Views of Harrison’s Folly

New images come to light of a most unusual 19th-century Northeast mansion.

  • Joseph Harrison Jr.

  • A focus on history: A collection of photographs came to light last year offering previously unknown views of Joseph Harrison’s mid-19th-century estate stretching from Holmesburg to Torresdale along the Delaware River. The photos were taken in 1901.

“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.

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