Sunday, May 22, 2011

Powelton and the 1876 Centennial Exhibition

     The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park celebrated the nation’s birth and highlighted America’s new found industrial strength.  Millions of attendees approached the Exhibition traveling from Market St. through Powelton on trolley lines.  Powelton was still quite young - most of the houses were less than ten years old.  Probably hundreds of attendees rented houses or rooms here during their stay.  (The Swedish Commission rented a house on 33rd St. near Baring.)  Several Poweltonians played central roles in the planning and building of the Exhibition grounds.  Coleman Sellers (3301 Baring St.) was one of the Exhibition Commissioners and the moving spirit behind Mechanical Hall.  Samuel J. Levick (405 N. 33rd St.) was a member of the Executive Committee.
Charles E. Pugh
    Many visitors arrived through a new, larger Pennsylvania Railroad station at 32nd and Market (see photo).  The PRR’s efforts were overseen by Charles E. Pugh. (3716 and later 3501 Baring St.).  The History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (1895) reports that “[o]ver 3,000,000 of passengers were received at and dispatched from the stations during the continuance of the Exhibition and so admirably had he arranged for the comfort and safety of the people that not one accident occurred.”  Pugh was only about 30 at the time and rose rapidly to become PRR’s Second Vice President.
    George W. Hancock’s family had long roots in the neighborhood.  In 1860, he was living on 33rd St. above Baring.  Later he lived at 3202 Hamilton St. and 3216 Baring St.  He was a surveyor and became City Surveyor in 1872.  He was responsible for the grading and paving of the streets at the Exposition and for engineering the passenger railway lines leading to the Centennial grounds.

The Alexander Bros. Exhibit of Industrial Belts
    A more visible contribution was made by Joseph Wilson (3501 Powelton Ave.).  Wilson and Henry Pettit were architects and engineers who had done extensive work for the PRR.  Their design for the Main Exhibition Building came in third.  However, the first two designs were far too expensive and they got the contract.  The Main Exhibition Building (shown above) was massive covering more than 20 acres – twelve times as large as Memorial Hall. They completed it on schedule for less than a sixth of the cost estimate for the top ranked design. They also designed and built the second largest building, Machinery Hall.  A central element of Machinery Hall was a giant engine that powered hundreds of other machines.  The power was transmitted using industrial leather belts like those exhibited by Alexander Brothers.  Charles Alexander lived at 3626 Baring St. and Edward lived at 306 N. 35th St.

    Poweltonians also played a major role in supplying the Exhibition.  The McIlvain’s lumber yards on Lancaster Ave. provided a great deal of lumber.  They were long-time residents of Powelton.  Samuel J. Cresswell (317 N. 35th St.) provided the ornamental iron work for Horticultural Hall.  Also, Powelton’s numerous wholesale grocers, butchers and provisioners like John Laughlin (3406 Baring St.) and William McCahen (334 N. 32ndSt.) must have worked overtime to meet the increased demand.
    It is not possible to overestimate the effect of the Centennial Exhibition on Powelton or Poweltonians’ contributions to the Exhibition.

[This is a revised version of a piece that I wrote for the Powelton Post.]

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