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Thomas W. South papers


Held at: Historical Society of Tacony [Contact Us]4819 Longshore Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, 19135

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Society of Tacony. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Thomas Winfield South was born in Laurel, Ohio on October 1, 1847. He was the son of Dr. Stephen Benton South (1819-1885) and Abigail Steelman Higbee (Higby) (1826-1885). In 1863 he enlisted in the Union army with the 153rd Ohio Volunteers, but was discharged at his father's urging due to his young age.

South was related on his mother's side to the Disston "Steel" Family, and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1872 to work for Disston & Sons Saw Works, one of the largest saw manufacturing companies in the world. He worked as manager and land-agent for the Disston-owned properties in the Tacony section of the city. South oversaw the implementation of Henry Disston's paternalistic vision of Tacony as an ideal family-centered company town, and was quite influential in this capacity. In his obituary, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin dubbed him the "Father of Tacony."

South became heavily involved in Philadelphia real estate and transportation. He worked very closely with P.E. Costello, a builder and contractor who served as Director of Public Works from 1903 to 1905. South also organized the Tacony Building and Loan Association, for which he worked as treasurer for 42 years. From 1904-1906, Thomas W. South partnered with Frank E. Caven to sell sand and gravel as the firm South & Caven. South served as director of the Suburban Electric Company, and was one of the promoters of the Holmesburg, Frankford and Tacony Electric Railway.

South, a lifelong Republican aligned with the machinery of Philadelphia boss James McManes, was also active in local politics and government. He was a delegate to the convention that elected Rutherford B. Hayes for President. An obituary characterized South's interests: "Having his position at the head of the world famous saw works, he wanted nothing for himself, but was eager to find good places for his protégés in politics... He represented a much higher intellectual type than the ordinary ward politician. He was proud of his personal reputation for integrity." ("'Tom South.'").

By most accounts, South was an efficient judge and bureaucrat. South was appointed Index Clerk in the Recorder of Deeds office under the administration of General Louis Wagner, and then was promoted to special agent in the Revenue Office. In 1875, he was elected magistrate at the Central Police Court in Philadelphia, and was reelected to this post five times. He handled over 100,000 cases before retiring from magisterial duties in 1904. He was elected ward leader for the 41st Ward in 1901. Mayor John Weaver (1903-1907) appointed him Assistant Director of Public Safety in 1905, although South and Director Sheldon Potter were forced to resign the following year. South was appointed to Chief Clerk of the Board of Mercantile Appraisers in 1907, a position he held until his death of a heart attack in 1922.

In 1878, Thomas South married Ida Norman Corbly (1859-1939) with whom he had three children: Blanche Lillian South (1879-1966), Hamilton South (1880-1931), and Effie L. South (1880-1931). Hamilton South married Elizabeth (Elsie) Turnbull (1881-1958), daughter of Charles Turnbull, M.D., in 1905.

Around the late 19th century, many wealthy Philadelphians who suffered from ill health began vacationing in Florida, hoping that the climate would relieve their symptoms. These excursions sometimes inspired them to invest in the largely undeveloped state. South, for instance, who suffered from rheumatism and frequently travelled to St. Lucie, became interested in Florida land development. He was encouraged in this by his cousin and close friend, Hamilton Disston (1844-1896), the largest single investor in Florida's history.

Hamilton Disston ran his father Henry Disston (1819-1878)'s company, Disston & Sons Saw Works, after his father's death. In 1881, Hamilton purchased four million acres of Florida land (reportedly the most land ever purchased by a single person in world history), including Kissimmee, St. Cloud, Gulfport, Tarpon Springs, and St. Petersburg. Before realizing plans to develop his purchase, however, Hamilton's finances were decimated in the Panic of 1893. He committed suicide in 1896, leaving his property holdings to his brother, Jacob Disston (1862-1938).

