top of page

Robert Carson

Robert Carson, who lived at 2013 Spring Garden Street from 1887 to 1897, is buried next to Matthias Baldwin in Laurel Hill Cemetery. These two share successful business backgrounds and philanthropic endeavors, but Baldwin is certainly better known. This article will discuss Robert Carson, traction companies, orphanages, and childless philanthropists with connections to our neighborhood.

carson 1s.png

A few of those occupying prime real estate at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Even Henry Disston has a neighborhood connection: There is an exhibit of Disston saws in the Carpenters Union Museum as discussed here.

Robert Carson (1844-1907) was born in Philadelphia into modest means. He achieved financial success at the William H. Shelmerdine & Company brokerage firm, and then in the transportation sector. He invested in horse-drawn streetcars and consolidated several of them into the People’s Passenger Railway Company, becoming its president. The horse-drawn railways were replaced by electric power as trolleys in the 1890s, and Carson left his company in 1893 (but retained all his stock). His focus then became developing intercity electric rail lines, including not just to the Philadelphia suburbs but also to Reading and Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, and to Wilmington, Delaware. His Interstate Trolley Company also owned an amusement park outside Reading which was called Carsonia Park. Streetcar companies often built amusement parks to lure weekend trolley riders (see outside link here for the park history.)  His former company, Peoples Traction Company, would build northeast Philadelphia’s Willow Grove Park in 1896 as well.

carson 4s.png

Carsonia Park operated from 1896 to 1950. The locomotive ride pictured above harkens back to the first locomotive built by Matthias Baldwin in 1831 as a ride in Franklin Peale’s museum (see our article here).

peoples traction car.jpg

A streetcar of the Peoples Traction Company. This traction company was formed from the Peoples Passenger Railway Company in 1893 and immediately electrified all its streetcars. It was considered a small operation with only 73 miles of track, but it would be one of the three main traction companies that merged in 1895 to form the Union Traction Company. Union Traction would be folded into the newly formed Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT) in 1902. The timeline of public transit in Philadelphia is:

  • 1831 omnibuses pulled by horses, with no rails

  • 1858 streetcars on rails pulled by horses

  • 1863-1893 steam dummies (self-powered steam streetcars on rails)

  • 1883-1895 cable cars on rails (think San Francisco)

  • 1892-today electric streetcars on rails. These were distinguished from cable, horse and steam-powered streetcars by using the adjective “traction” for the streetcars. The electricity is supplied by an overhead wire or a third rail.

  • 1905-today: “Rapid transit” with fewer grade crossings (subways and elevated lines)

  • 1923 experimental trackless trolley; still in use

Street transportation generated a lot of individual wealth in its early days. Carson’s wealth allowed him to enjoy the sport of kings: horse breeding and racing. In 1896, the same year in which Carsonia Park opened, Carson purchased the 225-acre Erdenheim Stock Farm in Flourtown, just north of Chestnut Hill, for $100,000. Here he first developed the idea of establishing an orphanage along the lines of Girard College. At this time Carson and his wife were living at 2013 Spring Garden Street.

When Carson was diagnosed with heart disease in 1903, he drew up a will. Between 50 and 100 acres of his Erdenheim estate was to be an orphanage called the Carson College for Orphan Girls, with $1 million dedicated to building construction and the remainder of the estate’s investments to sustain the orphanage in perpetuity. His model was Girard College, and he borrowed from Stephen Girard that term “college,” to mean a primary and secondary school. Also like Girard, the will stipulated restrictions for admission that became problematic later. Some of these restrictions on incoming children were: only girls who were poor, healthy, and white, with both parents deceased; preference given to girls born in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, then other PA counties, then elsewhere in the United States; and none could be admitted from other institutions and none younger than six or older than ten.

On October 15, 1907 while attending a performance of the "Merry Widow" at the Chestnut Street Opera House in Philadelphia, Carson slumped forward in his chair and was unresponsive. He was carried to his nearby home at 1334 Walnut Street and there he was pronounced dead. He was married to the former Isabel Frances Flickinger (1846-1912), and the couple had no children. Carson left his estate worth $5 million ($155 million today) to found the Carson College for Orphan Girls in Flourtown, just outside Philadelphia.

carson erdenheim farm house.jpeg

Carson and his wife owned the 400-acre Erdenheim estate from 1896 through 1912. Carson renovated the 130-year-old farmhouse and spent country time there. Carson's widow sold the estate, except for the 100 acres pledged to the orphanage, in 1912 to George D. Widener, grandson of traction magnate Peter A. B. Widener. That same year George Widener's father and brother were lost on the Titanic. 

Photo credit here.

carson 1909 erdenheim map.jpg

A map of one section of Erdenheim Farm in 1909.

