Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Monday, June 8, 2009
By Louis M. Iatarola
The sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II was marked with little fanfare the past August. Few locals still recall the depth of Tacony's involvement was Henry Disston & Sons, whose leadership in the community's efforts turned out to be the "last hurrah" for the family-owned company.
Although several notable Tacony industries could not survive the Great Depression, such as Gillinder Glass Works and Erben-Harden Woolen Mill, the mighty Henry Disston & Sons prevailed despite a reduction in its workforce from 2,500 tp 1,100. Sustained by a steel plant world-renowned for the strongest plating, as well as persistent new product development, the company was positioned well to benefit from the economic recovery of the late 1930's as the country prepared for its involvement in the war in Europe.
By 1939, conflict had broken out but the full-scale war had not begun. Germany had overrun Poland and Great Britain was trying nobly to hold back the German military machine. Russia had signed a peace agreement with Germany, which would be broken by Germany's invasion of 1941.
By the turn of the decade, the country was at a crossroad. Men like Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy were advocating support of Germany and the American peace movement. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood firmly behind Great Britain and advocated a military build-up in the country. Given the growing unrest abroad, it was a necessity that the United States government initiate military preparations for war.
In 1940, the United States Department of Defense looked to the Disston Saw Works to bolster its war preparation efforts. The federal government financed the construction of an armor plating plant on company-owned land at Tacony. Disston spent $250,000 on a new power plant and City Council allowed the government to strike Disston Street from the city plan from Wissinoming Street to the Delaware River for the construction of the plant.
The initial government order required the employment of sixty (60) additional workers, and the opening of the armor plating plant sparked resurgence in the local economy. The plant tripled its capacity by operating twenty-four hours a day with three shifts. Disston’s armor plate, famous for its strength and durability, was used in a multitude of applications including gun shields for artillery pieces, light weight seats to protect pilots from rear air attacks, armor for combat vehicles, tank, naval craft and planes, as well as test plates for checking bullet quality. In addition, between 1939 and 1945, Disston was the only American manufacturer of the two-man portable chainsaw, resulting in exclusive contracts proving crucial to the war effort due to the dense tropical growth of the South Pacific.
Tacony was the ideal place for the government to set up shop for reasons both strategic and symbolic. Tacony had always been pro-Great Britain in its sentiments since it was founded by Englishman Henry Disston in 1872. As early as 1879, British values and culture had dominated life in the community. In 1884, English culture became predominant when two hundred steelworkers and their families were imported from Sheffield, England to work at the Disston Saw Works. Soon, just as they had in England, they established Tea Houses in the community. During World War I, a full hospital first-aid unit from Tacony served in France supporting British troops. As late as 1940, about one thousand people gathered at Disston Playground demanding that the United States support Great Britain in the war against Germany.
In addition, Disston Saw Works had been a leading manufacturer in the country’s war effort dating back to the Civil War. In the period between 1861 and 1865, the firm produced armor plate for the Union Navy to use on the side of the wooden ships blockading the ports of the South. Again in World War I, Disston produced armor plates for cannons and ships. Clearly, the company and the community would be prepared to serve as a national example in following President Roosevelt’s request for the arming of America.
Given these circumstances, the government approved the building of a new armor plate plant to provide bulletproof steel for tanks, cannon, half tracts, and lightweight seats. A rally was organized by the Disston administration to lay the cornerstone for the power plant (dated 1940, it contained selected artifacts from the company) and to open the armor plate factory. The Mayor, high government officials, union chiefs and Disston management headed the speakers rostrum. Three thousand four hundred workers from the factory were assembled by the company for the event. Reporters streamed in from throughout the country to make it a national event. The pictures and stories from that day would become a call to the nation to prepare for war.
Published in Life Magazine’s July 7, 1941 special edition on The Arming of America, the nation was exposed to the enthusiasm of Disston workers who supported Roosevelt’s belief that war was coming and America needed to be prepared. Patriotism and preparedness were the themes in the article. A picture of Disston workers featured in the Life Magazine article would appear in local newspapers from Maine to California, in magazines, in movie theaters and eventually would be used around the world to show America’s patriotism and support of the war. Placed under a map outline of the United States, the picture was used as evidence that the entire country had the same fighting spirit. Also, the picture was displayed in offices, public buildings, and at public events throughout the country. A quote from the text beneath the photograph and caption from the Disston plant read as follows:
- “…the county is awake, though not aroused. And there are growing signs that America is willing to show the grim purpose that Germany and Britain showed, growing signs that the love for freedom on this Independence Day is greater than the hope for comfort.”
Furthering Tacony’s place in World War II history was the famous heroism of local boy Al Schmid, who left his job at Dodge Steel to become a Marine. On August 21, 1942, during the battle of Tenaru on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, Schmid was blinded by a mortar shell while holding off four hundred Japanese aggressors. All of his comrades perished in the battle, and Schmid was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism in his line of duty as a machine gunner. Gaining immediate national attention, a movie starring John Garfield as Schmid was made about his life titled “Pride of the Marines.” Tacony residents were thrilled by the daily spectacle of the movie’s filming in the vicinity of Tulip and Hellerman Streets.
In the years following World War II, patriotism continued to flourish in the community. A parade was traditionally led by the William D. Oxley American Legion Post, and continues to the day every Memorial Day. Disston Playground was the scene for full days of youth activities every 4th of July.
Today, Tacony History Day serves to continue the community’s patriotic traditions by celebrating our pride and rich history. All that remains of the Disston factory, which meant so much to World War II, are the crumbling buildings, empty lots or shells of the structures’ former glorious selves. Disston Precision, Inc., the singular remnant of a proud company, retains its specialized operation in an original two-story Disston building along State Road. The armor plating plant is now a building supplies warehouse and the power plant, celebrated with national fanfare in 1941, is a vacant shell exposed to the elements and overgrown with weeds. The adjacent Army warehouse facility has been demolished and will soon be improved with residential housing in the form of townhomes and mid-rise condominiums.It is expected that the renaissance of new housing along Tacony’s Delaware riverfront will continue south from the former Army warehouse site, signaling the possible end to whatever physical reminders are left of the Disston factory. While one can remove the bricks, concrete, and steel which symbolize our rich industrial heritage, the place of Tacony in the annals of World War II history is firmly secure.
By Louis M. Iatarola
Hamilton Disston, the eldest of Henry Disston's four sons, is best known locally as the namesake of Tacony's seventy-eight year old public school, located at Knorr and Cottage Streets. His father's legacy is well known, having risen in the span of fifty-nine years from immigrant apprentice to owner and operator of the largest saw manufacturing firm in the world and founder of the community of Tacony as we know it today. Although the life of Hamilton Disston would span seven less years than that of his father, his influence extended well beyond Philadelphia to the once barren reaches of Central Florida.
On August 23, 1844 Hamilton Disston was born to Mary and Henry Disston. At this time, the twenty-five year old Henry Disston had just rented a shop in Philadelphia and borrowed $200.00 to equip it with the first steam-powered saw machinery in the country. Unfortunately, Henry was unaware that he was a sub-tenant and soon saw his equipment seized for his landlord's unpaid rent. The undaunted Disston promptly went to work at home, making tools until he could buy back his equipment.
Prompt responses to crises, decisive action, and above all, an insistence on quality and fair treatment of employees were factors that led to Henry Disston's Keystone Saw Works fast becoming the local leader in its industry. In addition, Henry's collaboration with brothers Charles and Thomas plus frequent contact with brother William in England helped keep the company ahead of its competitors when it came to the latest tool-making techniques.
