Philadelphia Information Locator Service
From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, # 37 (June 1979)
by Susan A. Popkin
The plan of the city of Philadelphia prepared in 1683 by Thomas Holme was drawn for the purpose of advertising this new town to prospective purchasers in England. As he expresses in his note attached to the Portraiture, he was quite aware of the fact that his model was far from an exact rendering of the actual site. Indeed, there were many "modifications in the city's basis plan occasioned by actual survey" which were not illustrated. Among these changes were "the greater extent of the Swamp (Dock Creek), the subdivision or exchange of lots, or the specific allocation to renters in lots of unassigned areas"
In several instances, lots that had been assigned in the original plan were, in reality, mired in the muddy shore of the Creek or submerged under its tidal waters. Significantly, Dock Creek was never illustrated its full scope in the earliest official maps drawn of the city. The iconography of old Philadelphia seems to have overlooked the important position the Creek played in the physical growth of the town.
This oversight of so notable a natural feature as the Creek emphasizes how very little one can rely on the early maps as a source of data concerning many aspects of Philadelphia's initial urban development, particularly regarding the emergence of the city's minor streets. Little alleys and cartways were used many years before they were legally recognized as city streets. Not part of a model plan, these small streets are the true reflection of the economic and social needs of the people who first settled in Philadelphia. For the historian, tracing the history of these by-ways is both a challenge and an opportunity to enrich our understanding of the city and its inhabitants during the colonial period.
Data concerning the growth and development of streets comes from a variety of sources other than maps. They are mentioned in anecdotal material, diaries and private papers. Years before they become legal thoroughfares, they are recorded in wills and deeds, as boundaries of or passages through private property. Such records are found in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Genealogical 'Society. The Register of Wills and the Department of Records in City Hall and in the Philadelphia City Archives.
The Registry unit of the Department of Records contains the plans of every square block in the city, designating the exact measurements of the streets, alleys and lots which make up the entire unit. These plans generally, though not always, note the name changes of the streets in that block. From these plans, one can obtain the pertinent information needed to locate the deeds to the lots which run along the thoroughfare in question. The names supplied in the deeds are the keys to the
discovery of the factors that determine the pattern of urban development. They help untangle the warp from the woof. An example of this is seen in my study of Carter's Alley. Cued by the name, I was able to trace its origins back to the original purchaser of the property that bordered nearly the entire length of the alley. Located in Volume 3 of the Warrants and Surveys Books, housed in the City Archives, is the 1683 survey of the city lot laid out for William Carter. Weaving the data in this survey with other pieces of information, to be discussed later, the historical pattern of the street can be recreated.
The Warrants and Surveys Books located in the City Archives contain the original records of the warrants for and the surveys of property in the Province of Pennsylvania from 1682 to 1759. 'There is an excellent index to these volumes prepared and published by the City Archives, which alphabetically lists every name that appears in these records for which land either has been warranted or surveyed. The names are grouped according to the county in which the property is found, including a section for the city of Philadelphia. Indicated next to each name is the year, volume number and page number of every item registered for a particular person. These records provide a veritable treasure chest for the historian.
Another extremely valuable source of materiel for research into Philadelphia's physical growth is the collection of Road Dockets, also located in the City Archives. The Dockets contain the official records of the Court of Quarter Sessions concerning all actions taken by the Court in the matter of opening or vacating roads. The petitions requesting the Court to legally open a street are in these dockets, as are the subsequent decisions made by a jury chosen to view the matter. Of particular interest are the reasons laid before the Court by the petitioners for the opening of the street. Equally rich in information are the responses of the jury to the petition, including an itemizing of payments for any costs and damages incurred by repairing the street to meet city requirements.
The City Archives also holds all the papers filed with the Court of Quarter Sessions in the course of opening or vacating a street. Especially valuable are the reports of viewers which often include detailed draughts. Of similar value are the surveys of the Third Survey District, which consisted of the Old City, 1780-1915. The surveys show metes and bounds of real property, owners' names, and also the names of bounding streets and alleys and make it possible to trace the evolution of property line and street names for a one hundred and twenty-five year period. These surveys are also in the custody of the City Archives.
