Walking Tour of West Chester's
by Jim Jones
(from Riggtown to Market Street and
--- Go to Riggtown Home or the HIS480 Syllabus ---
Begin in Green Field Parking Lot in the 600-block of South
- Goose Creek : Also known as "Shallow Run" on
turn-of-the-century fire insurance maps, it is one of the creeks
that feeds into the Chester Creek. During the 19th century, it
served as a sewer for the southeast end of town.
- Green Field : This area was turned into a swamp
by the construction of the elevated railroad right-of-way in
1858, and as the town expanded towards the southeast, this area
became an unofficial trash dump. The houses along East Nields
Street were completed between 1887 and 1896, and children from
the neighborhood used the dump as their playground. They had a
baseball diamond at the "high end" near Franklin Street and hit
long balls towards the swampy area next to the railroad. In
1944, 118 neighbors signed a petition that got the Borough to
fill in the swamp and build a ball field. In 1991, the
Department of Public Works paved the parking lot using an
experimental surface that permits water to drain through it.
- Riggtown : Riggtown consists of 36 houses
located between Goose Creek and the railroad tracks, and
encompasses the 500-blocks of South Franklin and South Adams
Street, plus the 300 to 500-blocks of East Nields Street. Most
were built between 1891 and 1898, with the majority constructed
by two contractors, Patrick Barry (ten houses on the west side of
South Franklin Street) and Mifflin L. Rigg (14 houses east of
South Franklin Street and north of East Nields Street). Although
a few newspaper articles referred to the area as "Barryville," by
1898 it was commonly referred to as "Riggtown." Rigg's daughter
Nora lived at 437 E. Nields Street until the turn-of-the century,
and several sources recalled Mifflin Rigg as a good builder and a
Until the end of World War I, Riggtown remained a community
of rental properties owned by investors from as far away as
Philadelphia. As a result of the war-time economic boom,
Riggtown residents were able to buy their own houses starting
about 1919, and a few managed to acquire title to as many as four
houses. They invited family members to move in, and Riggtown
became a close-knit community composed mainly of three large
extended families--the Harvey-Ferrier-Gincley family, the
family, and the Davis-Carey-Holston family.
Walk east along alley between baseball field and backyards of the
houses on the south side of East Nields Street. Turn left beyond
the large apartment building and walk to East Nields Street.
Stop at the railroad crossing.
- Trivia : The house numbering in this block is
unusual, North of East Nields Street, the railroad divides the
200 and 300-blocks and South Adams Street divides the 300 and
400-blocks. Where South Adams Street intersects East Nields
Street, there is a house number 400, but it is attached to house
number 500 as a duplex. Thus, the houses on Nields Street
between Franklin Street and the railroad tracks include numbers
from 386 to 510 in a single block.
- Willows Apartments : This apartment building,
located at 510 East Nields Street, last sold in 1987 at a cost of
$1.8 million dollars. Note the misspelling "Neilds" on the
sign. Formerly, it was the site of a single family home owned by
the Guthrie family, and was known as a bad place to lose a
baseball, because according to children who grew up in the area,
the owners didn't like it when they came into the yard.
- East Nields Street crossing : In the 19th
century, East Nields Street was an unpaved lane that served
farmers from West Goshen and Westtown. They drove animals and
used wagons to bring produce to the West Chester market, which
opened on West Market Street in the 1830s. After the West
Chester State Normal School was founded in 1872, trains
occasionally stopped here to serve students and teachers, and
after World War I, this became a regular stop on several morning
and evening trains.
The Nields Street grade crossing was the site of many
accidents, including four in a ten-year period that culminated in
the "worst railroad accident in the borough's history" in 1953,
when an entire family from Paoli was killed by a train that
collided with their car. One consequence was the installation of
warning lights and crossing gates in the following year.
However, 1953 was also the last year for direct passenger rail
service from West Chester to Philadelphia. Sunday service ended
on January 19, 1958. Regular train service to West Chester ended
in April 1987.
