SugarHouse initiates new dig at site

Oct. 30

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

SugarHouse Casino will do more digging in search of remains of a mill, a social club, a shipyard and a British Revolutionary War Fort on its Delaware Avenue site.

Terry McKenna, project executive for SugarHouse’s general contractor, volunteered much of this work at a Wednesday meeting of a group of the archaeologists, preservationists and community activists who are advising the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a historic review of the site – a federally required part of the Corps’ permitting process.

The members of this group are called consulting parties, and since shortly after they were named late last year, some have criticized both the work of SugarHouse archaeology consultant A.D. Marble and the historic review process, saying that few of their concerns have been taken into account.

SugarHouse will do the additional work to alleviate those concerns, said spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker – particularly those of consulting party Torben Jenk. Jenk has inundated the Corps and SugarHouse with maps, journal entries, and other evidence in an effort to convince them that the Fort and other historic properties were located on the site and that they have been digging in the wrong place or to the wrong depth.

“We have looked for evidence of the Fort and its moat, and of Batchelor’s Hall, and found no evidence of them on the site,” Whitaker said. “The sense that I get is that he thinks we’re looking in the wrong place. So to assuage his fears, we are asking him to pinpoint on the map where he thinks we should dig, and then we’ll go out and dig. And he’d be welcome to be present for the digging.”

Jenk said he was “taken aback” by McKenna’s unexpected offer. He was quiet for a moment, and then “I said, ‘Ok, that’s good. Thank you.'”

Jenk has until Wednesday to put together information about where and to what depth the archaeologists should dig, and then work will begin the following week. He intends to be present while the work takes place, and to take pictures. A second consulting party may also attend, but no more for reasons of safety on an active work site, Whitaker said.

The mill that will be looked for was owned by Thomas Masters, who William Penn appointed as commissioner of roads and watercourses in 1701. Masters was wealthy, and the first person in the Colonies to receive a patent, Jenk said.

The mill shows up on surveys in 1715 and 1729. It was powered by the ebbing tide. When the tide went out of the Cohocksink Creek, water flowed up a race and over a wheel, powering the mill. Jenk doesn’t know what was milled there. He’s also not certain that the mill itself was on the property. If it is, it would be in the southwest corner, he said. If not, the race could still be found, and the location of the mill determined by following it.

Batchelor’s Hall was a society of learned men who were contemporaries of Benjamin Franklin. John Bartram, the famous botanist, kept the garden there.

Whitaker anticipated that looking at the sites Jenk identifies for the mill, Batchelor’s Hall, and a shipyard can be done in a day, but the work will go beyond that if it takes longer, she said.

The additional digging SugarHouse has pledged to do in search of the British Fort will take place beneath Penn Street, and that cannot happen until the utilities are capped. The utility companies won’t do that until SugarHouse has received all necessary permits and is about to start work, Whitaker said. McKenna pledged at the consulting party meeting that the archaeological work beneath the street will take place before construction begins, not during construction.

Whitaker said this was always the intention, but there was a misunderstanding about archaeological recommendations made by Marble. The recommendations said the Penn Street work couldn’t be done until construction, but that has always meant the point at which utilities are capped, she said.

None of the additional archaeology is being required by the Army Corps, which is already satisfied that SugarHouse and Marble have done everything necessary before a permit can be issued, said Sam Reynolds, application section chief in the Philadelphia district’s regulatory branch.

“It was a good faith item that Terry (McKenna) put out,” Reynolds said.  But if anything new is learned that has relevance to the historic review, it will be included, he said.

Late in the summer, the Corps sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission – which advises the Corps on matters dealing with historic preservation in Pennsylvania – stating that SugarHouse had “made a reasonable and good faith effort to identify historic properties on the SugarHouse site.”  The Corps also recommended that methods for recovering any remaining artifacts or doing mitigation to make up for artifacts that would be adversely affected – essentially ruined – by the project.

The Corps is still waiting for a response from the PHMC to that letter. If the PHMC agrees, the formal agreement will be drawn up, and then reviewed by SugarHouse, the PHMC and the federal Advisory Council for Historic Preservation.  The consulting parties will also be asked to comment on the agreement, and their concerns and suggestions may be included, but they do not have to be, Reynolds said, as the final responsibility rests with the Corps.

A representative from the PHMC was at Wednesday’s meeting, and consulting party Douglas Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeology Forum, said he could not truly gauge the effectiveness of the meeting until seeing whether the issues raised made it into the PHMC’s response to the Corps’ letter.

The meeting was productive, he said, and he hopes that others will be held. One frustration of Mooney and other consulting parties has been that prior to Wednesday, the consulting parties only had one in-person meeting, despite requests to the Corps. The bulk of their review has been done via email exchange.

Reynolds said more meetings were possible, but have not been scheduled.

The Corps has other issues related to the environment and the river that it must consider before making a determination on SugarHouse’s permit request. Reynolds had no idea how much more time the Corps would need to make its decision.

SugarHouse needs the Corps permit to build its project as planned. In order to begin construction, the casino also still needs a highway occupancy permit from the city and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and a city building permit.

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