Just to the north of where the Frankford El ends, there is a set of cemeteries, and a park that nearly entirely circles one of them. Those cemeteries, Cedar Hill, North Cedar Hill, and Mt. Carmel, have been there since this was a rural area just outside of Frankford’s urban core. And the park, Wissinoming Park, while not quite as old as those cemeteries, has history that does reach a bit further back.
The site of Wissinoming Park was originally the estate of Robert Cornelius, a chemist and an early photographer who began his work in the latest part of the 1830s and took one of the earliest photographs, ever, of a living human. Mr. Cornelius was a very wealthy man, and in the 1850s he wanted an estate in one of the finest parts of Philadelphia, and he situated it just to the north of Frankford, to enjoy the space and the rural setting he found there. And it remains open to this day – a swath of green and trees that has been a neighborhood treasure for well over a century.
In an undated piece by Thomas Creighton, from the archives of the Historical Society of Frankford (and thanks to Susan Couvreur for finding this and bringing it to my attention), we find the following:
“One of the most pleasing and attractive of the new parks of Philadelphia is Cornelius Park, situated a short distance above Frankford, and on the western outskirts of Wissinoming it will in due course of time be greatly appreciated. There are fine forest trees, open glades, and a lake that always adds to the beauty of the landscape”
In this article, they mention that the park had just opened, and that “There some 34 members of the society gathered on Saturday afternoon, October 14…” and:
“Mr. Robert T. Corson, Esq., read a very complete history of the ground comprising the estate, from the time that it was a part of the glebe lands of Oxford church to the present time, of its purchase by the city for a public park.”
This suggests that this article was published (by the Historical Society of Frankford) in 1911 (the 14th of October fell on a Saturday in 1911; also you’ll note that the park is not on the 1910 map here, but it is on the 1929 map there), or perhaps 1912 (since there might have been a delay in publication to the following year after the visit mentioned above).
The paper goes on to say:
“In May 5, 1850, Lawndale, the estate of Edward Lukens and wife, was purchased by Mr. Cornelius for $18,500. Mr. Cornelius was a great lover of trees and it is stated that he planted about 4000 trees on the place. There are some very old walnut trees still standing, one large one that stood before the mansion is dead and will soon have to be taken down. The mansion was torn down recently owing to its neglected condition.”
This mention of walnuts is interesting to me because there are a few black walnuts in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, the cemetery at the northeast corner of Cheltenham and Frankford Avenues, whose land used to be a part of the Cornelius Estate. In the late 19th century, a portion of the estate was cut off to become Mt. Carmel cemetery, and as an interesting aside, the owner of the first matzah factory in Philadelphia, Werner David Amram, is buried there. He also was my great great grandfather.
[Note: to read more about a couple other nearby cemeteries, see here]
But back to the trees…
I’d assumed that those black walnut trees at Mt. Carmel had simply seeded in on their own and that no one had removed them; that is, that they’d just weeded their way into the landscape, since it seemed a bit odd to me to plant black walnuts in a cemetery, given that these plants shed nuts prolifically, nuts that are time consuming to pick up from the ground and discard.
However, on a visit to the Frankford Arsenal this past July (which was kindly organized by Cynthy and John Buffington, by the way), I saw that there is an enormous black walnut near the reflecting pool in the southwest corner there, and there are also two smaller ones (black walnut trees, that is) arranged at the far corner of the pool from it. I was surprised to see them there (for a similar reason that I was surprised to see the ones at Mt. Carmel), and based on the placement of the larger tree (relative to the pool, and also relative to those other two walnuts also near the pool), I’m quite sure it was planted there, and that those two smaller ones are, too. Since those black walnuts at the Arsenal are pretty clearly planted, and since it is noted that walnuts (which may well have been black walnuts) were noted to have been planted on the Cornelius estate, I have had to reappraise my thoughts on black walnuts being planted (and not seeding in on their own), in landscapes in Frankford (and most likely elsewhere), such as Mt. Carmel Cemetery.
But back to the park…
In the late 19th century, the estate had an open, park like aspect to it, much as it does today – this I saw in photographs from the archives of the Historical Society of Frankford, access to which was kindly granted to me by Susan Couvreur and Diane Sadler.
