Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Tax Revolt in the Borough of West Philadelphia

          In 1850, the City of Philadelphia was limited to the area we now call Center City – from South St. to Vine St. between the Delaware and  Schuylkill Rivers. The area that now makes up the whole city was Philadelphia County. It was only in 1854 that the boundaries of the city were expanded to include the whole County
         Between 1840 and 1850, the population of the City increased by 30%, largely through immigration. For the first time, the immigrants included many Catholics. The increased population led to crowded housing and the building of narrow trinities. The City began to experience increased crime and clashes between Protestants and Catholics. Many of the old buildings in the City were replaced by taller stores and businesses. These developments made the old parts of the City less attractive to upper-income families.  Residential development west of the Schuylkill started to become attractive to families seeking a more tranquil environment..
          In 1835, the area we now call West Philadelphia was Blockley Township. It was largely rural with many farms and wooded areas and a few small unincorporated villages. In January 1837, the Court of Quarterly Sessions established the Borough of West Philadelphia out of the eastern section of Blockley (shown in blue on the map below). The action was taken in response to a petition from 21 petitioners [1] who claimed support of a “majority of the resident freeholders of” Hamilton Village, Greenville and Powelton. [2]

Section of Rea and Miller 1849 Map
with Blue Line Added to Show the
Border of Borough of West Philadelphia in 1837.

          However, Greenville probably did not have the requisite population of at least 300 to constitute a village and Powelton could hardly be claimed to be a village. In addition to these “villages,” the new borough included the Powel estate, the Bingham-Baring estate, and the Crean estate (roughly Filbert to Spring Garden between N. 39th and N. 40th) above Market St.  Below Market St. (lower green area on the map) it included the Blockley Alms House, Woodland Cemetery, Wetherill’s (below Walnut along the Schuylkill) and a few smaller properties. In March 1837, the Legislature passed a law authorizing the new borough to elect ten councilmen. [3]
          The Borough quickly became the target of a taxpayer revolt. The new Borough added to the taxes levied on each property. For example, in 1841, a property in the Borough valued at $10,600 paid $89.24 in taxes including: County tax of $42.80, Borough tax of $21.83, Poor tax of $14.55, and $10.86 in state tax. [4]
          In addition to those taxes, property owners were soon hit with other charges.  The development of the area depended on investments in infrastructure. Even the main roads were not paved.  In April 1837, the Legislature authorized the hiring of surveyors to lay out roads in West Philadelphia Borough and all of Blockley Township. [5] The Borough was authorized to require owners of lots where houses had been built along paved roads to grade and pave footways and gutters. [6]
          Protests began even before then.  In March 1838, the Inquirer reported complaints from residents of Blockley Township and the Borough of West Philadelphia about the cost of proposed roads and the requirement to pave footways.  The complaints stated that “No petition from inhabitants is requested… to authorize an expenditure, which in some cases, may cost an individual, in grading especially, a large proportion of the value of his lots… and all non- resident freeholders of Hamilton and Mantua Villages, are to be subjected to the ruin of their property, without appeal.” [7]
          Despite these protests, the Borough began making investments in infrastructure. In June 1838, it advertised for bids for the grading of a half-mile of Washington (Market) St. In 1840-’41, property owners and occupiers on Washington St. from the bridge to William (39th) St. were required to “grade, curb, gutter and pave the footway” of their lot. [8] The street was “pitched [and] pebble-paved.” [9]  (When about half of this section of Washington had to be regraded in 1853, the cost was covered by the District of West Philadelphia. [10])
          Opposition to the Borough escalated in 1842. The Guardians of the Poor (which ran the Blockley Almshouse) protested a proposal by the Borough to grade, curb, gutter and pave Darby Rd. (Woodland Ave.).    They claimed this involved a “useless and extravagant expenditure of the public money and might be deemed a precedent upon which with equal reasons the Borough Council might require the whole of the Darby road and Lehman street, and all other streets about the Alms-House Farm” to be developed similarly. They, therefore, joined a lawsuit brought by William M. Meredith and Clark Hare before the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth seeking to invalidate the incorporation of the Borough. [11]
          At the same time, 36 residents and land owners in the Borough expressed their strong support for the suit challenging the formation of the Borough. They noted that the Borough boundaries included more than 600 acres of farmland and protested the “oppressive taxes” and “lavish expenditures in leveling hills and filling hollows” and “despotic mandates” to grade, pave, gutter and curb roads along their properties. The 15 resident property owners who signed it included three members of the McIlvain family of lumber merchants and builders. The 15 non-resident property owners who signed included owners of undeveloped estates: John Hare Powel, William and John Crean and the trustee for the Baring estate. [12] In the meantime, Powel and Clark Hare refused to grade, pave, gutter and curb over a deep hollow along their property on Darby Rd. The landowner across the street noted that “the road is frequently almost impassable…” and he had “repeatedly seen carriages with four horses stalled” on that stretch of road. [13]
          In May 1843, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court announced that it had quashed the incorporation of the Borough of West Philadelphia. It ruled that the bill authorizing the Court of Quarterly Session to incorporate areas “does not authorize the incorporation into a borough of two or more villages, together with a tract of open farm land. If it did, it must appear that a majority of the whole mass joined in the petition” for incorporation. [14]
          In February 1844, the Legislature incorporated a new, smaller, Borough of West Philadelphia. [15] The new boundaries (the red area on the map) excluded Woodland Cemetery, the Alms House, and the Baring, Powel and Crean estates. The bill named six commissioners who were entitled to collect any taxes due to the late Borough at the time it was dissolved and to use the funds to pay off its creditors.
          Between 1840 and 1850, the population of the Borough of West Philadelphia more than tripled going from 2,896 to 10,662 – a huge 13% per year. The population of Blockley Township increased 67% from 3,318 to 5,553 over the decade (5.1% per year). In 1844, it was reported that West Philadelphia “contains over one hundred and fifty buildings, including several large furnaces, and other manufacturing establishments…. West Philadelphia is rapidly improving, and at some future day will form part of the city itself." [16]
Ad for Lots in Mantua by Samuel Hutchinson (Public Ledger, Jan. 29, 1847)
           A map published by Samuel Hutchinson in 1848 is entitled "Plan of the Proposed New Borough of Mantua."  Hutchinson was a conveyancer (real estate agent) at 5th (now 34th) and Haverford in Mantua.  Instead, in February 1850, residents of Mantua requested the Legislature to annex Mantua and neighboring areas into the Borough of West Philadelphia. [17]  A week later, this proposal received the support of more than 300 residents of the Borough. [18]
           In March 1850, the Legislature expanded the boundaries of the Borough to include Mantua and the Powel and Bingham-Baring estates (the yellow areas of the map). [19] The Inquirer reported that the “area is now greater than that of the City, [and the townships of] Northern Liberties, and Spring Garden combined” and listed numerous new residences that were being built in the Borough.  It also noted that “Colonel John Hare Powell [sic.] has had Powelton surveyed for sale and improvement….. The improvement of the Southern front of this property will give the Lancaster Turnpike a village character and appearance from the Bridge to Hestonville." [20]
          In April 1851, the legislature renamed the borough the District of West Philadelphia. [21] The District invested in a new system of piped water and gas which became a major attraction for upper-income families. When the County police force was strengthened, three policemen were assigned to the West Philadelphia district.
          The years leading up to consolidation in 1854 saw increased development in the area.  In 1854, Baldwin and Thomas’s gazetteer of the U.S. reported that in the District of West Philadelphia a “new town hall on Washington [Market] street is a 5-storied brick building, with an iron front. The beautiful villages of Hamilton and Mantua are included in the corporate limits. Numerous elegant residences have been erected within a few years. The town is lighted with gas and supplied with good water….” [22]
          The District Hall was still standing in 1918 when Joseph Jackson noted that:
“At the southeast corner of Thirty-seventh and Market streets stands the last of the commissioners' halls…. This building originally was erected for a Masonic hall, and several lodges of that fraternity used to meet there. About 1850 the Commissioners of West Philadelphia… who had formerly held their meetings in a schoolhouse at Thirty-third and Ludlow streets, and in Keen Hall, then on Market street west of Thirty-third, removed to the building at the southeast comer of Thirty-seventh and Market streets, which they renamed Commissioners' Hall." [23]


