Hog Island Shipyard: Context and Discoveries

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[GOOGLE EARTH/HOG ISLAND SHIPYARD OVERLAY SHOWING SHIPWAYS]

My essay on the machine island of Hog Island is available on Phillyhistory.org.  In that forum I present a nuts-and-bolts overview of the establishment of the facility, if a little indebted to James J. Martin’s revisionist essay on the mismanagement of the site. Martin’s essay, “The Saga of Hog Island, 1917-1920: The Story of the First Great War Boondoggle” is methodical and strident though slightly limited in its treatment of the social/labor dimensions of the site.  Martin’s direct point is that the site was an utter failure, producing no meaningful warships to carry the fight to Europe during the conflict. But the larger design of his piece is to demythologize our patriotic appreciation of a disinterested private sector laying down its essential business to help the country in time of war.

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“It will burn for a mile”: Fire Insurance and the Origins of the High Pressure Fire Service


[H.P.F.S. PUMPING STATION -- DELAWARE AVE. AND RACE ST.]

On March 17, 1900 Philadelphia’s center city business elites balked at the news that two New York fire insurance companies, the Home Insurance Company of New York and the Williamsburg City Insurance Company were instructing their underwriters to stop issuing fire insurance policies to Philadelphia businesses situated in an ominously named “conflagration district”: the area from Broad to the Delaware, Arch to Chestnut Sts. It was usual for late nineteenth century fire insurance companies trying to limit unnecessary exposure and most firms acted collaboratively and shared information about known risk while setting rigid rates which were seldom undersold. Thus, the Home Insurance and Williamsburg City Insurance companies were emboldened by the Weed and Kennedy Company’s attempt to discontinue policies in the “conflagration district.” But its Philadelphia agents mutinied, refused to cut off its clients, and severed ties to the New York office.

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“Of Graceful Proportions”: Strickland Kneass’s Cast Iron Chestnut St. Bridge

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Want to find out why the eastern abutment of the uninspiring Chestnut Street Bridge looks like a cathedral? Check out my post at Phillyhistory.org here. Above is a pretty shoddy overlay of a 1958 HAER photo onto a relatively picture of the bridge taken last April when Penndot was doing a structural investigation of the bridge. Interestingly enough, concrete from of the “new” 1956-59 bridge was failing with chunks falling on the Schuylkill Banks path. The 1866 abutment seemed to be holding up.

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[DEMOLITION OF KNEASS'S 1866 BRIDGE, 1957-58 FROM HABS]

One of the issues that I wanted to clarify in the Phillyhistory.org piece was that the Expressway and increased traffic both conspired against Kneass’s bridge and led to its demise. According to a Streets Department publication, Paving the Way from 1956-59, that while most of the bridge rehab projects “were directly connected with expressway construction”… “considerable emphasis was given to the replacement of existing spans unable to handle today’s traffic volumes. Structures like those on Chestnut St…..”

Follow the jump for photos of the Penndot bridge inspection and the offending concrete.

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The coming petroleum drosscape: Socony-Vacuum Oil Company ruins as case study

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These are ruins of an industrial complex once owned by the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company south of Bartram’s Garden in the vicinity of 56th street. The area is described as Gibson’s Point on a 1923 nautical map in the NOAA archives. The facility was designed to supply tank trucks oil and gas for distribution around Philadelphia. It is unknown whether the fueling station was connected to the Atlantic Refining Company across the river but chances are good that the Socony-Vacuum facility made use of its location within the South Schuylkill refining district that developed in the early 20th century is still a presence today.

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Workshop of the World At War: the USMC Quartermaster Depot

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As “workshop of the world” Philadelphia proved vital during the two industrial world wars of the last century. Positioned in the center of what would be termed the east coast megalopolis, Philadelphia became an entrepot for guns, ammunition, tents, uniforms, mosquito nets, lockers, helmets, knives, ships, and other supplies during both World War I and II. The nation’s war effort profited from Philadelphia’a extensive network of commercial finger piers, shipyards, and the sprawling Philadelphia Naval Yard. One such artifact of Philadelphia’s role as a concentration point for war materiel is the Marine Corps Quartermaster Depot (1904), located at the southwest corner of Broad and Washington Ave.

At this facility the Marine Corps employed civilian workers to fabricate a wide array of goods during both wars. According to Maj. Edwin McClellan, USMC’s The United States Marine Corps in the World War (1920):

“During the period of the war the depot outfitted and equipped 36 expeditionary units for service in France and the West Indies, and over 31,000,000 pounds of various kinds of supplies were shipped on Government bills of lading. The depot departments were so organized that it was only necessary to expand each division of the office forces and increase the number of employees and machines in the manufacturing departments in order to meet the increased demands during the war. The personnel of the depot on June 30, 1919, was as follows: Thirteen commissioned officers, 7 warrant officers, 2 civilians, 102 enlisted men of the regular service, 21 reservists, and 1,095 other employees of all classes, making a total personnel of 1,240.”

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During World War II, stilettos used by the famed Marine Raider units were stored at the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot and distributed to Marines preparing to launch an amphibious attack on Tulagi in 1942. This map from the same year shows the blockwide Quartermaster Depot. Material produced inside the Depot could be sent along the double railroad tracks of wide Washington Ave. or via loading docks. The USMC drew from the city’s deep textile experience, and the Depot produced varied patterns of uniforms: from dress attire to the wear of the WAACS. Philadelphia textile fabricators within the facility were also notorious for their thrift. Former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak tells an anecdotal story in his autobiography, First to Fight, about how during the 1930s Depot personnel chose to make underwear with two buttons instead of two—unlike the Army and Navy versions which sported three buttons—because it was a penny cheaper.

Presumably the facility continued to provide the accoutrements of war during the Korean War and perhaps during Vietnam. A 1962 land use map of Philadelphia shows the addition of government parcels northward across Washington Ave. abutting the former PRR freight facility and just west of 15th Street along Washington. An additional parcel existed between 18th and 19th Sts. along Washington as well. I don’t know when the facility ceased operation but I imagine it was decommissioned in the 1970s-80s.

The Quartermaster Depot is an excellent specimen of early 20th century industrial architecture: its red brick institutional façade signaling to pedestrians on Broad Street the buttoned-up formality befitting a government facility. At the main entrance along Broad, a wrought iron “U.S. Marine Corps,” and an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor motif in the foyer suggest the building’s original role. But behind the brick cladding and beyond public eyes, the building dispenses with costly brick and shows typical government frugality in its reinforced concrete construction. The various portals along Washington Ave. indicate the need to expeditiously move materiel out of the facility and onto railcars, ships, and trucks.

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The USMCQD was protected by a preservation easement pushed through by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and has become a condominium complex, Marine Club. I am unaware of the current occupancy levels of the Marine Club, or if it is enjoyed by its residents but I am generally pleased by the adaptive reuse of an overlooked industrial site of national significance.