- Sartomer : On the east side of the railroad
tracks and south of East Nields Street, the James D. Reilly
family had a farm until 1967. For many years, the Reilly
children and the Riggtown kids played together, and Riggtown
residents remembered playing football, target shooting, and going
for walks on the Reilly farm. In 1967, the parent company of the
Sartomer Corporation (presently owned by the French petrochemical
firm Total) bought the property and built a plant for the
manufacture of intermediate chemical products used in the
manufacture of plastics.
- Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories : The Wyeth-Ayerst
Company operates a facility for the manufacture of sterile
pharmaceutical products such as disposable hypodermic needles.
Wyeth came to West Chester during World War II when it acquired
Reichel Laboratories, which was founded by Dr. Charles Heathcote,
Raymond Rattou and Mr. Carlisle of West Chester. Reichel
Laboratories began production in a building on East Rosedale
Avenue near South Penn Street as one of the first companies to
produce penicillin in the United States. After the war, Wyeth
needed larger quarters, so it built a factory on this site in
1952. In 1969, they added a second factory, at which time South
Adams Street was rerouted to eliminate the grade crossing north
of Nields Street (at the present location of the West Chester
Railroad yard office).
Cross the railroad tracks and walk north through the railroad
yard to South Adams Street in front of the West Chester Railroad
- Wyeth-Ayerst parking lot : The entrance to the
Wyeth-Ayerst parking lot was once a borough street named Elmer
Street, which appears on the 1933 map as a continuation of East
Lacey Street. A siding was built parallel to Elmer Street in
1858 by the WC&PRR to provide access to a three-stall engine
house that maintained eight locomotives (seven passenger and one
freight) at its peak in 1907.
Before WWII, mushroom soil was unloaded at this siding and
transported in wagons through Riggtown to the mushroom houses on
South Matlack Street. Circus companies also unloaded here and
marched their wagons and animals through Riggtown to the Fair
Grounds located south of the present West Chester University E.
O. Bull Center parking lot. After electrification of the line
made the engine house obsolete, local children used the lot for a
ball field. NOTE: The 1933 map shows a property owned by the
Sinclair Oil Refining Company in the middle of the present
parking lot, about two-thirds of the way from South Adams to
South Bolmar Streets.
Continue north along the 300-block of South Adams Street to the
corner of East Union Street.
- West Chester Railroad yard : The current
switching yard of the West Chester Railroad was once a freight
switching yard for the Pennsylvania Railroad. It was originally
constructed about 1900 when freight operations became too great
to handle at the main station on East Market Street, and expanded
in 1907 by filling in the area between the tracks and Goose
- National Foam Systems Inc. : On the west side of
South Adams Street, a large manufacturing facility belonging to
the National Foam Company produces fire-fighting chemicals from
animal byproducts. The plant opened in 1942 to produce foam for
the U.S. Navy. The firm regularly tests its products by igniting
a fire in the open area between the factory and railroad tracks,
providing tense moments for people who are unfamiliar with the
- Grocery Store Products : The large brick
industrial complex on the northeast corner of East Union and
South Adams stands on land that once belonged to Henry R. Guss.
By 1883, it had become the site of the A. D. Sharpless brickyard.
In 1929, the land was purchased by the Grocery Store Products
Company and they built the factory that stands today. Grocery
Store Products processed locally-grown mushrooms and marketed
them throughout the United States under the trade name "B-in-B"
(Broiled in Butter). The company was purchased by The Clorox
Company of Oakland CA in 1971, and since then, it has been
divided into a variety of industrial and office spaces.
- Guss' Row : Most of the houses located along the
east side of South Adams Street were built by Colonel Henry Guss
using brick manufactured in his brickyard on East Union Street.
A few were built prior to 1873 and the rest were constructed by
Turn left onto East Union Street and turn right at the next
corner onto South Franklin Street. From there, walk north to the
corner of East Barnard and South Franklin Streets.