The remodeled original farmhouse is in the upper left of the image. The race track is one mile around, the same distance as Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

carson erdenheim 1687.jpg

A nice mapping and naming coincidence:

What was to become Erdenheim was on this 1687 map the manor of Gulielma Maria Penn (1644-1694), William Penn's first wife. Carson's home at 2013 Spring Garden Street was on the former site of Springettsbury Manor, Penn's estate near the city. William Penn married Gulielma Maria Springett in 1672. Both Carson homes were originally on sites named for the first and last name of Penn's first wife.

Whitpane Creek is now called Wissahickon Creek. 

carson home.jpg

This is 1334 Walnut Street in 2023. Carson was pronounced dead here in 1907. In his day there were five apartments, one to a floor with ground floor retail. It has since been divided into a total of 16 apartments. Jean’s Café is on the left and Sahara Grill on the right on the ground floor today. The building was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Buildings in 1995.

carson crypt.jpg

Family crypt of Robert and Isabel Carson in Laurel Hill Cemetery, west of the Disston crypt and south of the obelisk of Matthias Baldwin and family. Traction magnate Peter Widener’s crypt is also nearby.

carson 5s.png

Circa 1922 aerial view of Carson College for Orphan Girls, known later as the Carson Valley School, in Flourtown, Pennsylvania. The buildings remain in active use by the Carson Valley Children's Aid.

carson 6.jpg

Mother Goose cottage in Kelsey’s “fantasy village.” Note the relief in the gable end in foreground.

The Carson College for Orphan Girls was launched at a time that was not favorable for its survival. In 1909 the White House Conference on Children declared that “children from unfit homes and children who have no homes…should, as far as practicable, be cared for in families.” Even social workers felt that the orphanages, especially Carson’s, were misguided. The young, white, healthy girls with two deceased parents were the easiest to place in family homes, so they claimed the restrictions in the deed would make the orphanage difficult to fill. In the 1930s the orphanage was hit with a double whammy: less operating capital due to the depression and the slide in stock values, especially trolley stocks as automobiles took over the roads; and the New Deal programs like mothers’ aid laws and Social Security that allowed children to stay in their own homes with fewer financial worries. Peak enrollment at Carson was in 1928 at 112 students. The elementary school closed in 1937 due to finances, and the children were sent to local public school. At this time the value of the Carson estate had dropped to $2.2 million.

The national preference for foster care over institutions meant that Carson College had to modify the terms of the will to keep numbers up. In 1939 the age of admission was expanded to both younger and older girls. Half orphans (only one parent deceased) were admitted, as well as brothers of girls already admitted. In 1946 the name of the school was changed to the Carson Valley School (CVS), since it was neither a college, or for orphans, or for girls only. By 1957 not one of the students in attendance met the terms of Carson’s will. In 1965 the school was racially integrated, and in 1968 unrelated boys were allowed admission. Children from other institutions were accepted via public child welfare agencies and after World War II most funding was coming from these agencies. By the 1960s less government funding for institutional care led to a focus by CVS on foster care placement and prevention. This allowed the survival of CVS, unlike other orphanages. By the 1970s only 20% of funds came from Carson’s estate, then valued at $2 million, and the rest from outside payments for care. By 1995 the estate was up to $6.5 million. In 2008 the Carson Valley School merged with Children’s Aid Society to form the Carson Valley Children’s Aid (CVCA). The merged organization functions today on the Carson College site, providing behavioral care, prevention, intervention, and education for at-risk children in Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.

2013 Spring Garden Street

carson 2.jpg

2013 Spring Garden Street is a single-family home with 4,725 square feet, 5 bedrooms, and 3 baths. It last sold in 1996 for $225,000. City property records list the 2023 market value as $1.3 million. Along with the other beautiful homes on the north side of the 2000 block of Spring Garden Street, it was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places on May 1, 1975, and incorporated into the Spring Garden Historic District in 2000.

carson 3.jpg

Plaque to the right of the door says:

House of

Mullin

Established

Aug. 20, 1994

carson 7s.png

1430 Broad Street. Designed by William Decker in 1891. This is where Ellis shot himself. The house was purchased by Father Divine in 1952. It was not placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places until 2018 (!?!). It was auctioned off in May 2023.

carson 8s.png

Aerial view of the Charles E. Ellis College for Fatherless Girls in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. The photo depicts stone cottages, which were built circa 1923 after designs by John T. Windrim, surrounded by farmland.

carson 9s.png

State Historical Marker at 923 Spring Garden Street

Wealthy Childless Philanthropists with Neighborhood Connections

Our neighborhood, and Philadelphia in general, owes a debt of gratitude to those Philadelphia philanthropists who founded institutions of service via bequests in their estates. A common thread through the following large bequests is the childless status of the benefactor. In these history pages we have discussed a few so far:

Jonas Preston (1764-1836): in 1836 Preston left $250,000 (today’s value $6 million) to the State for the construction and maintenance of a lying-in hospital for indigent married women of good character. This was named the Preston Retreat (see our article here) and was demolished in 1963. The maternity hospital building opened in 1840, but was used as an orphanage for the first two decades due to funding issues.

