By Kellie Patrick Gates
The British troops who occupied Philadelphia during the Revolution defended a fort that appears to have sat where SugarHouse plans to build its casino.
Historians and history buffs say the Delaware River site offers a rare chance to learn more about the War of Independence and the Queen’s Rangers who fought to keep Philadelphia under crown control. They have galvanized in an effort to gather facts and maps to persuade the state, casino executives and the public that an extensive search of the dirt is needed to determine where the fort sat exactly, as well as to uncover anything that has been left behind.
Archaeologists hired by SugarHouse have already been digging – to meet a federal requirement for a needed Clean Water Act permit. Their first phase report talks about an old residential neighborhood and industries, but does not mention the fort, a barracks or any Revolutionary skirmishes.
“I think they need to explain that,” said Ken Milano, a local historian who specializes in Kensington and Fishtown. “Where the fort was built, houses were (later) built on top. If they are going down to the foundations of the houses, and into the privies, do they need to go further underneath?”
Terry McKenna, project executive for Keating Consulting – SugarHouse’s general contractor – said the company did not know about the fort when the archaeological survey began. But its former existence does not change the company’s position that subsequent uses of the site have destroyed any significant evidence of the past.
“We were well aware of the subject maps, and came across them subsequent to the issuance of the Phase I report. Anyone who is experienced with conducting archaeological investigations would agree that this is not an unusual occurrence. We continue to perform all activities in accordance with the regulatory requirements,” he said in an emailed statement.
“The subject maps do not materially change our conclusions for the portion of the site in question, as that portion of the site was developed for industrial uses in its entirety over the past 200+ years.”
To Robert Selig – a Revolutionary War expert who has worked for the U.S. Parks Service and was the historian for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route project – the fact that the dig began without knowledge of the fort is reason enough for a do-over.
“That seems very odd to me, because you have to do historical work first, and any British map would show you there was a fort there,” he said. “I don’t think they did their homework.”
Selig, who became interested in the site after local historians he knows from working on the Pennsylvania portion of the Washington-Rochambeau project sent him maps – also said that while industries that came after the fort may have disturbed what the soil contained, chances are good they did not destroy it.
“They would have dug foundations for those buildings, but the soil that was dug out would have been dumped near by,” he said. “I think you will find artifacts that belong to different time periods, and they will be intermixed – you may find an 1980s copper penny and a 1750s British crown” in the same soil layer, he said.
Bucks County attorney and avid amateur historian Hal Schirmer cites cases where significant historical finds have turned up after a proclamation that nothing significant existed. “That’s what they said about Jamestown and the Washington House,” he said.
But to SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker, this battlefield cry has a familiar ring.
“First it was the turtles, and those weren’t there. Then it was an Indian burial ground. Now it’s a fort,” she said.
None of those pushing for more dirt-sifting are fans of the casino, and some are also part of organizations that are trying to make SugarHouse move from its proposed waterfront site.
But the historians and history buffs say a chance to find out more about the soldiers whose duty it was to protect the essential food supply route from Bucks County farms to Philadelphia should not go untaken.
“What will they find? If they are lucky, they will find belt buckles, musket balls and other metal objects, bones of things (the soldiers) ate,” said Torben Jenk, a builder and preservationist who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years and researched Kensington and Fishtown history for more than a decade. “It’s not going to stop the casino, I don’t think. And I’m not asking it to. But before we plow through history, let’s just take a close look at the top 6 or 8 feet of dirt.”
One thing Selig believes archaeologists would not find are soldiers’ remains.
The British would not have buried anyone there because “you get too close to the water, and the river is the water supply for the city,” he said. Also, the Brits were in Philadelphia for an extended period of time, so under those circumstances “there is time for decent burial at a burial ground.”
Still, SugarHouse’s grand opening could be significantly delayed if any important finds do turn up – or even if the right people begin to suspect they could. Anti-casino activists like Daniel Hunter of Casino-Free Philadelphia know this, and they are also working to call attention to the dig.
Here’s how what lies beneath the ground affects when and whether anything else can be built on top:
In order to begin real construction, SugarHouse needs a building permit from the city’s Licences & Inspection Department. But before L&I will issue a building permit, the applicant must have already received a slew of other permits from the streets department, the water department, and others.
More limited permits that would allow some work could be issued, said L&I Permits Services Manager Robert Murray. A foundation permit would allow foundation work only. A site work permit would allow excavation only. But because of the size of the SugarHouse project, they too would require water and sewer permits, Murray said.
SugarHouse also needs a federal Clean Water Act permit because it plans to build into the Delaware River. And the Water Department will not issue its permits until that federal permit is in hand.
Federal law requires the Army Corps of Engineers to explore the history of a site and make sure efforts are taken to preserve anything important before issuing a Clean Water Act Permit.
“We have to consider, or take into account, any effects on historic properties,” said James Boyer, a biologist with the Corps.
The Corps will do this with the help of the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, which will review the architectural reports done at the SugarHouse site and determine whether more research is needed. The Corps cannot issue its decision without a PHMC recommendation.
The only information about what the first phase of digging has turned up is contained in the Phase I report. Phase II digging is complete, and the written report is expected to be completed and made public within several weeks. SugarHouse’s contracts prohibit anyone working on the dig from talking about it.
The Army Corp will also consider evidence and opinions anyone gives during the public comment period, which has not yet begun. The historians are racing to track down more documents and maps – many of which give clues to the existence of others, Jenk said.
Their research and Selig’s offer a glimpse of what happened at British Fort 1, which was made of trees and mud.
The troops there were commanded by John Graves Simcoe, who later became lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada and founded a military camp and civilian town that eventually became Toronto.
Milano searched Simcoe’s diary and found entries that indicate the Fort was used as a barracks for a time.
This makes perfect sense, Jenk said, considering that Fort 1 was the most important and most fortified of the British forts in the area.
It was built to defend the point where The King’s Highway (now Frankford Avenue) crossed the Cohocksink Creek. The Highway was how food was transported from Bucks County farms to the people of Philadelphia and the soldiers, Jenk said. The Creek has long since been capped. But at the time, it was a marshy mess – horses were known to get lost in the quick sand, Jenk said. So a bridge was crucial – and vulnerable to attack.
As a result, there were many skirmishes at and near the Fort. “If you are a rebel, you want to knock out the weak points,” Jenk said.
Based on what’s been found in other places where soldiers stayed, including Valley Forge, Selig thinks the SugarHouse site could also provide a glimpse into non-military life during the Revolution.
“Where there are soldiers, there are women and children,” Selig said. Some soldiers’ families may have been on the site – particularly those of loyalists from Pennsylvania and New Jersey who joined the British troops, he said.
So along with broken bayonets, a dig might turn up marbles or children’s toys made from wood or metal, he said. Bones from women’s corsets, haircombs or jewelry might be found. Near the riverbank, submerged in oxygen-poor mud, shoes and other leather goods might turn up, he said.
“For me, as a military historian, these (non-Military items) would be the most interesting potential find in a fort like this that has been occupied,” he said.
Kellie Patrick Gates is a former Inquirer reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org