What fate awaits West Shipyard site?

By Steven Ujifusa
For PlanPhilly
In the late 1960s, archaeologists dug into the I-95 site as wrecking balls smashed historic warehouses and row houses into pieces all around them. Every day as darkness fell, collectors would scour the great gorge, looking for bottles and pottery unearthed by bulldozers. Artifacts that were not pillaged were reburied under tons of concrete or pulverized by steam rollers.

If I-95 were to be constructed today, such project speed and lack of consideration for Philadelphia’s past would be unthinkable. Kimberly Morrell, a project archaeologist at Kise, Straw & Kolodner, a prominent Philadelphia-based architecture firm specializing in historic preservation and archaeology, believes that despite the best intentioned efforts of the archaeologists of forty years ago, much was lost forever beneath the roadway.

“At the time of the I-95 construction,” Morrell said, “federal regulations requiring an archaeological investigation prior to construction involving federal funds had just been enacted (1966 National Historic Preservation Act). Archaeologists investigating the I-95 corridor encountered some fill deposits deeper than excavation machinery could reach and construction commenced in some areas before a thorough investigation could be conducted.

Although construction of the Philadelphia section of I-95 started in 1959, it was not until the late 1960s that it started to rip a path through the Center City waterfront. In 1985, the interstate was finally complete.(i) “Were this road to be constructed today,” Morrell added, “more time might be spent on the physical excavation by archaeologists; the Big Dig in Boston, with a decade of archaeological investigation and public involvement, is an example of the importance and value that the public can place on a city’s history.”

The recent excavation at the site of the President’s House on Independence Mall has put Philadelphia archaeology in the national spotlight. In addition to finding the architectural remnants of George Washington’s Philadelphia residence, archaeologists also retrieved clues to the daily life of his household staff, made up of German-born indentured servants and slaves he brought up from Mount Vernon.

The public has been captivated by the President’s House excavation. The New York Times ran a feature on July 3, 2007 on the project entitled “A Country’s Past is Unearthed, Comes into Focus.” The thousands of people who watched the dig from the viewing platform were moved and provoked by the reminders of slavery, located only a stone’s throw away from Independence Hall. “It’s a symbol of things that have not been valued in the past,” said Edward Lawler, a historian with the Independence Hall Association interviewed by the New York Times.(ii) “Truth buried will at some point rise,” said Dr. Wayne Gibbons, “Independence Day is something to celebrate, but in the context of understanding the price paid for freedom.”(iii)

Similar historical revelations may lie near the banks of the Delaware River. Morrell of Kise, Straw & Kolodner feels that there still is a vast, untapped public enthusiasm for archaeology in Philadelphia. “Archaeology is always a topic that grabs the public’s attention and imagination,” she said, “especially if they can be involved in the process somehow — even if just through the use of a viewing platform. Archaeology is being conducted in Philadelphia or its environs every day; the difficulty comes with getting notice out that a dig is being performed, and providing for safe access to the site.’’

A casual observer might look at the cracked parking lots and crumbling factories of the Northern Liberties waterfront and think there is nothing worth exploring here. This is not the case. One archaeological site escaped the havoc wrought by the construction of I-95: the West Shipyard, bounded by Water Street, Delaware Avenue, Vine and Callowhill Streets. This parcel was one of the earliest sections of the Delaware waterfront north of the 1638 New Sweden settlement to be developed by Europeans.

James West had set up a shipyard on the banks of the Delaware River in 1676, well before the arrival of William Penn and the Quakers. In the days before dry docks, repairing ships was a tricky, cumbersome, and often dangerous operation. If sailing ships needed their bottoms re-planked or re-seamed, men and beasts would tip them onto their sides using winches. The ships were then dragged up onto the launching ways, where the repairs took place. The shipyard workers had to take great care during this operation, as they could easily damage the sides of the ship. Yet for the relatively small cargo vessels, West’s Shipyard was a convenient and efficient repair facility.

Taverns and shops, which supported West’s workers, sat cheek-by-jowl with the shipyard itself. By the mid 18th century, West’s shipyard had developed into a miniature “company town.” The family holdings included not just the shipyard, but also the Penny Pot Tavern, a local gathering place for those in the shipping trade. Intensive, multi-purpose land use made sense. During the colonial period, Delaware waterfront lots were extremely valuable thanks to the vast amount of goods that flowed in and out of the harbor.

