By Jack McCarthy
The Northeast Philadelphia history community mourns the passing of local historian Charles A. McCloskey, who died on Nov. 14 at the age of 71. In his modest, unassuming way, “Chal” — as he was known to all — made a major contribution to Northeast Philadelphia history. He leaves a body of work that illuminates important but previously unknown aspects of our history, work that will inform the study of local history for generations to come.
Chal’s path to becoming a Northeast Philadelphia historian was an unusual one. He turned to history after a long career in the Philadelphia Police Department. Like his father, the late Joe McCloskey, a longtime Philadelphia policeman, key figure in the early development of the Police Athletic League and mentor to generations of Tacony kids, Chal was born and raised in Tacony and spent his entire career as a police officer. Upon retirement in 2010, Chal got involved in local history, researching and writing extensively about Northeast neighborhoods, and becoming a first-rate local historian in the process.
Chal first came to the attention of the local history community in 2015, when, seemingly out of nowhere, he produced an excellent book on early Tacony history. Those of us who had been involved in Northeast Philadelphia history for years were amazed, and we all had the same reaction: Where did this guy come from, and how could he have written such an important book without anybody knowing about it? Working mostly alone and under the radar, Chal produced a study that fundamentally changed our understanding of Tacony history. His newcomer status notwithstanding, Chal was quickly embraced — and recruited — by local history organizations, engaged to give lectures and serve on the boards of the Historical Society of Tacony, Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History and Trustees of Lower Dublin Academy.
Chal’s research focused on little-known aspects of two Northeast neighborhoods in which he lived over the years, Tacony and Torresdale. While the histories of both neighborhoods had already been documented, Chal found in them important stories that had been neglected or forgotten. He did not rely solely on traditional published sources (which often contain significant errors), but immersed himself in primary sources, the “raw materials” of history such as original deeds, maps, wills, personal papers and business records. He also sought out longtime residents and those with family lore to share. His commitment to accuracy was unwavering; every sentence he wrote was supported by documentary evidence.
Chal’s first book, Tacony: Era of William H. Gatzmer and the Philadelphia & Trenton Rail Road, is a good example of his work. Most Tacony histories focus on the period beginning in the 1870s, when the great industrialist Henry Disston began building what became the world’s largest saw works and establishing a utopian residential community for his workers in Tacony. Chal chose to explore the little-known period prior to that, when William Gatzmer brought the railroad to Tacony in the 1830s and 1840s and transformed the area into a major transportation depot and recreational destination. Exhaustively researched, the book fills in an important gap in the historical record.
Later, Chal moved to Delaire Landing, the large condominium community along the Delaware River in East Torresdale. It was well-known that the land now occupied by Delaire and the adjacent Baker’s Bay development was once home to a group of magnificent, impressive 19th-century riverfront estates that served as summer homes of wealthy Philadelphia families. Intrigued, Chal immersed himself in this history as well, finding new and important information on the families and their properties. While he did not write a book, he produced an excellent illustrated lecture on the subject that he gave to different historical organizations. He also gave a group of us a walking tour of the site, using maps and historical photos together with various surviving features to show us precisely where the mansions once stood: “See this small stone path? That’s the walkway visible in this 1890s photo,” or “This rusting metal post is the lamp post in front of the house in this 1880s photo.” With modern lawns, parking lots and swimming pools before us, we could envision the long-gone stately homes in their original locations.
Chal’s final major work took him back to Tacony, this time with a focus on a much earlier era. In 2017, the Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History, for which Chal served as board secretary (a position he also held with the Historical Society of Tacony), purchased a collection of some 400 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts created by a group of interrelated families that had lived in Tacony. Having extensive knowledge of the area’s history from his earlier research, Chal took on the painstaking task of inventorying, analyzing and transcribing the collection. The result was his 2019 book, A Descriptive Inventory and Transcription of the Gordon, Saltar, Wharton Family Papers, 1723-1858, a detailed look into the lives, activities and properties of these early families as revealed through the documents. While the families had been prominent and their histories fairly well documented, Chal uncovered much important new information, such as the fact that some family members had been British sympathizers during the Revolutionary War, a fact that had been omitted from published histories over the years.
It is sad to think of what other important historical stories Chal would have uncovered had he not been taken from us too soon. His work in local history aside, those of us who knew him will remember his friendly, easygoing manner and a modesty that belied his impressive accomplishments. Rest in peace, Chal, your work is done. You will be missed, and future generations will benefit from your important historical contributions. ••
Jack McCarthy is an archivist and historian who is president of the Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History.
The above video is of Charles McCloskey’s presentation on the Gordon, Saltar, Wharton Family Papers. To purchase his books, visit the Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History website.
Relatives and friends are respectfully invited to attend Charles’ Life Celebration Memorial on Saturday, Nov. 21, at noon at Beck-Givnish Funeral Home, 7400 New Falls Road, Levittown. A visitation will be held at the funeral home from 10 a.m. until time of service.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Historical Society of Tacony, 6913 Tulip St., Philadelphia, PA 19135. To leave condolences, pay respects or share a special memory of Charles, please visit www.beckgivnish.com. Arrangements entrusted to Beck-Givnish Funeral Home 215-946-7600.