Camden and Mickle Street: A Cultural History
by Paul W. Schopp
The city of Camden, New Jersey, arose as a result of its strategic location across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the largest port city in America during the British colonial period. An examination of even modern local maps shows South Jersey’s historic roads all leading to Camden and its ferry terminals, much like the spokes on a wheel. These ferries provided critical intercourse between Philadelphia, West Jersey, and, ultimately, those traveling between points north, south, or west. By 1820, five different ferries operated between Camden and Philadelphia. The establishment of steam sawmills along the Delaware River’s Jersey shoreline, beginning in the 1820s, spurred development, and around each mill a small village grew to house the workers. When the New Jersey legislature simultaneously created Camden Township and incorporated the City of Camden in 1828, the place was little more than a series of unconnected nascent settlements.
Seven years later, in January 1835, the first regularly scheduled Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company passenger train arrived in Camden. The railroad and its managers, primarily Edwin and Robert Stevens, had purchased large tracts of vacant land in Camden on which to erect shop buildings, warehouses, a hotel, stables and a station; other tracts served as investments and would be used to foster development. The company’s railroad tracks were laid on Bridge Street, a wide thoroughfare first laid out by real estate promoter Edward Sharp in 1820 for access to his well-planned, but never constructed bridge across the Delaware River. In 1838, the management of the Camden & Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company proposed a new street in Camden called Mickle Street, located one block south of the railroad’s right-of-way on Bridge Street. The 66-foot-wide street was named for Capt. John W. Mickle, one of the railroad company’s staunchest supporters in Camden, and was officially blazed through the Camden landscape on July 10, 1838. It ran for about a mile from the Delaware River to Seventh Street, and served to open up additional building lots owned by the Stevens brothers. It also relieved traffic that had formerly used Bridge Street prior to the railroad’s construction.
Building efforts along Mickle Street did not begin until 1845, when a set of four frame, semi-detached, “suburban villa” style houses were erected, including the one that would become Walt Whitman’s home. James C. Sidney, on his 1851 Map of the City of Camden New Jersey, shows a total of eighteen buildings along the south side of Mickle Street. Only three residents are identified on Sidney’s map, the first detailed cartographic effort to depict all of Camden as it existed at that time. Located midway between Third and Fourth streets on the south side of Mickle Street was Sidney's rented residence. This was the same house that Whitman would later own.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, Mickle Street became lined with stately row and semi-detached brick homes. An 1853 Camden City ordinance prohibited construction of framed structures and allowed only brick and stone buildings to be erected in Camden. Prompted by fire concerns, this action caused Camden building activities to slow, due to the increased costs involved in masonry structures. Three years later, on March 15, 1856, the tragic burning of the Camden ferryboat New Jersey and the loss of 48 lives caused anxiety among those who worked in Philadelphia but chose to live in suburban Camden. Some shuttered their homes, placed “For Sale or Rent” signs outside, and returned to the Quaker City, phobic over making two ferry crossings daily. Population growth slowed until prospective residents again felt comfortable again with river crossing accommodations. A year after the New Jersey conflagration, the U.S. entered a full financial depression that began developing in 1854 and did not let up until 1859.
As Camden emerged along with the rest of the nation from that hard-hitting financial depression, the first five blocks of Mickle Street, from the Delaware River to 6th Street, had reached a level of mature development. Eight families resided between the Delaware River and 2nd Street; the next block, to 3rd Street, contained fifteen families; between 3rd and 4th Street were nineteen families; and ten each were in the blocks ending at 5th and 6th Street. It was a street with a diverse mixture of social classes, and thus represented a cross-section of America. Intelligentsia commingling with shoemakers; artistic men and women and professionals residing in the shadow of tradesmen and railroaders; and the children of merchants and managers playing with those of common laborers wove a colorful human tapestry along Mickle Street. A sampling of occupations among the residents included carter, carpenters and painters, railroad engineers, firemen, conductors, switch tender, and baggagemaster, hostlers, seamen, pilot, trunk maker, grocers, brokers, traders, sugarmaker, butcher and poulterer. Merchants included a jeweler, a coal and wood dealer, a barkeeper, the owner of a planing mill, and a furrier. Those possessing a higher level of skill included a machinist, sailmaker, an accountant, and lithographers. Representing the arts community was an engraver on stone (for lithographic printing), a silversmith, and an architect.
Two of the people residing on Mickle Street in 1859 require further mention. Born in the Canton of Berne, Switzerland, during 1808, Frederick Bourquin immigrated to the United States in 1817. He initially settled in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but soon relocated to New York City. Bourquin introduced lithography to America and assisted in producing printing plates for John Audubon’s famous “Birds of America.” After extolling the virtues of lithography to those in Gotham, Bourquin moved to Philadelphia, were he obtained the foreman’s position in Peter S. Duval’s printing shop. Skilled in transferring artwork directly to lithographic stone, Bourquin received recognition for his work from the Franklin Institute in 1847. He was fascinated with the anastatic printing process, a type of lithography, introduced to the U.S. by John Jay Smith and his son, Robert Pearsall Smith. There is some suggestion that Bourquin collaborated with the Smith firm in some projects, and Bourquin sought to improve the Smith printing process. Working with Duval, Bourquin perfected “zincography” in America during 1849. Zinc plates were adaptable to the rotary steam power press, which was first installed by Duval in his Philadelphia lithographic establishment. In 1851, Frederick Bourquin removed his residence to Camden, contracting to have a house erected at 5th and Mickle streets.
The other notable personage, residing at 330 Mickle Street, was Stephen Decatur Button, a successful architect of fine reputation. Born in Preston, Connecticut in 1813, Button apprenticed for five years as a carpenter, and then moved to New York City where he obtained a position with architect George Purvis. After spending two years in Gotham City, Button moved to Hoboken and worked independently for ten years as an architect. He relocated to the south for several years before coming to Philadelphia in 1848 and forming a partnership with his brother-in-law. After the disastrous 1878 Cape May, New Jersey, fire, it was Button who drafted plans for many of the replacement buildings which still stand today. He received high praise for many of his building designs, especially his schools and churches. He also specialized in erecting governmental asylums, hospitals and almshouses, having designed them for Camden County, Gloucester County, Cape May County, Delaware State and New Castle County in Delaware, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
During the Civil War, Camden came alive with commerce and industry. An iron shipyard established at Kaighn’s Point was prepared to turn out war vessels for the Union. The railroads worked feverishly to move troops and equipment into and out of the city. All the ferryboats available along the river were pressed into service. Machine shops fabricated tools and machinery. The Camden textile industry began during this period, with the Camden Woolen Mills completed in 1865.
After the War, Camden emerged as a full-fledged metropolis. The incorporation of the Camden Horse Railroad Company in March 1866 was symbolic of its new standing. Although the company did not begin constructing its various street rail lines until 1871, by the end of that year Camden could boast of modern horsecar lines running through its dirt thoroughfares. The 1869 incorporation of a company that still lists Camden as its headquarters was another significant achievement. The firm of Anderson and Campbell erected a canning and preserves factory at 41 North 2nd Street in that year. Anderson withdrew from the company in 1873, leaving Joseph Campbell to continue as sole proprietor until 1882, when he formed a partnership with Arthur Dorrance, Joseph S. Campbell (his son), and Walter Spackman. This partnership is the ancestor of today’s Campbell Soup Company.
In an era when steam was the dominant source of power, many specialty firms manufactured boiler and engine parts, and Camden was home to one of them. The Camden Tool and Tube Works, founded in the 1850s as Griffith’s Pipe-Finishing Mill, produced the tubes contained within boilers. The Reading Iron Works, which considered the products manufactured by Griffith to be of a superior grade, purchased the works in 1864, installed all new machinery and tools, and reopened as Camden Tool and Tube, producing not only boiler tubes, but also tools and piping for the manufactured gas industry. Fifty skilled workers received regular employment at these works, including George Whitman, Walt's brother and former Civil War Lt. Colonel from Brooklyn, New York, who came to work in Camden during 1868 as a pipe inspector. By 1871, George Whitman moved into a house at 322 Stevens Street. In April of the following year, George married Louisa Orr Haslam and brought her to Camden. Four months later, George took in his mother and his mentally retarded brother, Edward, as members of his household.
A year later, in May 1873, Walt Whitman arrived in Camden to visit his elderly widow mother and his siblings. Within a month of coming to George’s house, their mother passed away, sending the already stroke-paralyzed and ailing Walt into a deep depression. After coming to grips with his grief, Walt resolved to quit his clerk’s job in Washington and dedicate his life to writing. Within the same year, George Whitman contracted to have an Italianate-style brick dwelling of his own design erected at the northeast corner of West and Stevens Street. Local carpenter David Lummis constructed the new house for $3,700. Since Walt decided to remain with George and his family, a second-floor bedroom with a bay window facing West Street, with a grand view, was designated as Walt’s. But the poet found it too fancy for his tastes and, instead, sought the vistas and solitude of a plainer, third-floor bedroom that fronted on Stevens Street and looked out on the southern part of the growing city. It was at his brother’s house that Walt produced three editions of Leaves of Grass (1876, 1881-82 and 1882), along with Memoranda During the War (1875), Two Rivulets (1878), and Specimen Days and Collect (1882-83). Many important cultural figures came to visit Walt Whitman at this location—friends and colleagues such as writers Oscar Wilde and Mary Mapes Dodge, the visual artists Sidney Morse and Thomas Eakins, and the naturalist John Burroughs. (Sadly, the George Whitman house was lost to fire in the late 1990s.)
