Philadelphia: A City Rich With History

Philadelphians know their stuff when it comes to their place in history.

By: Alan J. Heavens

Philadelphia comes face to face with its history every day, often in ways that make it impossible to separate past from present. In Boston, what you’ll find are memorials to a limited period of history -- from the Boston Massacre in 1770 to the British evacuation on March 17, 1776. From then on, the activity shifted south, centering, of course, on Philadelphia. Here, history finds you.

One summer evening, the vestry (parish council) of the venerable St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at Third and Pine Streets was meeting in its parish building across the street from the church. The doorbell rang, and a teenager, whose father was at the meeting, answered the door. There, on the step, in full costume, was Ralph Archbold, who makes his living portraying Benjamin Franklin. Archbold was looking for a key to the church for a concert he was hosting.

“I thought you were dead,” the teenager said, as he stared at Archbold. “But,” the boy quickly added, “I’m glad you’re OK.”

Archbold plays his part so well that when he and Linda Wilde, who impersonates Betsy Ross at the Betsy Ross House at Third and Arch streets, tied the knot at Independence Hall and in front of thousands of residents on July 3, 2008, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter officiated, and the Philly Pops played the Wedding March. The couple were taken by carriage a few blocks to City Tavern, at Second and Walnut streets, which the park service has re-created from 18th century plans. They dined with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other re-enactors.

Here, locals and visitors are encouraged to experience history. Museums like Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation are scripted re-creations of America’s early past, where the 17th and 18th centuries are frozen in time.  

Filming the Real Deal

In the 1983 CBS-TV miniseries George Washington, the Head House at Second and Pine streets in Society Hill doubled as the long-ago-demolished Federal Hall in New York, where Washington had been sworn in as the nation’s first president in 1789. The brick sidewalks and cobblestone parts of the neighborhood’s streets were original; to hide the asphalt pavement, the crews carted in tons of straw mixed with dirt.

The moviemakers also focused on the long, hot summer of debate on the Constitution over which Washington presided. To keep out the noises of the 20th century streets surrounding Independence Hall, the crews filmed after midnight. Millions of candlewatts of lighting shone directly on the building to create daytime. The windows were shut, just as they had been during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 -- now to reduce the sound of generators, then to keep nosy citizens from listening to the debates going on inside.  

Getting It Right

Not every Philadelphian is an expert on the city’s history. The difference is that Philadelphians insist that the people paid to present that history to visitors get it right.

After complaints reached City Hall that many of the carriage drivers and tour bus guides were not being factual in their presentations, an ordinance was proposed to test and license guides. In true Philadelphia fashion, the targeted guides countered that their First Amendment rights were being violated. Yet, their campaign to gather support among the populace for their cause fell flat, and sympathy with accuracy won out.

Most tourists visit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the other places on the mall that are either originals or re-creations. When the National Park Service has no original plans for re-creation, it won’t rebuild and that often leaves huge gaps in the story.

The house in which Ben Franklin spent his last years, on Market Street near Third, is one such piece of history for which plans were not available for a re-creation. Instead, just a frame or “ghost structure,” designed by the Venturi-Scott Brown architectural firm, was substituted.

That wasn’t enough, not for so key a figure in the city’s history. So a below-ground museum tells Franklin’s story, and does it in a way that pleases children and adults, and probably would have tickled Franklin, too. 

Further Back in Time

History for Philadelphians doesn’t begin and end with 1776, 1789 or even 1800, when the federal government moved to the new city of Washington, D.C. It starts in the age of dinosaurs, with an out-of-towner named Hadrosaurus foulkii, whose nearly complete fossilized skeleton, the first ever recovered, was unearthed in a field across the Delaware in Haddonfield, N.J., by a farmer named William Parker Foulke. Thanks to the creature schoolchildren call “Haddy,” a Philadelphian and professor of anatomy at Penn, Joseph Leidy, became the father of American vertebrate paleontology. His work and Haddy are at the Academy of Natural Sciences (1812) at 19th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Philadelphia's timeline includes the Leni Lenape Nation who were here when the Swedes arrived to run the place from 1646 to 1682 (Old Swedes Church, at Delaware and Washington Avenue, is the city’s oldest building, built in 1701). William Penn, who received a grant for the land from Charles II, a royal personage happy to see the backs of the troublesome admiral’s son and his nonconformist Quakers, arrived in 1682.  

History didn’t end when John Adams headed south to the new capital in 1800. The city continued to play a major role in the development of the nation during the 19th and 20th centuries. Its scientific and academic institutions, many of which are still around today, helped Philly earn the reputation of being the “Athens of America.” The city's port sent coal mined in its interior around the world on vessels from its shipyards or in trains built in the Budd Co. works at Broad and Spring Garden Streets. Its factories and shops made hand saws, Stetson hats, windows, mantels, doors and fine furniture. Its politicians continued to shape United States policy long after Adams left.

The city’s proximity and connections to the South left it soft on slavery; yet two of the most important Civil War generals, George Meade and Winfield Scott Hancock, were here. One hundred thousand Philadelphians volunteered for the Union side, 54 were Medal of Honor winners, and before the war, thanks to the Quakers and the nation’s largest free black population, the city was one of the most important stops on the Underground Railroad to Canada.   

A City of "Firsts"

The first American play was produced here; the oldest theater, the Walnut Street, is here. The first stock market, the first street lights, the first fire department, the first school of anatomy, the first recorded industrial strike (printers in 1786); the first U.S. Mint; the first balloon flight, the first savings bank, the first medical textbook, the first automat and the first revolving door.

While Philadelphians are immersed in their history, they are blasé about it, too. Thousands walk back and forth to work, from subway and train stations and bus stops, past historic buildings and by hundreds of markers placed by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission to commemorate events and people.

When there’s something new to learn about their history, however, such as the recent excavation of the quarters of George Washington’s slaves on the site of the first executive mansion on Independence Mall, they make it a point to learn as much as they can about it.

Just in case someone asks.

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