Jacob Disston teamed up with a group of Philadelphia investors including Frank A. Davis (1850-1917), George Gandy (1851-1937), and Charles R. Hall (1869-1939) to create the St. Petersburg Investment Company. The Investment Company was a holding company with several subsidiaries dedicated to financing various development projects in and around the Disston lands in Florida, including railway, electricity, and building construction. The Investment Company went into receivership during World War I, with Charles M. Allen serving as receiver. The precise relationship between the St. Petersburg Investment Company and Thomas South is unclear, although he was a cousin of the company's founder, Jacob Disston.


"F.A. Davis, Father of City, Dies at His Home in Philadelphia." St. Petersburg Daily Times. January 13, 1917. Accessed May 14, 2013.,744966

Iatarola, Louis M. and Siobhán Gephart. Images of America: Tacony. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2000.

"Jacob Disston, Pioneer Land Owner, Passes. The Evening Independent. February 28, 1938. Accessed May 14, 2013.,3204455

Jordan, John W., ed. Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania Biography, volume 6. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1914. Accessed September 26, 2011.

Michaels, Will. The Making of St. Petersburg. Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2012. Accessed May 14, 2013.

Smith, Rick D. "Historic Landmark Designation of the Man-Jean Hotel, 2349 Central Avenue (HPC Case No. 00-02)." Nomination before St. Petersburg City Council, July 19, 2001. Accessed May 14, 2013.

"T.W. South Dead; Long in Politics." February 20, 1912. Photocopied clipping found in collection, Box 6, Folder 12.

"'Tom South.'" February 22, 1922. Photocopied clipping found in collection, Box 6, Folder 12.

This collection primarily consists of correspondence and legal documents, some receipts and invoices, and to a lesser extent blueprints, maps, newspaper clippings, and other materials. (The majority of the legal documents are currently inaccessible to researchers due to the very poor condition of the materials.) It documents South's work as magistrate, his engagement in the machinery of Philadelphia local politics, his personal and professional relationships with many individuals prominent in Northeast Philadelphia, his involvement with various businesses and organizations, real estate development in the Tacony section of Philadelphia, and the "development boom" in central Florida during the early 20th century. The collection is organized into four series: Series I. Personal and professional papers, 1866-1912 Series II. St. Petersburg Investment Company correspondence, 1905-1919 (bulk 1911-1912) Series III. Court records [RESTRICTED] Series IV. Secondary-source materials

"Series I. Personal and professional papers, 1866-1912" is arranged alphabetically by subject or correspondent and largely contains incoming letters to South regarding his business and political endeavors in Philadelphia. In particular, the series covers his involvement in real estate and land development in the Tacony section of the city, his position as magistrate, and his real estate and other business ventures in Florida and other areas along the Gulf Coast (not relating to the St. Petersburg Investment Company). The correspondence sheds light on Philadelphia's political and business climate around the turn of the 20th century, including the corruption that plagued the city. Correspondents include Peter E. Costello, Girard Trust Company, Howard L. Neff, North British & Mercantile Insurance Company, Peace & Yerger, Thomas C. Foster, Jacob M. Vogdes.

A significant number of letters, invoices, and receipts are from various contractors and builders with whom South worked. There are also a number of letters from tenants who lived in properties that South owned or managed, many of them likely tenants of the Disston-owned properties in Tacony for which South served as manager and land-agent. Also included in the series are letters relating to various City Departments that South was affiliated with, such as the Department of Public Safety.

With regard to South's involvement in Philadelphia politics, series I includes letters relating to some of the elections for which South was a candidate, including the election for ward leader of the 41st Ward, which South won in 1901. The series also includes a poster of South from his bid for the office of Sheriff of Philadelphia in 1899, which he lost. Of special interest is a newspaper clippings scrapbook that South created during his brief tenure as Assistant Director of Public Safety from 1905 to 1906. The scrapbook documents city politics and includes many political cartoons. Also included in the series are correspondence and related papers (such as legal records, registers, and court summons) regarding cases that South presided over as a magistrate; many requests for pardons are present.