- Hoffman's Lumber Yard : Across South Adams
Street from the Grocery Store Products building stands Hoffman's
lumber yard. In 1866, one of West Chester's most celebrated
Civil War veterans reopened a brickyard formerly owned by the
firm of Sharpless & Hall. In 1884, I. M. Warnick took over the
brickyard, and purchased a house at 221 South Franklin Street, a
block away. An 1896 map shows it to have been abandoned, but
newspaper articles from the first decade of the twentieth century
state that it was in full production to accommodate a local
building boom, and that local supplies of clay were running short
by 1907. The firm of Hoffman and Baldwin acquired the property
for a lumber yard by 1930, and the successor firm, the Hoffman
Lumber Company, still operates there today, although they lost
most of their buildings in a disastrous fire in the fall of 1992.
- Pennsylvania Railroad freight station : The
Pennsylvania Railroad built a freight station in the 300-block of
East Union Street between 1900 and 1902, in the open area located
just west of the National Foam Company. During the heyday of
West Chester railroading just after World War I, it was
constantly congested. However, evidence of the decline of West
Chester railroading comes from newspaper accounts of two fires at
the station. A 1944 fire caused about $40,000 in damage to the
building and railcars on the site, but the 1967 fire that finally
destroyed the freight station caused just $14,000 dollars worth
of damage (roughly $5,965 in 1944 dollars, adjusted for
- Houses at 304-310 East Union : The four houses
in 300-block of East Union Street were built prior to 1902 and
have been owned by as wide assortment of people and firms
including the First National Bank, The Fruit Growers of Chester
County and many private landlords. One unusual feature is that
they are coupled together on two deeds (304-306 and 308-310)
instead of four separate properties.
- Barn at 300 East Union : Until the spring of
1999, there was what appeared to be an old barn at 300 East Union
Street. In 1902, this was the site of the I. N. Haines coal
shed, but for most of the 20th century, this property belonged to
J. Leon Hagerty Jr., a coal and wood dealer. In 1981, it was
purchased by M. S. Yearsley & Sons, owners of the hardware store
in the 100-block of East Market Street.
- Union Street grade crossing : This grade
crossing was probably the most dangerous in West Chester, because
it was too low to replace with a bridge. Instead, street traffic
had to climb over a hill to cross the tracks, and horse-drawn
wagons--especially those from the freight station a half block
away on East Union Street--had trouble to cross the tracks
quickly. In addition, its location on a curve made it difficult
for drivers to see a train before it reached the crossing. As a
result, it was the scene of many accidents and near misses, and
frequently the source of contention between the Borough of West
Chester and the owner of the railroad.
- Reneuxit Incorporated : This industrial building
is located on the northwest corner of East Union and South
Franklin Streets (250 South Franklin). In 1857, it was the site
of Jonathan W. Speakman's West Chester Agricultural Works and
shops used by men like machinist Thomas G. Kelley, moulder John
Martin. machinist George S. Tapley and engineer Thomas Mearmar.
By the turn of the century, the entire structure was occupied by
the West Chester Cold Storage & Ice Company Ltd., but by 1933,
the ice company had moved into the portion nearest the railroad
tracks and leased the remainder to the Chester County Fruit
Growers Association and the McCormick & Cotter Coal Company.
Proceed to the corner of East Barnard Street and South Franklin
- Hoopes Brothers & Darlington Wheel Works : The
buildings that stretch along the west side of South Franklin
Street from East Market Street to the middle of the 200-block are
all located on the former site of one of West Chester's largest
industrial enterprises. The "Wheel Works," which manufactured
wooden wheels for farm wagons and carriages, opened in 1868. It
became one of the borough's largest employers and continued to
produce wheels until it closed in 1973. The plant's equipment
and remaining stock were sold to Vern Barnett of Jonesboro,
Arkansas, and the site was redeveloped by Ray Carr and David
Knauer of the Pickering Creek Industrial Park.
After World War II, the wooden wheel market declined, so the
owners leased space in their building to other firms. One of
them, the Nachman Spring Company, became the object of a
strenuous attempt to organize labor in the late 1950s. On the
second try in 1958, Nachman employees voted to join the United
Steel Workers. However, four years later they voted to leave the
union and the company quickly fired eleven local officers. The
fired employees sued and won "what has been termed the largest
settlement made under the National Labor Relations Board order,"
according to the Daily Local News.
- Barnard Street bridge : This was one of the
first railroad bridges constructed in West Chester to eliminate a
dangerous grade crossing. It was raised in 1906 and widened in
1917 to add an additional track that reduced congestion at the
Market Street station.
Proceed north on South Franklin Street to Market Street.
- St. Luke UAME Church : This building at 117
South Franklin Street was constructed in 1882 to house the St.
Luke UAME Church, founded in Pennsbury Township in 1841.
- Magnolia House Hotel : The building on the
southeast corner of East Miner Street and South Franklin Street
(300-302 East Miner Street) was operated as a restaurant and
hotel by Moses Hepburn, one of the most successful African-
American citizens of the 19th century in West Chester. Hepburn
worked as a barber at 6 East Market Street in 1857, but after he
inherited just over $5,000 upon his father's death in 1861, he
began a business career that included the Magnolia House, which
opened in 1866, a taxi service to convey passengers from the
train station to all parts of town in 1873, and investments in
real estate in West Chester and the surrounding area. Hepburn
eventually became the first African-American member of West
Chester's Borough Council in 1882.
Turn left into the parking lot at Rubinstein's in the 200-block
of East Market Street.
- Rubinstein's Office Plus : The large yellow
building that houses the Salvation Army store and Rubinstein's
office supply store. Rubinstein's moved here in 1990 from their
store at the southwest corner of East Market and Walnut Street,
which was founded in 1914 by Isidore Rubinstein, a Polish
immigrant. The third generation of Rubinsteins operates the
store at present.
- Ralph Smith : On the north side of the street at
239 East Market Street, the Ralph Smith moving company has its
offices and warehouse. Ralph G. Smith Sr. began a hauling milk
and moving household goods in 1916 and branched out into general
freight, warehousing and horse transportation. His son Ralph Jr.
took over the company in 1942, and two of his four sons are
involved in the business today. They also own the military-
surplus "Quonset hut" located just south of Green Field (the
tour's starting point), in a three-acre lot that serves as the
company's truck maintenance facility.
- East Market Street Station : This was the
terminus of the second railroad to reach West Chester from
Philadelphia. In 1833, the first railroad was constructed from
the Pennsylvania Main Line at Malvern to a point near the
intersection of East Chestnut and North Matlack Streets. In
1858, the second line (called the West Chester & Philadelphia
Railroad) was completed from West Philadelphia to this point via
Media. In 1867, the two lines were combined and a new station
was built at this location. Despite a major fire in 1885, the
station remained in service until it was demolished in June 1968.
At its peak in the 1920s, the building handled about 6,000
passengers a day, but by the time it closed in 1965, ridership
had declined to a weekly average of 320 people.
- Gay Street Bridge : From the West Chester
Station looking north, you can see the Gay Street bridge over the
original West Chester Railroad right-of-way. Gay Street was the
original road from Philadelphia to West Chester, and in 1867, a
bridge was built to carry Gay Street over the tracks which
connected the original WCRR with the WC&PRR. The first bridge
was made of wood, and was set on fire several times by sparks
from passing locomotives. The tracks were removed in the early
1960s, and the present bridge was built in 1961.
