For years, I’ve driven past Tabor Road in Olney, just north of Roosevelt Boulevard, and noticed the isolated row of small, colorful houses opposite a small clearing between Olney Avenue and F Street. I admired those little homes for their character and charm. They seemed out of place, surrounded by forest and perched above Tacony Creek, amid the larger urban fabric of the neighborhood.

Our family had moved into Olney around 1990, when I was 4 years old. I grew up playing in other nearby parts of the park, but despite my growing curiosity I never bothered to take a closer look at this site beyond what I could see from the car window.

Whitaker houses today

Anyone living in the neighborhood 50 years ago could tell you that this was the site of Henry Whitaker’s Textile Mill.  Of those people, the few really in the know could also tell you that this was ‘America’s Oldest Continuous Textile Mill, Since 1813.’ Fred Maurer, local historian and outspoken Tacony Creek advocate, is one such expert.

This past Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Fred’s presentation about the history of the Whitaker Mill site and the industry and neighborhood that grew up around it, at the Historical Society of Frankford. Fred used a series of maps, photos, newspaper clippings and artifacts to tell the audience of twenty neighbors the story of this historic site.Whitaker Mills

Whitaker's Mill, Tabor Rd

Tabor Covered BridgeHenry Whitaker’s Mill played a very significant role in the development of the neighborhood. For 157 years the Whitaker mill, formally known as William Whitaker & Sons, Inc. employed hundreds of community members and produced essential materials used throughout our growing nation, such as bed ticking and canvass.

In 1813, Henry Whitaker began construction of his home and the water wheel mill along Tacony Creek.  A dam and eventually a covered bridge were built, continuing Tabor Road across the creek. In 1835, a steam engine had been introduced to the factory to further mechanize production.

In the early years, members of the Whitaker family worked in the mill along side the other laborers. Mill workers lived in the homes still standing along Tabor Road. The Whitakers eventually became successful enough to build and move into a Victorian mansion near what is now Rising Sun Plaza. Despite several economic and physical setbacks (including a boiler explosion in 1840!) the Whitaker family managed to continuously operate and employ members of the community until 1970! Tragically, after ceasing operations and sitting vacant for a number of years, the mill buildings were destroyed by arson (ironically enough, Fred informed us that the arsonist later attempted to sue the city after being electrocuted by mechanical equipment on the night he was trespassing.)

Olney Oldies

Today, a blue Pennsylvania Historical Commission and Museum marker identifies Whitaker Mill as a landmark. The land itself is now a part of Tacony Creek Park. The charming houses and a few other bits of mill structure remain, looking out on the open clearing where the mill factory once stood.Whitaker Sign

The historic maps and photos of this long-standing mill town provide a fascinating glimpse into our watershed past. It’s a look not only at early American Industrialization, but also at the role that the Tacony Creek played in the lives of the community. It was a source of water, power, transportation, recreation and more. Heavily manipulated and far from the pristine waterway it once was over 400 years ago, the creek still flows today, a continuous thread of our watershed history.

Tacony Creek kids

Tacony Creek SkatingThis presentation is the second installment of our ‘Trails through Time’ Watershed History Series. By providing an opportunity for community members to reflect on our creek’s history, we hope that they we will be motivated work with us to restore, preserve and protect it today and for future generations.

We would like to thank Fred Maurer for leading the presentation and the Historical Society of Frankford for hosting us. We would also like to thank sponsors who helped spread the word: Hidden City Philadelphia, The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance and the Northeast Philadelphia History Network.

Interested in more TTF Watershed History? Sign up for our e-newsletter to find out what’s next in our Trails through Time series and other events in Tacony Creek Park.

For an in-depth read on the origins of Whitaker’s Mill, check out this article. Also check out Fred’s book, Grubbtown Monument, for a look at more local watershed history.

About Robin Irizarry

Robin Irizarry, Philadelphia Watershed Coordinator Robin leads TTF’s community watershed engagement and improvement efforts in Philadelphia, working with key stakeholders to engage and educate residents about watershed and stormwater issues. Robin has a background in ecological landscape design and woodworking. He grew up in Olney, exploring Tacony Creek. He and his family now live near the (Tookany) creek in Cheltenham. Contact Robin at 215.744.1853 or


Old Whitaker Mill: Articles & Artifacts along the Tacony Creek — 10 Comments

  1. Great article because it summarizes so much history of our area and links it to the efforts to preserve this watershed for the future! Thanks for your work!

  2. Thanks for the article Robin! Enjoyed learning about the Whitaker Mills and the historical account of its operation so close to home!

  3. My Grandfather came to this country from Scotland around 1890. He worked in the mill and eventually bought a row home on Westford Rd., just off Olney ave. The houses across the street from the mill housed the workers. I remember visiting there when I was little. The rooms looked small and dark to me then. All were painted white. (Obviously I wasn’t with him–haha!) I know he was proud of his job at the mill. He kept the books.

  4. The pictursque houses along Tabor Road were the Mill houses, where some of the workers lived. The end house, shown in the photo was the forman’s house. In the the now overgrown lot on the side closest to Adams Ave. was an ice house patialy sunken into the ground, and a clay tennis court. My grandfather, mentioned in the comment above by my sister, traveled up from Frankford in a boat to work inthe mill. When I was a kid there was still a swimming hole near rthe mill, and a nother near an island in the creek. In the the style of 19th Century industrialists, The Wittkers lived in a mansion at the top of the hill near Adams Avenue.

  5. Thank you Alexander, it’s really great to hear personal family accounts like that. And the fact that people could commute by boat up the creek is pretty fascinating! Much appreciated. -Robin

  6. Thank you for all information,we lived in center of block when fire broke out,the fireman came through our house,this is the only site that gave very accurate information about the mill, and neighborhood, thanks again.

  7. Gina, thank you so much! We’re really glad this article was useful to you, and that you enjoyed reading it!

  8. Wow. I live here on 49 bloock of whitaker since 1999..i had and old neighbor name toby and roslyn .they told me that here before they build the row homes ,this was a dump site .ill love to see more old photos ..thanks for the website

  9. Pingback: Milestones Awards: TTF Watershed Public Leader and TTF Legacy Award | TTF Watershed

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