South's personal life, including his rheumatism, his hunting and fishing hobby, and events relating to his immediate family, is documented through personal correspondence. Many of the letters that relate to South's family concern his son, Hamilton South, especially his schooling at military preparatory schools. After some of Hamilton Disston's property was destroyed by fire at his marine barracks at Pensacola Navy Yard, Thomas W. South used his influence to have a bill passed through U.S. Congress reimbursing his son for losses incurred.

"Series II. St. Petersburg Investment Company correspondence, 1905-1919 (bulk 1911-1912)" is organized chronologically and documents the St. Petersburg Investment Company and its child companies, St. Petersburg Electric Light and Power Company and the St. Petersburg and Gulf Railway Company. The precise relationship between the St. Petersburg Investment Company and Thomas South is unclear, although he was a cousin of the company's founder, Jacob Disston.

Much of the correspondence in this series is routine in nature, covering the day-to-day activities of the company. Many letters are to and from contractors, builders, electricians, banks, and other businesses with which the company dealt. Some relate to the company's absorption of the Florida West Coast Company in 1909. Most of the correspondence in the series is with either B.F. Measey, who served as treasurer from 1911 to May 1912 (when he resigned and was replaced by Alex R. Cheston), or Jacob M. Vogdes, a Philadelphia real estate agent who served as President of the St. Petersburg and Gulf Railway and the St. Petersburg Investment Company for several years. There is also a fair amount of correspondence to and from other employees, including Ruth Beede who worked in the Florida office, and a few from F.A. Davis and Jacob Disston. Also included are letters to company shareholders (including a fair number of women investors.)

"Series III. Court records" is largely inaccessible to researchers because of the very poor condition of the materials. It consists substantially of court summons and dockets, circa 1861-1900, including marriage record of Magistrates Court #21 (1875-1880).

"Series IV. Secondary-source materials" consists of background materials collected by the Historical Society of Tacony to complement the Thomas W. South papers. It includes photocopies of Hamilton Disston correspondence held at the Florida State Archives; copies of articles and exhibition text from the 1990s-2000s about Hamilton Disston and his influence on Florida land development; copies of clippings about Thomas W. South; and other convenient information.

This collection was processed in 2013 by staff of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR). The HCI-PSAR project was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Some documents from this collection were interfiled into the Historical Society of Tacony collection on local history by a previous curator.

Historical Society of Tacony
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Faith Charlton through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories
This finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Access Restrictions

Access to parts of this collection is restricted due to the very poor condition of some materials. Contact Historical Society of Tacony for information about accessing collection.

Collection Inventory

Academy of Natural Sciences gift, 1905.
Box 1 Folder 1
Blueprints and maps [FRAGILE], circa 1895-1912.
Box 9
Business correspondence, 1890-1912, undated.
Box 1 Folders 2-4
Clippings about Thomas W. South, 1899-1903.
Box 1 Folder 5
Congressman Alfred C. Harmer, 1897-1898.
Box 1 Folder 6
Congressmen, various, 1897-1906.
Box 1 Folder 7
Congressmen, regarding naval bill, 1908.
Box 1 Folder 8
Court records, 1866-1887.
Box 1 Folder 9
Department of Public Safety, 1898, 1905-1906, undated.
Box 1 Folder 10
Department of Public Works, 1899-1911.
Box 1 Folder 11
Essays/writings (travel, fish), undated.
Box 1 Folder 12
Foerder, Robert H., 1898.
Box 1 Folder 13
Frankford Arsenal, 1898, 1906.
Box 1 Folder 14
Girard Trust Company, regarding Tacony property, 1899-1910.
Box 1 Folder 15
Henry Disston & Sons, blank bond contracts, 1890.
Box 1 Folder 16
Henry Disston & Sons, 1893-1906.
Box 1 Folder 17
Hunting, fishing, and rifles, 1898-1911.
Box 1 Folder 18
Insurance companies, 1897-1907.
Box 1 Folder 19
Mercantile tax related documents, 1887-1891.
Box 2 Folders 1-2
Mudlavia Resort (Indiana) and Indiana Springs Company, 1903-1905.
Box 2 Folder 3
Neff, Howard L., commission merchant, 1903-1904.
Box 2 Folder 4
Newspaper clippings scrapbook, October 6, 1905 - January 2, 1906.
Box 7
Scope and Contents note