The petition is but one manner in which a road can be legally opened. In many instances, action on such a matter is taken by the State Assembly or by the City Council, referred to as being opened by "Bond". In each case, the proceedings are recorded in the minutes of the particular legislative body. Another method of having a street pass into the hands of the municipal authorities is through the filing of an Affidavit in the Department of Streets. Confirming that a thoroughfare has already been in use as a public road for at least twenty-one years, this street is officially opened by virtue of adverse possession . And finally, a street may be deeded to the city by private owners. This Deed of Dedication relieves the donors of the obligation to maintain a private road that has been in use and can be used on a larger scale to benefit the city and its inhabitants. 'Such deeds are to be found in the Department of Records. In the case of one-such road that I have studied, the Deed of Dedication for the Street was located in one of the old Deed Books housed in the City Archives. The list of names of the donors of the land to be set aside for public use served as an arrow, pointing me farther back into the lives of the people whose private needs spin off the threads from which the fabric of urban-development is woven. Whether opened by Jury, Bond, Affidavit or Deed of Dedication, the legal status of every street in the city of Philadelphia is recorded on a card on file in the Department of Streets, in the Municipal Services building. Arranged alphabetically by the most current street name in use, this index provides the date a street is legally opened, the method by which it was opened, the affidavit number, deed book or road docket volume in which the record is contained and the date it may have been stricken and vacated from the city plans, if that has occurred. A particularly lengthy street may require many legal actions in order to open it up in its entirety, all of which are in this Street's Department index. As a further guide, each card contains a measured drawing of the street or section of the street it describes. In the case of each street I examined, all past names of the street, as well as the dates the names changed, were recorded on their file cards. With all of the data provided in the Street's Department file, I was able to dig into the Archives' Road Dockets and Warrants and Surveys Books and come up with some golden stands. Guided by the file card information, I located the petition, written in 1806 to the Quarter Sessions Court, asking to extend Carter's Alley westward and to legally open the entire alley. (Road Docket 6:69). This small road, running east and west from Second to Third, between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, was caught in an area that had become densely populated in the quickly growing city. The usual problems of urban congestion came to plague those who lived and worked in Carter's Alley. The response to the petition handed down by the jury, in June of 1806, is an eloquent description of this fact: "...(The petitioners) are exposed to great inconveniences and danger from the want of an outlet from the said Alley into Third Street...The Alley...was, until a part of the houses were lately destroyed by fire, closely built on both sides through its whole extent. You petitioners need not insist upon the obvious danger to the public health from places so confined and deprived of a free circulation of air ............" Legally opened in 1807, Carter's Alley can be traced back to the city lot of William Carter, surveyed on April 19, 1683. (Survey and Warrants 3:233). The westward extension of Carter's lot, running 300 feet from Second Skeet, was exactly one foot longer than the length measured of this Alley in a 1958 City Survey. Carter's Alley was mentioned as early as 1697 in "Gabriel Thomas' Account of Philadelphia and the Province"; and it appears in the Clarkson-Biddle Map of Philadelphia, published in 1762, forty-five years prior to its legal opening. In 1854, the name was changed to Carter Street and was changed again in 1897 to Ionic Street. In 1959, the street, from American to Third, was stricken and vacated from the City Plan to become part of the Independence National Historical Park. The remainder was taken over by the Park in 1960.
The history of another minor-street in the area, Hudson's Alley, is a tapestry, a weaving together of the lives and lands of three families. More than providing a picture of the emergence of a single alley, it illustrates the development of an entire square block, from Third to Furth Streets, between Chestnut and Walnut.
As early as the 1690's, William Clark had chosen this site to build his house and gardens. This location was then "deemed rural and out of town". The house, which came to be known as Clarke's Hall, had a magnificent garden that ran along Third Street from Chestnut and westward to the eastern line of what would become Hudson's Alley. Although neither William Clarke nor his heirs had anything to do with the actual growth of Hudson's Alley, their garden holds a key position in the total picture of the square block. Indeed, it appears as a boundary in the original document establishing the creation of this street. This document is the Last Will and Testament of Samuel Hudson, written February 11, 1724. It was my fortune to come across a copy of this will in Casper Souder's History of Chestnut Street
'Samuel Hudson was the son of William Hudson, who was once the Mayor of Philadelphia. Owner of a large parcel of land in this block, Hudson ran one of the two existing tanneries in Philadelphia in 1699. It was situated on Third Street below what was then Clarke's garden. His mansion, according to Souder, was back from Third Street and from Chestnut 'Street, and had an outlet going "from the Mansion to Chestnut Street."
It is stated in Samuel Hudson's will that there was indeed an alley-way in use prior to 1724. The alley obviously also afforded his neighbor convenient access to Chestnut Street, a fact determined by the use of joint lands in order to widen the thoroughfare. The location of Samuel Hudson's lot is described in his will, also stating that there is "a 12 foot vacancy on my lot 111 next John Breintnall's ground which 12 foot added to 4 foot of the said Breintnall's, he and I have intended for a 16 foot (wide) alley..."
This thoroughfare, so well established in 1724, does not appear on either the Clarkson-Biddle map of 1762 or the Benjamin Easburn map of the city in 1776. Whereas Samuel Hudson's Will defines the eastern line of the alley, the western side is delineated in another Will, that of John Breintnall, written in 1747. (Deed Book H-15:280).
Breintnall, a Secretary of the Library Company of Philadelphia, was the son of another very early settler in Philadelphia, David Breintnall. 'Some time around 1700, the elder Breintnall built a house on the north side of Chestnut Street, across from what became Hudson's Alley. Leasing this newly erected grand house to the Governor of Barbadoes, David Breintnall chose to live quietly across the street on the western corner of the yet unestablished alley and Chestnut Street. His son's 1747 will bequeath's to his (John's) "six youngest daughters ...forty-foot a piece lying between me and Joseph Howell ..." This accounts for nearly two-thirds of the Alley's western side.