In 1884, George announced he had accepted the offer of a new position with the McNeal Pipe Foundry in Burlington and would be moving to that city, up the Delaware River from Camden. Walt was invited, even implored, to accompany George and his family to their new house on Columbus Road in Burlington, but Walt declined, preferring to remain behind in Camden, which he had grown to love much as he had the Brooklyn of his youth:
Camden was originally an accident, but I shall never be sorry I was left over in Camden.
It has brought me blessed returns.
His 1882 edition of Leaves of Grass had been quite successful, garnering a goodly amount of royalties. He determined that his earnings, and a loan from a friend, should be used to purchase a place to live. He bought a two-story frame Greek Revival style dwelling at 328 Mickle Street for $1,750 in April 1884 from the Lay family and entered into an agreement with them. Since Walt was sick and had little furniture to call his own, beyond the bed his father had made him, he asked if the Lays would remain in the house, provide him with care and meals, and allow him use of their furniture. He offered them a reduced rent in exchange for these terms. However, Walt was not an easy person to live with and after the end of the first month, the Lays moved out, leaving Walt alone with his bed and two packing boxes he used as a table and chair. Unable to care for himself, Walt prevailed upon Mary O. Davis to move in to his house with her furniture, cook for him, and tend to his physical needs as a private nurse. Davis, a widow and neighbor, agreed, coming to live in what Walt commonly referred to as “my coop.”
Walt’s neighbor at 330 Mickle Street was architect Stephen Decatur Button and his artist wife, Maria. Robert P. Gordon (a clerk), Abner Huston (a locomotive engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad), and John Robertson (a paperhanger) all resided on the other side of Whitman at 326 Mickle. The 300 block is representative of all the blocks comprising Mickle Street, and in 1888 featured laborers, roofers, carpenters, railroad workers, a dentist and a physician, a baker, painters, clerks, sawyers, dressmakers, designers, a minister, machinists, a iron moulder, a blacksmith, a publisher, salespeople, and milk dealers. At the northwest corner of 3rd and Mickle Streets stood the Third Street Methodist Episcopal Church, and Whitman complained bitterly about the cacophony produced by the church’s choir. Retail establishments on the 300 block in Whitman’s time included a fish store, a grocery store, and a pharmacy.
Glimpses of Whitman’s life on Mickle Street can be gleaned from Horace Traubel’s multi-volume book, With Walt Whitman in Camden. Traubel, Whitman’s Boswell, made daily visits to Walt and took copious notes of every conversation, faithfully recording the poet’s utterances between 1888 and his death in 1892. From time to time, Whitman made comments about local affairs. In one frustrated outburst, he indicated he found the summer heat stifling and also expressed anger with his female neighbors who insisted on sweeping their steps and walks:
To one who knows as I do what it all means, it is always painful to come back into the cities—the streets—the stinking reeking streets—Mickle Street—sluttish gutters—women with hair a-flying—dust brooms clouding the streets—confinement—the air shut off. Oh!
But Whitman found much pleasure on Mickle Street, too, including having easy access to the ferries and being able to watch the trains from his bedroom window. In June 1888, Whitman suffered another series of paralytic strokes and became a complete shut-in. He did not venture out of his house until May 1889, when, sitting in a wheelchair, male nurse Warren Fritzinger pushed Whitman around Mickle Street and down to the river. That same month and year, his friends held a seventieth birthday party for Walt. A book, Camden’s Compliment to Walt Whitman, was published for the occasion. Two years later, Whitman’s friends held his last birthday party at the house. The following year, on March 26, 1892, Whitman died and was buried at Camden’s Harleigh Cemetery in a mausoleum of his own design.
After Whitman’s death, Mickle Street remained a solid residential neighborhood, but Camden dramatically changed into a modern industrial city. In 1894, two years after Whitman’s death, machinist and inveterate tinkerer Eldridge Johnson operated a machine shop near the Delaware River in Camden about five or six blocks north of Mickle Street. Upon perfecting a wire-stitching machine for the bookbinding industry, Johnson turned his attention to producing a better clockwork motor for use with talking machines or phonographs. His work fostered creation of the Victor Talking Machine Company, another international industrial dynamo that put Camden on the map; its descendant, RCA, still maintains a presence in the city today. In 1899, Camden’s shipbuilding tradition continued and won world-class attention when a group of industrialists constructed the New York Shipbuilding Corporation’s shipyard. During the same year, the Pennsylvania Railroad erected a new combination ferry terminal and train shed at the foot of Federal Street. Three years later, in April 1902, Camden City Council passed an ordinance allowing the railroad to elevate their trackage as part of a grade separation and urban crossing elimination campaign. But it brought major upheaval to the Mickle Street neighborhood. Suddenly, the houses on the south side of Bridge Street disappeared and were replaced with the so-called “Chinese Wall,” a stone wall standing fifteen to twenty feet high composed of huge dressed brownstone blocks. The residents along the north side of Mickle could no longer walk out their back door to converse with their neighbor on Bridge Street, watch the trains go by or even ascertain what was happening uptown. The morning sun ceased shining on the small gardens planted at the rear fence and clothing left to dry on the line was now subjected to regular treatments of cinders and ash raining down from the elevated trackage.
