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Philadelphia Shafting Works

18th and Hamilton Street

Whether you hit the start button on your microwave oven, your dishwasher, or your clothes washer, you initiate rotary motion that allows work to be done by the machine. You probably don't give this a thought, nor contemplate the rotary motion at the electrical power plant, the motion that turned magnets inside a coil of wire to generate the alternating current for your appliances. The concept of rotary motion to do work goes back at least 6,000 years. Humans themselves turned one millstone atop another to grind their flour. Horses and oxen eventually replaced the humans. The flow of water over a water wheel on the side of a creek replaced the literal horsepower. In the late 18th century, steam engines began to supply the rotary power for mills, machine shops, textile factories, printing presses, and paper makers. Stationary steam engines ("stationary" meaning those that don't supply the power to move vehicles) had a linearly moving piston that was connected to a flywheel via a connecting rod and crankshaft. The linear motion of the piston was converted into the rotary motion of the flywheel. This rotary motion was transferred via long metal rods along the ceiling, leather belts, pulleys, and gears to the machines in the factory that did the work. All these rods (or shafts), pulleys, and belts were referred to as "shafting" (animation of linear-to-rotary motion here).

George Vaux Cresson (1836-1908) was one of those Philadelphians with a long pedigree both in the city and in manufacturing. The first Cresson moved to Philadelphia in 1696, the widow and children of Jacques Cresson moving to 4th and Chestnut Streets. Her sons James and Solomon carried on the name. George was from the eighth generation of Philadelphia Cressons, the son of William Penn Cresson, a machinist and manufacturer of great success. George served his machinist apprenticeship at Bement & Dougherty, at the northwest corner of 20th and Callowhill Streets before taking over his father's foundry with a partner at 13th and Noble Streets in 1859 (this site at 13th and Noble would later become the Hoopes rivet factory). In 1866 he moved to the southeast corner of 18th and Hamilton Streets and became sole proprietor of the Philadelphia Shafting Works. He apparently looked around the neighborhood, at Bement and Sellers, and realized he should give up making machines and stick to the shafting, by 1870 becoming the first company in America specializing exclusively in shafting. Of course, Bement and Sellers also made shafting along with their massive machines, but all of them prospered, and Cresson outgrew the space and moved about two miles north to Allegheny and 18th in 1888. In the 1894 Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce publication The City of Philadelphia as it Appears in the Year 1894 there was a section devoted to Philadelphia businesses that were the largest of their types in the world, ten of which were manufacturers (Cresson page here). Cresson was the largest power machinery factory. Other title holders connected to our neighborhood included Baldwin (locomotives) and Stetson (hats). Cresson died in 1908 at his country home, Caversham House, in Elkins Park. After his death, his company was merged with Morris Engineering (formerly Morris, Tasker, & Company) and seems to have faded out by the mid-1920's.

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Advertising lithograph of the William Penn Cresson foundry in 1847, Willow Street above 13th Street, shortly after opening. Sketch from here.

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Portion of Hexamer insurance map from 1879 of the Cresson plant at the southeast corner of 18th and Hamilton Streets.

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Portion of the 1888 City Atlas showing the Cresson plant at the southeast corner of 18th and Hamilton Streets. The property extended from Hamilton to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Philadelphia Shafting Works would design whole layouts for new factories, whether those factories were machine shops, mills, printing presses, or whatever business required moving machines. A good size factory might have miles of line shafts, leather belts, and pulleys.

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An example of shafting in a machine shop, this example being a series of lathes in the Sellers shop at 17th and Hamilton Streets, with Sellers equipment. A stationary steam engine somewhere in the building would turn a line shaft that ran along the ceiling, and this shaft would be connected by pulleys to dozens of machines. Individual electric motors at each machine would eventually replace this system. There is a four-minute video of shafting in action here.

You can think of factory power transmission in three developmental stages:

  • mills and factories located along rivers by necessity, using the flow of the water to power water-wheels that turned shafting;

  • stationary steam engines replacing the flow of water as the power source, thereby allowing factories to relocate away from rivers;

  • and, finally, electric generators and electric motors replacing the shafting. The generators were still powered by steam engines and coal, as they basically are today in many parts of the United States.

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Advertisement for shafting equipment from Cresson.

The variety allowed for different speeds, forces, and locations of machinery.

For a shafting exhibit in our neighborhood, see the article on the Carpenters Museum here (and visit the museum for free).

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The much larger facility at 18th and Allegheny Streets.

The main building was 500 feet long with an unobstructed view along the entire length. There was rail access, as at 18th and Hamilton Streets, for bringing in coal and ore and shipping out product.

