Sewers

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Portion of a map from 1910 showing the block that is now Baldwin Park. Hamilton Street runs horizontally at the top and 18th Street vertically on the right. The Stanley G. Flagg & Co. site is now occupied by the Tivoli. The structures in pink shading are the brick rowhomes, and the yellow structures are the wood privies (outhouses).

Stand on the manhole cover in the photo below, situated on the street near the northwest corner of 21st and Hamilton Street outside the CVS store. Look to the north. Eastern State Penitentiary is 0.35 miles in the distance. Now recall the escape scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, where the protagonist escapes the prison by breaking into and sliding down a sewer pipe. On July 21, 1934, a similar event landed five escaped prisoners in our neighborhood.

Surrounded by a group of inmates in the southeast corner of the penitentiary, five inmates somehow picked the lock securing a sewer grate within the walls of the prison. They crawled through a four-foot diameter sewer pipe south to Fairmount Street, then west on Fairmount until the first left turn brought them to the connection down 21st Street. They proceeded a third of a mile down this sewer pipe, counting the manhole covers until they hit the number six (on advice of outside associates). They pushed this cover out of the way and exited onto the corner of 21st and Hamilton. In theory the escape route seemed providential, exiting the sewer right next to the railroad freight yard where the 2100 Hamilton Condominiums are today. Hop a freight train and be off!

 

Five men climbing out of a sewer was suspicious enough, but adding to the sight was the fact that the men were clad only in their underwear, and one was completely naked, since they had disrobed in the sewers due to the extreme heat. The police station was one block away, and the police arrived and gave chase immediately. Three were caught within hours, and the other two within days.

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A witness demonstrates how he saw the escaped convicts climb up through the manhole at 21st and Hamilton Streets and get rid of their prison overalls. In the background is a portion of the wall that surrounded the Preston Retreat, the same wall today that surrounds the City View Condominiums. 

(photo from the page one headline story in the Philadelphia Inquirer July 22, 1934)

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Why go over the wall when you can go under? The grate in the lower left of this photo is in the southeast corner of Eastern State Penitentiary just across from Stop #1 on the tour.

View down the grate showing an inviting ladder leading to a four-foot-diameter pipe at the bottom.

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authored by Joe Walsh: unfinished draft