Mickle Street reflected and endured the rise and fall of industrial Camden. The 1940s-1950s brought a gradual decline to the city. Had he been alive to see it, Whitman would have mourned the passing of March 31, 1952—the last day of ferry service on the Delaware River between Camden and Philadelphia. The ferries remained a favorite of Walt’s since his early days in Brooklyn. He would often ride simply to observe people or converse with the deckhands. Two years after the ferries ceased operations, the ferryhouse and railroad terminal burned in a terrible fire, totally destroying the riverfront facility which had greeted millions of travelers for over 50 years. During the past forty years, Mickle Street has suffered the loss of buildings due to fires and successive waves of improperly planned urban renewal projects. Even the Whitman house streetscape, in the 300 block, features gaping holes where dwellings once stood. The racial tensions and civil unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s caused irreparable harm to both Camden’s business community and the city’s neighborhoods. Almost overnight, the city lost more than 50% of its retail establishments. So-called “white flight” to the suburbs robbed the city of its traditional blue-collar population base.
The end of most railroad passenger service to Camden in the mid-1960s, precipitated by the construction of the PATCO line, wrought the most negative change on the historic fabric of Mickle Street. With service ended to Broadway Station, located near the corner of Broadway and Mickle Street, and trains no longer using the trackage for access to the waterfront, there was no reason to retain the Chinese Wall that had divided the city for seventy years. In the early 1970s, urban renewal money funded the wall’s removal, along with all of the houses on the north side of Mickle Street. By 1975, using the now level site of the once-elevated railroad trackage, old Mickle Street had become a much wider Mickle Boulevard, now featuring four traffic lanes and complete with a center island. Only the street’s south side initially featured buildings. At 2nd and Mickle, work
was well underway on a new Camden Housing Authority apartment complex called Mickle Towers.
In 1981, the Camden County Park Commission opened the Ulysses S. Wiggins Park at the foot of Mickle Boulevard. Named for a Camden physician and the founder of the Camden chapter of the NAACP. The park initially contained 21 acres, but today features over 50 acres along the Delaware River. In conjunction with neighborhood regentrification occurring in historic pockets of Camden like Cooper Grant, Cooper Plaza and Cooper Street, the Philadelphia Inquirer ballyhooed the park opening as an event “that could well mark the beginning of revitalization in the downtown section of the city.” It did not. In February 1988, Camden County opened its new correctional facility. The front door of the Whitman House provides an unimpeded view of the jail’s rear wall across Mickle Boulevard on the north side.
The 1990s brought more changes along the Camden waterfront as old industrial plants and former railroad yards gave way to recreational facilities. The New Jersey State Aquarium, the Tweeter E-Center (a concert pavilion), and a circular marina all adjacent to the foot of Mickle Street have enhanced the future prospects for the City of Camden, once ranked as among the poorest cities in America. On March 31, 1992, forty years to the day after ferry service between Camden and Philadelphia had been ruptured, it resumed. Known as the Riverbus or Delawhale, the vessel moves people back and forth between Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing and Camden’s waterfront area.
Today, positive events continue to transform the Camden side of the Delaware River with construction of a minor league baseball stadium, a cable tramway to carry passengers across the river to Philadelphia, and the start of a new pier to serve as a permanent mooring site for the battleship U.S.S. New Jersey. All of these changes suggest that Camden, like the fabled phoenix, is rising from the ashes of its own despair and returning to its glory days. Changes for the better are also occurring on Mickle Street. In 1998-99, the State of New Jersey spent almost a million dollars restoring the Walt Whitman House. The state also has recently acquired the last remaining house in the contiguous row containing the Whitman House. Eventually, an adjacent empty lot will become Commonplace Park. Although perhaps too sanguine, Whitman's vision in his poem "I Dream’d in a Dream" resonates loudly as Camden and Mickle Street step into the future:
I dream’d in a dream I saw a city invincible to the
attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth,
I dream’d that was the new city of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.