“Some persons care little or nothing for the past. Musty records and old things have no charm for them.” Joseph Harrison Jr., The Locomotive Engine and Philadelphia’s Share In Its Early Improvements, 1872
Joseph Harrison Jr. (1810-1874), engineer, inventor, art collector, writer and one-time major property owner in Northeast Philadelphia, was not a person who cared “little or nothing for the past.”
The quote above is the opening passage of his 1872 history of the early development of the locomotive, a history in which Harrison himself played a significant role.
Last year, a collection of photographs came to light offering previously unknown views of Joseph Harrison’s unusual mid-19th-century estate stretching from Holmesburg to Torresdale along the Delaware River.
The photos were taken in 1901 by the Philadelphia Water Department to document its demolition of the estate for construction of the new Torresdale Water Treatment Plant on the site.
The images are part of an album that includes mechanical drawings and other technical materials on the plant’s construction.
In the 1950s, a superintendent at the plant rescued the album from a junk pile and gave it to his son-in-law Henry Kinofsky, also a superintendent at the plant.
The album eventually passed into the possession of Kinofsky’s daughter Vivian Haggerty, who is a neighbor of local historian (and 2014 Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame inductee) Pat Worthington Stopper.
Stopper arranged for the album’s donation to the Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History in 2013. As revealed in the photos, “Harrison’s Folly,” as the estate came to be known, was an interesting and unusual property. The same could be said for the man who built it.
Joseph Harrison Jr. was born in 1810 in Philadelphia. At 15, he was indentured by his father to learn steam engineering. After working at a few small companies, Harrison went to work at Garret and Eastwick Locomotive Works. Upon Garret’s retirement, the company became Eastwick and Harrison. It was a small but innovative company.
In 1839, Eastwick and Harrison built an 11-ton locomotive, The Gowan and Marx, for the Reading Railroad. This locomotive featured several technological innovations, which brought it to the attention of Russians who were researching American railroads for Czar Nicholas II. In 1843, Joseph Harrison, Andrew Eastwick and Thomas Winans of Baltimore signed a contract with the Russian government to build locomotives, cars and the track and bridges for the newly formed St. Petersburg and Moscow Railway.
Harrison completed his portion of the project in 1850, and the venture made him an extremely wealthy man. Following his work in Russia, Harrison and his family spent 1850 to 1852 in Europe, during which time he amassed a large and valuable art collection.
When they came home to Philadelphia in 1852, Harrison purchased the entire 18th Street side of Rittenhouse Square. On this site, he built a massive house in the style of a St. Petersburg mansion.
An entire wing of this home housed Harrison’s art collection, which included such works as Benjamin West’s famous painting, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, and many paintings by noted American artist Charles Wilson Peale.
Like many men of wealth of the period, Joseph Harrison wanted a summer home. In 1853, he purchased the estate of the late Joseph Ashton, situated just south of Eleven Mile Lane (now Linden Avenue) on the Delaware River. He also purchased the adjoining property just north of the mouth of the Pennypack Creek, which had been the site of the Pennepack Ferry Company and the Pennepack House.
The ferry company began by transporting passengers from Philadelphia to Cinnaminson, New Jersey; later, it rowed passengers out to the steamships that traveled between Philadelphia and Trenton. The Pennepack House served as a boarding house for travelers and later for summer vacationers.
In 1859, Harrison patented a type of safety boiler and founded the Harrison Safety Boiler Works. His boiler was much safer than previous types and significantly reduced the number of boiler explosions that had been common occurrences.
Also in 1859, Harrison added to his Delaware River property with the purchase of the 15-acre Tresly Farm, which was on the Pennypack Creek.
Harrison’s summer home was named Riverdale, probably after Joseph Ashton’s estate named River Dale. Harrison built a large mansion in the Russian style of a tower topped by an onion dome, a style usually seen in Russian cathedrals.
The tower was supposed to resemble a candle and the onion dome, a flame … the flame of faith. The estate also included many farm houses and barns and an enormous greenhouse.
The engineer in Harrison prompted him to put many of his own touches on his home. He was very involved in the building of a bulkhead that began north of the house and ran south to the Pennepack wharf.
The dredger used in this project was operated by a steam machine invented by Harrison. It ran on a rail and filled the bulkhead in with mud from the outside to the bank.
Harrison was very hands-on with the work on the property. Samuel S. Willits, a local historian of the time, reported seeing Harrison working on the bulkhead in wader boots.
Work on the estate came to a halt in the 1870s, however, when Joseph Harrison became very ill with fever. It was believed at the time that the dredging made the property unhealthy and caused the illness.
The Harrison family moved back to Rittenhouse Square and never returned to Riverdale. Actually, Harrison’s fever was caused not by the unhealthiness of Riverdale but by Bright’s Disease, a serious, often fatal kidney disease. Harrison died on March 27, 1874 at the age of 63 from this malady.
After Harrison’s death, his wife leased the land to the Philadelphia House of Correction. The buildings were used for offices, and inmates farmed the land.
In 1900, the City of Philadelphia condemned the Harrison estate because it wanted to build a water filtration plant there. In 1902, a jury awarded the Harrison estate more than $208,000 for the city’s unfounded condemnation.
Mrs. Harrison and one of her sons who served as executor of the estate sold it to the city for the future site of the Torresdale Water Treatment Plant. “Harrison’s Folly” was demolished in 1904, much to the dismay of the many passengers on the steamships that plied the river, who enjoyed the sight of the Russian-style mansion with the onion tower that served as a local landmark.
Riverdale is but one of many 19th-century riverfront mansions in Northeast Philadelphia that disappeared in the 20th century. Future articles will chronicle the continuing interesting history of this land. ••
Jack McCarthy is an archivist and historian and director of the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame. Patty McCarthy is a historical researcher and active member of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network.