By the time Hamilton Disston began his apprenticeship at his father's firm at the age of fifteen in 1859, the Keystone Saw Works at Front and Laurel Streets employed 150 people, more than any of Disston's local competitors. Company custom, as implemented by Henry Disston, was for each son to apprentice for five to seven years before assuming an executive position.
This ensured that each future leader would have first-hand knowledge of most operational methods at the plan and have greater familiarity with his co-workers. This tradition also included lavish parties in his respective Department to celebrate the son's admittance into partnership. This practice continued into the 1940's, when William Leeds Disston as the last family member to apprentice at the firm. The only exception during that time span was Jacob, son of Henry, who attended Business School at the University of Pennsylvania.
As Henry Disston's eldest son, it is certain that Hamilton benefited the greatest through observation and imitation of his father's administrative skills and technical proficiency. At the rapidly expanding factory, Hamilton was the only son to witness and fully participate in the resultant boom in business from the outbreak of the Civil War. The factory's expansion was heightened given an immediate need to manufacture materials for the Union Army. A rolling steel mill was constructed and Henry Disston appealed to workers in the national interest to report defects and suggest possible modifications to enhance their war products, which included knapsack mountings, scabbards, swords, and guns, among many others. In addition, Disston offered employees who joined the Union Army 50% in addition to the government's pay plus a secure job when returning from the war.
Hamilton Disston, an apprentice at the time of the Civil War outbreak, was a charismatic and energetic young man who had made many friends and acquaintances in his short time at the Saw Works. Sharing his father's patriotic spirit, Hamilton wanted to enlist in the Union Army when President Lincoln made an appeal for volunteers. Although he attempted twice to enlist, both times his father paid an enlistment bonus insisting it a necessity that Hamilton attend to his duties at the business.
Not to be stifled in his civic duty, Hamilton Disston, or "Ham," as the was affectionately known, became a member of the Northern Liberties Volunteer Fire Company and would frequently leave the factory to help fight fires in the area. In addition, he organized approximately one hundred fellow workers in forming "Disston Volunteers." This was a youthful group of men so motivated by the young Disston that his father reluctantly gave permission to the volunteers even equipping their entire unit for the war effort. Upon returning from the war in 1865, Hamilton Disston was made partner in the firm that would be known for a short time as Henry Disston and Son.
The tenure of Hamilton Disston at the upper echelon of the Disston Company began with some of the firm's most prosperous years. The demand for many types of saws intensified as new lines of products were introduced, including a whole line of steel files. Modifications were routine as the Disstons always stayed ahead of their competition when it came to design technology. Their success led to a need for more space which the cramped Laurel Street facility could not accommodate, prompting the Disstons to search for a site large enough to build a new factory.
Hamilton Disston's Uncle Thomas had purchased several lots on the Delaware River near what is now Cottman Avenue in 1855 and built a summer home. The land had been sold by the Tacony Cottage Association, who sold the lots along with others to build St. Vincent's Catholic German Orphanage. Henry Disston, familiar with the area's transportation sources and envisioning an area west of the railroad tracks ripe for settlement of his workforce, chose in 1871 Tacony as the new site of what was then known as Henry Disston and Sons. Henry Disston eventually purchased 390 acres of land on both sides of the railroad tracks, reserving for the new factory forty acres between the railroad and the Delaware River.
The paternalism fostered in the Disston Company was thrust on the new community of Tacony, where by 1876, forty-four twin and twelve row style homes had been built west of the railroad tracks. Funds were set aside for a park along Keystone Street, as school, independent water works and a benefits package for workers. Favorable terms were available for workers to buy or rent homes. Deed restrictions promoting a stable, family-oriented atmosphere were incorporated into lot sales. Funds were made available and land donated for churches, a music hall, library, and scientific society. These practices were reinforced and perpetuates by Hamilton Disston and his three brothers after the death of Henry Disston in 1878. less than seven years after his Tacony land purchase.
The entire Laurel Street facility would not be moved in its entirety to Tacony until 1899, attesting to the size and scope of the company at this time. Hamilton Disston became President of Henry Disston and Sons upon the death of his father in 1878. Hamilton Disston was a likeable, effective president; however, his interest in politics and real estate often diverted his attention from the day-to-day operations of the factory.
Because volunteer fire departments were disbanded in 1870, Ham's social venue became on of Republican politics. Besides using politics as a fruitful social outlet, the firm was staunchly in favor of the protective tariff on imported goods, and Hamilton was sure to make his Republican allies aware of this. In 1875, he was the Ward Leader of the City's 29th Ward, and helped one of his Northern Liberties Volunteer Hose Company friends, John A. Loughridge, to the post of Prothonotary to the Court of Common Pleas.
Upon the firm's move to Tacony, Hamilton Disston struck up an immediate kinship with his cousin and Disston land agent Thomas W. South. With Disston's assistance, South became the local Magistrate in 1875 while doubling as the real estate agent for the properties within the Disston Estate. Because South lived in Tacony, and Hamilton resided near his father on North Broad Street, South virtually oversaw the implementation of Henry Disston's orderly industrial village at Tacony. As a result, South eventually wielded significant power himself. If became common knowledge that nothing went on in Tacony without the approval of Disston and South.
Although never elected to public office, Hamilton Disston served for a time as the City's Fire Commissioner and became the City's first Fairmount Park Commissioner in the 1870's. It was during his tenure that Disston Park was extended from Unruh Avenue south to what is now Levick Street. He donated land charitably, including the plot where Tacony Baptist Church was built in 1884 and expanded thirty-one years later. At the firm, Hamilton incorporated the business in 1886, and stock was distributed among family members.
It became clear that Hamilton Disston virtually controlled Republican nominations in the City during the 1870's and 1880's. Early alliances with the City Gas Works "Czar" James McManes as well as William Leeds, United States Senator Matthew Quay, and David H. Lane reaped bountiful political rewards, even enough to eventually help unseat McManes over a disagreement about who would run for the the City's Receiver of Taxes post. In addition to controlling Tacony's water source, Hamilton Disston was the major investor in the Tacony Fuel Gas Company when it formed in 1888. Ten years later, the company was wholly owned by Henry Disston and Sons after Jacob Disston bought the company outright.
Hamilton Disston's interest in real estate extended well beyond his family's significant holdings in Tacony and Atlantic City. Through his ever-expanding roster of political allies, he was able to forge partnerships with various power brokers including Samuel R. Shipley, President of Provident Life and Trust Company, Thomas Scott, Jr., the heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad fortune and United States Senator Matthew Quay for the purposes of real estate investment. It is generally understood that the inner workings of the plant during Hamilton's tenure as President was left to his Uncle Samuel and younger brothers. Ham's role was more ceremonial, as in the time President Rutherford B. Hayes visited the plant. Hamilton Disston reportedly showed the President a rough piece of steel at the outset of the visit and less than forty-five minutes later presented him with a finished saw emblazoned with the President's name.
It is believed that Hamilton Disston's first trip to Central Florida occurred in 1877. He became fascinated with the possibility of reclaiming swamp land to facilitate agricultural and possible residential development. By 1879, he and some investor friends formed the Atlantic and Gulf Coast Canal and Okeechobee Land Company to work on the drainage of the upper portions of the Everglades. Although railroad had begun to open up new areas of Florida development, Civil War debt had left he state in dire financial shape and would be unable to oversee any railroad development until the 1890's. The drainage contract called for the reclamation of some twelve million acres of land, which would be deeded in plots beginning after the reclamation of the first 200,000 acres alternately to the State and the Land Company, which issued 600,000 shares of stock at $10.00 per share.
