Centennial City

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President Ulysses S. Grant opened the United States Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia on May 10, 1876. When the closing ceremonies were held on November i o, in a cold drenching rain, 9,910,966 people (paid and free) had passed through the entrance gates. This was more than fourteen times the population of Philadelphia, the second largest city of the United States, and more than had attended any of the great world’s fairs held in the preceding quarter century. World’s fairs—and in fact any kind of mass spectacle—were then a novelty attracting great interest; but the Centennial of 1876 was a phenomenon. For six months crowds filled to capacity every railroad station, ticket office, steamboat, horsecar, hotel, boarding house, and eating place in the city and on all the roads to it. During its six months of existence the Centennial proved to be the most overwhelming, absorbing, entertaining public exhibition that had ever to that time been seen in the United States. The millions who came thought the Centennial the most wonderful thing they had ever encountered and never forgot it; and every historian who has studied its role and influence in American life finds it a landmark in our history.

Characteristically, no one in Philadelphia today could tell you the names of the men, or the women (and don’t think the women were not important), responsible for this extraordinary success; nor the names of those who created the vast and beautiful park that housed the Centennial and is still one of the major pleasures and ornaments of the city. If you should frame the pictures of the chiefs of the Centennial—the wise, modest John Welsh, president of its board; the formidable Mrs. E. G. Gillespie, who headed the Women’s Centennial Executive Committee; or Alfred T. Goshorn, the director general—in any public place in Philadelphia, they would not be recognized. This is the oddly self-deprecating nature of our fourth-largest city, whose people can remember William Penn and Benjamin Franklin but are remarkably vague about everyone else in their city’s history.

We know, however, a rather surprising amount about the city of Philadelphia that the visitors saw, as well as about how gay and bright the pavilions of the Great Fair were to the eyes of 1876. It is strange that we should know so much about things so ephemeral. I remember that near the close of the Second World War, when the news came of the destruction in Florence caused by the retreating German army, an art-historian friend remarked that the irreparable losses would not be the great monuments. These, he said, had all been carefully photographed and, if need be, could be exactly reconstructed. But the ordinary streets and houses of the old city, which preserve the ambiance and atmosphere of the past, neither would nor could ever be rebuilt. They were gone forever.

We owe much of our knowledge of the appearance of the fair and the Philadelphia of that time to one man. He was a Scottish immigrant named David J. Kennedy, who arrived in the city in 1836 and for sixty years made it his avocation to paint careful, affectionate water colors of the city’s houses and streets. Attracted by the past of the city, he also painted from old prints and pictures of an earlier time (some otherwise unknown), so that his subjects represent a period from 1797 to 1893. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania acquired many of his water colors in 1900 and another lot in the 1930’s when Julian P. Boyd (now the editor of the papers of Thomas Jefferson) was librarian of the society. Altogether there are something like 750 Kennedy water colors in the society’s collection, from which these illustrations are drawn. They form a cumulative portrait of an American city that is, in my experience, unique.

Kennedy was not an artist in the nineteenth-century use of the word. He took no part in the artistic life of the city, only once exhibiting two Scottish water colors in a show of a benevolent society of artists. Indeed, the only time he seems to have appeared in the Philadelphia newspapers, he was referred to as an oldtime railroad man. His career as a graphic historian of his city was carried on con amore in the intervals of daily work. His preparation for it was curious and so characteristic in many ways of nineteenth-century America as to be worth telling.

David J. Kennedy was the son of a Scottish stonemason. He was born about the year 1816 in a one-story thatched stone house on the west coast of Scotland, in a tiny hamlet known as Port Mullin. Opposite the house stood Ailsa Craig and to the left the black ragged rocks of Corsewall Point, where his father was at work on the building of the lighthouse that guides shipping through the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland. The boy walked three miles to the nearest village school but at twelve was taken out by his father to drive a cart hauling gravel for a road to the lighthouse. Then for a time he worked in a haberdasher’s shop in the nearest town, Stranraer, and gained some more schooling (which he always remembered with gratitude) at an academy three miles from Stranraer. When the boy was fourteen or fifteen, his father moved across the North Channel to a job on the harbor works at Donaghadee, Ireland; and David was employed at hewing the large blocks of stone brought from Wales for the pier. He had formed the wish to be an artist, but his father, as he said, “hooted the idea.”