Wednesday, August 5, 2015

American History 101: Washington Square Park in Philadelphia

Philadelphia has been much in the news lately, and not for a good reason... sorry HitchBOT.  But no matter what the City of Brotherly Love does to hitchhiking robots, it is certainly one of the most historic cities in the United States.  Everyone knows about Benjamin Franklin, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell... but what about the city itself?  The architecture and design?  These are very historic -- and they have a story!  

In 1682, Philadelphia was founded by William Penn as the capital of the Pennsylvania Colony.  It was initially designed to be a city that was easy to traverse, with roads that travel in a straight pattern from north to south and east to west.  It was designed with the idea that residents would be separated by open space that would increase their quality of life, and help prevent the spread of fires.  The early plans had the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers as city boundaries that contained five large, square parks.  Four in the corners, and one in the center.  These parks no longer represent the corners of the city, but they hold a great deal of the history of the city.  This post is about one of those parks, Washington Square park.

Northeast entrance to Washington Square Park

Washington Square Park sits in between the posh Society Hill and Washington Square West neighborhoods.  It was initially designated as the southeast corner of the city, and sits at 6.4 acres in size.  And as such, has seen a great deal of history that pre-dates the Revolutionary War.  In the 18th century, the park was known for being grazed by the local animals within the city.  But more-so, it was one of the main burial sites for the African community of Philadelphia, and as a potter's field.  A potter's field is an area that is used for pauper's graves.  And to continue the tradition, during the American Revolution, it was used as a burial ground for local citizens and Colonial soldiers.

After the Revolutionary War, the city was hit with a serious Yellow Fever epidemic.  Between August 1 and November 9, 1793 over 5,000 people are listed as having died of Yellow Fever.  This represents over 10% of the population of the city, making it one of the worst epidemics in the history of the United States.   And another 20,000 people fled Philadelphia before the frost of late October killed off the mosquitos and put a halt to the spread of the disease.  In 1793, with nowhere else to bury them, victims of the epidemic were interred in what is now known as Washington Square Park.

In the years after Yellow Fever, the square was used to hold cattle markets and camp meetings until about 1815 when the city went through a maturation, and the neighborhoods surrounding the park became a bit wealthier.  In 1825, the park was officially named Washington Square Park in honor of the founding father of the nation.  Initially, a monument to George Washington was proposed, but never built.  It does serve as the framework for the current monument in the park.

At one time, between the end of the Civil War and mid-20th century, the area around the park served as a hot bed for publishing companies.  Companies such as Curtis Publishing Company, J.B. Lippincott, W.B. Saunders, Lea & Febiger, the Farm Journal and George T. Bisel Company.  The Bisel Company is the sole remaining publisher on the square, and has been there since 1872.  In addition, when the Walnut Street Prison was across the street, the side that faced 6th Street was known as "Lawyers Row".

In 1954, the Washington Square Planning Committee finally acted on the idea of a statue in the park.  But instead of a simple statue of George Washington, they designed and built a monument.  The monument was dedicated to all of the unknown dead soldiers and sailors of the Revolutionary War and designated the "Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier."  It includes a bronze cast of Houdon's statue of George Washington in front of a wall that reads:

Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.
In unmarked graves within this square lie thousands of unknown soldiers of Washington's army who died of wounds and sickness during the Revolutionary War.

The independence and liberty you possess are a work of the joint councils and joint efforts or common dangers, suffering and success.  -- Washington's Farewell Address, Sept. 17, 1796

The Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier
The Tomb includes remains which were disinterred, after archeological examination, from within the park when it was a cemetary.  The remains are that of a soldier, although it is unknown if the soldier was Colonial or British.  There were so many buried in Washington Square over the decades, it is unknown exactly how many bodies remain buried beneath the square and the much newer surrounding neighborhoods.  Even today, bodies are unearthed occasionally during construction or maintenance projects.

One more historical note about Washington Square Park, there is a sycamore tree that was planted in 1975 from seeds that were carried to the moon by astronaut Stuart Roosa on Apollo 14.  It is called The Moon Tree.  Today, the park is part of the National Park Service and attached to the Independence National Historic Park.

Washington Square Park is also prominently featured in my novel, Philadelphia Story.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel -- with a new book, Learn the Basics: Digital Forensics, due soon. 

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