This contract received immediate attention nationwide and the Florida land boom began. The New York Times reported on February 18, 1881:
The reclamation of 12,000,000 acres of land, or one-third of the States of the Union, has been undertaken by a company of Philadelphia gentleman with every prospect of success...The project of reclaiming this wonderfully rich country has been talked of for years, and it has long been considered feasible by many noted engineers...The leading man in this enterprise is Hamilton Disston, a young gentleman of great business energy and ample fortune, and present head of the great saw-manufacturing firm of Henry Disston & Sons.
In June, 1881, Hamilton Disston purchased four million acres of land from the State of Florida, promptly bailing the state out of its debt and becoming the largest single land owner in the United States at the time. Disston also developed railroad interests and bought half-interest in the St. Cloud Sugar Plantation formed on reclaimed land. Towns such as Kissimmee City, Southport, Narcoosee, and Runnymede sprung up on reclaimed land.
It was estimated that by 1893, Disston's Land Company had conveyed nearly 1.2 million acres of land and the level or Lake Okeechobee had been lowered 4 1/2 feet. By that time, additional towns such as St. Cloud, Tarpon Springs, Fort Myers, and Anolote among others in Pinellas County were formed. Disston's search for a resort town led to the founding of Disston City, on the Boca Ciega Bay, today's Gulfport. A Waldorf Hotel was built on its shores where a wharf extended into the bay and a Mississippi paddleboat christened the "Mary Disston" carried freight and passengers to and from the Tampa Bay area.
By the mid-1890's, it began to appear that Hamilton Disston's Florida investment may never reap the benefits envisioned. Although substantial lands have been reclaimed, more of Disston's acreage remained unclaimed than claimed. The true cause may have less to do with Disston's foresight and more to do with an ill-defined definition of "swamp and overflowed" land as established in the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850. This Act allowed such lands to be sold if they were deemed drainable for use in agriculture. This definition applied to Disston's surveyed sections of land and created whereby some of the land would never be suitable for development, agricultural or otherwise. In addition, overdrainage in some areas led to more severe drainage problems in other areas.
Other problems plagued Hamilton Disston at this time. A business-friendly bounty of two cents per pound instituted in 1890 to assist the domestic production of sugar was removed by an unfriendly Grover Cleveland administration in 1894. This factor, combined with a nationwide economic panic of 1893 and severe freezes in 1894 and 1895 which devastated Florida's citrus industry, created cash flow problems at the Florida Sugar Manufacturing Company. Land prices plummeted as a result which did not bode well for Disston's interests. Also to Disston's disadvantage was the fact that the new railroad constructed by Peter Demens in the interior of the state stopped at downtown St. Petersburg and did not extend to Disston City. Many businesses moved from Disston City to St. Petersburg as a result, and by 1905 it's name was changed to Veterans City in an attempt to lure aging Civil War veterans. By 1910, its name was changed to Gulfport.
Back at the Saw Works, the firm was forced to reduce wages as a result of the 1893 panic. A note of $1,000,000 drawn on the business which was due on Hamilton Disston's Florida investments painted a bleak economic picture by 1895. It was becoming increasingly evident that Disston's concept of canals and steamboats was becoming outmoded as the railroad's ever increasing presence opened up more and more parts of Central Florida. Many of Disston's investors would never see their anticipated returns.
Although Hamilton Disston was widely credited for bailing Florida out of tremendous debt, few reminders remain today of his far reaching influence. Gulfport Junior High changed its name to Disston Junior High before closing in the late 1970's. The area of St. Petersburg known as Disston Heights has an elevation of forty to sixty feet and is centered at 49th Street, formerly Disston Boulevard. The Disston Community today boasts an active 250-member civic association, a large shopping center, and at least a handful of businesses with Disston in it's name. The 150,000 acres on the Pinellas Peninsula founded by Disston is the county's highest ground, the modern-day destination for residents in lower lying areas in times of a hurricane.
It is widely accepted that the underlying reason behind Hamilton Disston's untimely death was his anguish over the economic implications of the ill-fated Florida investments. Confusion abounds, even to this day, surrounding the physical cause of his death, which occurred on April 30, 1896. Although there were no eyewitnesses, on Philadelphia newspaper and a distant nephew of Disston reported Hamilton's death a suicide in his bathtub with a single gunshot. All other newspapers across the country reported that he dies at home of a heart attack. An acquaintance of Disston's, Alfred Chandler, confirmed this in his book, Land Titles and Fraud. The official coroner's report read that Disston died, "...by natural causes, probably a weakened heart."
Upon the death of Hamilton Disston, his brother William took over the Saw Works and promptly borrowed the $1,000,000 from friend James Stokesburg of J.P. Morgan to pay off Hamilton's Florida debt. Short-term case flow problems persisted at the factory, but recovery and further expansion would occur by the turn of the century. Hamilton Disston's estate was divided between his wife and three sons, Henry, Frank, and Albert. Twenty-seven years after his death, the Hamilton Disston Elementary School was opened on land donated by the Disston Family. Hamilton's brother William helped unveil the stained glass windows and hand-painted auditorium murals that make the building so unique.In conclusion, the undeniable and ubiquitous impact of the Disstons upon the Tacony community is still alive nearly 150 years after the arrival of Thomas Disston at his summer hamlet on the Delaware River. Their deed restrictions in effect to this day have positively influenced the quality of life in the community while the school and recreation center erected in their memory still thrive with the daily exuberance of Tacony's youth. In Central Florida, Hamilton Disston is recognized as its savior and pioneer whose vision paved the way for modern-day development. Imagine the value of Disston's land holdings today in and near the Walt Disney World Resort area. This exercise should bring into sharp focus the true visionary that was Hamilton Disston.
By Louis M. Iatarola
Our sixth profile of a significant person of place in Tacony's history focuses on the Tacony Music Hall, presently the only property within Tacony which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.* This is the story of a 144-year old building which has undergone several metamorphoses during its actual life -- having been the cultural and social center of a small town to becoming an abandoned storage warehouse to becoming an active mixed-use commercial building restored to its original Victorian grandeur.
This building documents the social history of one of the most unusual Victorian factory neighborhoods, the industrial settlement of Tacony that Henry Disston laid out around his Disston Saw Works. Containing an auditorium and lecture rooms, the building also housed the Disston Library and Free Reading Room. The Music Hall served as the meeting place of the working class community's clubs and lodges, and formed the social and recreational center of Tacony.
The Tacony Music Hall is a three-story brick building on a corner lot situated at the intersection of Longshore Avenue and Edmund Street. The Edmund Street side of the building features four bays, whose first story openings consist of a modern, steel lintel-headed opening at the front, and four windows headed by brick arches. Between these windows, to the rear of the building, is the elaborate entrance to the Music Hall, made up by a pair of brick pilasters carrying a brick and stone entablature. In the upper stories a pair of windows light each bay which are arched at the second story and headed by stone lintels at the third. Along each roof line there is a bold frieze of brick corbels above which are terra cotta rondels. A pressed metal cornice caps the building.
The rear elevation, beyond the original Music Hall stage, is a single first story segmental window and a French door functioning as a window with fixed stained glass panels at the second story. Like the facade, the rear is divided into three bays. There is a single window in the central bay, which was infilled, and two third story windows.
