Aramingo Canal comes back to life

Dec. 10

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Layers of Philadelphia’s history were laid open for inspection on the site of a new Girard Avenue ramp for I-95 earlier this week.

A cacophony resounded from the modern roadway high above the worksite. The bricks and cement of parts of the old Cramps shipyard, built in the late 19th Century, stood exposed just above the heads of a team of archaeologists hired by PennDOT.  Their discovery of a much older way of moving goods lay beneath them: the rough-cut logs of the 160-year-old Aramingo Canal.

One team member held a ruler against the old wood. The location and dimensions of the find were noted precisely. This is likely the last week of work on the project said team leader Douglas Mooney, a senior archaeologist with URS Corporation, Inc. And re-burying the old logs will be among the team’s last acts.

The canal will be reburied because the damp clay and soil that has kept its wooden sides so well preserved that tool marks are evident is the best hope of preserving the structure for the future. “It’s been preserved because there was no oxygen hitting it,” said PennDOT District Six Cultural Resource Professional Cathy Spohn, who is also an archaeologist. “The best thing we can do is cover it up.”

But what won’t be reburied is the story of the canal and the people who built it and used it – even the not-so-pretty parts of the story.

A slaughterhouse dumped its refuse in the canal, Spohn said. “During low tide, you could see the rotting carcasses,” said Mooney. And you could smell them, too.

PennDOT will publish a booklet and possibly erect a plaque at the site, which is near the large shopping center at the corner of Aramingo Avenue and Norris Street. Mooney will present a public lecture on the canal.

He did a bit of that on Tuesday afternoon, when the site was open to the public. He pointed to a corner of canal wall, still a crisp 90-degrees with its massive joints and iron spikes clearly visible to about half a dozen onlookers. This was a slip, he said – an access point to the canal for the Gillingham & Garrison Lumber company. Then Mooney directed his audience’s attention to the dollar store visible on the other side of I-95. That’s where the lumber company was, he said. The canal company was built in 1847, and the slip to what was Philadelphia’s largest lumber mill was added in 1871, after Gillingham & Garrison was burned in a fire, then rebuilt and enlarged, Mooney said.

A wood-lined canal is unusual. More typically, stone or earth was used. The support for the sides – still clearly visible – was a crib system of wooden beams and cross supports, with earth filling the spaces between them. In some areas, the footers that supported the Cramps building appear to have been placed precisely within the crib system to avoid damaging it. That’s just an illusion, and a happy coincidence of placement for the archaeologists, Mooney said. In other areas, those building Cramps cut right through the canal.

When it was in use, the canal’s walls would have been a couple of feet higher than they are now, he said.  The large, rectangular stones of an abutment are all that remain of a bridge that allowed people and their horses to cross.

The 52 property owners who incorporated the Gunner’s Run Improvement Company in 1847 hoped that “canalizing” the slow-running, un-navigable stream would allow boats to take goods from their neighborhood out to the Delaware and beyond, thus revving up economic development. Congress declared the canal an official highway in 1856.

The rest of Philadelphia was booming with industry, and the Improvement Company hoped their canal would bring prosperity north to them, too.

For awhile, it seemed to work. Among the industries that used the canal: The Lewis White Lead Works, the Leibrandt & McDowell Stove Works, the Gillingham & Garrison and Brown & Woelpper Saw and Planing Mills, the Hughes & Patterson Rolling Mill, and the Dyottville Glass Works.

But the canal was never what its creators hoped it would be, and it eventually failed altogether. The canal was supposed to stretch 5.5 miles out from the Delaware, Mooney said. “I don’t think it ever was built beyond Tioga Street,” he said. Canal users were supposed to pay subscription dues for construction and maintenance, but much of the money never came in.

Then came the competition brought by the railroads. As if to underline the point, one portion of the canal was covered up so that a huge railroad yard could be built on top of it, Spohn said.

Compounding the canal’s problems was the development it had helped spur.  The industries dumped their waste into it, and the flow of the water was not enough to take what was dumped in out to the river. The flow slowed even more. “In 1884, the Philadelphia Water Department described it as an open sewer clogged with filth,” Mooney said. And newspaper reports from the time said the water was ink-black and smelled horrible. City officials blamed the Aramingo Canal for outbreaks of typhoid fever and malaria.

“It became a diabolical place,” Mooney said in an earlier interview. And so the city started to drain it and fill it in, sometimes adding sewers before covering it. By 1895, the canal only extended to Norris Street – the location where URS Corporation and PennDOT are now working.  By 1902, the canal was completely drained and covered over.

As pleased as everyone at the site is with what has been found and learned about the canal, there has been one disappointment.

Since there was a time when businesses along the canal threw a lot of stuff into it, “we were hoping to find a layer of artifacts at the bottom, but we are not finding any,” Mooney said.

He surmises that the workers who drained the canal and ran the sewer down it also had the very unpleasant and rough work of dredging all that it contained.

Mooney’s team first discovered remains of the canal in 2007. URS immediately wanted to learn more, but the area where they discovered the west wall did not allow for much work space. The current site is 100 feet to the east – the eastern wall of the canal.

Reburying it soon is important, Mooney said, because the cold weather could freeze the water-logged wood, and the expansion could damage it. In time, exposure to the air would also dry it out, and disintegration would not take long after that, Spohn said.

Before filling in the space, a plastic tarp will be placed over the canal, both to help preservation and to alert future diggers that they’ve found it, Mooney said.

But the reburied wood should remain as well-preserved as it is now, Spohn said, and in the future, new technologies or techniques might reveal more information from it. The new overpass’s piers won’t pierce the site, she said.

Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.