Ninety Years Ago: The Sesquicentennial Was Turning Point for Pennsauken

BobFisher-HughesBy Robert Fisher-Hughes, AAP Columnist and Amateur Historian

Sesquicentennial is not a word that comes up in every day conversation. Ninety years ago, however, it was the subject of much discussion and planning, especially in the Philadelphia area.

In July, 1926, the Sesquicentennial celebration was the culmination of such wide ranging plans and development that we may well remember it as a pivotal event, transforming our township and our region, triggering succeeding changes that created the landscape and community of the Pennsauken we know today.

“Sesqui,” derived from Latin, means “one and a half,” or a ratio of three to two. As a compound word, sesquicentennial therefore denotes a 150-year anniversary. The year 1926 was the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the formation of the United States of America.

Such an anniversary is a natural occasion for celebration and reflection. In the social context of America in the 1920s, it was much more: a time to demonstrate the rise of America as the economic and industrial leader of the world; a place of unprecedented innovation and apparently limitless opportunity; a nation that had gained victory in a world war while remaining relatively unscathed; and a nation only beginning to realize its true power.

Far beyond a mere birthday party, the Sesquicentennial marked the completion of a major achievement in the development of the potential of our region. In 1926, the Delaware River Bridge was completed and opened to traffic. This grand suspension bridge between Philadelphia and Camden was the first bridge south of Trenton on the Delaware River other than the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge between Frankford and Delair. This bridge truly started the era of the automobile as a regional phenomenon, opening South Jersey and connecting Philadelphia and Camden to a wider populace as never before.

Begun in 1926, the new Delaware River Bridge was opened and dedicated in conjunction with the celebrations leading to July 4, 1926. On July 1, beginning at 10:30 a.m., after a short bus ride from Philadelphia, ceremonies began, including speeches by the governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, held first on the Camden side and then, following another short bus ride, on the Pennsylvania side. At 1:00 p.m., ribbons were cut on both sides and crowds of pedestrians streamed onto the roadway. The first automobile traffic was permitted to cross the bridge at midnight, July 1. The toll was $.25. There was no posted speed limit; only an admonition to use “common sense” was imposed.

Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot noted both the unifying effect and the potential economic power of the bridge in his address. “A workingman may live in New Jersey and go to work in Pennsylvania, or vice versa, as easily and as quickly as though it were only another section of the same city.”

Not quite. The main arteries leading to the bridge were not yet finished and detours abounded on the overworked roads that had never been designed for the new demand, such as Federal St. in Camden. Another year would pass before the Crescent Blvd. would be officially open, along with the entrance road, later re-christened Admiral Wilson Blvd. In the meantime, these roads remained under construction, with grading partially complete. In the dip beneath the railroad near Chestnut Ave., rainwater accumulated in the unfinished roadway. Nearby residents began raising ducks to take advantage. In many other parts of Pennsauken along the slowly forming highway, the maps had to be redrawn as streets gave way, changing course or coming to an abrupt end.

Other changes in the local byways were more scenic. In 1926, Cooper River was the site of work to make reality of a vision found in the designs of landscape architect Charles Leavitt, Jr. This work and these plans set the scene for the park and historic district that forms a unique boundary of our township, and a link to surrounding communities, aesthetically, recreationally, and historically.

American prestige in 1926 could not have been fully encompassed in the Sesquicentennial year without the spectacle and promise of flight. Accordingly, led by the initiative of the Camden Courier Post, a patch of unused, relatively flat ground at the mouth of the Cooper River in Camden was converted into an airfield. This was the venue for an exposition declared to be the first “air-meet” in New Jersey. Thirty-six planes, from a number of different flying clubs, fledgling airlines, and the U.S. military, came together to participate in races and competitions on Saturday, July 10. An air parade over the City of Camden, a Martin bomber, parachutists, pony-express style mail by airplane, and an aerial race course with a 10-mile circuit over South Jersey (the final leg of the course was mostly over Pennsauken on its way back to the start), all were featured in the public spectacle.

The Courier-Post Air Classic included a thinly-veiled agenda to have a permanent airport established for Camden. The impressive event and its popularity lent momentum to this movement, but the eventual site chosen was not the Moro-Phillips Tract at the outlet of the Cooper River, but another location in neighboring Pennsauken Township, three years later: Central Airport. That was the location selected in large part by the Ludington brothers, wealthy air enthusiasts from the Main Line who had also taken a leading role in the Sesquicentennial air-meet.

So it was that the events of the Sesquicentennial that changed our township in far reaching ways. Access to Philadelphia; improved roads throughout the immediate South Jersey area; increased attention to the public infrastructure; and the eventual creation of an airport that engendered a process of development continuing for decades. A measure of this burst of change can be found in the census of population:  in 1920, the population of Pennsauken Township was 6,474; in 1930, it was found to be 16,915. Pennsauken would never be the same.

Sources for this column include contemporary newspaper accounts in the Camden Courier Post; Paul F. Cranston, “Camden County 1681-1931: Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary,” Camden County Chamber of Commerce, 1931; Walter S. Andariese, “History of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge,” Delaware River Port Authority, 1981; Robert Shinn and Kevin Cook with the Camden County Historical Society, “Along the Cooper River,” Arcadia, 2015.

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