Locomotive Pioneers in the Neighborhood

Everyone in our neighborhood knows the name Matthias W. Baldwin, for whom our Park is named. He was a mechanical engineer who made his name and fortune building steam locomotives in the neighborhood from 1835 to 1866, and his company at its peak went on to turn out six giant locomotives per day and employ close to 20,000 Philadelphians.

You get extra credit for knowing the names of William Sellers and Joseph Harrison; major points for knowing William Norris, Asa Whitney, and Oliver Evans. This brief article places those names in the Baldwin Park neighborhood and will also serve as an overview for separate articles on Norris, Sellers, and Whitney. Evans and Harrison will be discussed at greater length here.

The Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1884, looking southwest.

The corner of Broad and Spring Garden Streets is in lower right.

These sketches are amazingly accurate, as a look at the other sketches in this article shows. The aerial sketches are done by an artist sketching the buildings at ground level, then combining them in an imagined aerial reference frame.

The first innovator with connections to our neighborhood was Oliver Evans (1755-1819), the Leonardo da Vinci of early 19th century Philadelphia. He was a pioneer in steam engines. Prior to steam engines, most factories and mills had to be located next to streams in order to use the flowing water to turn the shafts that supplied motion to the machines. Stationary steam engines allowed non-riparian factories, like those in our neighborhood. Evans patented a high-pressure steam engine in 1790, providing more horsepower, and set up an automated grist mill that required fewer employees. In 1790 he received the United States patent #3 for his automated grist mill, powered by flowing water. He set up a labor-saving mill for George Washington and for our own neighborhood's Sellers family in 1816.

 

Besides improved efficiency from the high-pressure engine of Evans, Philadelphian Josiah White aided output with two innovations: his discovery in 1815 of a way to ignite anthracite coal and also a method to transport it from northeastern Pennsylvania. No longer would machines in factories or mills depend on the muscles of animals, on water, or on wind.

 

Steam engines also made our neighborhood by being employed in transport along the railroad line established in 1832. "Locomotive," as opposed to stationary, engines were those supplying the power to change location. Evans foresaw quotidian steam locomotion on land and water, and built working prototypes of an amphibious car. In 1805 he laid out the necessary components of vapor-compression refrigeration, a device built three decades later by an associate, Jacob Perkins, that rang the death knell for ice houses. Evans founded the Mars Iron Works for building steam engines at 9th and Vine in 1806. Evans could be a bit testy, and he spent his later years dedicating himself to patent disputes, which he had carefully justified in his 1805 book here. Four days after he died in 1819, his shop burned down, and his famously-surnamed sons-in-law, James Rush and John Muhlenberg, relocated to the southwest corner of 17th and Spring Garden Streets.

Evans built the first high-pressure steam engine in the United States in 1801. Flowing water had supplied the power to mills and factories prior to steam engines. These steam engines made it possible to have factories and mills located at a distance from rivers as long as the water for producing steam could be pumped in.

The Oructor Amphibolus, or Amphibious Digger.

In 1804 Evans drove this dredger down the streets of Philadelphia to the Schuylkill River, then down the river to the port on the Delaware River. It weighed 15 tons, was 30 feet long, and was powered by a 5-horsepower steam engine. Presumably the rear wheels could pivot and be steered, although this is not obvious from the sketch. It broke down and was parked for six months outside Evans' flour store at 9th and Market Streets.

The vehicle proved ineffective as a dredger, but was the first automobile in the United States and the first amphibious vehicle in the world.

Licensing agreement between Oliver Evans and John Sellers that automated Sellers' mill using flowing water. The power would be supplied by steam engines starting in 1869.

Evans was the first in the country to automate grain elevator operations. Image from 1887 booklet here. Our neighborhood granary would not add a grain elevator to its warehouse until 1873.

How many times have you passed this State historical marker on Kelly Drive at the start of Boat House Row and not noticed the name of Oliver Evans?

The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania is the largest mural in the State Capitol in Harrisburg, honoring Penn, Franklin and 26 other dignitaries. In it, Oliver Evans is standing at far right in the tan coat.

The next to come to the neighborhood was William Norris, who, along with his partner Stephen Long, opened a locomotive factory in 1833 at the southwest corner of 17th and Spring Garden Streets. They broke a hole into the Rush and Muhlenberg plant to tap into their steam engine shafting for power. By the time the business folded in 1866, they had turned out over a thousand steam locomotives and briefly had become the largest builder of locomotives in the United States.

View in 1855 looking north up 17th Street with the expanded Norris Locomotive Works straddling the street. The site of the Rush and Muhlenberg Works would be in the upper left just outside of this sketch.

Norris was not an engineer, but he was smart enough to hire a young and gifted mechanical engineer by the name of Joseph Harrison (1810-1874). Harrison learned much from his one-year stint at Norris, mostly what mistakes to avoid from the early prototypes. In 1835 he was hired by Andrew Eastwick and the two set up a factory at 12th and Willow Streets (the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad ran on Willow east of Broad Street). That same year Matthias Baldwin set up shop at Broad and Hamilton Streets, so, including Norris, there was a locomotive factory every two blocks from 12th Street to 18th Street.

