A window into 1850 Philadelphia, looking south from Girard College


One of my favorite historical images of the Philadelphia landscape is a lithograph by naturalist-artist John William Hill that was published by Smith Brothers & Co. in 1850 — if there were camera-drones in the 1840s, this is what the footage would look like.

You find yourself at once suspended a hundred meters in the air, looking south across the city from the so-called ‘Northern Liberties’. Large meadows cover a landscape that now  (166 years later) is largely concrete. Founder’s Hall at Girard College takes center stage, with its large pillars and rooftop thrill-seekers. Look to the right in the distance and you will see the medieval castle Eastern State Penitentiary, and beyond it the Schuylkill River.

The University of Pennsylvania is visible on the far bank of the Schuylkill, flanked by two bridges. The closer of the two (far right of the image) is the 109 meter “Wire Bridge at Fairmount“, the first major cable suspension bridge in the United States, which opened in 1842 and stood for 30 years.

The most distant bridge (upper right of the penitentiary in the image) is (was) the first permanent bridge over the Schuylkill River, crossing the river at High St. (now Market St.). This wooden (!) bridge was famously adorned with artistic carvings by the ‘Father of American sculpture’, William Rush (1756–1833), but alas, it was destroyed by fire in 1850—the same year this lithograph was published—so this may very well be the last image of it, albeit at a distance.


Categories: PhiladelphiaTags: , , ,

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