The Legacy of Robert Morris
If you sit on a bench in the north side of Baldwin Park, you will be facing the Callowhill Cut, a swath of dug earth that heralds back to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Behind you will be Spring Garden Street, which formerly bore the name of this signer, and which terminated at his estate that became the first land acquired for Fairmount Park. He had a presence at the Fairmount Water Works to our west and at Independence Hall to our east. This article discusses that man.
Statue of Robert Morris behind the former Second Bank of the United States, now a portrait gallery containing his portrait and that of other founders. Morris' portrait in the hall was painted in 1782 by Charles Wilson Peale.
Robert Morris (1734-1806) was born in Liverpool, England, raised there until the age of 13, then emigrated to Maryland to work with his father, a tobacco agent. When his father died in 1850, 16-year-old Robert inherited a sizable estate and eventually became partner with Thomas Willing after the death of Willing's father, Charles Willing (then serving as Philadelphia mayor), in a shipping and banking firm. In 1769 Morris married Mary White and the two had seven children, living on Front Street like most Philadelphia merchants. The portraits of Robert and Mary hang in the Second Bank portrait gallery (for a ten-minute video tour see here.)
After shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, Morris' political inclinations superseded his business interests, though they were often intertwined. Although a less radical member of the Continental Congress, he became instrumental in smuggling gunpowder, directing privateers and the new Continental navy, banking and the financing of the Revolution, and working on trade agreements with other countries. Morris supported reconciliation with Great Britain, but he ended up signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Articles of Confederation in 1781. He completed the trifecta in 1787 by being one of the 36 signers of the United States Constitution as part of the seven-member Pennsylvania delegation. Roger Sherman of Connecticut is the only other founder to sign all three.
In 1788 Morris purchased Springettsbury Manor from John Penn Jr. and built his country estate "The Hills" on its western edge, now the site of Lemon Hill Mansion. Morris returned to business ventures after 1790, at times speculating in risky land and business ventures. One of these ventures was the Delaware and Schuylkill Canal Company, chartered in 1791 with Morris as its president. The plan of this company and another that Morris headed was to connect Philadelphia and Pittsburgh by canal and cart. Morris and his speculating investors spent $440,000 (today about $15 million) before giving up, hindered by the financial panics of 1792 and 1797 and the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Morris ended up in debtors' prison from February 1798 to August 1801, at which time he was released still owing $3 million to his creditors. He died destitute in 1806 in Philadelphia and was buried in Christ Church Burying Ground. His body rests in the family vault of Bishop William White, his brother-in-law.
Portion of 1774 map from the Library of Congress shows the extent of Springgatsbury (sic) Manor.
We think of a country manor as a fine house surrounded by a few acres of gardens, but Springettsbury Manor was 1850 acres, almost three square miles. The City of Philadelphia itself at that time was about two square miles.
The Hills, later Lemon Hill, will be along the Schuylkill River where the yellow box is located.
The Hills, the summer home of Morris from 1770 to 1799. After Morris was sent to debtor's prison, the estate was confiscated and the building demolished.
The Lemon Hill Mansion now occupies this site. The mansion was built by Henry Pratt, and in 1844 this 43-acre parcel was sold to the City of Philadelphia as the beginnings of Fairmount Park, a series of acquisitions done to preserve the upriver Schuylkill River water supply from pollution.
The curved line on the upper left of this image from 1797 represents the proposed and partially dug canal that originated near the Morris estate on the Schuylkill. The goal was to connect with Pegg's Run, a smaller creek running from near Broad Street to the Delaware River. Pegg's Run lies in the shaded valley running from right to left.
Portion of a map of a proposed "New Plan of the City of Philadelphia and Environs" from 1811. Although drawn up five years after the death of Robert Morris, this map shows the extensive water system proposed for Philadelphia and Penn Township.
The canal from the Schuylkill to the Delaware was partially dug as far as Broad Street, done by hand to a depth of around five feet. Railroads were in the air, so to speak, and attention turned to converting this strip of land into a railroad route, instead of a canal route, as discussed in our article on the Callowhill Cut here.
As the Bush Hill neighborhood was fitted to the standard Philadelphia street grid, the road running to the Upper Ferry (the current site of the Spring Garden Street bridge) eventually as far east as Broad Street was named in honor of Morris. The same road east of Broad Street was called Spring Garden Avenue. Morris Street was a major thoroughfare for tourists arriving at the spectacular Fairmount Water Works and for accessing West Philadelphia.
Portion of a map from 1810 showing Morris Street running from the Schuylkill River at the site of the upper ferry to the Bush Hill estate east of 19th Street (then called Schuylkill 4th Street). By 1820 Morris Street would run continuously to Broad Street.
The ferry would be replaced by the longest arched bridge in the world in 1813.
Morris Street would be renamed Spring Garden Street from Broad to Coates (formerly Francis and, since 1873, Fairmount) Street in 1858.
Portion of a map from 1840 showing Morris Street running from the Fairmount Water Works with its reservoirs to Broad Street. At Broad Street the street continued at a slight offset to the south and was called Spring Garden from Broad Street to its terminus at 6th Street. That offset is still evident today.
After an 1871 widening project, Spring Garden Street at 120 feet wide became one of the widest streets in Philadelphia. Broad Street is 113 feet wide.
The Fairmount Water Works was Philadelphia's principal tourist attraction after the early works were completed in 1815, of interest both for its architecture and its engineering. The first Spring Garden Street Bridge, the wooden covered bridge, is seen to the right of the hill holding the reservoirs. The canal and lock is in left foreground.
This plaque on the northern wall of the current Spring Garden Street Bridge gives the history of the three prior bridges. Each of these bridges was an engineering marvel and elegant in its geometry.
Tourists needed accommodations.
The Robert Morris Hotel and Fairmount House, built just inland of the forebay at the Water Works in 1836 and razed in 1868.
A life-size portrait of Morris graced the central stairway.
The hotel would be about where Lloyd Hall is today.
Coates Street is today's Fairmount Avenue.
Looking north or south from Baldwin Park, one should be reminded of Robert Morris. He is a lesser known founder of our republic, but he has memorials to his presence from Baldwin Park to Independence Hall. Here are some of them, moving from Baldwin Park towards Independence Hall.