Archaeological search for more of West Shipyard underway

Note: An earlier version of this story said that a portion of a 1750 shipway found on the site in the 1980s was not found. In fact, it was a bulkhead near the shipway that was not found.

Archaeologists have begun searching for the remains of a shipyard where James West built and repaired ships before William Penn’s arrival here.

Beneath what is now a parking lot between Vine and Callowhill streets, there may still be tools once used in shipbuilding, or evidence of structures where ships were built, said archaeologist Wade Catts, associate director of cultural resources with John Milner Associates of West Chester.

Such discoveries would be very significant. “The shipyard pre-dates Philadelphia,” Catts said. James West and his family operated on the site from 1676 until the 1800s. “These are present-at-the-founding (of the nation) kind of people,” he said.

But an earlier archaeological discovery that helped inspired the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation to commission this dig has not been found. In the late 1980s, a different team discovered a slipway from about 1750 – the only 18th Century slipway ever found. Earlier this week, the current team dug in the documented spot to see how well a bulkhead wall that was then near the slipway had held up, and also to help orient them on the site.

The bulkhead was not found.

“It’s very likely that it got exposed (to air) and because it got exposed, it didn’t survive,” Catts said. There are other possibilities as well. The parking lot has been reworked since then, and the structure may have broken down, Catts said.

But he is optimistic that other sections of the spillway are still beneath the parking lot. “It’s not gone, gone,” he said, it’s just the one section.

The finds from the 1980s are well-documented, but that work, which was sponsored by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, did not extend to the southern portion of the site.

The DRWC is the agency that oversaw creation of the Central Delaware Master Plan, which calls for new homes, shops, commercial and green space in order to spur economic development and tie the city back to the Delaware River. Potentially, the parking lot could be among the earlier sites for development, since it is publicly owned. But the site is on the National Register, and DRWC is using a $25,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission and matching funds from the William Penn Foundation to dig test pits to get an idea of what’s underground.

While the West Shipyard site is on the west side of Columbus Boulevard, in 1676, it was just yards away from the Delaware River shoreline.

There is potential to find tools used in shipbuilding, or evidence of structures where ships were built, Catts said. Such discoveries would be very significant. These finds would be older than the slipway, and boat construction was different in the late 17th Century and early 18th Century than it was 1750.  “So you’ll actually see a change in technology,” Catts said.

This dig is exploratory. The team is to dig test trenches this week and next and report on what they find, and what they believe could potentially be found with more investigation.

As of Wednesday afternoon, a brick and stone wall, likely from the 19th Century, had been unearthed. Evidence of wood supports, possibly for a floor, were also found.

The West family operated their shipyard through the 1800s, then the site changed hands, and went into other uses. The brick and stone foundation is from one of these later buildings, Catts said.

The team knew they would find this rubble just below the parking lot pavement. Often, foundations back then were not very deep, so the hope is that the original land surface is beneath the bricks and stone.

In addition to the shipyard, archaeologists might find evidence of the 18th Century Penny Pot Tavern, Catts said, although there is some disagreement about where, exactly, it was located.

Anyone interested in seeing the work and talking to an archaeologist can do so Thursday from 10 am to noon or Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. Based on response so far, DRWC has decided to add another public tour date next week: Tuesday, from 5 to 7 p.m. Also, anyone who wants to schedule a group tour should call DRWC at 215-629-3200.

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