During the 19th century, Philadelphia’s waterfront was lined with wharves which were operated by numerous shipping lines. Smaller vessels designed for domestic use, called packet boats, carried mail, packages, and a limited number of passengers to major cities across the Eastern seaboard. Morris Sheer, a parishioner at Gloria Dei, was one of the first captains of the line of packets that ran between Philadelphia and Charleston.
For almost three hundred years, the eastern edge of “Queen Village” was a nexus of commerce and domesticity. Direct access to the river offered trades such as merchants, ship captains, joiners, and sail makers ample employment opportunities. Other residents supported the economy by working in myriad occupations such as tailors, tavern keepers, blacksmiths, and coopers.
Only a few remnants remain from this bustling time in our neighborhood’s history. In the 1960s, preparation for the construction of I-95 began with the demolition of hundreds of buildings along the eastern edge of Queen Village. Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, founded by some of our earliest settlers, was fortunately spared the wrecking ball. Other significant structures such as Stephen Decatur’s residence and the Mason-Dixon survey site are acknowledged today by historical markers.
While the following buildings are no longer standing, the stories behind the structures offer insight into this lost history.
Clapboard, frame, or “stick” houses, which used wood for exterior siding, were built in abundance by early Colonial settlers. However, due to their flammable nature, the City of Philadelphia outlawed the construction of wood buildings in 1796. During this time period, the Southwark District municipality governed suburban “Queen Village”. Despite the elevated risk of fire, frame houses continued to be built in Southwark until the District was merged with the City in 1854. Perhaps this difference in zoning laws accounts for the many historic and reconstructed wooden gems present in Queen Village today. Here are stories behind a few of these wonderful homes.
The 1854 Act of Consolidation was passed by the Pennsylvania General Assembly to incorporate all of the townships, districts, and boroughs located in the greater Philadelphia County into the City of Philadelphia. As a result, neighborhoods like Queen Village, which had operated under independent municipalities, officially became governed by the City. To further these efforts, additional legislation was passed to provide uniform names for smaller streets that span across neighborhoods. This list contains some of the alleys, streets, and courtyards in Queen Village that were renamed as part of this remapping project.
After over three hundred years of continuous use, the churchyard at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church was in desperate need of repair and restoration. Trees and shrubs had overrun the burial ground and needed pruning and thinning. Gravestones were badly broken, headpieces were missing or had sunken into the ground. Family tombs had been sealed for decades and were in danger of collapsing.
Between 1681 and 1682, a fleet of twenty two ships brought William Penn and the first 2,000 colonists across the Atlantic Ocean. Although the ship manifests from these vessels have not survived, it is likely that James Thomas and his family were amongst the earliest group of settlers to arrive in Pennsylvania.
James Thomas was born in 1660 in Pontemoil, a small village located at the foot of the Drynos mountains in Monmouthshire, Wales. His parents Lewis (d. 1689) and Grace (d. 1694) had married and settled in the area sometime before 1650. Quaker meeting records indicate that James had six siblings: Micah (b. 1650), Elizabeth (b. 1652), Rebecca (b. 1655), Mary (b. 1657), Gabriel (b. 1661), and Rachel (b. 1665). Another sister named Mary, born in 1654, may not have survived to adulthood.
This is a brief biographical sketch about Charles Toelpe (sometimes spelled Topel, Tölpe or Tolpie). Toelpe was a successful sugar refiner who developed a small portion of the former LaBrousse vineyard.
Charles Toelpe was born in 1835 in Prussia and died 47 years later during an explosion in a sugar factory. Sadly, he had little time to enjoy the grand home that he had built for his family on Morris Street.
Paul LaBrousse (also known as Paul L’Abrousse or Paul Le Bruce or Paul LaBrousse Dubreuil) was born in 1758 in France. A few years after moving to Philadelphia, Paul LaBrousse established a vineyard on the former Bankson family plantation in Southwark.
Believe it or not, some of our early colonists thought that Pennsylvania offered ideal conditions for harvesting grapes and producing wine. Shortly after arriving on this side of the Atlantic, William Penn boasted of discovering an “extraordinary” native grape plant which could be “cultivated into an excellent wine.” According to estate records, Penn had installed a vineyard at “Springettsbury Manor,” his property located outside of the city, in the neighborhood we know today as Francisville. Unfortunately, Penn’s attempts to produce wine were ultimately unsuccessful as all of his grape vines had reportedly died by 1699. Francis Pastorius, the founder of Germantown, had also experimented with winemaking at his own estate around the same time with little success.
This is a brief biographical sketch about Stephen Carmick (sometimes also spelled Carmack). Near the end of his life, Stephen Carmick owned a large plantation in Southwark, a small portion of which later became Morris Street.
Stephen Carmick was born around 1718 and died a few years before the start of the American Revolution. He married Anna Christina Kock at Trinity Church in New York in 1755. Although family records differ on the number of children they had, his obituary stated that at the time of his death there were “ten small children” who survived him.
Andrew Bankson (1705-1786) was a Swedish shopkeeper who owned approximately 35 acres of marsh “lying adjacent to Weccacoe and Moyamensing lands” from 1751 to 1770. This plot of land was a portion of a larger plantation that had been granted to Bankson’s grandfather, Anders Bengtsson, by William Penn in 1682. While conducting research on the Bankson family, I discovered this interesting series of newspaper articles published in the “Pennsylvania Gazette” which tell the story of a public scandal involving Andrew Bankson and the Swedish Church in Philadelphia in 1767. All of these articles are available to read at GenealogyBank, a resource that I have found to be extremely valuable while learning about Philadelphia’s history.
Below is a brief sketch of the life of Anders Bengtsson (called “Andrew Bankson” in the English language). Andrew Bankson (1640-1705) was one of the earliest Swedish settlers in Southwark and owned a large plot of land located between Wicaco and Moyamensing where his family operated a plantation. Today, that land makes up the southern portion of the bustling neighborhood we call Pennsport.