The Longshore Avenue side of the building is separated into three bays, the central one projecting above the roof line to end in an ornate pressed medal pediment. The first story consists of two store fronts which are capped by exposed steel lintels and preserve the raised bases beneath their display windows. The entrances to the right and left are capped by brick arches with stone imposts, and are reached by short flights of stone steps. Each of the second story bays is fronted by a large round arched window with ornamental brick detailing. A panel bearing an inscription caps each of the outer windows. The third story contains windows only in the center bay which is lighted by four lintel-headed windows. The other bays, and the raised parapet at the center, are accentuated bold brick corbels and recessed panels.
The Tacony Music Hall was built in 1885 as a speculative venture by Frank W. Jordan, an entrepreneur and local druggist whose store adjoined the lot. Jordan exploited the site ingeniously, fitting income producing space on all three stories. The first story contained rental shop space, used by such tenants as H. G. Shannon, Watchmaker and Jeweler, while the second story comprised an assembly hall for musical performances, lodge meetings, and lectures. A permanent tenant was also found for the third story: the Keystone Scientific and Literary Association. Founded in 1876 to sponsor public debates and lectures, the Association had maintained a small public library but had "sought larger and more imposing quarters." Although funds were limited, "generous gifts and money from the Messrs. Disston" made it possible to rent and furnish rooms in the Music Hall. In 1885, upon the completion of the building, the Association opened their library with a main reading room and a smaller committee room to the rear under a picturesquely detailed exposed wood roof truss. Acknowledging the financial support of the Disston family, the name of the Association was changed to the Disston Library and Free Reading Room. In 1906, the library moved to even larger quarters at Knorr Street and Torresdale Avenue and again changed its name to the Carnegie Library in honor of its benefactor, Andrew Carnegie. Our modern day Tacony Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia has been recently rehabilitated and is a shining example of Victorian architecture featuring central stained glass skylights.
The Tacony Music Hall and the library that it housed not only benefited from the largesse of the Disstons (particularly Thomas, who was a board member of the Library), but also reinforced their paternalistic social message. Thus P.T. Barnum lectured for the Keystone Association on Temperance and Susan B. Anthony spoke on Woman's Suffrage. It was believed that enlightenment of the work force was an effective means of social control. Disston helped to fund the community churches and workers' housing and, at the same time, exercised considerable social control. Thus none of the land he sold could be used for a "tavern or building for the sale or manufacture of Beer or Liquors of any kind," nor were there to be any "carpenter, blacksmith, currier or machine shop, livery stables" and so forth on the property. These restrictions are still in force today.
With its lecture rooms, entertainment facilities and library, the Tacony Music Hall was the cultural and social center of Tacony. It regularly hosted musical revues and variety shows, often organized by Jordan, acting as his own stage manager, or James J. McGowan -- a talent agent based in nearby Frankford who was himself a regular feature in the Music Hall with his "Irish comicalities." During the theater season there were typically performances on Wednesday and Friday with two on Saturday. Rather than repeating a show, the visiting company would often present four different plays. Besides providing entertainment, the second story hall served virtually everyone of Tacony's clubs and associations who used the Hall for their weekday evening meetings, including the Tacony Division of the Sons of Temperance, the Disston Lodge of the Order of St. George, the Tacony Republican Club, the Ladies Aid Society of the Methodist Church and other local clubs. So important was the building as an image of the community that it graced the masthead of the town newspaper, the Tacony New Era, where it assumed a place of honor with the Mary Disston School, superimposed over an image of the Disston Saw Works. When the Philadelphia antiquarian Samuel Hodgkins wrote Tacony's first history in his 1893 The Bristol Pike, he used a woodcut of the building to represent the town.
The Music Hall remained the center of Tacony's cultural life into the twentieth century. After the Disston Library moved into its own building, the Music Hall entered a protracted period of neglect. The changing character of American leisure, particularly the decline of variety venues and the rise of the cinema, hurt the Music Hall which never became a successful motion picture theater. The building languished under a series of later short-term owners, beginning with the shipping agent and speculator Alonzo Shotwell, who acquired the building in 1888. By World War II the theater was closed and the building converted into a furniture warehouse, which it remained until its purchase and restoration in 1989. Fortunately, the failure of the theater has preserved the building's original character including such features as the metal-ceilinged Music Hall itself and the original library on the third story.
The rehabilitated Tacony Music Hall reflects the mixed use of the building. The first story is principally devoted to the two storefronts that run perpendicular to Longshore Avenue, while the main staircase to the main hall is located to the rear of the Edmund Street elevation. Nearly the entire second story is taken up by the music hall whose trim includes an elaborate pressed-metal ceiling and wooden wainscoting. The northwest corner, now a private office, was formally the hat check and ticket offices. The third story contained three rental rooms where the Keystone Scientific and Literary Association Library was once housed: two meeting rooms running longitudinally at the front of the building and the smaller library room across the rear who exposed roof truss is a prominent Victorian feature.
Since its rehabilitation, the upper two floors of the Tacony Music Hall have housed the real estate appraisal offices of Louis A. Iatarola, current owner of the building, with the fully restored Disston Library and Free Reading Room serving as the office's research library at the northerly end of the third floor. First floor commercial uses in the early to mid-1990's included Cecelia Gift Shop, Rose Petals and Lace Flower Shop, and Northeast Glass Company which, several years ago, sought "larger and more imposing quarters," moving its facility to the southeast corner of Longshore Avenue and Gillespie Street. The first floor occupants presently include Miss Susan's Entertainment and Dance, now entering its fifth season at 4819 Longshore Avenue, offering a variety of dance and pre-dance from children through adults, as well as the combined offices of the Tacony Civic Association and Historical Society of Tacony at the rear off Edmund Street. This joint office, staffed entirely by volunteers, opened in August, 1998, and is open on Friday afternoons as well as by appointment.** By the Summer of 2000 the vacant unit at 4817 Longshore Avenue will be occupied by Little Victorian Village, Inc., a pre-school facility which will begin operation with a summer mini-camp for ages 3 to 5.***
The Tacony Music Hall has caught the eye of at least two directors as this historic building has been featured in a television commercial and an independent feature film. In 1996, Comcast Cablevision filmed a commercial on the first and second floors of the building. Much more attention was given to the filming of "The Big Store," an independent film by Brick House Films and Bob Max Productions, which virtually took over the intersection of Longshore Avenue and Edmund Street on June 18, 1998. The corner space occupied by Miss Susan's was transferred into a 1930's-era storefront as a shoe store, with scenes shot both inside and outside the building well into the evening. Neighbors pulled up lawn chairs and witnessed a professional movie shoot unlike anything Tacony has seen since Pride of the Marines was filmed in part at the old Dodge Steel Foundry at Magee Avenue and State Road. "The Big Store" starring Tony Mastrione from the soap opera "One Life to Live," is rated PG and is scheduled for release in November, 1999.****
The Tacony Music Hall superbly documents the early history of Tacony and extent to which the cultural and recreational life of the community was dominated by a single institution. In many respects, the building has come full circle. The first floor is now institutional in nature, housing the offices of the Tacony Civic Association and Historical Society, and dance school and a pre-school. A new generation of Taconyites has the opportunity to become enlightened and enriched under the arched brick and Victorian metal pediment pointing skyward above the building. In doing so, this generation will hopefully appreciate the significance of this structure and the uniqueness of the community that surrounds it.
* At the time this was written, this was believed to be true. However, it has since been discovered by the Historical Society that Hamilton Disston Elementary School is also listed in the National Registry. This was discovered quite by accident, when the Historical Society was visiting the school to begin last year's Environmental Education Program.