Continue west in the 100-block of East Market Street to Matlack
- 200-block East Market Street : The row of
buildings between the railroad tracks and Matlack Street were
built following the completion of the West Chester & Philadelphia
Railroad in 1858 and the development of adjacent land in the
1880s to 1890s. They have housed a variety of businesses over
the years including a florist, a construction company and a
- West Chester Locker Company : This concrete
block structure at 216 East Market Street was built between 1944
and 1946 by Harry A. Spriggs on part of the lot formerly owned by
the P. J. McCormick Construction Company. In April 1946, Spriggs
sold it to Joseph M. Fox, who founded a cold storage company with
his partner Charles O'Neill later that year. Their manager was
John Aquilante, who eventually bought the business about 1964.
His son Jim runs it today.
- Star Social Club : The Star Social Club, located
at 212 East Market Street, was founded in 1896 in a house on
Hannum Avenue by James Edwards, John T. Melton, Willis Lampkin,
George Whipper and Harry Berry. Over the years, it moved from
Hannum Avenue to a room over Speare's Clothing Store at Church
and Gay Streets, a building in the 50-block of North Walnut
Street, 208 East Market Street in 1919, and finally to 212 East
Market Street in 1946.
- Police Athletic League : The Police Athletic
League is located at 208 East Market Street in the building
formerly occupied by the Star Social Club.
- Elks Club (Captain Levi Hood Lodge #159 the Pride of
West Chester Temple #487) : The Captain Levi Hood Lodge of
the B.P. Order of Elks was founded in West Chester in 1908 and
named after a prominent local African-American citizen of the
nineteenth century. The Order purchased the building for $6,000
in 1939 (following a complicated set of deed transfers) from the
estate of Frank Worrall. Worrall owned the property since 1912,
when he acquired it from T. C. Eldridge (see below, 100-block
South Matlack Street). Based on deed research, it appears that
the building was constructed after 1891.
Turn left into the 000-block of South Matlack Street.
- 000-block South Matlack Street : There were
houses in this block as early as 1857, but the houses currently
standing on the right side (#12-14-18-20) were built shortly
before the turn of the last century. The large open lots on the
left side of the street were the site of the West Chester Gas
Works, The Gas Works opened in 1852 to manufacture illuminating
gas, and later, it passed through several sets of owners until it
became part of the Philadelphia Electric Company. The plant
closed in the 1960s, and the storage tanks and buildings were
removed and the site was decontaminated in 1996. Next fall
(1999), this area will open as Horace Pippin Park (named after
the renowned African American painter). Facilities will include
a picnic pavilion and playground equipment divided into two theme
areas--wilderness and castle.
- 100-block South Matlack Street : The houses on
the east side of the 100-block of South Matlack Street date back
to before 1857, when the Borough Directory lists a number of
laborers who lived there--people like Abram Berry, D. Brister,
Thomas Carsal, J. Farley, and James Finnegan, a "wheeler." In
other words, this was a working class neighborhood.
Most of the land adjacent to the railroad tracks in the 100
& 200-blocks of South Matlack Street were coal and lumber yards
for much of the past century. For instance, the site presently
occupied by Brandywine Auto Parts at 213 East Barnard Street was
owned by a succession of coal and lumber companies including
Darlington & Williams in 1873, T. C. Eldridge by 1902, Chalkley
C. Hipple for many years, and finally J. Leon Hagerty, who bought
it bought it in 1956.
- Care Center for Christ : The Care Center for
Christ was founded in 1982 and moved to this location in 1987.
The building formerly housed a tavern.
- Apartments for Modern Living : In 1858, John S.
Robinson and a partner named Shoemaker opened a lumber and coal
yard at this location, and the business went through many hands
over the next century. Mssrs. Mendinhall, Way & Phillips had it
in the early 1870s, Ralston R. Hoopes bought them out in 1874, C.
C. Hipple took over in 1914, and J. Leon Hagerty followed in
1956. The present owner acquired the property in 1983.
At the turn of the century, Ralston R. Hoopes leased a
number of buildings along the south side of the 200-block of East
Barnard Street to the Keystone Tag Company. Hoopes had his own
office, scale and lumber shed along the east side of the 200-
block of South Matlack Street.
