"THE MEMORY LINGERS ON"
As previously indicated, the entire area of University City was originally the William Warner Estate of Blockley. As settlements developed and the section became more populous, political sub-divisions sprang into being so that by 1854, when the City was consolidated, little remained of the township, most of it having given way to the District of West Philadelphia.
Although much of the early history occurred while the area was still known as Blockley, we shall tell of it in the section on West Philadelphia. In a like manner we shall consider that small portion of Blockley that covered the northwestern slice of University City. It is that large acreage bordering on the Schuylkill River we shall here discuss. For although it covered the least desirable of the land west of the River and was the least populated, it left its imprint in the history of Philadelphia, and made the name Blockley a synonym for misery, sordidness and suffering.
Here, on the grounds surrounding the present Philadelphia General Hospital was the Blockley Almshouse. It consisted not only of the alms-house, but also the city hospital, the orphan asylum and the refuge for the insane. It is to be remembered that our forebears had neither the understanding, the patience, nor the knowledge of how to handle their helpless and afflicted, so that to be sent to Blockley was to be condemned to horror and exile.
It must have been especially so in the very early days when, with transportation and distance being what they were, Blockley was considered to be far removed from the city. Indeed, in 1832 when it was proposed to move the hospital from 10th and Pine Streets where it had been for over 65 years, one of the serious arguments against locating at Blockley was that its great distance from the medical school would make it difficult of access to the students who might thereby be deprived of clinical instruction.
Despite the odium that the name Blockley received (some old residents even to this day call the early step in the care of the unfortunate. It was a great advance from the original brick building erected at 4th and Pine Streets in 1731, the first of its kind in America to house the sick, the infirm, the poor and the insane.
In 1832 the City purchased 187 acres From the Hamilton heirs on which to locate the new institution. Included were the present sites of part of Woodland Cemetery, the Veterans Administration Hospital, Convention Hall, the Commercial Museum, the original buildings of the University of Pennsylvania, the River fields, part of Franklin Field, the University Museum and the Philadelphia General Hospital.
Much of the land was then considered of little value. It was mostly lowland that sloped down to water level and was criss-crossed with waterways that traversed to marshy meadows. It was an ideal hideout for shadowy characters and evil-doers who crossed the river in skiffs after a thieving or smuggling job south of the city. As late as 1850 it was considered hazardous to be abroad alone in this area.
Perhaps the largest of the watercourses was Beaver Creek or Beaver Run which flowed through the Almshouse grounds and emptied into the Schuylkill River opposite to Pine Street. It crossed Woodland Avenue (Darby Road) just east of 34th Street under a bridge which still exists at the same spot, buried about 25 feet below grade. The meadows along the river were purposely flooded in winter so that the ice could be cut for the use of the hospital, ice which the reknowned Dr. J. Chalmers Da Costa described as being "richly endowed with bacteria. The caustic Dr. Da Costa, who for a time was physician-in-chief, later wrote in his florid style "Blockley is the microcosm of the city. Within these gray walls we find all sorts of physical and mental diseases, and also a multitude of those social maladies that degrade man-hood, undermine national strength and threaten civilization itself. Here is drunkenness; here is pauperism; here is illegitimacy; here is madness; here are the eternal priestesses of prostitution who sacrifice for the sins of man; here is crime in all its protean aspects, and here is vice in all its monstrous forms."
Nor was it helpful that this place was under the control of a committee known as the Guardians of the Poor. This appointed group consisted of political hacks whose only interest was to line their own pockets which, of course, entailed the obstruction of enlightened members of the professional staff, such as Dr. Da Costa, who commented they had been named Poor Guardians because "they did some of the poorest guarding on record."
Around the buildings of this dismal place was a high board fence with but one entrance on Darby Road. In 1875 it consisted of four three-story buildings 500 feet long, in which were housed 3000 inmates, 200 of whom were orphans, and 600 insane. In the region of Franklin Field was Blockley's Potter's Field where so many of the unhappy victims of this pest-hole were buried. When 33rd Street was being cut through to Spruce many skeletons of these unfortunate were unearthed.
In 1868 Nathaniel B. Browne laid a plan before the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to move that institution from 9th and Chestnut Streets to the slopes of Blockley, where it might find the expansion room it so badly needed. In pursuance of this plan the City sold the University a portion of the Blockley land for $8000.00 per acre and in June 1871 the cornerstone of College Hall, the first building, was dedicated. Thereafter, the neighborhoods of Blockley and, to some extent, Hamilton Village, were on the upgrade.
Originally published in 1963.
Reprinted with permission of the West Philadelphia Partnership.
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