Philadelphia 1830 – the Athens of America


And so it was that Hopkin Thomas, wife Catharine, and family arrived in Philadelphia in 1834. What a thrill it must have been, coming from grimy Merthyr Tydfil to what was called at that time “the Athens of America”. Three decades earlier, the seat of the federal government had moved from Philadelphia to Washington and New York City was taking over as the financial capital of the country, but Philadelphia remained America’s cultural center as well as home to many wealthy citizens.


The Port of Philadelphia, ca 1830


As the brigantine ship Egeria sailed through Chesapeake Bay and up the Delaware River to Philadelphia, the family witnessed a boom in both ships of trade and of passengers. At which of the busy piers did the brig discharge her passengers? Who was there to meet the Thomas family? Where were there living accommodations? What arrangements had been made? Were there friends or acquaintances to guide them?    We have no idea.


We do have an idea of what the city to which they had come was like based on numerous histories that have been published. The following are descriptions based on the book by Weigley, Philadelphia, a 300-Year History. From the chapter covering the period from 1825 – 1841 we learn that the port of Philadelphia is booming – trade with China, Europe, South America is prolific. There is regular passenger ship traffic to Liverpool on two packet lines. Commercially, the city is inviting to customers – characterized as  neat and clean, its market the best in the country. Roads, canals, and railroads are being constructed.


A Railroad Depot in Philadelphia – 1832


Coal becomes the energy source that drives the Philadelphia economy. With steam power, industrialization is freed from the limited water power afforded by the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. By 1838 there were more steam engines in Pennsylvania than any other state, with nearly all of those in Philadelphia of local manufacture. Most importantly for our history, Philadelphia had become a center of steam locomotive manufacturing – The Baldwin Locomotive Works, Garrett & Eastwick and the Wm. Norris Co. are prominent.


The Baldwin Works becomes the most influential locomotive manufacturer in America.



"Philadelphia," wrote Nathaniel P. Willis, "is a city to be happy in. . . . Delightful cleanliness everywhere meets the eye. The sidewalks are washed constantly; the marble steps are spotlessly clean.... Everything is well conditioned and cared for. If any fault could be found it would be that of too much regularity and too nice precision." Commercial buildings exhibit high architectural quality. In 1836 gas lighting is introduced.  Art and sculptor flourish.  The elegance, color, ostentatious pride, and activity of the day vibrate in exuberant prints produced by its artists. Never before had Philadelphians lived in so vivacious a style. The sober veil of Quaker origins had been rent to shreds; there was a sense of elation and gaiety in these times of accomplishment, of intense individualism held in check by pleasant formality, an ordered discipline. “High Society” spreads to the populace – regattas, parades, and celebrations take on a grand scale. Entertainment is prolific and glamorous. Sporting events become attractive to the public. Publishers produce literary works of note – penny newspapers become available.


What a wonderful city in which to relocate!! But, as we shall see, Hopkin’s sense of adventure abetted by the Panic of 1837 induced by President Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies limited the family’s stay in this most interesting of places.


Philadelphia Center City in the 1830’s


Further efforts need to be taken to determine where Hopkin and family may have lived in Philadelphia. We do know that Hopkin was first employed at the Baldwin locomotive works.  In 1834 the Baldwin factory was located a few blocks west and north of Independence Square, where Independence Hall is shown above. See the maps of Central Philadelphia for details. After a brief stay (about one year) at the Baldwin Works, he elected to move to the Garrett & Eastwick shops.  According to his colleague, Thomas Evans, in a testimonial to Hopkin,  the shops were  located on Wagoner’s  (Wagner’s?) Alley. At the time of this writing, that site has not been identified although the probable location is identified on the detailed maps.  A second reference to the site of the shops can be found in an 1840 message addressed to Messrs. Eastwick & Harrison, Locomotive Builders, corner of 12th & Willow Sts. (See Harrison, Ver. 2, p. 76.)  



The location of the Baldwin Shops (1835 onward) and the Norris shops are known. In 1834 Baldwin's shop was on Lodge Street, as identified on the map. Previously Baldwin had a shop on Minor Street - two blocks east (not highlighted here). Garrett & Eastwick was located either at 12th & Willow or  "On Wagner's Alley, south of Race Street". That latter area is highlighted, but not labeled.  No map has been located that identifies Wagner's Alley (also referred to as Wagoner's Alley).



It is also the case that Hopkin’s fourth child, James Thomas, was born on September 22, 1836 in Philadelphia. It is possible that vital statistic records might exist which would give the residence (or the place of birth which most likely was the Thomas residence), but that avenue has yet to be pursued.


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Rev. August 2012