1  Editors. 1843. "The Borough of West Philadelphia." Public Ledger, March 1, 1843, 2.
2 The website of the Philadelphia City Archives includes the following: “By virtue of P.L. 163, 1 April 1834 the Court of Quarter Sessions was empowered to establish boroughs. Unfortunately, that court's relevant records for the years prior to 1844 are not extant." (Philadelphia City Archives. "The chronology of the political subdivisions of the County of Philadelphia, 1683–1854." accessed Dec. 24, 2016. However, the original petition is found in the Court’s decision of March, 1843 that quashed the original incorporation. (Watts, Frederick, and Henry J. Sergeant. 1853. Reports of cases adjudged in the Supreme court of Pennsylvania. Vol. V. Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun, and Brother.)
3   P.L. 40, March 13, 1837.
4 1841. "Report of the County Board." Inquirer, Sept. 18, 1841, 2. The numbers given are not exactly consistent with the reported total.
5   P. L. 95, sect. 12.  April 4, 1837.
6   P. L. 91, sect. 19. April 16, 1838.
7   "West Philadelphia." Inquirer, March 24, 1838, 2.
8  For the south side of the street: "Notice to owners of lots in West Philadelphia." Inquirer, Sept. 8, 1840, 3. For the north side of the street: "Notice to owners of lots in the Borough of West Philadelphia." Inquirer, May 20, 1841, 3.
9    Inquirer, Sept. 9, 1853. 1.
10   Inquirer, Sept. 9, 1853. 1.
11 "Extracts from the Minutes of the Guardians of the Poor." Public Ledger, Feb. 18, 1843, 3.
12 Hopkins, Moses, Christopher Wiltberger, P. Mounier, and others. 1843. "To the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." Public Ledger, Feb. 18, 1843, 3.
13   "Mr. Charles P. Heath's statement." Public Ledger, March 22, 1843, 2.
14 Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 1853. "Case of the Borough of West Philadelphia." In Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, edited by Frederick Watts and Henry J. Sergeant, 281-4. Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun, and Brother.
15   P.L. 28.
16 Tanner, Henry Schenck. 1844. A New Picture of Philadelphia or the Stranger's Guide to the City and Adjoining Districts. 4th ed. New York: Map and Geographical Establishment. 134-5.
17  Public Ledger, Feb. 9, 1850. 1.
18  Public Ledger, Feb. 15, 1850. 2.
19   P. L. 215.
20   "A large and improving borough." Inquirer, Sept. 2, 1850, 2.
29   P. L. 211.
22 Baldwin, Thomas, and Joseph Thomas. 1854. A New and Complete Gazetteer of the United States. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co. 1272.
23  Jackson, Joseph. 1918. Market Street Philadelphia: The most historic highway in
America Its merchants and Its story. Philadelphia: Joseph Jackson. 199.

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