** This has changed in recent years. The current office hours are Monday through Friday 9 am to 1 pm, with additional hours available by appointment.
*** The Little Victorian Village is now open from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm. For more information, call 215-624-8066.
**** To our current knowledge, this film was never released, for reasons we do not know. A search of the Internet Movie Database reveals only a 1941 Groucho Marx film of the same name. If anyone knows anything about the status of the movie, please let us know.
By Louis M. Iatarola
On December 27, 1967, William H. (Billy "Awgy Dawgy") Carpenter became the second Taconyite and twenty-second Father Judge graduate to lose his life in the Vietnam War. On this Tacony History Day, September 21, 1996, the gymnasium within the Disston Recreation Center will be dedicated in his memory. This profile is intended to familiarize us with the young man who had such a profound impact on his friends and family as well as a tremendous love for his country.
William H. Carpenter was born and raised at 6743 Ditman Street. He attended St. Leo's School and was a 1966 graduate of Father Judge High School, where he achieved outstanding grades. Billy's favorite subject was history and he was an avid reader. When he wasn't reading he could be found spending time at the Disston Recreation Center.
In basketball, Billy was an outstanding center as he was big and strong. In football, he was a great tight end with good speed and excellent hands. On nearly any given day, Billy spent some time at the Disston Recreation Center ("The Rec") playing ball, hanging out, talking with buddies, or simply reading, until his graduation from Father Judge High School.
At the time of Billy's graduation in 1966, the war in Southeast Asia was raging. Billy's sense of patriotism was stronger than his desire for college as he unselfishly enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He swiftly proceeded through Paris Island, Camp Lejune, and to electronics school as a radio operator. It was early fall in 1967 when Billy received orders for duty in Vietnam. He was assigned to the First Marine Division as a radio operator on a Forward Air Controller Team.
Forward Air Controller (F.A.C.) team members represented a volunteer force responsible for calling in and directing air support for ground operations. In addition, they directed air evacuation of the wounded. The F.A.C. team members are typically the first into battle and the last out. This is truly one of the most dangerous and critical jobs in the Marine Corps.
By early December, 1967, Billy had been assigned to Special Landing Force Bravo within the ranks of the 3rd Battalion, First Marine Division. Operation Badger Tooth, which commenced on December 26, 1967, was to be the last commitment for Special Landing Force Bravo in that year. Billy was traveling with Rifle Company "K" when the operation started at 1100 hours. Company L landed over Green Beach and proceeded to Landing Zone Finch, which was located slightly more than three kilometers inland from the beach on the southern Quang Tri Province border. (see map below)
The Operation was to be a somewhat difficult task. The proposed objective area was located on the extreme westerly side of what was called the "Street Without Joy." Intelligence estimates placed as a many as 1700 enemy troops in the vicinity of the operation. Within five and a half hours, Company K suffered the first casualty of Operation Badger Tooth when automatic weapons fire west of Landing Zone Finch struck a Marine.
Colonel Schmidt, the Commander of the Special Landing Force, then commanded the Battalion Landing Team to change direction and "sweep" the coastal villages of Tham Ke and Trung An. On the evening of December 26, Companies L and M executed sweeps of both villages. Both towns were found to contain little evidence of the presence of Communist formations as the Marines killed only three Viet Cong and detained four. Unfortunately for Billy Carpenter and his fellow Marines, the search would have soon proved inadequate.
At 0700 hours on the morning of December 27, Companies L and M embarked on another "sweep" of the two villages. Company M moved out to the northeast to cover Trung An while Company L moved south to cover Tham Ke. As the leading platoon of Company L approached the edge of the village, a tremendous volume of enemy fire opened up from various sources including machine guns, rifles, and mortars. The Company initially suffered many casualties including Captain Thomas S. Hubble and his battalion "Tac-net" radio operator.
Lieutenant Colonel McQuown, during a period in which all communications were temporarily lost with the company, ordered Company M to move southeast in support of Company L. Almost instantly, Company M cam under heavy fire. Company I was ordered to the south of Tham Ke while the Special Landing Force was ordered to land the tank platoon. At this point, Billy Carpenter and Rifle Company K were instructed to take the pressure off Companies L and M by attacking the south end of Tham Ke.
Before too long, Company K found itself surrounded in an open field by a large enemy force. Billy's Forward Air Controller team was ordered to the front to direct an air strike. Company K attacked against fierce resistance, all the while prepping the area with 81 mm mortar fire. There was very little cover, however, Billy knew that his job was to advance to a position where he could observe the enemy fire.
As Billy was advancing, he was shot through the legs and somehow continue directing mortar strikes on the enemy. As he valiantly continued to advance in an effort to carry out his mission, he expired after a loss of blood. Air support did eventually arrive and the Marines secured their position. Despite the successful mission, forty-six Marines lost their lives in the battle in addition to Billy Carpenter.
A search of Tham Ke on the morning of December 28 revealed a defensive fortress complete with a network of underground tunnels supporting ground level bunkers for massive amounts of weaponry. All defensive preparation was camouflaged with growing vegetation. Upon inquiry after the battle, local residents disclosed that the North Vietnamese Army had been preparing the defense of the village since late 1966. Obviously, in preparing for the operation, the Marines were not expecting the presence of such a formidable force whose magnitude and intense preparation made it difficult to overtake. The same statement would apply eventually to the entire Vietnam War in general.
Billy Carpenter was one of many thousands of young men who gave their lives for the cause of liberty. In addition, seven others from Tacony lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Their spirit, determination, and love for freedom and democracy are an inspiration to us all and are the reason we have remained, for over 220 years, "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
As we dedicate Disston Recreation Center's gymnasium today in the memory of a young man whose feet once competitively pounced upon it and whose voice once echoed through it, let us remember that although time passes by, it cannot erase those memories created through love and friendship. In closing, let us reflect on the following passage which was prepared by Tom Fenerty, Billy's best friend, upon the Testimonial Dinner held in Billy's honor on March 28, 1987, for which he was program chairman:
My sons and all our children should know and remember
the deeds of Billy Carpenter and the 58,000 men who gave their lives in Vietnam. Should our country ever again become involved in a struggle against Communist aggression, our sons will know and be ready to stand strong in defense of our nation's freedom. Hail and farewell, Bill, we will never forget.
In addition to Billy Carpenter, there were several other young men from our Tacony neighborhood who served our country and were killed in Vietnam. Please, remember them in your thoughts and prayers...
Date of Birth
Date of Death
|Pvt. William H. Carpenter, Jr. || |
|Cpl. Clement J. Grassi|| |
|Lance Cpl. James P. Harkanson|| |
|Cpl. Donald J. Hertrich|| |
|Staff Sgt. Bernard F. Kissel|| |
|Maj. Rev. Aloysius P. McGonigal|| |
|Lance Cpl. Robert A. Ryan|| |
|Sgt. Edward F. Zackowski|| |
The Dedication Plaque in the Disston Recreation Center reads as follows:
Dedicated in Memory of
This gymnasium is dedicated to the memory and service of Billy and the other Tacony men who gave their lives and all Americans who served their country in Vietnam.
"Greater love than this no one has, that one lay
Special thanks to Tom Fenerty in helping with the compilation of this year's profile.
By Louis M. Iatarola
Passing by the vacant site along the easterly side of State Road, south of Magee Avenue, a newcomer to Tacony may wonder what once stood on this large waterfront parcel of land now strewn with bricks, dirt, and industrial debris. Anyone who has lived in Tacony for ten years or less would likely tell the newcomer that an old, abandoned factory named "Dodge or something" once stood there and that it continuously deteriorated until its demolition in October, 1994.
