Corps: Casino’s pre-permit digging is done

Photo courtesy of Torben Jenk

April 1, 2009
By Kellie Patrick Gates
for PlanPhilly

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it’s satisfied – again – with the archaeology done at the SugarHouse site and no further digging needs to happen before a permit is issued.

This doesn’t mean the Corps is close to deciding whether or not to give SugarHouse the permit it needs to build its casino project as planned. The Corps also looks at environmental and other issues, and some are still outstanding. But if the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation concur with the Corps’ assessment, it will mean SugarHouse has satisfied the federal requirement for a historical review of its Delaware Avenue.

“We’re certainly hopeful, but we’ll take our directions from the Army Corps,” said SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker.

While SugarHouse is pleased, some of the consulting parties – a group of local historians, neighborhood activists and archaeologists who advise the historic review process – are not.

“It’s a farce,” consulting party Torben Jenk, a preservationist and amateur historian, said of the process.

The Corps previously announced its satisfaction with the dig last August. That action peeved the consulting parties, who were frustrated that the Corps had taken this step, and others, without an in-person meeting. This was especially true since many of the consulting parties – including Jenk and Philadelphia Archaeological Forum President Douglas Mooney – had long been dissatisfied with the archaeological work done by SugarHouse archaeologist consultant A.D. Marble of Conshohocken.

In what is probably the most publicized example, Marble at first did not mention that a British Revolutionary War fort once sat on the site. Jenk provided a mountain of historical documents. Marble’s position – backed by the Corps – is now that the Fort stood there, but any evidence was destroyed when pilings were drilled to support the former sugar factory on the site. Marble also anticipated not finding any Native American artifacts on the site, and it has turned out to be one of the richest troves of such artifacts in the city.

A face-to-face meeting was held in October.  SugarHouse stands by A.D. Marble’s work. But at the October meeting, Terry McKenna, project executive for SugarHouse’s general contractor, volunteered to look for the remains of Batchelor’s Hall, a tide mill and a shipyard at locations suggested by Jenk, and that Jenk could be present. McKenna also said Marble would do more looking for the British fort, beneath Penn Street, but that work could begin until the utilities under the street are capped.

Digging was done, and a building was found where Jenk said to look for Batchelor’s Hall, a club where famed botanist John Bartram is thought to have tended the garden.  Jenk was elated. Marble said the find was much too young to be the hall. And in its recent letter of effect to PHMC and an accompanying email, the Army Corps says it agrees with Marble on the Hall question and all else.

“The Corps has reached a point at which the evidence to support A.D. Marble’s conclusions is overwhelming,” Jim Boyer, a biologist with the Corps’ regulatory branch who is overseeing the permit process, wrote in an email to the consulting parties. “An extraordinary amount of work and effort has been expended by the applicant and A.D. Marble to pursue clarifications and to address criticism.

“In the case of the field work with Mr. Jenk, he has disagreed with the interpretation of foundations identified during his visits to the site. We are confident A.D. Marble has accurately fixed the foundations as part of a 19th century neighborhood and not a portion of Batchelor’s Hall.”

Boyer also wrote: “The consulting parties for this project have provided an important check-and-balance to the process and rightfully called for conclusions to be firm. That has been accomplished. The Corps feels all work relevant to basic identification and effect determination has been accomplished.”

Both Jenk and Mooney said they were disappointed, but not surprised.

Jenk, who called the review process “a sham,” remains convinced that the foundation discovered at his direction is the remains of Batchelor’s Hall. He criticizes Marble for not doing a test of the mortar to prove the structure’s age. He maintains that Marble never looked for the other structures, and says they used poor-quality, inaccurate maps, some of which were drawn for Europeans interested in the colonies by people who never set foot here.

 “Who brought all the information on The Fort, on Master’s Tide Mill, and on Batchelor’s Hall? I did,” Jenk said. “They knew nothing” about the history of the site.

Mooney feels that some of the concerns he raised on behalf of the Archaeological Forum have not been adequately addressed. “The level of testing so far has been inadequate with respect to some resources out there,” he said. “Certain parts of the the site have not been adequately explored.”

Jenk said he will write some sort of response to the Corps, although he doesn’t expect anything to come of it.  Mooney said the Archaeological Forum will discuss the letter and report before deciding whether to respond.

The Forum will also be paying close attention to the next step, he said – the writing of the Memorandum of Agreement.

The Corps current letter, just like the previous one, says that the SugarHouse project would destroy some areas that contain significant historic and prehistoric artifacts. The MOA will outline in detail how this will be remedied.

Based on his experience, Mooney said the MOA will likely call for the complete excavation in these areas, and will outline what will happen to the artifacts there. These include Native American artifacts that are thousands of years old.

The MOA will also detail post-permit digging under Penn Street. The work cannot yet be done because of active utilities that remain. Jenk and Mooney hope some portion of the British fort – also known as Redoubt No. 1, remains yet under Penn Street. 

In its letter to PHMC, the Corps says “It is unlikely, but not inconceivable, that evidence of Redoubt No. 1 could be encountered w hen Penn Street is removed. The extent to which buried utilities along the street  may have damaged subsurface remains, however, is unknown.”

Contact the reporter at

See previous coverage:

Big Discovery at SugarHouse Site?

SugarHouse initiates new dig at site.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal