Friday, September 14, 2012

The Interesting Owners of Woodside

I know that this one, again, is technically a little outside of Mill Creek Hundred, but it's close and does have a connection. This particular topic came to my attention recently while researching the posts about Caleb Harlan and Plumgrove Farm. I had always figured that the Ferris School was built on land donated by Mr. Ferris, although until recently I had no idea who that might have been. As it turns out, though, the money to start the school came from John Ferris, but the property was purchased with that money by his cousin, Caleb Harlan.

The property that Harlan purchased, known as Woodside, of course has its own history prior to the founding of the school. I'm not interested here in going into too much detail about the very early years of the house, or details about the house itself, for that matter. If I find more about those topics, perhaps I could come back to that someday, but the focus of this post is in a slightly different direction. In particular, I want to look briefly at the last three men to own Woodside, immediately before Harlan's purchase and the founding of the school. (Unless someone owned it very briefly, I believe these are the last three owners.) While none of these men were from Mill Creek Hundred (and I think only one was technically from Christiana Hundred, where the property sits) or particularly impacted it directly, they're just interesting guys.

The only structure that remains from 19th Century Woodside is the house itself, which is really an impressive edifice on its own. It's a six-bay stuccoed stone house, topped with three dormers in the front. If you look back there, it is visible from 141 (Centre Road), the only bright white building amongst the red brick of the rest of the Ferris compound. There is very little that I was able to find about the origins of the house, except that it is said to have been built around 1810. From what I can put together of the history of this area, the land was owned in the late 18th Century by William Armstrong. Sometime after his death, the property was purchased by William Armor, who seems to have resided there until his death around 1828. If the house does indeed date to circa 1810, then it would appear that William Armor was its builder.

The property was sold at a sheriff's sale in 1828, but who the exact buyer was I do not know. It would appear, though, that the next resident at the estate was a member of one of the most prominent families in Wilmington -- the Canbys. Although Samuel Canby (1811-1875) was only 19 in 1830, the census seems to show him living at Woodside, with two slightly older men. Perhaps no family was more important to the early development of Wilmington than the Canbys, with only the possible exception of the Shipleys and Tatnalls. Samuel's great-grandfather, Oliver Canby, is credited with building the first substantial mill along the Brandywine River, in 1742.

Samuel Canby lived at Woodside for nearly thirty years, but he retained close ties with his family and his native city. Like any high-statured man of the time, he served on a number of boards of banks, businesses, and organizations. He did have at least one business connection in Mill Creek Hundred that I know of -- he seems to have taken the grain from his farm to the Philips (Greenbank) Mill to be ground, as an 1840's ledger book from the mill lists him many times.

Samuel Canby House, 14th and Market Streets

We do happen to know exactly when, why, and to where Samuel eventually moved from Woodside. In May 1858, Samuel's father, James Canby, died. Samuel, being the eldest living son at the time, inherited his father's home in Wilmington. This home was one of the nicest in the city, and was built in 1791 by Samuel's grandfather, also Samuel Canby. Our Samuel lived here the rest of his life, as did his daughter, Elizabeth Canby Rumford. After her death in 1938, the house was sold and razed. It was replaced by the H. Fletcher Brown Vo-Tech High School, which itself was later torn down and replaced by the Hercules Building.

When Samuel Canby sold Woodside, he did so to another non-native of this area, although this one was from a good bit farther away. Richard Boyse Osborne was born in Ireland in 1815, and came to the United States in the 1830's. He's listed in Philadelphia in the 1860 Census, so he may have purchased Woodside soon after that. In 1870, he's listed here. Osborne was a civil engineer by trade, specializing in railroad and bridge construction. He has several distinctions associated with him (such as building the first all-metal truss bridge in America, in 1845), but there's one that sticks out to me. And you may not look at Woodside the same way when you pass it. Richard B. Osborne helped invent Atlantic City.

I won't bother to go through all the specific details regarding the founding of the resort town, although if you are interested, this site and this article will give some more insight. The short version of the story is that about 1850, a physician living on the New Jersey coast saw the potential of having a seaside resort located only two hours from Philadelphia by train. This new resort town would be more accessible in several respects than the established Cape May, which is further away and was seen as more of an upper-class destination. All the doctor needed was someone with the know how to bring his vision to life. That's when he called in Richard B. Osborne.

