to the left. Inland from the Delaware Expressway (I-95) and the Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad tracks, it is residential. On the river side of the tracks, it is mostly industrial, except for a square block between Milnor and Tacony and Homestead and Comly Streets. The Wissinoming Yacht Club is still there in the upper left with the T-shaped pier. The Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, opened in 1929 to replace the ferry located there, is just out of view in the upper left. Interstate 95, known as the Delaware Expressway but officially named the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway along its Pennsylvania segment, was constructed in the 1960s through Wissinoming.

There were two rail lines bracketing the Baldwin estate. The Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad was chartered in 1831 with the intention of having a route from Walnut Street in the City of Philadelphia to Trenton, New Jersey. Track was laid from Morrisville to Kensington along the Delaware River, but in Kensington the locals opposed the rail line through their neighborhood. High-speed locomotives were dangerous to pedestrians and carts, and the embers from the smokestacks were fire hazards. The neighbors would rip up track placed for the railroad, and caused riots that required a heavy police presence. The P&T was therefore ended at Montgomery Avenue, about where the Kensington High School for Creative Arts is today. Like most railroads of the time, the P&T relied on horses to pull the train cars initially, but in 1834 the line bought Matthias Baldwin’s fifth locomotive, the Trenton, for $6,000. The locomotive could travel at 30 miles per hour from Kensington to Morrisville for a round-trip fare of $1.50. This line is still in use as a passenger line for the SEPTA Trenton line. Service to the Wissinoming Station was discontinued in 2003 due to low ridership. The dilapidated former stations on either side of the tracks are still visible on concrete pads just off Comly Street west of I-95.

In 1892 the five-mile-long Kensington & Tacony Railroad (K&T) was built even closer to the Delaware River than the P&T. It allowed access for the industry along the river, including Disston saw works, Edwin Fitler’s cordage works, and the Frankford Arsenal. The line was abandoned in the 1980s after the rail bridge over Frankford Creek burned and there was not enough traffic to justify the cost of its replacement. The right-of-way lay fallow until 2016, when ground was broken for the first segment of a rails-to-trails recreation path. It is a 12-foot-wide paved trail with many historical markers lining the path. This is currently only a mile long, but plans are for northern and southern extensions.

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Plaque along the K&T Trail honoring the site of Baldwin’s summer mansion, which was converted in 1888 to the Old Ladies’ Home.

Another Frankford connection to Baldwin is the Hermon Presbyterian Church at Frankford Avenue and Harrison Street, as discussed in our article about his church philanthropy here. This was the last church construction he funded before his death in 1866.

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The 3.7-acre Upper Athletic Field at Frankford High School was originally called Baldwin Field. This was not connected to Matthias Baldwin as some believe, but to the Frank B. Baldwin family who ran a milk distribution business in Frankford. Frank had begun a milk business as an after-school job in 1892, and was soon joined by his father. The office and plant were located at Foulkrod and Duffield Streets. The field house on the athletic field was demolished in 1970 to provide more grassy playing space. The Baldwins also donated the milk plant building to the community to become the Northeast Frankford Boys (and later also Girls) Club.

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Baldwin (Frank B. that is) delivery truck in 1912.

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The Baldwin milk business became first Baldwin Frankford Dairies in 1965, and then in 1972 Balford Farms, a portmanteau of “Baldwin” and “Frankford.” It is seen here making an early morning delivery to the Starbucks at 20th and Callowhill Streets. The Granary Apartments are in the background.

Unpublished draft article

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