Trust hopes to preserve waterfront history

An archaeological dig at the lot in 1987 uncovered this centuries-old slipway, which was used to haul ships out of the water for repairs. 

April 2, 2009
By John Davidson
For PlanPhilly

There’s buried treasure under the parking lot at Callowhill Street and Delaware Avenue, just across the street from Dave & Buster’s.

That is, there’s buried archaeological treasure in the form of centuries-old wharfs, slipways and pre-colonial artifacts – along what was Philadelphia’s original waterfront. So says the West Shipyard Preservation Trust, a nonprofit group that wants to protect the site from development and launch a full-scale archaeological dig.

The group’s leaders spoke to the Central Delaware Advocacy Group’s Early Action Committee Wednesday evening at the Philadelphia Yacht Club to present their case for preservation of the site. The setting was appropriate; the club overlooks the parking lot, which is bound east-west by Water Street and Delaware Avenue, and north-south by Callowhill and Vine streets. According to trust members, including archeologist Rebecca Yamin, the lot is one of the only remaining accessible sites of the original Delaware riverfront; much of the original shoreline is buried under I-95 or built over.

The parking lot holds special interest, Yamin said, in part because an archaeological dig there in 1987 revealed an extremely well-preserved 18th-century slipway that was used to haul ships ashore for repairs. Found about eight feet below the surface, the slipway is one of a slew of artifacts uncovered in that dig.

The slipway, which extended into the Delaware River from what is now Water Street,  was photographed, catalogued and then re-buried. The land was not publicly owned at the time, and the archaeologists, lacking resources, had to bury the slipway and about a half a dozen other structures in order to preserve them.

“The really spectacular thing about this parking lot is that there were never buildings with deep basements to disturb whatever remains of west shipyard or from the other shipyards that went all the way up to Callowhill Street,” Yamin said. “So the whole span of the shore, between Vine and Callowhill, (was owned by) a series of people who were in the shipping business. We know that trade is so important in Philadelphia’s history, and we’ve done so little with the history of the waterfront, that this is a gift, really, that there should be these kinds of physical remains.”

 Now that the parking lot is owned by the newly formed Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, the West Shipyard Preservation Trust hopes to convince the city to protect the land from development and buy time for the Trust to raise money and support for an archeological excavation and, eventually, a museum.

The group has been speaking to civic groups like the CDAG committee in hopes of building support and momentum for the project. Wednesday evening, a dozen or so members of CDAG listened intently as leaders of the West Shipyard Preservation Trust explained the significance and potential of the site.

“We recognize the enormous asset that’s buried under six inches of blacktop. We know that it’s presently under public control. It’s a piece of property owned ultimately by the City of Philadelphia,” Andrew Sacksteder, president of the West Shipyard Preservation Trust, told the CDAG group. “The reason we’re sitting in front of a group of civic advocates is that, as citizens of Philadelphia, if you get this well enough known, the city has to take this–which is considered on the dockets right now as a development parcel for resale–out of circulation and into trust.”

The group wants to conduct a public archeological investigation of the site, to be followed in the future with a permanent museum that they say will attract tourists and students alike. Such a project, Sacksteder and his collogues argue, would raise the city’s profile of and reconnect the waterfront to Philadelphia’s historic mile, which originally ran all the way to the water’s edge–literally at Water Street.

 “One of the goals is to make the connection between this site, the Wood Street bank steps and the connections up through Elfreth’s Alley,” Sacksteder said. “Ultimately we see this as a true asset to Philadelphia tourism.”

Because the economic slump has stopped most development projects cold, the timing is right for this kind of undertaking, said trust member and real estate developer Stewart Harding: “There is no financing and there is no demand for anything. So we have a window of opportunity right now before it all gears up again.”

CDAG members at the presentation appeared enthusiastic about the preservation effort and said they wanted to learn more so they could present it to CDAG’s steering committee.

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