And if we look at old maps, we see that there were two streams running through the estate – one ran in a roughly southwesterly direction, the other went roughly southeast. The two joined in the southern part of the estate, and then crossed what is now Cheltenham Ave (but at the time was Dark Run Rd). The southwest running creek has since been covered over, but there is now a long low area running above where that creek once ran – I talked to some people at the park and they call it “the creek”. It dries out when the rain doesn’t come, so it isn’t totally a creek, but when the rain comes, the creek fills up, and so it does have a flow at times, and so colloquially calling it a creek makes sense to me.
The southeasterly running stream started just across Frankford Ave, in the eastern part of the property owned by North Cedar Hill Cemetery, but in an area that is, so far as I’m aware, unburied with bodies. It’s just a bit southwest of what might be the oldest community garden in Philadelphia, which is in turn just a bit southwest of Benner St, on the north side of Frankford Ave.
I’ve talked to people, such as Robert Penn, who’ve lived in the area in decades past, and they’ve told me that there used to be a spring there, where that creek began, just north of Frankford Ave, just west of Comly, where people would go to get drinking water. But it was closed down in the 1950s or so, due to concerns about its cleanliness.
There were many springs in the parks of Philadelphia, in former times, such as the one described in the “Conchologists’ Exchange“, where John Ford (Philadelphia, PA) describes a locality in West Fairmount Park, in 1887:
“On the eastern embankment of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad about 200 yards below Belmont Landing, the remains of an old spring house may he seen with the water still bubbling up among its ruins, across which rests the trunk of a fast decaying tulip poplar.”
The stream that came from that spring in Wissinoming was dammed up, in Cornelius’s time and on Cornelius’s property, to make a large pond – the area where that impoundment was is now covered by concrete and is part and parcel of the park that is there today, and kids now play street hockey there, above where a pond once was. There is a drainage that still runs underground there, with an entranceway to it that you can see at the southwest part of the cemented play area, and there is a little bridge that stands to mark where a stream once was.
There was also, I’ve been told, a farm near there, as late as the 1950s, just north of North Cedar Hill Cemetery, and that it was owned by the same Brous family for whom Brous Ave is named. But I haven’t found out more about that, yet.
Those creeks that ran through Wissinoming Park were tributaries of Little Tacony Creek – Wissinoming Creek ran a bit north and east of the park, and flowed directly into the Delaware. That waterway, Wissinoming Creek, like so many others in Philadelphia, has long since been covered over and hasn’t seen the light of day in decades, but its legacy still remains, both in the name of the park nearby (Wissinoming Park, that is), and also in the open park like spaces along Devereaux St., and Hegerman St., and Vandike St – streets that were set above where the creek once ran.
In 1999, there were houses on those lots – but they’d been built, in the 1920s, on top of the ash and cinder filled stream bed of the Wissinoming Creek, and that light debris didn’t support the houses well enough, and by the end of the 20th century they were declared by the city to be “in imminent danger of collapse.” - and so they are now open spaces, grassy and green, and dotted a bit with trees, telling of what runs beneath them.
Back in the 1920s, when this area was being heavily developed, it had a very different aspect to what it has now, as you might expect, but in ways that might be surprising – for example, there was open wetland, and pretty good quality wetland, too, along what is now Cheltenham Ave, in the area near Wissinoming Park.
We know this because, at the Academy of Natural Sciences, in their collection of dried and pressed plants (called an “herbarium“), there is a collection of Sparganium americanum, collected by R. R. Dreisbach on the 12th of July in 1922. He noted the habitat location as “Marshes / Dark Run Rd. Frankford, Phila Co.”
Sparganium americanum, or American bur reed as it is more commonly known if it is known at all, is an obligate wetland plant; that is, it needs saturated soils to live – and so we know that there were open wetlands at the site where it was collected. Also, while this bur reed isn’t the most sensitive of plants, it does need somewhat clean water and this indicates that the water was not overly polluted at the time it was collected. [for example, in Small et al's 1994 paper in Restoration Ecology, "A Macrophyte-Based Rapid Biosurvey of Stream Water Quality: Restoration at the Watershed Scale", they report Sparganium americanum from nearly 27% of the high quality streams they surveyed in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, yet not at all from their low quality stream sites]
We have to use old maps to suss out the location indicated by Dreisbach for his bur reed collection, to see where Dark Run Rd. was, since it it no longer there – and to do that we can turn to the maps at Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network; look at the 1910 map therein and you will see that Dark Run Rd was what is now the portion of Cheltenham Ave running to the south of Wissinoming Park and its nearby graveyards.
