History of Elfreth's Alley
Elfreth's Alley — popularly known as "Our nation’s oldest residential street" – dates back to the first days of the eighteenth century. Twenty years after William Penn founded Pennsylvania and established Philadelphia as its capital, the town had grown into a thriving, prosperous mercantile center on the banks of the Delaware River.
Philadelphians had abandoned Penn’s plan for a "greene countrie towne" and instead created a cityscape similar to what they remembered in England. Wharves stretched out into the river, welcoming ships from around the world. Shops, taverns, and homes crowded the area along the river. Philadelphians made and sold items essential to life in the New World and to the trade that was a part of their daily lives.
Two of these colonial craftsmen, blacksmiths John Gilbert and Arthur Wells, owned the land where Elfreth’s Alley now sits. In 1702, each man gave up a portion of his land to create an alleyway along their property line that connected their smithies near the river with Second Street, one block away. By that date, Second was a major north-south road, connecting Philadelphia with towns north and west of the city and the frontier beyond.
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, numerous artisans and craftsmen resided on Elfreth’s Alley, often living and working in the same building. Even at that early date, Elfreth’s Alley had a diverse population. English colonists who worshipped at nearby Chris Church lived next door to Moses Mordecai, a Jewish merchant who was a leader of Mikveh Israel Synagogue. Cophie Douglass, a former slave, began his life as a free man in post-revolutionary Philadelphia while living on Elfreth’s Alley. During the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, the Alley became a neighborhood of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and other parts of Europe who sought new opportunities in America.
By the early twentieth century, the Alley had become a run-down, impoverished area and faced numerous demolition threats. In 1934, Alley resident Dorothy Ottey organized a group of men and women to save several colonial houses from demolition by absentee landlords. They called themselves the Elfreth's Alley Association and helped to rescue the street from additional threats, including construction of I-95 in the late 1950s.
Since 1702, Elfreth's Alley has been home to more than 3,000 people. Today thirty-two houses, built between 1728 and 1836, line the alley. They form one of the last intact early American streetscapes in the nation. Elfreth's Alley is a National Historic Landmark District, one of the first districts that celebrates the lives of everyday Americans.