Osborne almost single-handedly made the concept of a resort into reality. He laid out and designed the railroad line to the shore, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad. He acted not only as an engineer, but as a salesman as well -- there was no more outspoken promoter of the venture than Osborne. His civil engineering expertise came in handy at the end of the line, too. It was Osborne who laid out the plan for the new resort town, using a grid pattern to make navigation easier for the vacationers. And when it came to naming the new seaside resort, it was Osborne who insisted that it be called Atlantic City. About the only thing he didn't do was come up with the actual street names we all grew up putting houses and hotels on -- that was his partner and the original visionary, Dr. Jonathan Pitney.

After the ultimate success of Atlantic City (from which Osborne made lots of money), he continued to work on other railroads, including while he was residing at Woodside. He also lived in Philadelphia, and Woodside may have been more of a summer, country home for him. Osborne lived until 1899, but sometime in the 1870's he sold Woodside and moved away for good. Perhaps not coincidentally, the next owner of the big, white house was also a builder, this one from Wilmington.

Philip Quigley, like his predecessor at Woodside, was an engineer and builder who did a lot of work with railroads. And like Richard B. Osborne, there is one achievement in Quigley's career that stands above the rest, and may have been accomplished while he lived at Woodside, or just before. As you may know, in 1876 the United States hosted the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the first true World's Fair to be held in the U.S. While not designed specifically for this purpose, one of the major results of the Exhibition was to introduce the U.S. onto the world stage as a technological power. We got to show the world that we were not simply a nation of farmers, which is how much of Europe (meaning, "the important part of the world") viewed us.

Machinery Hall

The Exhibition itself was located in Fairmount Park, and spread over a number of buildings, the two largest of which were the Main Hall and Machinery Hall. It was in Machinery Hall that most of the technological marvels of the time were housed. Among the new inventions introduced to the world here were the typewriter and Alexander Graham Bell's new device, the telephone. And in case you haven't guessed it yet, the contractor in charge of building Machinery Hall was Wilmington's -- and Woodside's -- Philip Quigley.

Machinery Hall stood on the south end of Fairmount Park, just up the street from the Philadelphia Zoo and very near the present site of the Mann Music Center. The actual location is now the site of a pond. The building was 1402 feet long and 360 feet wide, and covered nearly 13 acres. (If you're so inclined, you can get more information about Machinery Hall and the rest of the Centennial Exhibition here.) Like almost all of the structures for the Exhibition (with the main exception of the Art Building, now known as Memorial Hall), Machinery Hall was removed not long after the Fair's end, although it held on until 1883, longer than most.

Philip Quigley retired in 1877, and it's possible that this is when he purchased Osborne's country estate. In any case, he owned it until he died in 1884. Scharf has more information about Quigley, also. The timing of Quigley's passing was fortunate for Caleb Harlan, though, who was looking for a location to set up a reform school with his cousin John Ferris's money. With the estate newly on the market, Harlan purchased the property for the purpose for which is still used. The house itself was used as an administration building, and for a time as the residence of the administrator of the school. It has recently been mothballed, but fortunately remains standing.

Woodside, 1940
I know this has gotten us a bit off of our normal MCH track, but as I started to learn who these gentlemen were, it just seemed too interesting not to share. That big white house sitting back from 141 is now just another place I look at a little differently -- now that I know a bit about some of the men who called it home.


  1. Scott, I would drive by the Woodside house on my trips to Atlantic City. Although I never gave it a serious look, I will now, as that guy Richard B. Osborne turns out to be a root cause for my Blackjack losses!

    Seriously, there is nothing wrong with a jump over to Christiana Hundred now and then.


  2. It looks like the roof windows where round at the top roof part once and then a pointed roof was added on top of that?? Do you see this?

    1. **Additional Picture added** I see what you mean. I can't tell, though if it's just decorative or if it's an earlier structural part. I added an aerial shot from 1940, and the pointed dormers are there then. Of course, they could have been changed long before that. My gut feeling is that it's just decorative, but I don't know for sure.