There were a few problems with shafting; electricity spelled its doom. As the photo of the Sellers shafting above shows, shafting took up a lot of space, blocked the natural light coming through the windows to the workspace, prevented the use of overhead cranes, and was a constant threat to the life and limbs of employees. There were also tremendous power losses in just turning the shafting. Using a Baldwin example, in 1892, about 80% of the stationary steam engines' 2,500 horsepower generated in Baldwin's powerhouses was used in just turning the shafting, with only 20% available for useful work by the machines that the shafting turned.  Baldwin had already begun using electric lighting in its factories in 1881, thus allowing double-shifts of workers for round-the-clock production. When the new Baldwin erecting shop was built in 1890, two 100-ton-capacity electric cranes were supplied by Sellers. During the 1890's, Baldwin extended the use of electricity on a large scale with 320 direct-current electric motors supplying a total of 3,500 horsepower.

The sequence of events after Cresson moved out is the typical sequence for the neighborhood: an iron industry needs more room and moves elsewhere; Baldwin Locomotive Works (BLW) takes over the vacated buildings; BLW moves out in 1926 and the buildings are demolished or converted to warehouses; the warehouses are torn down just before the Franklin Town project is announced; surface parking lots survive for decades on the vacant lots.

The same happened at 18th and Hamilton Street, although the molding machinery maker Tabor Manufacturing Company moved into the northern half of Cresson's lot (the real estate still in the Cresson family). There is nice photographic documentation of the Callowhill Cut dig next to the building on the southern half of the parcel.

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Photo of the southern face of the building at 18th and Pennsylvania Avenue in 1898. The building has been stripped of its brick facing and shored up as the 25-foot deep trench is dug.

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1898 photo looking west from 17th Street.

The retaining wall alongside the three-story building on the right is nearly completed.

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Photo from December 1898 looking up 18th Street from just south of the new bridge. The buildings on both sides are gorgeous!

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The George V. Cresson heirs sold the corner lot to Caleb Cresson in 1908, and his heirs in turn sold it to the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1920. It would be sold to the Buttonwood Warehouse Company in 1939, and then to the Philadelphia Electric Company in 1954

Shown is a portion of the 1909 City Atlas with the Tabor Manufacturing Company at the southeast corner of 18th and Hamilton Streets. Tabor made light metal molds, and its president was Wilfred Lewis, who had spent his early career in the Sellers Machine Works one block away at 17th and Hamilton Streets. Tabor would also outgrow the neighborhood and move just south of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.

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Ad from the trade journal The Metal Worker, Plumber, and Steam Fitter of January 6, 1906

If you really have to know more about this machine, see outside link here.

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Portion of the 1950 Sanborn insurance map (volume 4 plate 320) showing the Lit Warehouse, built in 1940, filling the block. The construction costs were $1.25 million. 

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This Aero Services 1940 aerial photo looking north shows the Lit Brothers warehouse under construction on the right. The Municipal Court building in front center was completed at the same time.

(Photo from the Free Library of Philadelphia aerial photo collection) 

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View looking down 17th Street of the Lit Brothers Warehouse in 1940. The white 100,000 gallon water tank is atop the warehouse.

On the right in the distance is the former Graham/Laird factory complex.

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Warehouse view looking up 18th Street along the Callowhill Cut.

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I can't resist including this photo I took in the basement of railroad enthusiast Dick Foley, from the 2000 block of Wallace Street. He had built an oval 30 x 15 foot model railroad showing representative buildings along the Callowhill Cut. The Lit Brothers warehouse is seen on the right. I suspect the taller building in the middle represents the eight-story Baldwin factory that was in the north half of what is now Baldwin Park.

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The Lit Brothers warehouse on the right just beyond the 17th Street bridge was demolished in 1984, to be replaced by a Community College of Philadelphia parking garage. The siding ramp on the left is still there. The wall on the right has been retained (get it?) and is still the lowest retaining wall on the Callowhill Cut.

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Portion of aerial photo from 1980: the last time the Lit Brothers Warehouse will be seen on aerial views. The I-T-E Imperial buildings to its west and southwest will be demolished at the same time. In 1971 the Franklin Town project announced plans to level 50 acres, taking one-fourth of it by eminent domain with the City's aid, with plans to build a shining city-within-a-city within a decade. Unfortunately for the neighborhood, money became tight, and some of these surface parking lots hung around for decades.

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1984 photo looking southeast from what will become Baldwin Park.

The Lit Brothers warehouse will be demolished shortly after this photo (from the 24 April 1984 business section of the Philadelphia Daily News in an article about the lack of progress by the Franklin Town Development Corporation).

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Very large George Vaux Cresson family plot on prime real estate in Laurel Hill Cemetery, overlooking Cresson Avenue and Vaux Street in East Falls..

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The southeast corner of 18th and Hamilton Streets today.

Hamilton Street ends at 19th today, but this is where it used to be.

authored by Joe Walsh, January 2022

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