Anyone who has lived in Tacony forty or so years would probably say that on this site once stood a respected leader in the worldwide steel casting industry known as the Dodge Steel Company. This one-time major participant in the industrial development of the Philadelphia area made it possible for such vital products as valve bodies, pump and turbine parts and railroad, marine, and automobile castings to find their way to factories all over the world.
Anyone fortunate enough to have lived in Tacony eighty-five or more years would likely say that on this site most recently stood the Dodge Steel Company, but originally stood the Tacony Iron & Metal Company, whose claim to fame was fulfilling the contract to construct the mammoth iron statue of William Penn which adorns the tower atop Philadelphia's City Hall. What he or she may not tell the newcomer are the fascinating details concerning this site's history, such as providing the impetus for various inventions and the backdrop for two movies.
In the fall of 1891, when Magee Avenue was known as Salter's Lane, the Tacony Iron and Metal (see photo below) Company, under the direction of its president, uncle of the world famous inventor and prominent Taconyite Frank Shuman, had already secured the contract to cast the iron work for the tower of Philadelphia's new City Hall. Under Mr. Schumann's supervision, the 120' x 60' building was finished being constructed by early 1892, complete with a special high-bay roof and three custom made tanks whose sizes were determined by the largest of over forty castings comprising the 37' high, 55,348 pound statue.
The construction of the statue of William Penn was not publicized at the time, so few crowds gathered at the Tacony Iron & Metal Company site. However, according to Dr. Edward Schumann, son of Francis, interviewed in 1939 by the Evening Bulletin, the statue's casting provided some unique thrills to some lucky Tacony residents. Said Dr. Schumann, "Usually, on a Sunday morning employees' wives and children would watch the work, which was cast in sections. Children at one stage of the construction could be seen running around on the hat or perched on the hand. In a 1984 Philadelphia Inquirer interview, long time Taconyite Miriam Broughton confirmed this fact. "For most kids," recalled Mrs. Broughton, "the biggest delight was walking on the brim of William Penn's hat...In later years there were stories of someone going up on the tower and pedaling a bicycle around the brim, but I know by where the brim turns that it just wouldn't be possible."
In the aforementioned 1939 Evening Bulletin article, long time Taconyite Mrs. Joseph Tomlinson recalled, "My husband's favorite story was that he drove the team that hauled the statue's parts downtown. He often told how, one rainy day, Billy Penn's hand, extending out over the driver's seat, protected him from the rain." It required teams of sixteen horses to haul single pieces of the statue downtown. A one time employee of Tacony Iron and Metal Company, Fred Melsch, recalled in the same article, "As an iron-fitter, I worked on the tower. At the time those workmen who could were having souvenirs made out of the bronze left over from the statue. I have to this day a fancy wall ornament and pins for keeping score on a cribbage board, made from the same batch of metal of which the statue was molded."
Needless to say, the casting of William Penn's statue was the most significant accomplishment of the Tacony Iron and Metal Company. In addition to the statue, all the metal work on the 547' tall City Hall Tower, including the figures and eagles, was cast at the Tacony site. The polygonal steel structure on the dome was an original design by Francis Schumann. So widely recognized as a leader in its field was the Tacony Iron and Metal Works that the building was featured on the cover of the October 22, 1892 issue of Scientific American, complete with a lengthy article on the use of electro-plating in architecture.
Unfortunately for Tacony and its Iron and Metal Company, the casting of William Penn's statue was not enough to ensure financial stability as it went out of business by 1910. After the Tacony and Iron and Metal Company closed its doors for the last time, the building was virtually abandoned. At the time, Philadelphia was considered a great motion picture center. The city was the source of profound innovations in movie making and served as headquarters for studios in five states and Berlin. This was due primarily to film pioneer Siegmund ("Pop") Lubin, who was viewed on the same level as Thomas Edison when it came to the development of movies as a skill and art.
In 1914, Mr. Lubin chose the abandoned Tacony Iron and Metal Company building as the site of a film titled "Gods of Fate." The film was described as "an Epic of Labor with an Appealing Love Theme of Unusual Character," and was expected to satisfy the public's demand for bigger, better, and more realistic spectacles. The movie company asked permission to stage a small fire along the north side of the building. The scene was to show the stars being rescued. As a precaution, Engine Companies #38 and #52 were on hand at the scene.
William H. Batezell, Jr. one of a crowd of curious spectators, recalled in a letter to a local editor in April, 1967, "...No one figured on the dry timbers in the building, which was three-quarters of a block long. And then it happened! The building went up like a box of matches. The stars already at the windows would not jump, as per script, and our Philadelphia fire fighters got into the act by staging the real thing...I saw one cameraman making a very close escape. How he missed being killed could only be explained by the 'God's of Fate.' " Later in that year, the Lubin Manufacturing Company's film storage facility at 20th and Indiana Avenue also burned to the ground. Several years later the Lubin Company was to go out of business.
Although the "Gods of Fate" fire rendered the former Tacony Iron and Metal Company site a skeletal reminder of what once was, Tacony was to see yet another prominent industrial player in the worldwide economy establish firm roots in this still suburban-like community. In 1919, the Dodge Steel Company was founded by Kern Dodge and Associates in a building comprising approximately 21,000 square feet. With a mission statement promising to manufacture the best quality steel castings that good workmanship and science can produce, the Dodge Steel Company became a respected leader in the steel casting industry by the late 1930s.
Through expansion in its physical facilities which eventually amounted to over 100,000 square feet, plus a wider acceptance for its castings and an accelerated shipbuilding program started in 1940, Dodge Steel's production rose from 50 tons per month in 1926 to a peak of 648 tons per month during World War II. By 1950, castings with the "DS" trademark were considered among the best in the world.
The best known subplot to emerge from the existence of the Dodge Steel Company is probably that of steelmaker Albert A. Schmid. Mr. Schmid, at the age of 21, left his family, girlfriend, and the Dodge Steel Company to sign up for military service on December 9, 1941, two days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Eight months after leaving his job working a gas-fed torch and cutting and scraping steel castings, Al Schmid found himself manning a machine-gun emplacement with orders to hold the all-important post protecting Henderson Airfield on the Tenaru River at Guadalcanal. According to a Marine Corps report, although a grenade explosion blinded Al Schmid and one partner was dead while the other wounded, Schmid singlehandedly held his position and fought off his Japanese aggressors for over four hours. Of nearly 1,200 Japanese soldiers who reportedly tried to cross the Tenaru River that night, eighteen were wounded, two captured, and the rest killed.
Hollywood soon recognized that Schmid's story was one of which movies were made. A feature film which proved very popular at the time titled "Pride of the Marines" was released in the mid-1940's starring John Garfield as Al Schmid and Eleanor Parker as Ruth Hartley, Schmid's girlfriend and eventual wife. Parts of the movie were filmed at Al Schmid's Fillmore Street home and at the Dodge Steel Company. Much furor was raised in Frankford and Tacony as local residents swarmed around the film sites to get glimpses of the movie making.
By the 1960's and 1970's, the only headlines made by the Dodge Steel Company were those of labor unrest involving primarily the International Molders & Allied Workers Union. Many a labor strike interrupted production at the factory over such issues as union shop classes, wage increases, and incentive pay disputes caused by machinery which did not meet production expectations.
