Beachcombing By The Airport


Photo: Peter Woodall

Driving down Fort Mifflin/Hog Island Road through the marshy land between the Philadelphia International Airport and the Delaware River, the city recedes out of sight, and boundaries become hard to discern. Philadelphia ends just past historic Fort Mifflin, and Delaware County begins, but Bow Creek, the meandering tidal stream that once marked this transition, no longer exists. The course of the creek is still memorialized on maps by the county line that snakes across the eastern end of the airport (which, despite its name, is mostly located in Delaware County). But no sign announces this jurisdictional change, as if neither county cares to claim this swampy territory as its own.

Photo: Peter Woodall

I visited this no-man’s-land recently with Peter Woodall, to see a patch of shoreline which he promised would yield some treasure—if your idea of treasure is chunks of broken bottles and rusted metal. I am a trashpicker, beach comber and dump digger of many years standing, so I felt at home clambering among the slippery rocks and broken pilings at low tide, searching for treasure in the muck. This spot had been part of the Hog Island Shipyard, which had a brief run building military ships from the end of World War I into the early 1920s. The pilings were the only evidence left of this massive enterprise, which once employed thousands and included 50 riverfront shipways, where 50 ships could have conceivably been built at once.

As we gathered a basket full of what most people would consider trash, Pete and I mused about how all this material came to reside here. As with much of the Delaware riverfront, this shoreline is not natural, but was created by massive landfilling operations. Beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century, muck and silt dredged from the river in channel deepening projects were dumped on the city’s lowlands, converting what was deemed unhealthy wasteland into productive solid ground that could be built upon (and taxed by the city). Some of the material Pete and I found could have been part of those dredge spoils. Other stuff might have come from trash dumped here (either legally or illegally), since this was another way swampland was filled in. The metal artifacts were likely from the shipyard days, and some of the glass might also have been discarded by shipyard workers—which would explain the many broken bottle bottoms marked “Continental Distilling,” but not the many white glass containers of Pond’s Cold Cream.

As unnatural as this shoreline was, I was still excited to get down and dirty with the river that has played such an important role in the city’s history. The city offers little access anywhere along its many miles of Delaware riverfront; most of it is blocked by highways, industry (active or abandoned), rail yards, and abandoned piers behind cyclone fences.

Little if any of this shoreline is as it was when William Penn arrived here; most if not all of it has been altered as drastically as the section Pete and I explored. Even along the Schuylkill River, which winds through miles of Fairmount Park, little original shoreline remains, much of it having been filled out to bulkheads to level our the riverfront parkland.

Photo: Peter Woodall

One of the only accessible undisturbed patch of shoreline along the city’s two major rivers exists at the bottom of Bartram’s Garden, where the remnants of a cider press still show in a boulder. Of course, the view from here is vastly different now: where Bartram, in the 18th century, would have looked across the river at the mostly undeveloped land of South Philadelphia, a visitor today sees the huge tanks of a gas works.

About the author

Adam Levine has done extensive research since 1998 into the historical topography of Philadelphia, mostly as a consultant to the Philadelphia Water Department. As part of this work, he manages the PWD Historical Collection, and also maintains an extensive website of watershed and water supply material at In a related career path, he writes about gardening, and is the author of many articles and four books, including A Guide to the Great Gardens of the Philadelphia Region (Temple, 2007).  In another life, he worked full time as a journalist, both freelance and as a staff writer for the Gloucester County Times in Woodbury, NJ.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Reaching For The Heavens At Cret's Tower Of Chimes

Reaching For The Heavens At Cret’s Tower Of Chimes

May 26, 2017  |  Vantage

Turn a corner in Philadelphia and you will eventually run into a building or bridge designed by Paul Phillipe Cret. Celebrated for his broad, arched infrastructure and Neoclassical landmarks, not much is discussed of his cemetery architecture. Contributor Brian Horne takes a trip out to Montgomery County where a 172-foot tower designed by Cret sends a memorial park reaching towards the sky > more

Rediscovering The Dead Fleet Of The Delaware River

Rediscovering The Dead Fleet Of The Delaware River

May 23, 2017  |  Vantage

The ships of the "Dead Fleet" at Pier 78 rise at low tide from their watery graves in the Delaware River. It's a curious sight, recalling a time when the riverbanks thrummed with a booming maritime industry. Philadelphia shipping historian Robert McNulty takes us on a salty voyage to uncover the backstory of South Philadelphia's ghost ship graveyard > more

Building A Better Future With Bright Common

Building A Better Future With Bright Common

May 19, 2017  |  Vantage

Hidden City editor Michael Bixler catches up with sustainable architect Jeremy Avellino to talk climate change, deep energy retrofits, and the power of passive house building. > more

Restoration Project Gives New Life To Ben Franklin's Grave

Restoration Project Gives New Life To Ben Franklin’s Grave

May 17, 2017  |  News

Benjamin Franklin's tombstone gets some desperately needed TLC. Tyler Horst has the story > more

Summoning The Spirit Of A Victorian Masterpiece

Summoning The Spirit Of A Victorian Masterpiece

May 15, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

Gone, but not forgotten. The Shadow channels the ghost of the Henry J. Morton Guild House, a beautiful Victorian hall designed by famed Philadelphia architects Wilson Brothers & Company > more

The Making (And Marketing) Of The Modern Gayborhood

The Making (And Marketing) Of The Modern Gayborhood

May 12, 2017  |  Vantage

Contributor Kelson Northeimer takes a look at the history of the Gayborhood and its cultural transformation through lifestyle marketing and gentrification > more