But it wasn’t just trees and wetland plants growing up around there. There were also flowers being cultivated in the area near Wissinoming Park. In the middle part of the 20th century, there was a nursery at Frankford and Devereaux. It’s indicated on a 1929 map (as “F. H. Worsinger. Jr. Green House), and also on 1942 and 1962 maps (those maps are available via the Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network), and was right across the street from the Frankford Yellowjackets stadium (the Frankford Yellowjackets were a professional football team based out of Frankford) – the stadium at Frankford and Devereax burned down in 1931.
This nursery (Worsinger, that is) most likely supplied materials for the nearby cemeteries, and perhaps that’s why I’ve been unable to turn up much about it, since it would’ve been a highly localized business, and might not have advertised much, nor published catalogs (I’ve looked in the collections at the McLean Library at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and haven’t found anything about F. H. Worsinger, nor any kind of nursery with a name like that)
Mr. Worsinger was, however, a reasonably prominent man – as is noted in volume 15 of the Journal of Economic Entomology (published in 1922), he was “locally in charge of the Japanese beetle work, Bureau of Plant Industry, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.”
There was another nursery nearby, that could’ve been supplying the cemetery with its bouquets and greenery. William B. Koehler was a florist on Bridge St., between Darrah and Duffield, with numerous greenhouses (as can be seen in the 1929 map here). These would likely have supplied the flowery needs of Frankford’s living citizens, and quite likely would have been beautifying the homes of those who were belowground, too.
But there’s more… in addition to the wetland plants and the cultivated trees and the flowers for sale, there were dry, weedily growing open areas there, too, as is indicated by a collection (also at the Academy of Natural Science’s herbarium), from the 13th of October of 1927, by Walter Benner, of the plant Amaranthus spinosus. Benner made this collection at Frankford Ave and Devereaux St. (that is, where the Yellowjackets stadium stood), and noted the habitat as “Waste ground” (that is, an area like a vacant lot, or perhaps an actual vacant lot – or perhaps just a weedy parking area, but regardless, an open, untended area). And so, while there were plants that were planted and landscapes that were cultivated, there were also areas that just grew up there on their own.
This area had a history of horticulture well prior to the 20th century, I should say. The Caleb Cope nursery, where Thomas Meehan worked, was a bit farther towards the northeast, at Cottman and Frankford – it was there in the 19th century, predating the cemeteries and parks down the way in Frankford, and Thomas Meehan, the eminent nurseryman of Germantown, worked there early in his career, in the late 1840s.
There was still an agricultural aspect to that area, even into the 20th century, as the following collection label (from, yet again, the Academy of Natural Science’s herbarium) indicates:
“weed in open ground about barn
along Cottman St. S.W. of Holmesburg”
26 Oct 1916
And there also would have been scrubby areas here, in the 1930s, as is indicated by the record of a Brown Thrasher nest (“Wissinoming, 4 highly incubated eggs”), noted by Richard Miller in his paper, “the Breeding Birds of Philadelphia”, in volume 51, number 7 of the Oologist (“for the student of birds, their nests, and eggs”), published in 1933
Wissinoming Park remains to this day a site of botanical interest – there is a pair of southern red oaks (Quercus falcata - these trees were pointed out to me by Tony Gordon, by the way) that are possibly the largest in the city, and there are other enormous oaks, a very large English (or German, depending on whom you ask – but either way it’s Quercus robur) oak in the northeast part of the park, and nearby to that is a very large swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor). There are also two very good sized ginkgos, and a nice osage orange (Maclura pomifera), too. And along the “creek” at the Charles St. side of the park, there is a row of catalpas – based on the size of their seed pods (they’re over a centimeter wide), they’re most likely Catalpa speciosa, the northern catalpa – there’s a number of them lined up there, like a screen, awning off the stream and its riparian boundary from the rest of the park [NB: there are some Catalpa bignonioides, the southern catalpa, in the park as well; along the path leading to the "creek" there are two catalpas on either side, the one on the south side is C. speciosa and the one of the north side is C. bignonioides; these are differentiable based on bark characteristics (bignonioides is rough, speciosa is ridged), seed pod width (bignonioides generally less than 1cm across, speciosa generally wider than 1 cm across, and phenology - speciosa flowers before bignonioides]. There are also some pignut trees (Carya glabra) in the park – these are notable if only because they aren’t commonly seen in parks (they are difficult to transplant, and so need to be grown from seed, thereby making it difficult to grow them in a park planting), and even moreso because the squirrels clearly like them so much – when we were there, at Wissinoming Park, on the 25th of June, the ground below them was littered with hickory husks, having been industriously nibbled by these little gray rodents.