Anna Magee (1843-1923) When she died in 1923, she left $1,285,000 (inflation-adjusted $22.8 million) to Jefferson Hospital to establish what is now the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, to provide quality care to those in need of physical convalescence no matter their income. The center is at 15th and Race with a satellite office in the Fountain View until August of 2023. In 2022 the Watermark had been sold and renamed the Fountain View.

Thomas E. Cahill (1828-1878) was the president of the Knickerbocker Ice Company which had its largest distribution center where the Barnes is now located (see our article here). He left the bulk of $500,000 estate ($15 million today) to establish Roman Catholic High School, at Broad and Vine Streets, to provide free high school education to Philadelphia boys.

Albert Barnes (1872-1951) left behind his art collection, today valued as high as $25 billion, which after tortuous legal battles ended up in our neighborhood, replacing the Youth Study Center building as discussed here.

Then there are the two names carved in stone at 1601 Spring Garden Street: James Wills Jr. (1777-1825) and Bushrod Washington James (1836-1903). James Wills Jr., a Quaker merchant and bachelor, bequeathed the money to found a hospital for the blind and lame in 1832. BW James was a homeopathic physician on the 1700 block of Green Street. He never married. At his death in 1903 he left the City of Philadelphia houses and personal effects, as well as two endowments: $40,000 to establish a library; and $55,000 to fund an eye and ear institute. The library still runs in the Oxford Circle neighborhood as the Bushrod Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia (for its history see here https://libwww.freelibrary.org/locations/bushrod-library). The eye and ear institute was incorporated into the Wills Eye Hospital, as discussed here.

George S. Pepper (1808-1890) was a lawyer who never practiced law, but instead practiced philanthropy with his inherited wealth. He was unmarried and childless. In 1891 he bequeathed $225,000 to the City of Philadelphia to establish the Free Library of Philadelphia. The Parkway Central Library was to be the cornerstone of this system, and was completed in 1927 as discussed here. Pepper also left a bequest of $12,000 to the Charity Hospital while it was at 1832 Hamilton Street.

Edwin A. Fleisher (1877-1959) was a childless philanthropist with an effect on our neighborhood. In Fleisher’s case, he donated his collection of over 3,000 musical scores, valued then at $500,000, to the Parkway Central Library in 1929, plus an endowment to keep the collection growing. This collection represents the largest repository of orchestral performance materials in the world.  These works, now numbering over 21,000, are loaned to performance organizations throughout the world for concerts and recordings. As noted in our article about Helen Fleisher, there were many members of Fleisher family in our neighborhood and the Fleisher Yarn Works, the source of the family wealth, had a satellite factory at 25th and Hamilton Streets.

 

John W. Hallahan was in the shoe and real estate business until his death in 1901. He had no children. His sister and business partner, Mary Hallahan McMichan, gave the initial $100,000 seed money to start construction of the Catholic Girls High School at 319 North 19th Street. She had one daughter. After Mary’s death in 1925 the name of the school was changed to John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School, as per Mary’s wishes.

As discussed in our article about the history of the Tivoli Condominiums site, Samuel Robinson was one of the two founders of the Acme Market supermarket chain, along with William Crawford. Both were boyhood friends in Ireland; both became rich through their innovative marketing; and both were childless. Crawford died in 1942. Robinson died in 1958. The latter was a generous donor to many causes during his lifetime, especially to the Presbyterian Orphanage in southwest Philadelphia at 58th and Kingsessing Avenue. This was an orphanage when founded in 1877. When Robinson died in 1958, he left all of his estate to his favorite causes, and left his Rosemont mansion, Glencoe, to the Presbyterian Village. This allowed the orphanage’s move from a deteriorating Kingsessing neighborhood to a country estate. The history of the Presbyterian Children’s Village is given in the outside article here. Glencoe, where Robinson lived from 1925 to 1958, was sold off privately in 2022 for $20 million.

glencoe.jpg

Glencoe estate in 1940. Photo from here

Until Milton Hershey, Stephen Girard (1750-1831) was the philanthropic grandaddy of them all. Girard left $6 million ($150 million in today’s dollars) for a free boarding school for poor, white, male, orphans. His connection to our neighborhood is via his medical relief efforts at the Bush Hill estate during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, as mentioned in our article here.

unpublished draft article

bottom of page