- National Crayon Company : On the right side of
the block about halfway between East Barnard and East Union
Street, there is an alley that leads up to Mechanics Alley. The
building on the left at the far end of the alley has housed
several interesting businesses. The National Crayon Company was
there in 1902 but gone by 1909. In 1914, Charles Lucas Sr.
(father of the burgess/mayor from 1958 to 1966), opened the Lucas
Machine Works to repair automobiles and sell products like
"Frictionless Babbitt" metal, VISCO oil and grease, "Bull Dog"
engines and pumps, and "Michener automobile gasoline saver."
Currently, there is a hand-lettered sign that says "Exton Machine
Company" in the window, but no sign of activity.
The 1857 Borough Directory lists a house on the northeast
corner of East Union and South Matlack Streets that was occupied
by a widow named Ellen Henry. The large house on the southwest
corner (142 East Union) may have been a boarding house at one
Turn left onto East Union Street and walk towards the railroad
tracks. Turn right into the alley just before the entrance to
- All of the land on the south side of the 200 & 300-
blocks of East Union Street was used by Sharpless & Hall to make
bricks in 1857. After the Civil War, George Fassnacht, a soap
and candle maker, bought everything bounded by Union, Magnolia,
Matlack and the railroad, and gradually subdivided the property
over the next two decades.
- Fassnacht Alley was originally a lane that ran
behind the houses in the 300-block of South Matlack Street, the
first ten of which were built between 1873 and 1883. Goose Creek
crosses under the railroad tracks at this point, and the land
between the alley and the creek was used by Ralston R. Hoopes as
part of his coal yard in 1883.
- Bituminous Service Company : The enclosed area
at the corner of East Union Street and Fassnacht Alley is the
present location of Schriver/Houck Inc., West Chester Foreign
Car, and several other industrial enterprises. Between 1931 and
1986, this was a storage yard for the Bituminous Service Company,
which paved roads throughout much of Chester County. (See 1931
Goose Creek Fire, below).
Continue walking south along Fassnacht Alley. At the end of the
alley, turn left onto Magnolia Street for a few yards and then
right into Maple Alley.
- House and warehouses : The 1873 map shows this
area to be part of a parcel owned by Augustus Duer, a Civil War
veteran and engineer who helped build the West Chester &
Philadelphia Railroad. According to Futhey & Cope, Duer left the
area in 1865 to work in a Colorado mine, but returned to the area
a few years later to take up residence in Atglen.
By 1883, the Duer property had been subdivided but was still
largely unimproved. The 1933 map shows a foot bridge across
Goose Creek at the foot of Magnolia Street, a house on the
southeast corner of Magnolia and Maple, and lists Harry F.
Taylor, a local realtor, as the owner of all the flood plain
between the tracks and the alley.
The flood plain was used for fruit orchards until the 1960s
by Morris Holman, a local entrepreneur who lived on Price Street.
The house on the corner of Magnolia and Maple Alleey was built
after World War I and occupied by a succession of Jewish families
until the National Bank of Chester County foreclosed on Morris &
Jennie Siegel in 1934. The house sold for $2,000 in 1967 to the
Miller family whose deescendants still live in it today.
- Warehouses : The four warehouses have belonged to
a succession of businesses including the Bituminous Service
Company, the Taggart Printing Company (printers of the
Bicentennial Souvenir Book), Thomas Boyle's photo service, and
Collins automotive service. At present, the two warehouses at
the south end of the row are owned by the Borough of West
- Public Works : At the south end of the alley on
the right (west) side is the Borough Public Works Building. In
1883, this site was vacant, but by 1909, it served as the Borough
Stables and housed a stone crusher used to produce paving
materials for the Borough's streets.
