Today, the sights and sounds coming from Penn Park are of people enjoying the outdoors, but long before it was a recreational area, the location was bustling with workers and the whirring, clanging and pounding of machinery.
“Workshop of the World” is what boosters called the city during Philadelphia’s industrial age. It was famous for its vast array of mills and manufacturing plants located in industrial neighborhoods across town. The heavy manufacturing served as a strong economic engine, shaping the city and the lives of the people who worked in the plants. Philadelphia’s textile mills produced items such as lace, carpets, military clothes, men’s and women’s clothing and upholstery. The steel mills produced machinery and shipbuilding parts.
In 1925, the west bank of the Schuylkill River was home to several of these manufacturing plants, as well as the Pennsylvania Railroad yards. The companies populating the area included the McCloskey Varnish Company, the Morris & Wheeler iron and steel company and the George B. Newton Coal Company. The businesses’ proximity to the Pennsylvania Railroad and the river made it convenient to transport goods to customers across the nation. Deliverymen from the Newton Coal Company used Clydesdale horses and carts to transport sacks of coal to local clients.
The accompanying 1926 photo shows the manufacturing companies working at full steam, with spewing smokestacks, behind Franklin Field and the still-under-construction Palestra.
When the University acquired the land to build Penn Park in 2007, it was a neglected parking facility owned by the U.S. Postal Service. Now, the green fields and inviting pedestrian walkways of Penn Park serve as the eye-catching centerpiece of Penn Connects, the University’s campus development plan, and a new connection between Center City and West Philadelphia.