Scrapbook South created while he was Assistant Director of Public Safety documents city politics and includes many political cartoons.

North British & Mercantile Insurance Company invoices and correspondence, 1897-1904.
Box 2 Folder 5
Office of the Postmaster General, 1898-1901.
Box 2 Folder 6
Ohio Society of Philadelphia, 1907-1909.
Box 2 Folder 7
Order of Sparta, Perseus Senate no. 19, 1904-1907.
Box 2 Folder 8
Peace & Yerger, 1894-1910.
Box 2 Folder 9
Personal correspondence, 1887-1912, undated.
Box 2 Folders 10-12
Philadelphia city departments, 1888-1909.
Box 2 Folder 13
Political and legal, 1890-1911, undated.
Box 2 Folders 14-15
Receipts, invoices, and correspondence with contractors, Peter E. Costello, 1894-1903.
Box 3 Folder 1
Receipts, invoices, and correspondence with contractors, Inter-State Sand Company / James Caven Sand and Gravel, 1901-1907.
Box 3 Folder 2
Receipts, invoices, and correspondence with contractors, A-Y, 1893-1911.
Box 3 Folders 3-5
School board, 1898-1905.
Box 3 Folder 6
Second National Bank account records, 1894-1898.
Box 3 Folder 7
Shuman, Frank, letter regarding solar power engine, 1907.
Box 3 Folder 8
South, Blanche, 1907.
Box 3 Folder 9
South, Hamilton, 1897, 1905-1910.
Box 3 Folder 10
South, Hamilton, correspondence regarding schooling at Annapolis and West Point, 1898-1900.
Box 3 Folder 11
South, Hamilton, letters while at U.S. Naval Academy Prep School, 1899-1901.
Box 3 Folder 12
South, Hamilton, correspondence regarding barracks fire incident, 1903-1909.
Box 3 Folder 13
South, Ida, 1907.
Box 3 Folder 14
Tacony Building and Loan Association (includes annual reports), 1893-1911.
Box 3 Folder 15
Tacony Savings Fund, Safe Deposit, Title and Trust Company (includes annual statement), 1894-1900.
Box 3 Folder 16
Tacony Trust Company, 1903-1911, undated.
Box 4 Folder 1
Thomas C. Foster and Company, insurance, 1897-1907.
Box 4 Folder 2
Transportation companies, 1898-1907.
Box 4 Folder 3
Vogdes, Jacob M., real estate, 1906-1912.
Box 4 Folder 4
Miscellaneous, 1874-1905, undated.
Box 4 Folder 5

1905 - 1911 September.
Box 4 Folders 6-12
1911 October - 1912 August 10.
Box 5 Folders 1-9
1912 August 12 - 1919.
Box 6 Folders 1-6
Letterpress book, circa 1906.
Box 8
Scope and Content Note

Many of these letters appear to be signed by B. F. Measey.

Series III. Court records [RESTRICTED].
Scope and Content Note

This series contains legal records of cases presided over by South during his time as a judge, circa 1860-1900, including including docket books, a large quantity of summonses, and a marriage record.

Research on Hamilton Disston.
Box 6 Folders 7-11
Research on Thomas W. South and his home in Tacony.
Box 6 Folder 12
Photographs of fragile maps, blueprints, and documents from collection.
Box 6 Folder 13

Print, Suggest