Mounting cash flow problems, caused by decreasing demand of its products and wage hikes which saw the hourly rate increase from $2.83 per hour on average in 1970 to $8.10 per hour by the mid-1980's, led to the ultimate closure of the Dodge Steel Company in 1986. Although a small group of the company's seventy of so employees tried to save the company bay taking over from a Chicago lawyer name Morris Coff (who had little or nothing to do with the company's day-to-day operations), the group found itself capital-short when it came time to avoid foreclosure on a $1.5 million dollar load.
Over the course of its sixty year existence, the Dodge Steel Company's progress was virtually mirrored by American society. All phases of modern American history can be traced through the development of this factory. The excitement of World War I followed by the depression of the 1930's, prosperity of the '40's and '50's was reflected in the growth and inner workings of the Dodge Steel Company and its employees. Accordingly, the civil rights and labor disputes of the 1960's and 1970's followed by the corporate merger-mania rampant in the 1980's led to the company's ultimate demise.
Not long after the factory was abandoned, the site surrounding the factory as well as the building itself became an illegal dumping ground. Discarded tires, construction debris, and industrial waste, mostly unrelated to the Dodge Steel operation accumulated on the waterfront site.
In 1992, local artist Brian C. Moss chose the abandoned factory site as the subject of a photographic installation titled "What Helps Dodge Helps You." With the help of a New Forms Grant through the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, the artist used materials present on the site to construct a functional sculpture in the form of a giant pinhole camera. The camera was then used to make 10' square photographs of the factory and surrounding grounds. Following is an excerpt from Mr. Moss's project description:
I have always been drawn to vacant buildings as modern archaeological sites because they reveal a lot about our culture, priorities, and values...When I began this project my intention was to create art while drawing attention to the problems of industrial decay and its effect on our cities... As I spent more time exploring the decaying factory, my interests expanded not only into the history of the site, but that of the workers and the neighborhood...I began to wonder: Who was responsible for this mess? What were the effects of the closing on the employees and the community? Imagine the energy...thought and worry that was expended during the course of this once-thriving enterprise. Where does that energy go when a factory closes? And does it disappearance sap the energy of a neighborhood as well?
"What Helps Dodge Helps You" was received favorably during its photographic installation at the Painted Bride Gallery from September 2nd to the 16th, 1993. In addition, the work received attention from Fox-29's "The Ten O'Clock News" as it was featured by Gerald Kolpan on September 17, 1993. Mr. Moss' pinhole camera and several photographs were also a prominent exhibit in the 1993 Tacony History Day Parade and Disston Festival.
The attention drawn to the former Dodge Steel plant by Brian C. Moss did not deter illegal dumpers from continuing to deposit unwanted items at the site. This problem, compounded by gang activity and occasional brush fires, continued to plague the site until the ultimate demolition of all the surrounding structures and environmental remediation in late 1994. The site now remains conspicuously vacant, as described in the opening paragraph, a faint reminder of what once was and what may someday be.
What will occupy the site once home to the Tacony Iron and Metal and Dodge Steel Companies is a matter of public debate. Some feel that recreational use would best maximize the sites amenities and would help significantly in re-connecting Tacony to the banks of the Delaware River. Some feel that a shopping center or a related commercial use would maximize the economic productivity but attract new residents to the area as well. Others, meanwhile, feel that the site would make an ideal restaurant/entertainment complex on the waterfront which could be developed in conjunction with proposed riverboat gambling.
Nevertheless, the one thing nearly all Taconyites agree upon is that industrial usage of the site would not be feasible, not now and not in the future. The Tacony Civic Association and Historical Society of Tacony, along with state and federal officials are committed to see that future development of this site is responsive to the changing completion of the waterfront from that of industrial port to host of pleasure craft and serene riverside portraits.
Keep a close watch over the former Tacony Iron and Metal/Dodge Steel site, Taconyites. Because what was for almost ten years a Tacony eyesore may yet prove to be one of its greatest assets.
By Louis M. Iatarola
When William Penn arrived in 1682 to establish the City of Philadelphia, a vast area presently known as Tacony was already in existence along the Delaware River. Swedish farmers, millers, furriers, and artisans lived in harmony with the native Lenni Lenape American Indians. The name "Tacony" was derived from the Indian word "Tawacawonick," meaning "forest," "wilderness," or "uninhabited land."
In 1846, the Philadelphia and Trenton Railroad was granted a charter to operate rail service. The City of Philadelphia denied permission to run trains into the city and Tacony became the terminus of the railroad. Passengers to Philadelphia rode the train to Tacony, then were taken by boat to the Walnut Street wharf from the wharf at Washington Avenue, now known as Disston Street. In 1861, there were three hotels, a few taverns, and other businesses in the vicinity of the train station and the boat pier. The entire riverfront was owned and inhabited by a relatively few wealthy people, including William H. Gatzmer, the businessman credited with securing the charter for the railroad.
Henry Disston, owner of Disston Saw Works, which eventually became the world's largest saw manufacturer, purchased 390 acres of land on both sides of the railroad terminus. Tacony was chosen for its transportation sources (railroad and dock already in place) and for that fact that this mostly undeveloped area would facilitate profitable building lots for workers, even if areas and monies were set aside for residents' needs such as streets, sewers, and a school. Disston visualized an ideal working class community where workers would not only be given a chance to live in homes with ample open space but also given a chance to own their own houses.This paternalistic outlook, exemplified by Disston's eagerness to fulfill his workers economic, social, and cultural needs, had its roots in Victorian England. Paternalists viewed the employer/employee relationship as reciprocal and voiced opposition to the greed which permeated many commercial operations with ruthless management and unhealthy disorganized shops.
In 1872, construction began on the Tacony plant and by 1876 construction of homes commenced on the carefully designed lost, with much attention given to light and air. Examples of Henry Disston's paternalistic views were evident as time progressed. Tasteful homes were constructed for workmen who were brought from England with the assistance of Henry's nephew, William. Funds to purchase these homes were made available through a Building and Loan Association established by the Disston Firm. Henry Disston was ready to grant any assistance needed to see to it that his workers could purchase a home, even if advances needed to be made. Payments were made on such terms as were easiest to the buyer including renting a two bedroom residence for $8.00 per month.
Other examples of Henry Disston's fatherly influence on the community were evident in everyday Tacony life. He refused to use water from the Delaware River and built a pumping station which fed water to large water tanks near what is now Disston Recreation Center and in turn, fed the pipes down Longshore Avenue via a gravity process. This gave Tacony Philadelphia's purest drinking water. In bringing to Tacony skilled workers from England, the culture of the English heavily influenced life in nineteenth century Tacony. For example, at the corner of Unruh and Hegerman Streets was the Washington Tea House, which served the British custom of tea drinking. To meet employees' cultural needs Tacony Hall was built on State Road by another party with Henry Disston agreeing to pay a fixed sum toward its maintenance. The library contained about two thousand volumes. The reading room was stocked with trade publications and a smoking and conversation room was often used for games.
The Tacony Music Hall was built in 1885 at Edmund Street and Longshore Avenue by Frank W. Jordan, an entrepreneur and local druggist whose store adjoined the lot. The first story contained rental shop space, used by such tenants as H.G. Shannon, Watchmaker and Jeweler, while the second story comprised an assembly hall for musical performances, lodge meetings, and lectures. A permanent tenant was also found for the third story: the Keystone Scientific and Literary Association. Founded in 1876 to sponsor public debates and lectures, the Association had maintained a small public library at Tacony Hall but had "sought larger and more imposing quarters." Although funds were limited, "generous gifts and money from Messrs. Disston" made it possible to rent and furnish the rooms in the library with a main reading room and a smaller committee room to the rear. Acknowledging the financial support of the Disston family, the name of the Association was changed to the Disston Library and Free Reading Room. In 1906, the library moved to even larger quarters at Knorr Street and Torresdale Avenue and changed its name to the Carnegie Library in honor of its benefactor, Andrew Carnegie. Our modern day Tacony Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia has been recently rehabilitated and is a shining example of early 20th Century architecture featuring central stained glass skylights.
