The Landscape Tells a Story:  The Tacony of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

After decades of injury at the hands of industry and party politics, towns like Tacony are reclaiming their identities by reaching back out to their waterfronts.

Remnants of the old loading dock Johanna Hoffman

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Editor’s Note: This is the third article in Johanna Hoffman’s series about the historical and geographical contexts of specific locations in and around Philadelphia. It will delve into the histories of the regional landscape, both current and past. If you are interested in contributing similar stories about your city, please contact Anne [at] Previous articles in this series include: The Landscape Tells a Story Article I: Philadelphia’s Cynwyd Trail The Landscape Tells a Story Article II: The Role of a Cemetery in the Life of Philadelphia

Like many riverfront sites in and around Philadelphia, Independence Pointe is insulated to the point of invisibility. Part of the aging industrial complex that has dominated the upper Delaware for more than a century, the 130 acre property in the town of Tacony is virtually inaccessible to all residents; with I-95 running over its western edge, a maze of waste processing plants to the south, and the Holmesburg Prison across a lane, Independence Pointe has been hidden in plain view for years.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the site wasn’t always this way. As late as the 1670s, Tacony was known simply as a village of Swedes and Finns along the Delaware. Independence Pointe was part of the Pennypack Creek floodplain, a freshwater tidal marsh that provided habitat to a host of migratory birds, from red-tailed hawks to wood ducks. Only in 1846, when William Gatzmer brought the railroad to Tacony, did the place gain the status of town.

Independence Pointe, early spring. Photo Credit: Johanna Hoffman

It wasn’t until 1872, the year that saw maker Henry Disston moved his factory from Philadelphia to Tacony, that things really changed for the region. Set on building a model factory town, where his workers could live away from the ‘evils of the city,’ Disston turned Tacony into an industry-powered, paternalistic utopia. For the next eighty years, the Disston mill was the major employer in town and the Disston family ran things with a gentle but firm touch, financing schools, underwriting rent prices, and setting the town’s political tone.

Under the Disston family’s influence, the mill introduced new technologies – like crucible furnaces and the chain saw – to America, earning both the factory and the town a reputation for innovation. Inventor Frank Schuman, creator of omnipresent tools like safety glass, made some of the first solar power experiments at his Tacony studio. While the rest of country was fixated on combustion engines and cheap oil, Schuman pushed for renewable energy, writing, “There is one thing I feel sure of, and that is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism.”1

Train tracks once used for industrial transport Photo Credit: Johanna Hoffman

Following World War II, however, Tacony’s innovation spirit began to flounder. The Disston factory lost its edge on the market and was sold off in pieces in 1955. With the town’s primary employer essentially out of business, Tacony began a descent into urban decay that lasted the remainder of the century.

Independence Pointe is a symbol of that descent. Once built up with loading docks, factories, and storage facilities, it’s now a landscape in flux. Construction debris – the only remaining remnants of the shipping industry that once ran out of the property – is laid in towering piles throughout the site. The old railroad tracks that transported goods to and from the river’s edge are grown over with lush mosses, towering phragmite stands and aggressive thorny vines. Cutgrass and milkweed are more prevalent than asphalt. It won’t be like this much longer, however. Recently purchased by the Churchill Development Group LLC, Independence Pointe is slated to become a residential center fronting the Delaware River Trail.

Demolition in progress Photo Credit: Johanna Hoffman

This planned transformation from brownfield to residence is one piece of a greater trend happening throughout the Philadelphia region. After decades of injury at the hands of industry and party politics, towns like Tacony are reclaiming their identities by reaching back out to their waterfronts. While Independence Pointe is now primarily known to daytime dog-walkers, occasional urban explorers and the homeless, it won’t always be such a secret. The physical barriers that separate it from the surrounding community will soon come down, marking an indelible shift in Tacony’s relationship to its river and to itself.

1Silcoz, H. “The History of Tacony, Holmesburg, and Mayfair: An Intergenerational Study.” Brighton Press, 1992, pg. 18.

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Tags: philadelphiabuilt environmenthighwayswaterfronts

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