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Why "Hamilton" Street?

With the opening in the neighborhood of two new apartment buildings, one "The Alexander" and the other "The Hamilton," one might think Hamilton Street is named for the current Broadway star and second-place duelist. The name of the street leading into the park comes from a man and his family who came to Philadelphia well before Alexander Hamilton.

As a reminder, all local human history starts with the Lenni Lenape, who lived in this area for millenia before Europeans "discovered" it. William Penn signed the first treaty with the Lenape in 1683, resulting in a peaceful coexistence. Descendants of Penn tricked the Lenni Lenape, whom the Europeans called the "Delaware," out of their land and pushed them westward. Penn settled what was to be Springettsbury Manor in this area before heading back to England.

Andrew Hamilton (1676 - 1741) was a Scottish immigrant and lawyer who settled in Philadelphia. In 1735 in New York he successfully defended a printer, John Zenger, against a charge of libel. This case set the precedent that established truth as a defense against a charge of libel. From his success in this case he inspired the phrase "Philadelphia lawyer," which is a term used to describe a shrewd and effective lawyer. Andrew held various government posts in the Pennsylvania colony, selected and purchased the site for the Pennsylvanis State House, did the initial design work for the State House, and did legal work for the Penn family including settling the estate after William Penn's death in 1718. For this legal help to the Penn family Andrew was given a portion of Springettsbury by Penn's second wife, Hannah Callowhill Penn. He purchased adjacent land for a total of 153 acres, and called the estate Bush Hill, extending from 12th to 19th Street and from Vine to Coates (now Fairmount) Street. He built his manor on what is now the south side of the 1700 block of Spring Garden Street, today part of the Community College of Philadelphia.

Andrew Hamilton is not without his modern critics. According to the outside article here, he:

  • was a slave owner;

  • was instrumental in the legal proceedings that led to the probably illegal Walking Purchase that deprived the Native American population here of millions of acres of land;

  • served only as the mouthpiece at the Peter Zenger trial. The arguments were developed by New York lawyers who were barred from the case by the judge.

Detail from Map of Philadelphia and parts adjacent, Nicholas Scull, 1777. From the American Philosophical Society

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Lithograph circa 1850 by Augustus Kollner showing the State House in the center, built 1732-1748 after design of Andrew Hamilton and Edmund Wooley.

Andrew also purchased 250 acres on the west side of the Schuylkill River in 1735. Upon Andrew's death in 1741, the estate west of the Schuylkill, currently The Woodlands Mansion and Cemetery, was deeded to his oldest son Andrew II. This Andrew only outlived his father by 6 years, at which point his own two-year-old son William (1745 - 1813) became the proprietor of The Woodlands. Bush Hill was transferred to Andrew the elder's second son, James (1710 - 1783), who also held several government posts in Pennsylvania. When James died without children, he left the Bush Hill estate to his nephew William Hamilton, in the painting below with his niece.

Bush Hill under William Hamilton was a beautiful estate on a hill overlooking the Schuylkill River. At this time, strange as it may seem today, the area that is now Baldwin Park would have been considered river-view property, as the engraving below shows (first engraving attributed to Charles Wilson Peale, Library Company of Philadelphia). The view from the Schuylkill matches the buildings in the second engraving (1789, from Columbian Magazine, Library of Congress), showing from left to right the manor house,  shorter attached kitchen, and the Greek inspired horticulture house.

On the map below, which is shaded to demonstrate topologic features, you can see the hilltop placement of both Springettsbury Manor and Bush Hill just north of the Callowhill Cut (detail from map by John Hills, 1797, Library Company of Pennsylvania). This placement afforded direct views of the Schuylkill River, in the lower left corner, from both sites.

As you can see from the map below of landholdings in 1777 (UPenn Archives), the Hamilton lands were spread over current West Philadelphia and the Baldwin Park area. Bush Hill itself was used as a US Vice Presidential home in the early 1790s and then as a hospital under the direction of Stephen Girard in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Girard would later buy land from Richard Penn just north of Springettsbury to build his free college for orphans.

The mansion was purchased by Isaac Macauley in 1818 for use as an oil cloth manufacturing, then by Thomas Potter for same. Potter sold the mansion in 1871 during the street-widening project on Spring Garden Street. It was demolished shortly later.


As far as the lands, William Hamilton died in 1813 and left the Bush Hill estate and other lands to his son James, who himself died in 1817 intestate and without children. The division of the estate and settling of debts took several years, but family members were each assigned parcels.  The Hamilton name lives on with Hamilton Walk on Penn's campus, Andrew Hamilton Public School at 5640 Spruce Street, and Hamilton Street which extends from 9th to 22nd Streets and from 31st to 39th Street. Andrew Hamilton, the Philadelphia lawyer, was originally buried at Bush Hill, but was reinterred in the small cemetery adjacent to Christ Church where his grave marker is still clearly visible. 

The Philadelphia Lawyer resting behind Christ Church

And now for some looser neighborhood connections to the Hamilton family.

Prior to the transcontinental spread of railroads, towns maintained their own local time based on the high point of the sun being noon. The time variations wreaked havoc with train schedules. In 1883, the railroads split the United States and Canada geographically into four time zones and put all schedules on "Railroad Standard Time." Since so many businesses depended on the railroads, the time zones were adopted and eventually became official with the federal Standard Time Act of 1918.

James Hamilton, elder son of Andrew Hamilton,  founded and laid out the town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1734. In 1892 the Hamilton Watch Company was established in Lancaster and named for James Hamilton, the original owner of the land upon which the factory sat. Hamilton Watch specialized in making precision pocket watches, and the railroad workers were the principal customers. Railroads, obviously, were a big part of our neighborhood.

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Display of Hamilton watches in the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
One last reminder of the Hamiltons on Hamilton Street.
There were no ginkgo trees in North America until William Hamilton sent three from London in 1785: two to his arboretum at the Woodlands and one to William Bartram. The only survivor of the three is at Bartram's Garden.
This ginkgo at the northeast corner of 20th and Hamilton Streets was planted in 2018 and so far is doing well.
authored by Joe Walsh 6/18
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