History / Philadelphia Soccer History

Great Philly soccer teams: Lighthouse

It is very difficult to overstate the importance of the Lighthouse Boys Club not just in the history of soccer in Philadelphia but in the history of soccer in the United States. Aside from providing the richest source of soccer talent for Philadelphia clubs at all levels of the game for much of the 20th Century, Lighthouse also provided a model for the community-based soccer clubs that were intrinsic to the youth soccer boom that began in the 1970s and continues to grow to this day.

The Lighthouse Boys Club, which was established in 1897 at a building on Lehigh Avenue was itself a project of the social reform organization The Lighthouse. Founded by Esther W. Kelly Bradford, The Lighthouse can trace its beginnings to the establishment of a settlement house in Kensington in 1893. The purpose of the organization was to provide the residents of Kensington and North Philadelphia with “an alternative living and social space in which neighbors could mingle, train for employment, take advantage of educational opportunity and locate necessary resources for day-to-day living.” The absence of government assistance programs combined with the unstable economic climate of the late 19th century and early 20th century insured a valuable place for The Lighthouse in the community.

In the first month of the Lighthouse Boys Club’s existence, 350 boys joined. Membership grew so rapidly that by 1902 a new center was opened on Somerset Street. By 1924, the Boys Club had 19,000 members.

A wide range of activities was available for members of the Boys Club. But the activity that would bring it international recognition was soccer. That soccer would prove so natural and popular was simple: the vast majority of residents in Kensington and the surrounding neighborhoods in the 1890s and early 20th century were British and Irish immigrants or their descendants, many of whom were employed in the neighborhood’s textile industry. On narrow streets lined with brick homes, with hand-me-down balls and shoes, boys would play the game their older brothers, cousins, fathers and uncles played on fields around the city – soccer.

Lighthouse Boys Club provided a formal club structure with teams organized around age levels with a reliable schedule of games, a structure that would in turn feed amateur, semi-professional and professional teams in Philadelphia (and elsewhere) for much of the 20th century.

As Len Oliver writes, “Most boys started with the Club at 9-10 years of age. often staying with the Lighthouse teams until they were ready for play in Philadelphia’s top First Division or the pros. For years Lighthouse had provided the senior amateur teams and the pros with top class, home-grown American talent. For example, the 1936 Olympic Soccer Team had four former Lighthouse players in its ranks”.

Oliver, the son of Scottish immigrants and whose father played club soccer in Philadelphia, began playing for Lighthouse when he was 9 and was on the Lighthouse team that won the National Junior Championship in 1948. Championships seemed to follow him in his long soccer career: he was on the Temple University team that won national championships in 1951 and 1953 and on the Philadelphia-based Uhrik Truckers team that won the American Soccer League (ASL) championship in 1956. Oliver also played for the US National Team. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996.

Other Hall of Fame members who played for Lighthouse include Walter Bahr, Harry Fleming, Bob Gormley, Benny McGlaughlin, Francis Ryan and Dick Spalding though, no doubt, scores of notable players who entertained and inspired generations of Philadelphia soccer fans have not been recognized by the Hall of Fame. Their accomplishments are recorded in the fading memories of old timers and in dusty newspapers and document boxes in archives, waiting to be rediscovered so that they can inspire once again.

Lighthouse won the U-19 National Junior Championship (called the James P. McGuire Cup since 1975) for the first time in 1938. By 1940, Lighthouse was “the largest single soccer organization in the world.” Further National Junior Championships followed in 1948, 1949, 1957 and 1967.

Just as the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s saw America struggle with meeting the challenges of tradition versus change, so too did The Lighthouse. For a time the organization struggled with whether it could continue with dual programs of recreation and social welfare, but in 1969 The Lighthouse reaffirmed its commitment to both.

In the early 1990s, the soccer club moved to the Bavarian Club on on Haldeman Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia and played under the name of Bayern. When that location was converted into residential housing, Lighthouse negotiated a 25-year lease with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to take over a location at Southampton Road and Roosevelt Boulevard, which it converted into soccer fields.