By the late 18th century, however, West’s small operation was becoming less and less profitable. Ships were getting so big so quickly that they needed larger, more complex facilities to handle their construction and repair. By the 1830s, more and more vessels were outfitted with steam engines. Repairing them required special engine shops. Fragile propellers and paddle wheels meant that ships had to be put into dry dock for repairs. Hauling ships ashore on their sides was no longer an option. Dry docks, cranes, gantries, engine shops, and warehouses required vast amounts of space. The William Cramp and Sons Shipyard in Fishtown and the New York Shipbuilding Company in Camden, with their vast expanses of waterfront frontage, boasted ever-expanding complexes of modern shipbuilding and repair facilities. By the mid-19th century, little West’s Shipyard and its neighbors were obsolete. Eventually, the West shipyard site was surrounded by landfill, cutting off its access point to the Delaware River.

Following the money trail, the West family abandoned shipbuilding and became merchants, specializing mainly in salt. Their former shipyard plot still remained valuable as a storage area for the goods offloaded from the vessels now docked several hundred feet to the east. By the 1850s, warehouses, lumberyards, and working class residences had sprouted above the bones of the old slipways and wharves. However, by the early 20th century, these structures had been leveled, replaced by railroad tracks.(iv) The construction of these tracks did not require the intensive digging that the construction of I-95 called for sixty years later, so most of the ground underneath remained undisturbed.

Today, modern-day development along the waterfront is defined by separation of land uses. The 21st century descendants of the Penny Pot Tavern, where stevedores unwind after unloading containers from steel-hulled behemoths, are now located far away from the shipping terminal in South Philadelphia. Many workers commute in from Delaware County or South Jersey. The terminal itself is fenced off from public view.

Some residents of Northern Liberties hope that the West Shipyard could revive some of the public’s enthusiasm for archaeology. A dig on the parcel might yield a relatively complete record of the parcel’s intensive and multilayered used from 1676 to the early 20th century.

Despite the damage caused by the construction of I-95, Morrell of Kise, Straw & Kolodner says that the preservation of Philadelphia’s underground record is the norm rather than the exception. “Several sites investigated in Philadelphia, such as the National Constitution Center Site and the recently excavated President’s House Site, have shown that despite repeated use of a property the historical record is often well preserved below the more modern development.”(v)

For Andy Sacksteder, President of the River’s Edge Association, the West Shipyard site is important because it is the sole intact remnant of Philadelphia’s colonial port. “It is the last block of its type,” Sacksteder said. “During the 18th century, Water Street was pier-head line. In the 19th century, Stephen Girard financed the filling in of the fetid tidal flats stretching from Water Street to the current pier-head line at Delaware Avenue. Disturbances in this landfill area were relatively minor because there were few buildings with deep foundations and no utility lines. I-95 took out a very large portion of this landfill area.”(vi)

John Scorsone, also of the River’s Edge Association, noted that the site contains the buried remains of the Wood Street steps, the surviving colonial era public access point to the Delaware River. “William Penn mandated that all residents had access to the docks and waterfront,” said Scorsone. “All of these access points were destroyed by I-95—except for the one on Wood Street.” (vii)

In recent years, residents of the Northern Liberties neighborhood have expressed a desire to reconnect with the waterfront’s history. In 2006, Interface Studios produced a waterfront plan for the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association. During its focus groups, Interface noted a consistent desire among residents to reattach Northern Liberties not just with the river itself, but also to the neighborhood’s industrial history. The Northern Liberties waterfront of today is not only largely abandoned, but also physically cut off from residents by a maze of barbed wire fences. According to the Interface Studios plan, “The closest many Northern Liberties residents get to ‘touching the water’ is when a water main breaks. The community needs to re-discover the water itself.”(viii)

The plan urged future waterfront developers to pay homage to the neighborhood’s industrial past. The following passage might well have described Northern Liberties in the time of the West Shipyard: The proximity of industry, entertainment, retail, offices, vacancy and housing defines an urban grittiness unique to Northern Liberties. Extending the community to the water means putting aside broad land use designations and defining a finer-grained vocabulary with which to advocate for the broadest range of use and activity.(ix)

Part of that finer-grained vocabulary is introducing residents to the rich history and vibrant industrial life that once was the integral to the Delaware River. The Interface Studios plan further recommended that the city should “transform the vestiges of previous eras into modern expressions of the community through public art and interpretation.”(x)

At least a few people thought that incorporating archaeology into the plan would be an effective means of reconnecting people to their neighborhood’s history. One resident suggested that an “archaeological park about the history of the old piers,” in the similar (but more modest) vein as the President’s House, should be considered as part of a new Northern Liberties waterfront plan. Another resident suggested a “sculpture garden composed of found materials on riverfront vacant land.”(xi)

