Hugo and Baldwin Park

(no spoilers)
On August 29 at 7:30 the Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park are hosting a free outdoor movie screening in the Park. The feature is Hugo, a 2011 film based on Brian Selznick's 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. When the Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park were debating which movie to show for our first movie night (hopefully an annual event!), someone suggested Hugo because it was about trains, an obvious connection to our Park, but there are other neighborhood connections between the movie and the Park. First, the train connection.
Baldwin Locomotive Works at Broad and Spring Garden Streets around 1900. By 1922 the factory buildings had extended to 19th and Hamilton and occupied 3/4 of what will become Matthias Baldwin Park.
Production at the Baldwin Locomotive Works reached its peak around 1895, turning out about 6 locomotives per day. Powerful locomotives were a symbol of human technology, but with this technology came certain dangers. In 1895 the surface rail tracks down Pennsylvania Avenue just south of Hamilton Street crossed multiple north-south streets, including Broad Street, and were hazardous to pedestrians and horse carts. In 1895 alone there were 221 accidental deaths in Philadelphia related to the railroads. The Callowhill Cut, an open subway, was planned at this time to mitigate these risks. Similar dangers were elsewhere. In Paris in 1895 there was a train that failed to come to a stop at the Montparnasse Station (the setting for Hugo), which amazingly killed only one person, and this real event is portrayed in the movie.
In 1895 this train came into the Montparnasse Station in Paris too fast and failed to stop. Look for a similar scene in Hugo.
Another connection to the Baldwin Park neighborhood involves a main character in the movie and the Franklin Institute. In 1928, while the Franklin Institute was still at 15 South 7th Street, it received a donation of an automaton, a machine like a primitive robot, in this case one that writes. This automaton was in disrepair, and had been through a fire, and believed by the donor to have been made by an inventor named Maelzel circa 1800. When repaired, the automaton wrote in the lower margin of a poem: "Ecrit par L'Automate de Maillardet," or "Written by the automaton of Maillardet," the real inventor revealed by the invention.
Poem in French written in the "hand" of the repaired Maillardet automaton at the Franklin Institute, revealing its real inventor.
Maillardet automaton on permanent display in the Amazing Machines exhibit at the Franklin Institute. The rotating brass cams in the box below the desk are linked to armatures which make the hand move left to right, forward and backward, and up and down.
An automaton, and its writings, play a key role in Hugo. The design of the movie automaton and several plot points were inspired by Maillardet's automaton that book author Brian Selznick had seen in the Franklin Institute.
Which brings us to the third Hugo-Baldwin Park connection: early film.
 
In 1895, a 50-second film was produced by the Lumière brothers in France. The film, also a plot point in Hugo, was screened for audiences, who were astonished, and some say terrified, at the visual of a moving train approaching them at a train station (see film here).
Georges Méliès, a major character in Hugo, was an early French film maker, famous for movies like Le Voyage dans la Lune in 1902 (thirteen-minute classic film that figures in Hugo can be seen here). Our neighborhood can boast of having one of the early heroes of film history as well.
 
The William Sellers Company was started in 1847 between 16th and 17th Street south of Hamilton Street. It was an integral part of the local locomotive industry, manufacturing screws and building heavy duty equipment like the hoists used in the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Coleman Sellers, the second cousin of William Sellers and the grandchild of Charles Wilson Peale, was the chief engineer at the company. He developed over 150 patents, mostly metal equipment and manufacturing processes. In 1861, he also patented the Kinematoscope (US Patent 31357), a primitive film projector based on the idea of cartoon "flip books." You can see the 8-second movie here (light on plot but, hey, it's 1861). He also gave us the term "cinema." There is a 50-minute documentary about Philadelphia's role in the early film industry here, definitely worth viewing before watching Hugo. The documentary is in segments: watch the 8 minute segment, which is part 2, about Coleman Sellers before navigating the rest of the web site.
Coleman Sellers, like many industrialists of Philadelphia's late 19th century, lived north of Spring Garden Street, four blocks from his factory.
North of Spring Garden: families of gentlemen in fine town houses.
South of Spring Garden: smoke, soot, and the sound of iron being hammered into shape by the muscles of strong men.
The house at the northeast corner of 18th and Mount Vernon Streets still stands.
Detail from 1895 Bromley map showing expansion of  the Sellers factory to the two city blocks south of the planned third US Mint, which was completed in 1901. Coleman Sellers was the chief engineer.
Tatlow Street on the map bisects the current Baldwin Park.
The three main connections from our neighborhood to Hugo are the trains, the automaton at the Franklin Institute, and early movie-making. There are also braided relationships, apart from Hugo, between these three within the neighborhood: the Sellers cousins, Matthias Baldwin, and the Franklin Institute will be listed below:
 
  • As the much anticipated mural at 417 North 20th Street will show, the Baldwin 60000 in the mural is placed in a Baldwin Locomotive Works factory scene. The background locomotives made by Baldwin are being lifted by mobile hoists made by the Sellers. That's a "three-fer" as far as connections. Speaking of the mural, if you really want to stretch for a "four-fer," it could be noted that Coleman Sellers lived next door to Thomas Eakins, one of Philadelphia's best known painters. Coleman showed young Tom the principles of photography, and Eakins went on to become a prodigious photographic artist. The Mural Arts program is now housed in the Thomas Eakins house at 1727-29 Mount Vernon Street.
  • Coleman Sellers was a gifted photographer as well as videographer. He functioned as the company photographer for Baldwin Locomotive Works (BLW) for their marketing brochures until BLW took the job in house around 1870.
  • William Sellers was the fourth President of the Franklin Institute, from 1864 to 1866. During his presidency he presented a paper at the Franklin Institute that set in motion the standardization of screw threads. Coleman Sellers became the sixth president of the Franklin Institute, from 1870 to 1874.
Plaque in the Franklin Institute on the first floor, next to the elevators at the business entrance.
  • Another Coleman Sellers connection to the Park is via his mother and uncle. As noted, Charles Wilson Peale was the grandfather of Coleman Sellers through Coleman's mother Sophonisba, who was the second youngest child of Peale from his first marriage. Peale had run a popular museum in Philadelphia, and in 1831 Benjamin Franklin Peale, his third child from a second marriage, was running the museum. This latter Peale asked Matthias Baldwin, jeweler turned stationary steam engine builder, to make him a small locomotive to pull cars around an indoor track as a novelty ride in the museum. This small scale engine inspired local freight haulers to seek out Baldwin as a builder of standard scale locomotives. Baldwin thus built his first locomotive for the uncle of Coleman Sellers. And as most locals know, Baldwin's 60,000th locomotive has been on display in the Franklin Institute for the last 86 years.
Grave stone for the parents of movie-maker Coleman Sellers in West Laurel Hill cemetery. Sophonisba was the half-sibling of Franklin Peale, who gave Matthias Baldwin his first locomotive commission.
I hope you enjoy Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese and nominated for 11 Academy Awards, perhaps even more after exploring the local connections.
authored by Joe Walsh, August 2019

Matthias Baldwin Park 

423 N 19th St 

Philadelphia, PA 19130

Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to preserve the Matthias Baldwin Park

© 2018 Friends of Matthias Baldwin Park