Though The Encyclopedia of American Soccer says that “Lighthouse is long gone,” the Lighthouse Soccer Club continues with a variety of soccer programs for boys and girls aged 5 to 18 years old. While its current membership of over 300 is a sharp decline from its heyday in the middle of the 20th century, this reflects demographic changes in the neighborhoods it serves and competition from other soccer and athletic programs, not a decline in its commitment to providing healthy recreation for boys and girls

Through its storied past as a significant source of American soccer talent, to serving as an early model of the youth soccer boom, Lighthouse Soccer Club is proof of Philadelphia’s place in the long history of the American soccer tradition. In 2010, that tradition was recognized when the club was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.

22 Comments

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  2. LBC was the paradigm of soccer up to the late 1960’s. Have fond memories of walking home from Lighthouse Field, at B & Erie, to my family’s home on Hartville St in Kensington with freezing rain chasing me all the way.
    Many, many great players several of whom went on to play in college, too many of whom did not.
    Now, what has become of all those trophies that filled the glass cabinets at Howard & Somerset?
    Cheers!

    • Charles Schneider says:

      I also have many memories from lighthouse soccer.
      just yesterday I came across a picture from 1918
      I don’t know what to do with it.

      • Charles, My grandfather played in 1918. Is there any way for you to post the picture? I would love to see it even if he is not in it. Thanks.

  3. Shawn Hughes-Camp says:

    My dad, John Hughes, was such a close friend of Fred and Mary Werner, founder of the Lighthouse Boys Club, and of course a great soccer player himself. Recognized in the Temple Hall of Fame, the South Jersey Soccer Hall of Fame, (coaching), and a key player with so many of the teams in Phila. He is celebrating his 84th birthday this weekend, and I have been looking to recreate a ukrainian nationals or Phila. Americans jersey for him. But have not yet found the art. Anyway, I will print this out for him, and will take the privilege of including his name in the bold typeface list of the lighthouse greats. He has lived his life as a great inspiration to many, just as Fred always would have wanted him to.
    Daughter, Shawn

    • Ed Farnsworth says:

      Hello Shawn,

      The PSP would love to talk to you and your dad. I’m one of the editors – let me know how to get in touch at efarnsworth@phillysoccerpage.com.
      Ed

    • Your Dad was my soccer coach at Stetson Jr. High School when I was a student there 59-61. Very fond memories of him.
      Please tell him that one of his former players wishes him a Happy Birthday!

    • David Goodwin says:

      I had a gym teacher in early 50’s at Stetson Jr High. His name was John Hughes, and my uncles told me he had been a great player. I think my Uncle Bill might have been a former teamate of John.

      Walt Bahr was another gym teacher I had, but do not remember if it was Stetson or Frankford, but leaning towards Frankford. Bahr had two sons who were soccer style kickers in the NFL>

    • Dear Shawn,
      I ran across this older article and wanted to respond. I had the honor of playing for your father at Stetson Jr. High the three years I was there. He was a great coach, a swell guy to be around and a terrific soccer player. He was a friend of my Uncle Jimmy Knox, a very good player in his own right. The fondest memories of my life center around playing soccer at lighthouse field, hanging around great men like your father, going to the Kensington Blue Bells Club and meeting the zaniest characters in the world.
      It was great being a kid back then and having a love of playing soccer!
      Billy Knox

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  7. Andrew Dunn says:

    I am trying to telephone someone from the Light House Boys club.
    Indeed if you will check your history, one of your first members was ANDREW L. DUNN, my grandfather.

    Andrew L. Dunn III
    703-490-3851

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  10. Very cool article about a historic soccer institution. Just a Heads up though, Benny McLaughlin’s name is spelled witha L not a G.

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  12. joe galezniak says:

    trying to get the phone # of William oneil north catholic 1958 1959 all catholic soccer team his father coached the urhich truckers.

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  14. Matty rodgers says:

    Anyone have any pics of national champs around 1952 from northeast boys club. I think the games were played in ludlow MA. My husband played for that team. Thanks for any help you can give.

  15. James Addison says:

    My Father played for TheLighthouse Celtics lost the national championship to a team from St. Louis. His team consisted of Philly Greats like Lew Meehl, Billy Snyder and Jack Riggero. Has a team picture and article

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