What might be found at the West Shipyard site? In 1987, a small team conducted a dig at a plot known as the “Hertz lot,” located adjacent to the West parcel. In the 1700s, this lot belonged to William Taylor, another shipwright. Among the findings were the remains of several wharves dating back to the 18th century. The construction of these piers was relatively simple, basically “three-sided boxes, which were then filled with debris to create a flat surface.”(xii) The team also uncovered slipways, platforms where ships were hauled in and out of the water. These slipways consisted of two parallel wooden tracks, sloped upwards towards the shoreline. When coming in for repairs, the ship’s keel would rest between the tracks at high tide, and then workers and pack animals would winch it up and out of the water as the tide receded. The vessels repaired here were not the great wooden merchantmen that plied the seas between Great Britain and America. Rather, they were the small, 50 foot long sailing sloops that carried passengers and freight up and down the Delaware River. Although modest in size, the little ships provided steady work for the Taylors, Wests, and other shipyard owners.(xiii)

Amidst the massive slipway timbers lay artifacts of a more personal nature. According to Cotter and Robert’s The Buried Past, the archaeologists found copper nails, a brass and wood boat maker’s ruler, a chisel, a planning iron, brass and bone buttons and pins, copper cufflinks, beads of faceted glass and jet, clay tobacco pipes, and a lead token used by merchants to keep track of cargo.(xiv) These personal remnants are more than 18th century dross: they connect present-day Philadelphians to the rough-and-tumble yet still vital world of ordinary workers who once breathed life into the once-thriving industrial waterfront.

Because the West Shipyard site was used well before William Penn’s arrival, it might be a worthy candidate for an archaeological dig. This would dovetail neatly with the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association plan. According to the Interface Studios, a new waterfront plan should “transform the vestiges of previous eras into modern expressions of the community through public art and interpretation.(xv)

Morrell feels that similar traces of Philadelphia’s maritime heritage lie underneath the ground at the West Shipyard site: “Archaeological elements such as wharves, ship’s ways, building foundations, privies, wells, cisterns, and artifacts (to name just a few) are potentially preserved beneath the current property ground surface.”(xvi)

Jennifer Lewis, President of Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, said that her organization does not have a position on the West Shipyard site.(xvii)

However, John Scorsone of the River’s Edge Association, feels that an archaeological park will be a great addition to the currently barren waterfront. “Our vision is to make it another destination spot in Philadelphia’s historic mile. We would love to see it as a destination point for travelers and tourists, a combination of a live archaeological dig, park, and a museum, showcasing a replica colonial ship. We would like to restore the Wood Street steps and the shipyard to what it might have looked like during colonial times.”

As for raising funds for the project, River’s Edge Association is still in the preliminary stages. The group also feels it is in a race against time. Scorsone and Sacksteder hope to partner with the Independence Seaport Museum, which has expressed interest in the past but has not laid down any definite plans. They have also approached the William Penn Foundation, and are working with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia to facilitate the creation of a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the West shipyard project.

“Right now, our only reason to rush the project is if the Penn Landing Corporation pushes for the site to be developed,” said Sacksteder. “Our goal is to develop support amidst Penn’s Landing Board.” (xviii)

Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association
Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association Waterfront Plan
Kise Straw & Kolodner
Steven Ujifusa can be contacted at steven.ujifusa@hotmail.com


(i) Email correspondence with Kimberly Morrell, Project Archaeologist, Kise, Straw & Kolodner, September 20, 2007.
(ii) Niko Koppel, “A Country’s Past is Unearthed, and Comes Into Focus,” The New York Times, July 3, 2007.
Accessed September 24, 2007.
(iii) Ibid.
(iv)John L. Cotter, Daniel G. Roberts, and Michael Parrington, The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1993. 230.
(v) Email correspondence with Kimberly Morrell, Project Archaeologist, Kise, Straw & Kolodner, September 20, 2007.
(vi) Interview with Andy Sacksteder, President, River’s Edge Association, September 24, 2007.
(vii) Interview with John Scorsone, River’s Edge Association, September 24, 2007.
(viii) Interface Studios, “Northern Liberties Neighbors Association Plan,” 2006, 9.
(ix) Ibid, 9.
(x) lbid, 9.
(xi) Ibid, 49.
(xii) Ibid, 80.
(xiii) Ibid,
(xiv)John L. Cotter, Daniel G. Roberts, and Michael Parrington, The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1993. 231.
(xv) Interface Studios, “Northern Liberties Neighbors Association Plan,” 2006, 9.
(xvi) Email correspondence with Kimberly Morrell, Project Archaeologist, Kise, Straw & Kolodner, September 20, 2007.
(xvii)Email Correspondence with Jennifer Lewis, President, Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, September 18, 2007.
(xviii)Interview with Andy Sacksteder, President, River’s Edge Association, September 24, 2007.

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