- 220-222 Lacey Street : The three-story duplex
with the mansard roof was built in the 1890s as a home for the
family of Patrick Barry, one of the builders of Riggtown. It was
owned by Joe and Rose Stancato from 1926 to 1941, after which
time the properties were separated by brothers Frank and George
Snyder. Following the war, the right half (220) was bought by
members of the Guinta family and the left half (222) was
purchased by members of the Davis family from Riggtown.
- Maple Alley south of Lacey Street : Local
residents tell how, in the era before World War II, many people
kept horses in their backyards. One such family was that of
Daniel C. Leary who lived at 523 South Matlack Street. They kept
a race horse named Joe-Boy in a stable on the alley behind 503
South Matlack (second house south of Lacey Street, on the west
side of Maple Alley) that entertained the local children by
stamping his hoof to say how old he was.
Turn left into the 200-block of Lacey Street and then right into
the 500-block of South Franklin Street. As you cross over Goose
Creek, notice the bridge, which had to be replaced after the 1931
Goose Creek fire (see below).
- Factory at 501 South Franklin Streeet : The two-
story brick building located on the northeast corner of Lacey and
South Franklin was built in 1901 to house the Sun Electrical
Manufacturing Company, manufacturer of telephone switchboards.
The company quickly went out of business, but the building
remained in use, first as a knitting factory and newspaper
printshop in 1906, then as the home of the ESCO Cabinet Company
from 1928 to 1933. In 1933 it was acquired by the United Dairy
Equipment Company, successor company to the Sharpless Separator
Works, and was used for the manufacture of milk storage coolers,
and during World War II, it was used by two entrepreneurs, Joseph
Stephens and Gene Gray, to produce aircraft parts. In the 1990s,
it became part of the complex of brick buildings on South
Franklin Street owned by Integra Medicus, manufacturer of
pharmaceutical products including artificial skin, but after the
FDA declined to approve their product, they sold it to a
- 500-block South Franklin Street : The houses on
the west (right) side of the street were built by Patrick Barry,
one of the two contractors who built Riggtown. He began with
number 500 in 1891 and completed two or four each year over the
next three years.
The buildings on the east (left) side of the street all
became part of the Atlantic Refining Company by 1912, and
included an enormous oil storage tank that was constructed in
1912. The buildings are all currently owned by Integra Medicus,
manufacturer of pharmaceutical products including artificial
skin. However, their product failed to win FDA approval, so the
plant has been closed since 1997, and they will most likely put
it up for sale.
- Nields Street Bridge : In 1931, a leak in a
storage tank at Bituminous Service spread oil across much of
Goose Creek. Several young teenage boys from Riggtown were
smoking cigarettes at the Nields Street bridge over Goose Creek,
and when they noticed the slick, one dropped a match into the
creek. The oil slick ignited and the resulting fire destroyed
the backyard sheds and fences along the 500-block of South
Franklin Street, damaged the Lacey Street Bridge over Goose
Creek, and spread upstream to the rest of the Bituminous Service
Company's storage tanks. It took several hours for emergency
crews from as far as Philadelphia and Longwood to extinguish the
The resulting fire shut down service on the Pennsylvania
Railroad, and drew "hundreds of men, women, boys and girls, and
even little children, [who] packed the sidewalks and a solid
portion of Union street from the intersection with Matlack almost
to the railroad tracks, within thirty yards of the fire.
Suddenly there was a deep-toned, reverberating `boom' from the
oil tanks. A pillar of livid flame leaped several hundred feet
into the air, rolled over in a billow of dripping oil sparks, and
swept in a towering wave of heat towards the crowd. A gasp went
up from the watchers. For one split second they were motionless.
In that interval, someone screamed, and with one accord the mob
turned and fled. In the tremendous rush, several people were
knocked down, and at least one, Mr. Ashton B. T. Smith of 619
West Miner Street, was hurt."
As a footnote to the fire, the following year the
Pennsylvania State Association of Fire Chiefs passed a resolution
calling for the construction of retaining walls around all
storage tanks containing flammable liquids to contain them in the
event of a leak.
Return to parking lot at Green Field.
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