Breintnall's will mentions the name of the third family that fits into place the last strands of Hudson Alley's early history. 'The Howell family owned a tannery in the same square block as Hudson's. It is through the consent of the Howell family, along with two other persons, that Hudson's Alley was extended its full length of 370 feet to another little by-way called Harmony 'Street. This resulted from the presentation of a Deed of Dedication to the city of Philadelphia, recorded on May 4, 1792. (Deed Book D-31:136).
Dedicated by Arthur Howell, Joseph Howell, Elizabeth Howell Armit, Stephen:Collins and Israel Israel, "owners of the ground over and upon which the Alley ... passes," the street was used as a cartway. Called Whalebone Alley by the area residents, the legal name of the street was changed to Orianna Street on December 27, 1895. It was stricken and vacated from the city plans in 1958, to become part of the Independence National Historical Park.
The small thoroughfare into which Hudson's Alley ran, Harmony Street, was opened through Affidavit in 1883. It can be determined that this street was in use at least one hundred years before this date; as it appears in the 1785 Luken's manuscript drawing of Carpenter's Hall. (Historic Philadelphia, v.43,1:286). We learn, also, that the little street was the object of a complaint sent to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1794 by Israel Israel, whose stable stood on the north side of Harmony Street. It seems that the cartway was piled so high with filth that it was an impassable nuisance and a health hazard. (Historic Philadelphia, v.43,1:286). The name of Harmony Court was taken from the dancing hall, Harmony Hall, that held its activities on the second floor of Israel's livery stable. The street's name changed from Harmony to Bohemian and then to Moravian. In 1897, however, it became Harmony Street once again. Made part of the Independence National Historical Park in 1958, it was then stricken and vacated from the city plans.
Moving westward to the block between Fourth and Fifth Streets, Chestnut to Walnut, we find two more very interesting minor thoroughfares. On March 7, 1809, a petition was presented to the Quarter Sessions Court (Road Docket 6:240) "to open a street from the south side of the City Library from Fourth to Fifth Streets." In a later notice of June 2, 1809, it is stated that "said street ought to be opened for the public use to a width of thirty feet... as they believe it will greatly continue both to the beauty of the City as well as to the health and convenience of the citizens generally. " (Road Docket 6:240).
This street is Library Street; and it was a busy thoroughfare years before this petition was filed. When, in 1789, the Library Company of Philadelphia purchased the ground on which they were to build their first building, this street was "an alley leading from Fifth Street to a 50 feet (sic) court." (Historic Philadelphia, v.43, 1: 131). The grounds and court belonged to the estate of Isaac Norris. Its rural appearance is nicely depicted in John Hills' map of Philadelphia from 1796. In 1897, the name Library Street was changed to 'Sansom'Street, only to be changed back to Library in 1952. In 1959, this street, as were the others discussed earlier, was made part of the Independence National Historical Park.
Finally, we come to a small street which ran north and south between Walnut and Library 'Streets, Fourth and Fifth. Originally called Sober's Alley, this little by-way has an interesting history. Unlike the previously discussed streets, 'Sober's Alley's first petition to become a public thoroughfare was turned down by the Quarter Sessions Court, in March 1831. The petition (Road Docket 11:279) was denied essentially because the benefits derived from-such an action seemed
"exceedingly local and circumscribed (Road Docket 11:282). Too close to Fourth Street, only slightly more than 100 feet from it, it appeared inconceivable that any such alley would "increase the facilities of communication between Walnut and Library Street." Interestingly, with no particular reason to be found in the official records, this little street's petition was reviewed by a jury in 1831; and the earlier decision was reversed in its favor the next year. Road Docket 11:282)
But the story of this street can be traced back to at least 1796, and probably many years earlier than that. The Alley does appear in John Hills' map of 1796, well built up on both sides for half the distance from Walnut Street. The most significant building on the alley appears to be the Secedars Meetinghouse, built in 1791 for the church that later became part of the Associated Presbyterian Church. This meetinghouse figured in one of the main objections given for turning down the original petition to open the alley. The jury felt that it must protect the grounds of the church from being infringed upon or damaged by such an action.
The name of the street was taken from Sober's Inn, located at the southwest corner of Fourth and Chestnut. Built, according to an account in John F. Watson's Annals of Philadelphia, before Chestnut street was actually extended to that point, the Inn had a range of stables at the Fourth Street side of the property. It would appear that the eventual development of Sober's Alley stems initially from the needs of the Inn and its customers. The strands to this part of the history are still dangling about. The alley's name changed to McMullin's Court and then to Leithgow Street. In 1959, the northern end of the-street was stricken and vacated, the southern portion following suit in 1974. The entire street was placed under the auspices of the Independence National Historical Park.
In the undiscovered data on Sober's Alley are more of the thread of the material that, together
with the histories of the many other little streets and alleys of Philadelphia, weave a picture of the
human forces which have created the intricate network of by-ways overlaying the Portraiture first
drawn by Thomas Holmes in 1683.