Celebrating 200 Years of Manayunk

By Noel Bartocci
Photos & History provided by Roxborough Manayunk Wissahickon Historical Society

My wife and I have become a Manayunk couple. When we moved in together five years ago, we did it here. Choosing this area was a pragmatic decision because the location made sense for where each of us worked. What we didn’t know at the time was just how deeply the community of Manayunk would imprint itself onto our lives. So many firsts and amazing memories for us are wrapped up in the neighborhood—our early dates at Lucky’s, Saturday mornings at the Pretzel Park Farmers Market, and we got engaged in front of the mural under the train at Roxborough and Cresson where our painted handprints reside. We even had our wedding at Manayunk Brewing Company. This town is a major part of our growth as a couple, so in 2021 when the opportunity to own a home in Manayunk fell into our laps, it felt natural to make our residence here more permanent.
It was mid-spring of 2022, just before year one of being first-time homeowners came to a close, when we began to notice our front door frame had a crack. It didn’t take long for the old wood to degrade even further under the pressure of strong April storms. Though we were the newest owners of this home off Main Street, we were very aware that this building had many lives in the last 120 years (according to the earliest records we could find). There was no telling how old the door frame was or even the last time it was given any care besides a coat of paint, so we reached out to a local handyman to assess and repair the damage. At the time, we were pretty confident of two things: It would be an easy fix, and there was no way this was the original door frame.

Before Manayunk
The land that became Manayunk was originally inhabited by the Lenape, an indigenous people who migrated to fertile land throughout Pennsylvania when farmed soil would no longer produce. As time passed, they frequently relocated as needed along rivers and creeks, utilizing natural resources to build their homes. The Lenape inhabited this area centuries before the Europeans ever arrived.
In 1681, William Penn received a giant land charter from King Charles II, to repay a debt he owed to the Penn Family. Penn went to work finding purchasers for the hundreds of thousands of acres. By the early 1700s this land would be owned by founding families such as Holgate, Wood, Rinker, Rittenhouse, and Levering. And in 1716, Jacob Levering built the first house in the Manayunk area, which today would be located approximately at the corner of Green Lane and Silverwood Street.
Despite mainly goodwill relations between the Lenape and Willian Penn, brokering purchase agreements and preventing the sale of lands where Lenape villages were located, peaceful relations between the European settlers and the Lenape people would change shortly after Penn’s death in 1718. They would eventually be displaced almost entirely from the area. 

May-June 2022: Wood & Nail
It didn’t take long for Jon, our handyman, to determine that the door frame couldn’t be repaired but needed to be rebuilt—a process that would take phases, especially if we wanted the final product to resemble the handcrafted aesthetic of the home we purchased. We started this thinking it would be easy—replace a piece here and there, slap on some paint, and call it a day. Nope. As soon as we started poking at the problem, the frame started to crumble like paper. How old is this wood?
Complicating matters, the dismantling of the door frame had to be done carefully and in segments for two reasons—to prevent any unnecessary damage to the exterior of the house but also to measure and take stock of each dismantled bit. Jon basically disassembled a puzzle, took measurements of each piece, and recreated the puzzle as close to the original as possible. During this process, Jon handed us a souvenir—a handmade, flathead square nail, one of many used in constructing the original frame. After a bit of investigating, we discovered that this type of nail was used mainly between 1860-and 1890, before machine-manufactured nails became commercially available. Forget the wood–just how old is this house?

A Fine (Second) Name
The town of Manayunk was originally named “Flat Rock”—a distinct neighborhood within Roxborough Township. But by 1810, the growing river community began to take on a personality all its own. Its distinct individuality was fortified after the dam, canal, and locks were completed by the end of 1818. The power provided by the water begat the establishment of mills and factories along the canal and river, the first opened by Capt. John Towers in 1819. Flat Rock had quickly become one of the area›s most important manufacturing hubs. With this newfound importance, the townspeople were no longer enamored with naming their home after a literal flat rock that sat along the side of their bridge. 
Based on the accounts of Charles V. Hagner, author of “Early History of the Falls of Schuylkill, Manayunk, Schuylkill and Lehigh Navigation Companies,” it was on May 14, 1824, that a series of meetings began among the citizens of Flat Rock, determined to land upon the perfect moniker for their town. According to Hagner, it was his own brother who suggested the name Udorvia, a Greek word for “place by the water.” A majority of the people at the meeting liked and adopted the name, even printing it on a large board and posting it in town for all to see. 
Not days after the name’s reveal, proprietors of the mills and townspeople did not like it and strongly campaigned to change it. A push to change the name to a Lenape word won out, Hagner noting that doing so was a “popular idea at the time.” They landed on the native name for the Schuylkill River, manaiung (approximately meaning “where we go to drink”). They also decided to replace the ‘I’ and ‘G’ with a ‘Y’ and ‘K’ in an effort to make it more phonetic and memorable. MANAYUNK was officially born in the summer of 1824. 

Philadelphia Comes Knocking
Manayunk was incorporated in June 1840, officially becoming a separate borough from Roxborough Township. However, the town’s newfound autonomy didn’t last as long as intended. Manayunk and the rest of the boroughs, townships, and districts of Philadelphia County were officially merged into the City of Philadelphia with the Act of Consolidation of 1854. Regardless of the new status quo, Manayunk continued to maintain its individuality—something that’s apparent even today amongst Philadelphia, “the city of neighborhoods.”
The area’s earliest development may have consisted of mill buildings and worker housing, but by the late 19th century, a broader range of commercial development emerged. Banks, warehouses, and retail gave Manayunk a growing reputation as a business center. Little development on Main Street had occurred after the turn of the 20th century with the overall physical appearance of the strip not changing much, save for the occasional restoration or rehabilitation of existing retail and business spaces.
One very visible way that Manayunk has maintained its personality over the centuries is its consistent repurposing and rejuvenating of existing and historical buildings. Mills changed from cotton to wool or paper to dying and eventually industry became retail and residential, but the buildings remained. The aesthetic character and charm of Manayunk has endured due to whatever adaptation and progress was required to thrive.

July 2022: Two Feet of Stone
As Jon meticulously peeled the last layer of the door frame, he revealed slabs of stone randomly stacked with what looks like concrete between them. We learn that our exterior walls are two-feet of layered rock called schist, originally from the Wissahickon, instead of red brick like similarly aged buildings in other areas of Philadelphia. This information leads us to believe that our first home may be anywhere between 20-50 years older than any available documentation—definitely older than 1900. These revelations led us down countless rabbit holes of old maps and photos of the area, as we tried to pinpoint any vector of specificity regarding the history of this house.
Curiosity would eventually fade away to assumption, and focus would shift to paint color selections for the new door. The speculation was fun while it lasted, but we resigned to the idea that we may never know the whole history of this house.

Industry and Commerce of Manayunk: Adapt, Rise, and Decline
During the Civil War, cotton from the South became unavailable, closing many mills. Surviving mill owners switched to wool production for the Union Army. Wool and wool-blend textiles would continue to be an important aspect of the Manayunk industry. After the war, the industrial expansion declined despite diversifying, and new mills were generally less profitable. However, textiles and textile-related production continued to play an important role through the 1920s.
Main Street in the early 1900s was a business and commerce center tied to industry rather than a retail shopping district. However, by the 1920s, the south side of Main was fully developed, breaking any visual link between the commercial district and the canal industrial zone. Also, as suburban residential growth boomed in Roxborough, the character of Main Street shifted to retail shopping and entertainment, catering to local trade. The Empress Theater and department stores found homes on Main Street, and the character of Manayunk that we know and love today began to take shape. Unfortunately, progress would temporarily be halted as the rest of the country entered a period of hardship.
The Great Depression shuttered many Manayunk mills, and Main Street slowly declined as a commercial destination. Vacant storefronts, reduced dining, and social options were signs of gradual change. Manayunk never disappeared completely, but it was in critical condition for a while, and it took time after the Depression to fully recover.

February 2024: Happy 200th
The opportunity to write this article reignited my curiosity and interest in the history of our home. In the last two years, my wife and I have learned stories from our neighbors, people like Bob and Marie—Manayunk legends in their own right, having lived here for nearly seven decades. They’ve told us stories about when the house at the end of the block used to be a butcher shop and how as a kid, Bob would buy candy at the convenience store next door. It’s a perspective of Manayunk that I hadn’t held when I previously lived on Main Street, rarely venturing to the residential blocks. I always understood that Manayunk had centuries of history, but I never really comprehended what that meant. How many stories does each of these buildings have, housing generations of families, some still living on the same blocks, and in the same buildings, as their ancestry?
The Birth of Modern Manayunk
The makeup of modern Manayunk began to take shape in the 1980s as the transformation of mills into apartments and condos laid the foundation for new growth in retail and restaurants. The first Philadelphia International Cycling Classic in 1985 closed down Main Street and took cyclists from all over the world up and down “The Wall,” the treacherous incline of Levering Street and Lyceum Avenue. The decade culminated with the inaugural, and still running, Manayunk Arts Festival in the summer of 1990. As the area grew in prominence, the demographic shifted to a younger professional crowd, now mingling with the working-class families up the hill. By 1999, Manayunk was one of the top spots in the city for dining, shopping, and bars—a social destination at the edge of Philadelphia.  
Reality shifted in the early 2000s with hurricane flooding, 9/11, and the recession all impacting the local economy as well as social events and destinations throughout the region. The regrowth of Manayunk was slow but deliberate throughout the 2010s, with revitalization in the form of more new housing, the Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center, and an investment in murals and beautification throughout the town as well as along the trails and canal towpath. 

Our Shared Community
The lived experiences of our block, juxtaposed with the transient population of students and renters, is a dichotomy familiar to these streets if you look back far enough. Manayunk has largely been a tale of two neighborhoods since the mid-1800s—one of blue-collar industry at its heart and another of a retail and entertainment destination attracting people throughout the region for well over a century.
A place of lifelong, generational locals, but just as many passersby, visitors, and newcomers on a seasonal and daily basis. It’s a neighborhood of two parallel stories with equal weight on the character of a larger Philadelphia. Art and industry cohabitate with just as much reverence afforded to each other.

Manayunk Today and Tomorrow
Approaching its 200th birthday, Manayunk is showing no signs of slowing down. Much like the rest of the world, the pandemic caused uncertainty, with more than one local institution shutting down or shifting operations to get by. However, housing is showing no signs of slowing, a canal revitalization is underway, new shops and restaurants are quickly becoming staples, and people are still clamoring to be a part of this community. The future of Manayunk is still to be written, but if history is an indicator, it will continue to reimagine itself over and over again to remain a vital part of Philadelphia’s expansive footprint. 

But Wait, There’s More…
There are so many stories and details that aren’t included here, but they’re equally as fascinating and important. For more information, please check out the Roxborough Manayunk Wissahickon Historical Society (www.rmwhs.org).