Archaeologists working on the I-95 project unearth neighborhood history, stories

A lot can be learned about people’s lives by digging up the stuff they threw away or left behind, said the archaeologist leading the dig along I-95’s expanding path in Philadelphia.

“Through those little bits and fragments, we are trying to put together what the lives of the people who lived in this area were like,” Douglas Mooney, senior archaeologist with PennDOT’s contractor, URS Corp., told the crowd which packed St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Kennsington Wednesday. The assembled would learn about what Mooney and his team have found so far in Kensington, Fishtown, Port Richmond and other local neighborhoods. Attendees also got to see many of the artifacts, ranging from Native American tools to a German-made George Washington pipe and a colorful assortment of bowls, plates and bottles.

The digging is part of a historical review required by federal law for all projects taking place on federal land or, in the case of I-95, requiring a federal permit.

An introduction to the scope of the archaeology and the evening’s event.

Digging in the yards of what was 1215 and 1217 Cambria Street in Port Richmond revealed an unusual find, “whole sets of plates being thrown out at the same time,” said Mooney, who described archeologists as “glorified trash pickers.” The team has a theory about this. They call these properties “the tornado site” because in 1885, Port Richmond was smacked with a tornado that according to old records hit the area dead on. “The artifacts in the privy all seem to fit in the date range for when people’s homes would have been destroyed or damaged,” he said, thus creating trash for the team to find 150-some years later.  An old photograph of a couple, of a kind printed on a glass plate, was found perfectly intact, and the team is looking for a way to restore the image, which is probably of people who lived in the home.

At 1016 Palmer Street, a house owned from 1849 to 1900 by William G. Cramp – not the shipyard founder, but a relative of his who likely worked in the family business– the team found many artifacts of local industry, including bottles from the Dyottville Glass Works. They also found an old popular culture icon – a figurine of a man with a crescent  moon for a face, playing a stringed instrument. His name is Pierrot Lunaire, and Mooney called him the project mascot.

Of the nine major sites where Native American artifacts have been found in Philadelphia, the last four are all in these neighborhoods, Mooney said. Mostly, stone tools have been found, he said. But one decorated amulet that would have been worn around the neck of a Lenni Lenape was also discovered. “It is covered with a really nice decoration, and it would have meant something to the wearer,” he said. “We don’t know what it means yet.”

The archaeologists got a peak into the emotional lives of a 19th Century family which lived in a group of houses on Richmond Street. 

In the basement of what used to be 505 Richmond Street, the team found three, very carefully laid out pet graves, containing the remains of one dog, one cat and one bird.  “These are animals that clearly meant a lot to the people who lived here,” Mooney said. “The dog was buried with a doll.”

These and more stories were shared by Mooney at the event sponsored by the Central Delaware Advocacy Group. CDAG exists to advocate for the vision for the Central Delaware Waterfront, and many of the communities in the area are those where the exploration has happened, or will in future phases of the I-95 project.

Senior Archaeologist Doug Mooney tells stories about what has been found so far.

So many people attended that the church sanctuary where Mooney’s presentation was held wouldn’t hold them. He did a second presentation immediately following the first. The talk served to help people understand the artifacts laid out on tables in another room. URS employees staffed each table, eager to answer questions.

Future exploration will include Morris Ironworks, the earliest-settled parts of Kensington and Fishtown, the former site of the Fairman Mansion, located near Penn Treaty Park, and an area near where British Redoubt No. 2 – a British Revolutionary War fort – once stood.

“I really want to go after Redoubt No. 2,”  Mooney said after the presentation. “The site where it was is very close to I-95 – I’m not sure if it’s close enough (to qualidy for excavation).”

A different team of archaeologists spent time searching a portion of the SugarHouse casino site for remnants of Redoubt No. 1, but did not find it. Mooney didn’t dig on that project, but he was part of a committee that advised the historic review process.

Redoubt No. 2 sat on a bluff that overlooked the Cohocksink Creek – one of many Philadelphia creeks that have been buried. “It’s possible that if we can find that bluff, we can dig along side of the bluff. It’s a logical place,” Mooney said.

A logical place, that is, to find the trash and other cast offs of those occupying the fort.

Reach the reporter at kgates@planphilly.com

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