The Music Hall remained the center of Tacony's cultural and social life into the twentieth century. After the Disston Library moved into its own building, the Music Hall entered a protracted period of neglect. The installation of trolley tracks along Torresdale Avenue eventually led to the changing of the main business district from Longshore Avenue to Torresdale Avenue. In addition, the changing character of American leisure, particularly the decline of variety revues and the rise of the cinema, hurt the Music Hall which never became a successful motion picture theater. Fortunately, the failures of the theater has preserved the building's original character including such features as the metal-ceilinged Music Hall itself and the original library on the third story. The Tacony Music Hall is the only Tacony property listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Like the Tacony Music Hall, many of Henry Disston's contributions to Tacony are still evident today. He and his family aided liberally in their building of many of Tacony's houses of worship. His wife, Mary, who was a devout Presbyterian, built the Disston Presbyterian Church in honor of a daughter who passed away at an early age. The community park, which extends just west of the railroad along Keystone Street through all of old Tacony, was purposely laid out in such a way by Henry Disston. This stretch of greenery provided a scenic barrier between the residences and the industries, symbolized cleanliness and orderliness and, with spring flowers in bloom, became a pleasant Tacony attraction. As enduring as Disston Park has been, as have the deed restrictions placed on any land within the 390 acre Disston Estate, which read, "No tavern or building for the sale or manufacture of beer or liquors of any kind or description and no court house, carpentry, blacksmith, currier or machine shop, livery stables, slaughter houses, soap or glue-boiling establishment or factory of any kind whatsoever where steam-power shall be used or occupied on the said lots, tracts or piece of land or any part thereof."
These restrictions were felt to improve the quality of life in Tacony and provide a superior standard of living for those who live there. Eventually the Disston family provided a school, firehouse, library, scientific society, and newspaper to Tacony. Tacony was considered an ideal place in which to live. Many wealthy families lived here, as did the working class. The average rental in 1882 for a five-room frame house was seven dollars, while a five-room brick house rented for nine dollars. The Disston worker averaged two dollars and fifty cents per day and the circular-saw slithers averaged three dollars and fifty cents. A laborer was paid one dollar and twenty-five cents per day.
Tacony was a center for technological revolution during the period between 1890 and 1920. Frank Shuman was a world famous inventor who lived at Disston and Ditman Streets. Scientific American visited this community multiple times for such innovations as the casting of the mammoth statue of William Penn and all the domework adorning Philadelphia's City Hall. This project was overseen by Francis Schumann, President of the Tacony Iron and Metal Company and uncle of the inventor. Much attention was brought to this community as a result of Shuman's numerous inventions, including wire glass and a gas mask so durable it was used in World War I. Shuman also was notable for solar power, having a solar powered engine on display during sunny days between 1907 and 1909. He later oversaw the world's first solar energy plant in Egypt which pumped 6,000 gallons of irrigation water per minute.
There were many notable citizens who helped advance Tacony during the 20th Century. Thomas South was a popular judge for over thirty years who doubled as Disston's land agent and was credited more than anyone with overseeing the improvements which created Henry Disston's industrial village. During the early part of the last century, South served as Assistant Director of Public Safety and Chief Clerk at the Office of Mercantile Appraisers. Peter Costello was a Disston worker and a Tacony builder who went on to become City Councilperson and, in 1914, Congressman. Costello was responsible for extending Roosevelt Boulevard into the Northeast and constructing the elevated train to Bridge Street. John N. Costello, Peter's son, also became a Congressman and served the 5th District until 1931.
Frank Dorsey was a St. Leo's alumnus and a popular athlete who rose through the ranks of Henry Disston and Sons to the position of Employment Supervisor. In 1932, Dorsey was elected as the first Democratic Congressman to hail from Tacony. The town's loyalty to Dorsey was so strong that even the Disston Family accepted his political affiliation, despite their constant support of Republicans. So influential was Dorsey that the community named a park at Magee and Hegerman Streets after him.
The Dodge Steel Company, located on the site which housed the Tacony Iron and Metal Works at Magee Street and State Road, employed one of the most notable local residents of the mid-20th Century. Mr. Al Schmid, at the age of 21, left the Dodge Steel Company to sign up for military service on December 9, 1941, two days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Eight months after leaving his job working a gas-fed torch and cutting and scraping steel castings, Al Schmid found himself manning a machine-gun emplacement on the Tenaru River at Guadalcanal. Although a grenade explosion blinded Schmid and one partner was dead while the other was wounded, he singlehandedly held his position and fought of aggressors for over four hours. Of nearly 1,200 Japanese soldiers who reportedly tried to cross Tenaru River that night, eighteen were wounded, two captured, and the rest killed. Hollywood soon recognized that Schmid's story was one of which movies were made. A feature film titled "Pride of the Marines" was released after the war starring John Garfield as Al Schmid and Eleanor Parker as Ruth Hartley, Schmid's girlfriend and eventual wife. Parts of the movie were filmed at Al Schmid's Fillmore Street home and at the Dodge Steel Company. Much furor was raised in Frankford and Tacony as local residents swarmed around the film sites to get glimpses of the movie making.
Hymen Rubin was born in 1897 to one of the brothers who operated Rubin's Department Store at Hegerman Street and Longshore Avenue. The Rubin's were leaders of a small group of Jewish immigrants who opened stores in Tacony in the 1920's. Hymen Rubin became a lawyer and returned to Tacony to establish a practice and become a leader in the community and active member of the Tacony Merchants Association in the 1950's and 1960's. He also served as President of Fidelity Federal Savings and Loan at Torresdale and Tyson Avenues. His lasting legacy is a series of articles entitled "Hi, Neighbor" which appeared in the weekly publication Northeast News (predecessor to the News Gleaner) in the 1950's and 1960's. Many of these columns contained fond recollections of his Tacony upbringing and gave Taconyites glimpses into the neighborhood's storied past which at that time had been long forgotten by many.
In many ways, Hymen Rubin was responsible for "passing the torch" of pride in Tacony's heritage to those who have influenced Tacony to this very day. In 1982, residents, William Lamey, Caroline Smith, Dot Beck, and Anna Keck, inspired by the one-time community leader, were instrumental in forming the Tacony Civic Association. That same year, local businessmen Benson Kessler and Robert Glassman helped form the Tacony Business Association, modeled after the Tacony Merchants Association of two decades prior. Louis A. Iatarola, past president of the Tacony Business Association who rehabilitated the Tacony Music Hall in 1989, recalls Rubin as being more responsible than anyone for re-kindling a spirit of historical awareness in Tacony at a time when history was not so fashionable. Upon the Music Hall's rehabilitation, the Historical Society of Tacony was formed in 1990.
In conclusion, although many persons are responsible for our community as we know it, most credit is still owed to the foresight of Henry Disston. His creation of a "Utopian Victorian Village" is still evident in the many attractive homes, public buildings and churches which line Tacony's streets today. Increasing pride of ownership, which has been evident over the past few years, would truly make Henry Disston proud. For the greatest tribute Tacony's residents could give its founder is through the preservation of the structures and ideals upon which the community as founded.