The Great River-to-River, Vine to Pine, Rain or Shine Walking Tour of Philadelphia: Or Why My Feet Hurt

Great Tour group

These two images show an especially effervescent re-enactor playing the persona of Octavius Catto (who was murdered on Election Day in 1871 for defending African-American voting rights) and one Great Tour group clamoring around their guide on a sidewalk in front of the Betsy Ross House at 9 AM. Images courtesy of the author.

My first job in high school was as a tour guide at Lucy The Margate Elephant.  I spent a summer giving trolley tours of Atlantic City in the character of Nucky Johnson, in a short-lived attempt by a local bus company to capitalize on the Boardwalk Empire craze. And two years ago I was hired to put together a candy factory tour (easily the best summer job I ever had), so I have long been interested in the many different tours of Philadelphia offered on foot, in horse-drawn carriages, and via duck-boat—to name only a few of the many ways to see the city.  Therefore, when I heard about the annual Great River-to-River, Vine to Pine, Rain or Shine Walking Tour of Philadelphia I knew I had to skip a day of schoolwork to go.  Even though my feet still hurt days later, it was definitely worth a twelve-hour urban trek for the chance to see several experienced guides in action, to learn about innumerable city sites, to run through a range of small but fascinating museums, and even to listen to costumed interpreters portraying key historical figures including founder William Penn, patriot Dr. Benjamin Rush, and political martyr Octavius Catto.

Fireman's Hall and Physick House

Those two images show engines exhibited in the largest open space at the Fireman’s Hall Museum (which reveals its origins as an actual 19th century fire hall) and a particularly interestingly designed ‘dresser display’ of early surgical tools from the medical museum room of the Physick House. Images courtesy of the author.

Broken into four segments lasting two-and-a-half hours each, the tour began in Olde City, where in addition to several churches and the Betsy Ross House (at which the fact that she most likely did not famously sew the first flag is celebrated at a place in which she never lived), we also visited the Fireman’s Hall Museum.  Beginning in the mid-1970s (at just about the same time as the African-American Museum in Philadelphia as well as the Mummers’ Museum were both built) during a period when the bicentennial brought herds of heritage tourists to the city.  The Fireman’s Hall Museum features 19th century engines, activity centers for kids, and a truly beautiful stained-glass memorial to fallen comrades.  It also reminds visitors that the main reason why Broad Street was designed so wide was to prevent a recurrence of the 1666 Great Fire of London in Philadelphia.  The second segment of the Great Tour visited several stops to the southeast of Independence Hall such as the Physick House, home Dr. Philip Syng Physick, which includes one room devoted to a 19th century medical museum.  In addition to being the so-called ‘father of modern surgery’ and the grandfather of Emlen Physick (whose estate is the heart of Victorian house tours in Cape May) Dr. Physick is also the inventor of America’s first soda-pop in 1807 (considered a medicine throughout the 19th century) which we were given as a taste test on the tour and which is still bottled locally today.

These images show the second floor reading room at the Atheneum and Rodin’s small study for a monument to Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (President of Argentina from 1868-1874) which caused riots in Buenos Aires, much like those his statue of author Victor Hugo prompted in Paris.  Images courtesy of the author.

These images show the second floor reading room at the Atheneum and Rodin’s small study for a monument to Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (President of Argentina from 1868-1874) which caused riots in Buenos Aires, much like those his statue of author Victor Hugo prompted in Paris. Images courtesy of the author.

The third segment of the Great Tour offered each group (consisting of about 20 people and led by certified city guides) the chance to explore the area to the southwest of Independence Hall including Washington Square Park, home to an unknown Revolutionary War soldier’s tomb and a moon mission memorial tree, as well as The Atheneum.  Just east across Sixth Street from the park, and housed in the first Brownstone built in the city, the Atheneum contains rotating exhibits on Philadelphia architecture and rare books as well as a permanent exhibit about Napoleon’s little brother Joseph Bonaparte (whose former home the tours also walked by) and one of the  nicest reading rooms I’ve ever seen. Like other institutions discussed by Gary Nash in First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory (the Library Company, Pennsylvania Historical Society, and American Philosophical Society for example) the Atheneum was founded as a space for intellectuals to share books and ideas but now persists as a place to do research and learn about local cultural history through museum displays.  The final segment of the tour was by far the longest, beginning at City Hall and ending at the Fairmount Waterworks.  It included a walk by massive museums such as the Franklin Institute, the Academy of Sciences, the relocated Barnes Institute,  and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as well as the smaller Rodin Museum, which is not to be missed.  Beyond his best bronzes (The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais, and The Gates of Hell) the Rodin museum also contains a marble copy of The Kiss and two full rooms dedicated to the sculptor’s studies for monuments to famous French authors and artists, as well as one to an obscure Argentine politician.

Rosenbach Museum

These images show how easy it would be to miss the Rosenbach Museum and Library (if you didn’t know to look for it on the south side of Delancey Place) and a poster from one of the countless Sendak exhibits about his lesser known works displayed by the museum over the decades. Images courtesy of the author.

Despite devoting a full day to sightseeing, not all the important sites of Philadelphia could be on the tour, and this is potentially a problem for places off the beaten path.  A prime example might be the Rosenbach Library and Museum, which has been the primary home of the artwork and papers of author Maurice Sendak—perhaps best known for Where The Wild Things Are and The Night Kitchen—for nearly fifty years but is about to lose most of their extensive Sendak collection to a soon-to-be-constructed museum in his longtime Connecticut hometown.  Located south of Rittenhouse Square, in a building that blends almost invisibly into the neighborhood of ritzy row homes that surrounds it, the Rosenbach suffers from being one of the only museums in that part of a city where visitors seeking heritage tourist experiences often try to see as many sites as they can in as little time as possible (a goal symbolized by the very existence of a Great River-to-River, Vine to Pine, Rain or Shine Walking Tour). After merging last year with The Free Library the Rosenbach’s future seems sustainable, but with a current Sendak exhibit (along with the collection) set to depart on November 2nd, now is the ideal time to visit the Rosenbach.

About

Doctoral Student in American and Public History at Temple University. Currently holds a BA in History and Anthropology from the University of Virginia and a MA in American Studies from the University of Iowa. Adjunct Professor of Writing Arts at the Richard Stockton College of NJ and a Part Time Lecturer on Political Science with Rutgers-Camden. His research focuses on American Public Memory of the Korean War. Has guided tours for museums, trolleys, candy factories, and elephants.

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One comment on “The Great River-to-River, Vine to Pine, Rain or Shine Walking Tour of Philadelphia: Or Why My Feet Hurt
  1. Bob Skiba says:

    Levi, I’m so glad you enjoyed the tour! We have the pleasure of living in a city rich in history and stories. APT was very happy to share some of those stories with residents and tourists alike. – Bob Skiba, President, The Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides.