Though much of West Philadelphia was wetlands before it was built over with buildings and streets and avenues, and though it was striped and criss-crossed throughout with creeks and streams back then, too, there were also many areas there that were high and dry. And we can sometimes know with surprising specificity where those drier and wetter places were because we can see them on old maps, and we can locate them via locality data from plant specimens in the Department of Botany at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and we can look at old nursery catalogs and histories, and because we can follow the meanderings of Alexander MacElwee.
Alexander MacElwee, botanist and horticulturalist, documented much of the flora of the Philadelphia area, and he extensively recorded what was growing in West Philadelphia, because he lived there – at 5424 Merion Ave, to be specific, right near 54th and Lancaster. (MacElwee’s address is in the Philadelphia Botanical Club’s membership list in issue number one of Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, published in 1908).
And so, from this peripatetic botanist we can find out about about the marshes and swamps and hills and farms of 19th century West Philadelphia, and we can do this now because his field notebooks are accessioned in the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences (collection #36, to be precise).
For example, on April 15, 1893, MacElwee writes that “On Thursday eve I went out Lancaster Ave. before coming home for supper and collected 5 specimens of Symplocarpus foetidus” (underlining his)
Symplocarpus foetidus, or skunk cabbage, is an obligate wetland plant, that is, it has to grow in saturated soils. And in 1895, at 52d and Lancaster, there was a stream that ran in from the north – this was right around the corner from MacElwee’s house and therefore quite likely this is the area where he collected that skunk cabbage in 1893. However, there were other wetlands nearby – for example, there was a stream that ran up near 60th and 61st streets, and Lancaster Avenue, and that would have had wetlands along it. But I would think that for a pre-dinner walk, with food on his mind, that MacElwee would have ambled closer to home, and so quite likely it was nearby to the stream at 52d and Lancaster that he picked up this skunk cabbage, though of course it also could have been elsewhere along Lancaster Ave.
A couple months later, on the 17th of June (still in 1893), he was walking through West Philadelphia again, as was his habit, when he came across a sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) at the “West end of Cherry tree hotel 46 + Baltimore Ave W Phila”. Sycamore maples like it a bit drier, and so this indicates a dry habitat at this spot.
He also mentions, from an entry dated the 6th of April 1893, that “There’s a little tree in the lot 45 + Market near the narrow ridge of rock in the center”, indicating an upland area there, too.
And on the 16th of September 1893, MacElwee went by Sansom St. and Meadow (which is now Farragut, and is between 46th and 47th Streets), right where Eli K. Price, who had been head of Fairmount Park, had owned some property, and he (MacElwee, that is) came across some Solidago sempervirens, which he found puzzling because it is a plant that likes water, and salt, as its common name, ‘seaside goldenrod’, attests. He figured they’d been planted there, but was still impressed as “All of them are growing in ashes or dirt in which coal ashes largely prevails and have a healthy look to be in such a dry position”. And therefore, we know that this was a dry point, too, even though it had a plant growing there that’s often a wetland plant (it’s what we would call a “facultative wetland” plant).
There were wet areas nearby to there of course – including one at 45th and Market, as we see from the entry for Salix nigra (black willow), an obligate wetland plant, in Ida Keller and Stewardson Brown’s 1905 “Flora of Philadelphia and Vicinity”.
MacElwee also went to the “52nd St. Woods”, where he found some red maple. This was just a bit away from the Robert Craig Nursery, which was between 49th and 50th, in the block just south of Market St.
This nursery was a substantial operation – a catalog of theirs from 1910 (which is at the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticulural Society, and I found with the help of Janet Evans) indicates that, at that time (1910, that is), “Having increased our glass area over 50,000 square feet, we are in a position to meet our fast increasing business.” They had begonias, azaleas (naturally, this being Philadelphia), poinsettias, cyclamen, and their grand item, crotons – this nursery was known for its crotons, and they did extensive business in other foliage plants as well.
This company has a deep connection to Philadelphia, and an interesting one, too. In the 1950s, the Robert Craig Nursery celebrated its centennial and published a history of the company to accompany that celebration. This publication is in the seed and nursery catalog collection at the McLean Library at PHS and covers the company from its earliest, formative days, starting in 1845, when the Scottish immigrant Alexander Craig had a gardening business at 2d and Reeves, to the actual inception of the firm, in 1856, when Mr. Craig bought greenhouses at 18th and Wharton (quite nearby to where the Landreth nurseries had been, I should note) from “Robert Scott and Son”. They were there for a few years, until 1860, when they built greenhouses “on about four acres” at 15th and Pine, in center city Philadelphia. In 1856, Alexander Craig died at the young age of 48, and the business was taken over by his wife and sons, the elder of whom, Robert, went on to own the company.
In 1870, they moved to West Philadelphia, to 49th and Market – at its beginning this establishment “consisted of a four-room house and a few small greenhouses” and “was affectionately known during its 50 years of existence as ‘The Hill’ ” – thereby indicating that they had wisely chosen a high and dry location for their construction. There was expansion, and by 1919 there was “a large and impressive Victorian residence fronting more than 125,000 square feet of glass.”
As much of this was going on, William Craig, a son of Robert Craig’s who had not joined the family business, had briefly operated his own greenhouses, “devoted to Carnations”, at 61st and Market – he did, ultimately, go on to join the family firm, and also continued to grow carnations at 61st and Market, where he introduced the “Ethel Crocker” carnation, a flower so popular that it “necessitated the erection of two new Carnation houses in 1900.”
This area, out in West Philadelphia, really was quite rural in the late 19th century – according to this history of the Craig Nursery, “In 1877 he [Robert Craig] challenged the right of the City of Philadelphia to assess him for the cost of paving and curbing Market Street from 49th to 50th, claiming the area was rural. He carried the case to the Supreme Court and won.” (to quote directly from the decision, Craig v. the City of Philadelphia (1879), “The property through which Market street runs from Forty-third to Sixty-third streets is chiefly rural property, used for farm land and brickyards, suburban residences, cemetery lots and a hospital for the insane”). 20 years later, there were still open areas out there – on the 19th of June 1899, Alexander MacElwee collected Festuca elatior from “Waste ground, 56th and Market St.” (that collection is now in the herbarium of the Botany Department of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia).
West Philadelphia, though now so much built over (though still of course also populated with many beautiful parks), stretched to the open horizons in the 19th century, when it was filled with farms and swamps and streams and creeks, and topped with hills and dotted with flowers – there were greenhouses, and country inns, and rocky ridges here and there. It was a different world back then, as it is a different world now, but that former time is still there, in archives and libraries, and on old maps, and underneath the sidewalks of the city streets.
To read more about West Philadelphia’s ecological history, see here: