Chestnut Street from Sixth Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Looking east on Chestnut Street from the corner of Sixth Street in Philadelphia, in June 1851. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The first photo is a print made from a daguerreotype that was taken in June 1851, looking east along Chestnut Street from the corner of Sixth Street. The photo shows a mix of brick commercial buildings, mostly ranging from three to five stories in height. They stood directly opposite Independence Hall, which is just out of view on the right side of the scene. Based on their architectural style, the buildings with the sloped roofs were likely older, probably from the early 19th century, while the ones with flat roofs were likely from around the 1840s.

In the foreground of the first photo, on the left side of the scene, is Hart’s Building, a five-story building constructed only a few years earlier in 1848 by publisher Abraham Hart. This building housed a number of commercial tenants. By late 1851 these included, on the first floor, a hat store, a bookstore, a draper and tailor, a music dealer, a Venetian blind manufacturer, another tailor, a shaving saloon, a cigar store, and a musical instrument manufacturer. The second floor housed a billiard saloon, along with Sattler’s Cosmorama, which appears to have been an art gallery of some sort. On the upper floors, the building housed several different businesses involved in the publishing industry, including wood engraver William Gihon, bookbinder John F. Ducomb, Butler’s copper plate printing, and Mears’s Stereotype Foundry.

Further down Chestnut Street, just to the right of Hart’s Building, was the law book publishing firm of T. & J. W. Johnson. Beyond it was the three-story Eagle Hotel, followed by a four-story building occupied by bookseller J. W. Moore. His bookstore was located on the first floor, and other tenants of the building included a restaurant and a boarding house. The only other building with legible signs in the first photo is the five-story building in the center of the scene. It has a large sign atop it that reads “China Hall,” and it was occupied by William J. Kerr, who sold china and other imported goods.

This scene was dramatically altered only months after the first photo was taken. In the early morning hours of December 27, 1851, a fire broke out in Hart’s Building, in the third floor drying room of Butler’s copper plate printing offices. Firefighting efforts were hampered by below-zero temperatures, which froze some of the water sources. Because of this, plus the amount of flammable materials stored inside it, the entire building was soon engulfed, and firefighters began trying to save the surrounding buildings.

In the end, Hart’s Building was a total loss, and was insured for only $10,000 of the estimated $100,000 that it would cost to replace it. The neighboring book publishing building was also completely destroyed, at a cost of about $50,000, and the Eagle Hotel likewise suffered heavy damage. The building beyond the Eagle Hotel was only minimally damaged, but the fire also spread across Sixth Street and damaged or destroyed several other properties. There were even fears that the fire might spread across Chestnut Street to Independence Hall, but the famous landmark ultimately escaped damage.

Even worse than the property loss, though, was the loss of life from the fire. Contemporary newspaper articles give different reports on the death toll, but there appear to have been at least five fatalities. The early accounts mentioned two unidentified African Americans who were killed by falling debris, along with a police officer named Johnson who was also killed in the fire. As workers sifted through the debris, though, they uncovered the bodies of William H. Haly and William Baker. Haly, a lawyer and former state legislator, was probably the most notable victim of the fire. However, his body was burned to the point where it was indistinguishable from Baker’s body, so the two men were buried together in the same coffin.

A number of other people were badly injured in the fire, including at least three other police officers and a fireman. One of the officers, Thomas Grant, was pulled from the wreckage while on fire, and was described as having been “bruised in a shocking manner.” Newspaper accounts gave little hope for his recovery, but it seems unclear as to whether he ultimately succumbed to his injuries.

The damaged area was rebuilt soon after the fire, and for the next century this block of Chestnut Street continued to feature a mix of low-rise commercial buildings. However, this all changed in the mid-20th century, as part of an urban renewal project to create Independence Mall, a three-block park area with Independence Hall at its southern end. As part of this, all of the buildings between Fifth and Sixth Streets were demolished, from Chestnut Street up to Race Street, with the sole exception of the Free Quaker Meeting House on Arch Street. This included all of the buildings that stood in this scene, although it seems as though few, if any, of the buildings from the 1851 photo were still standing by that point anyway.

Today, the Independence Mall is part of the Independence National Historical Park, and it remains mostly open parkland, with a few modern buildings running along the Sixth Street side. Here at the corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets, just out of view on the far left side of the scene, is the Liberty Bell Center, which houses the famous bell across the street from its original location at Independence Hall.

Lost New England Goes West: Portsmouth Square, San Francisco

The view of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, with Telegraph Hill in the distance, in January 1851. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Daguerreotypes Collection.

883_1851-01 loc

Portsmouth Square in 2015:

883_2015
When the first photo was taken in January 1851, San Francisco was in the middle of a massive population boom spurred by the California Gold Rush. Just a few years earlier, it had been a small Mexican village of several hundred inhabitants, and was named Yerba Buena. In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, the USS Portsmouth arrived to claim the settlement for the United States, and the sailors raised an American flag here at what is now called Portsmouth Square. The following year, Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco, and in 1848 California officially became part of the United States.

At the time, there were about a thousand residents in San Francisco, but this figure grew exponentially as gold seekers poured into the city from around the world. Portsmouth Square was at the center of much of this activity, and the foreground of the 1851 scene shows a variety of businesses here. On the far left is the California Restaurant, and next to it is the Alta California, a newspaper that, about 15 years later, employed a young journalist with the pen name of Mark Twain. Further to the right are some of the seedier elements of the city, reflective of its “wild west” days during the Gold Rush. The three buildings to the right were, from left to right, the Louisiana, the Bella Union, and the Sociedad, all of which were saloons and gambling houses that sought to liberate the newly-wealthy gold miners of their money.

In the distance of the first photo is Telegraph Hill, one of the city’s many hills. It was still sparsely populated when the first photo was taken, but at the top of the hill is a semaphore station that had been built in 1849. This semaphore telegraph, as it was known as, had a tower with arms that could be raised or lowered to visually communicate messages, giving the hill its name. From here, the operator could view ships passing through Golden Gate and could signal information to the city about its port of origin, cargo, and any important news.

Today, nothing is left from the original photo. Anything that was still standing 55 years later would have been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, when fires swept across much of the city, including Portsmouth Square and parts of Telegraph Hill. Portsmouth Square is now a public park at the center of San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood, as seen in the foreground of the 2015 photo. In the distance, Telegraph Hill is mostly hidden from view, but some of the buildings are visible, including the Coit Tower, which was built in 1933 on the site of the old semaphore telegraph.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

US Capitol East Face, Washington DC

The east face of the US Capitol, as seen in 1846. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Daguerreotype Collection.

1840s

The scene in 2018:

This is probably the oldest photo I’ve posted so far on this blog, and it illustrates just how many changes have been made to the US Capitol since it opened in 1800.  In fact, the Capitol of 1846 was very different from the original building – it was heavily damaged in 1814 when the British burned much of Washington.  By 1826, it had been reconstructed, this time with the central dome and the rotunda underneath it.

By 1850, construction began on the expansion of the building – the original legislative chambers were no longer big enough for the senators and representatives of the newly-formed states, so the present-day chambers were added on in new wings.  The original chambers are still there, and the location can still be seen in the 2012 photo, to the left and right of the dome.  The dome itself it probably the most obvious change – the newly-expanded building looked rather silly with such a short dome, so it was rebuilt between 1855 and 1866.

One difference that isn’t as noticeable is the front portico and the columns.  Although they appear to be the same, the entire east portico was expanded and rebuilt 32 feet 6 inches outward, starting in 1958.  During this expansion, the columns themselves were replaced, and the original ones are now on display at the National Arboretum a little over 2 miles away.