Step back in time: 1304 Steps to 1880s
Today, more than a dozen stairways adorn the areas of steep terrain within Roxborough, Manayunk, and Wissahickon.
Comprised in total of 1304 steps, these stairways serve to connect the neighborhoods perched higher up on the ridge with those nestled lower along the river -- and some of these stairways have been doing it for nearly 140 years.
While most residents of the area can probably point out the location of a couple stairways, few could find them all and even fewer could say they have trekked to and climbed them. One person who could boast this feat was former RMWHS President Hilma Larkin.
In the late 1980s, Hilma trekked and photographed each stairway in the area to document their existence for future generations. The project culminated in her slide presentation "Manayunk -- A Different View" which caught the attention of the Philadelphia Daily News.
While some of neighborhoods have seen pockets of growth and a change in architecture in the +30 years since Hilma delivered her presentation, the 1304 steps which knit our neighborhoods together still remain and her narrative still adds a touch of life and color to their history. (Get the new 1304 Steps of Our Town poster and access the interactive Google Map)
The following narrative and images from Hilma's original presentation are provided below to spread awareness of the 1304 steps and ensure this piece of the Roxborough, Manayunk, and Wissahickon history endures.
We thank you, Hilma.
Excerpts and images from Hilma Larkin's "Manayunk -- a Different View" created in 1980s
The usual view of Manayunk that comes to mind is probably of the Bridge and Canal in different seasons and from different angles -- and the tow path which leads past old mills and abandoned Locks.
To others it means narrow streets and houses perched on hills -- while here and there are very old houses, some showing their owners' Manayunk individualism.
A revitalized Main Street now boasts restored Victorian buildings, converted to restaurants — fashionable shops and galleries, and old mills which have been made into luxury apartments — but my view is a different view.
I am starting out to find, climb and photograph all the steps of Manayunk -- which are not known to outsiders, and not even to our newer residents. The many sets of steps were built for access between Roxborough on the hill and Manayunk far below.
In many places because of steep, rocky cliffs, putting in through-streets would have been difficult, so steps were constructed -- as far as anyone in the City could tell me -- most-about 1884.
We start at the ones farthest North -- and the ones most recently built at Fountain and Umbria Streets, after WWII. They lead to Flat Rock Rd -- between the River and Canal -- and the site of several industries. Before the steps were built, I worked for a while at the Container Corporation of America to help the War effort, and had to walk down a rocky path under the Railroad bridge, and sometimes had to fend off an unfriendly dog, who seemed to be waiting for me most mornings. There are 63 steps with long landings -- an easy climb.
The next steps are at Krams Avenue, where we see this view from the top. There are only 58 steps here although it looks like more. From Silverwood Street down to the next level there are 48 more -- these with poor railings.
Our next destination is Dupont Street -- we must be prepared for some serious climbing, as there are 96 steps here -- the ones my husband climbed every night for many years after coming from the train station after work. This house at the top has a view of all of Manayunk. From Green Lane, one of several through streets, there are steps going North and South instead of the usual East and West, and they lead up to this [Roxborough Avenue] sign. As I walked back down, I was surprised at the lack of traffic on Green Lane.
Over Fleming Street, I arrived at Gay Street, the longest flight of all -- having 132 steps. These go all the way to Silverwood, to a tall, narrow house (only 8 ft wide), for the tall, narrow man who lives here. These steps, in a different season, show how secluded it is here.
Walking to Levering Street, we find the famed Manayunk Wall, where the annual International bicycle races are held. We can picture the race, and all the excitement of the day. Some spectators have found a good vantage point to see and photograph the action. Just off Levering St. is the lovely little Josie Heard Church which has its own steps at Grape St. -- very convenient for members who live in Roxborough. There are many lovely little houses near Grape Street on Terrace, most with only 4 rooms.
At Cotton St., the neighbors have planted a garden at the top, and halfway down, to the left, is a unique feature—a house with its own set of steps leading to the main ones. The resident must take his trash down 62 steps to Boone St. for pickup, with 62 to go back up! To go all the way down to Tower St. there are 61 more, a total of 123.
The residents of Terrace have planted a garden at the top of these 115 Roxborough Ave steps. They are among the most used, especially by students of St. John's and other parochial schools, and for many years by mill workers of earlier days. Manayunk was the place to shop, and families used these and other steps to go down to the markets on Main Street.
Halfway up on the right behind the wall, from Boone where I was standing, are 26 more steps, leading up to another part of Boone Street which overlooks St. John's Church and surrounding territory.
The 110 Steps of Jamestown Street, nearby, are in rather poor condition, with broken railings -- but still used. The shortest flight of 38 at Wendover Street has pipe railings and a chain link fence to keep climbers from tumbling to the street below. On East Street it looks like more than 41 steps.
The 112 steps of Dawson start at Main Street, and go up to these houses along the railroad tracks, which can also be reached from the other side by a bridge. The 80 steps here, almost the end of my journey go from Main Street to the railroad station on Ridge Avenue. Halfway up is a tunnel which goes under Ridge to the station.
The last steps at Ridge and the Wissahickon Creek are the 100 steps built in 1901 .... I am happy to be ending my journey of discovery -- surrounded by beautiful scenery.
Visit the RMWHS Archive to see the full presentation and more of Hilma Larkin's photography.