Harrison developed a mechanism to have more than one set of drive wheels on a locomotive, each set with an equal distribution of the load, allowing it to haul heavier loads. In 1843 Czar Nicholas I of Russia enticed Harrison to build a railroad from Moscow to St. Petersburg, a distance of 400 miles. The condition was that Russian materials and labor need be used, so Harrison sold his patent for the equalizing lever to Matthias Baldwin and said "Do svidaniya" to Philadelphia for fourteen years.

 

Due to Harrison's hard work and creativity, his patron the Czar was quite generous towards him. In 1857 Harrison returned to Philadelphia a wealthy man, having had built in 1856 a mansion on the east side of Rittenhouse Square. Other mansions of the nouveau riche would follow, eventually making the square Philadelphia's high rent district.

When Harrison returned to Philadelphia he developed a safety boiler and opened a shop on Gray's Ferry Road near the federal arsenal there. His boiler was ingenious. One of the hazards of high-pressure boilers was that of explosion. Harrison put the strongest structure, a sphere, in the smallest possible size, in an array that acted as a single much larger boiler. A safety valve mechanism to release excessive pressure was built into each sphere. His boiler was widely adopted for stationary and locomotive engines.

At the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, there is a room dedicated to models of historic locomotives. This 1839 locomotive from Eastwick & Harrison is on display as an early 4-4-0 type. The three-digit type classification describes the number of wheels under the front truck; then the number of drive wheels; then the number of wheels behind the drive wheels.

Portion of the City Atlas from 1910 showing Harrison's mansion preeminent on Rittenhouse Square.

After his return from Russia, Harrison bought up the east side of Rittenhouse Square and moved into his mansion built in 1856. It was one of the finer houses in Philadelphia and held his art collection.

This sketch from 1887 shows the Harrison Mansion, the three story central building with the two shorter pedimented wings, taking up most of the block on the east side of Rittenhouse Square.

It was demolished in the early 1920's: replaced by the Penn Athletic Club from 1925-1939; and that building turned into condos in 2007 as the Parc Rittenhouse. See outside link here.

In May of 1869 the golden spike was driven into the rails at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, signally the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Harrison, Sellers, and Bement were three machinists with neighborhood connections who took out separate full page ads in the 1869 Union Pacific commemorative 64-page book. In this Harrison ad, note the explosion mortality and morbidity listed at top. The 50-horsepower boiler sketched on the right is a powerful engine for its time. Recall that Oliver Evans' 15-ton amphibious vehicle was powered by a 5-hp engine.

This is a table from the 1958 book Philadelphia Gentlemen, showing the top incomes in Philadelphia in 1864. The over $100,000 bracket was the top bracket. Matthew Baird was the partner of Matthias Baldwin in 1864. Four of the top ten incomes were earned by locomotive builders: Baldwin, Baird, Norris, and Harrison. The inflation adjustment to today is 17-fold, i.e. Baldwin's income today would be roughly $3.5 million.

View looking northwest from Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1887. The Falls of Schuylkill Bridge (now East Falls Bridge) is in the back while the bridge for the Richmond branch of the Reading Railroad is in the foreground.

Same view in 2020.

A beautiful resting place for a locomotive builder who had his start one block from the current Baldwin Park, although the view is adulterated now by the Route 1 bridges.

Harrison's partner, Andrew M. Eastwick, was buried in 1879 in Woodlands Cemetery, closer to his estate and Bartram's Gardens, which he purchased in 1850.

William Sellers (1824-1905) and partner Edward Bancroft began a machine shop in Kensington in 1848. In 1853, they moved to new structures on the block bounded by 16th and 17th and Hamilton and Pennsylvania Avenue. After Bancroft died in 1855, Sellers was joined by his brother John and later by his cousin Coleman. Their business was making big machines that were used for making other big machines, and also constructing shafting to provide power in factories. Their older relatives Charles and Escol Sellers had been in the locomotive business, but by the time William's firm settled in the neighborhood, they were two decades late to the party and wisely went into the business of supplying the neighborhood locomotive builders rather than competing with them.

Coleman Sellers apparently was the neighborhood eulogizer. Read Coleman Sellers memorial to Harrison here and his 1885 tribute to Oliver Evans, given at the Franklin Institute, here.

Lithograph from 1868 book looking east toward the Sellers factory complex.
17th Street is in the foreground. Hamilton Street bisects the image. The narrow building along the rail tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue on the right is the Asa Whitney Wheel Works. Asa Whitney had been a partner with Matthias Baldwin, but decided to specialize in wheels.
The low slung building on far left with the multiple chimneys was the blacksmith shop for the Norris Locomotive Works, which abandoned the site in 1866. The pair of white buildings on the left in this image were also part of the Norris Works before acquisition by Sellers in 1868.

The next few monthly articles will look individually at Norris, Sellers, and Whitney.

authored by Joe Walsh,October 2020

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

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