The catalpas mentioned above are a good size, but not enormous – though these trees do have the potential to grow to great size around here, as an article in the Gardener’s Monthly (volume 20, from 1878) attests, referencing a northern catalpa growing across town, in Fairmount Park:
A Large Catalpa. - Mr. Horace J. Smith writes: “I measured a Catalpa tree in Fairmount Park, on the river drive, west side, this morning, and found it to be thirteen feet in circumference, at an average of one foot from the ground (it is on a hillside), showing a trunk four feet diameter. Would a section or slab be of interest?”
[What will those Western friends think who believe Southern Indiana produces the only hardy Catalpa. Though Mr. Smith does not say so, we can assure them that this Pennsylvania tree is not growing in the mammoth conservatory in Fairmount Park, but is actually in the open air, and has probably been there through a hundred Winters. How many annual rings has it, Mr. Smith? But we hope there will be no attempt to take a slab from it. Better let the old Catalpa stand.]
And as for the osage orange – a Landreth‘s seed catalog from 1832 covers it well:
“A splendid forest tree: the leaves of a beautiful shining green, and the fruit a most singular appearance; discovered by Lewis and Clarke, when on their western tour.
Native soil: Arkansas $1.00/pc”
(the above was transcribed from a copy at the McLean library)
And a brief note on Quercus falcata – this tree is also called the Spanish oak, and a tree by that name was mentioned by William Penn as being here in the 1680s; Q. falcata is also listed in William P. C. Barton’s 1818 flora of Philadelphia (“The finest timber tree among the oaks. In all our woods.”), but there is another tree that Barton calls “Spanish oak” (this is the common name he gives to Q. palustris), and he gives the common name of “red oak” to Q. falcata; Q. rubra, which we would call “red oak” today, he calls “scarlet oak”. To further complicate and confuse things, in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 flora of Philadelphia, they list “Spanish oak” as being in Philadelphia (“Byberry … Grays Ferry … 52d Street Woods … Lancaster Pike”), but they give it the latin name of “Q. digitata” (it is also listed under that name, and as being in Philadelphia, in Thomas C., Porter’s 1903 Flora of Pennsylvania); in the copy of Barton’s 1818 flora that is in the botany department of the Academy of Natural Sciences, this name (digitata, that is) is written in the margin next to the section for Q. falcata. Q. falcata is also in Edgar Wherry’s “A check-list of the flora of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania” (published in Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, vol. 38), and this came out in 1969.
Point being – it is complicated tracing back a plant through the literature, but it can be done, and in this instance, we see that Quercus falcata has been here for quite some time, and was reasonably common, even though it is not a tree I commonly see in Philadelphia now.
Wissinoming Park and the area around it has changed drastically over the past couple hundred years – once comprised of open areas with wetlands, of a major estate with streams running through it, of farms and creeks and forests, too, much of this land has proceeded to be covered over and filled in by housing for the living and dead alike.
But among it all, the expansive green that was here when Robert Cornelius planted thousands of trees for his estate in the mid-19th century still breathes open. Kids play, people sit and talk; barbequing on warm nights, or just walking through when it’s too cold to sit – this vast open oasis covers history, grows from history, and still it is an active part of the community around it, integrating what was here before with what is here now.
Walking among trees that were planted under the direction of the man who took the first photograph of a living human, looking at the section of his estate that was cut off to become a cemetery, gazing over the rink that was once a pond, we can see the changes that have arrived, and even though we don’t need to see or know any of this in order to be a part of the landscape that is there today, seeing the past lends a depth to the present that allows us to see connections that would otherwise lie unseen.
To read about some other parks in Philadelphia, see here: