History of Tacony
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.