We Burrow Through Time To An Original Delaware River Cave


The 1680s caves along the Delaware River, as imagined by painter William Breton. | Image: The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Dozens of William Penn’s people–with only paper proof that they’d purchased a lot or a plantation in the real estate scheme called Pennsylvania–squatted in caves along the bank of the Delaware River waiting his arrival.

This week, along with a handful of archeologists and historians, Hidden City participated in a tour organized by cultural historian Anita McKelvey, of the remains of one of the caves, in the basement of a 19th century mercantile building at Front and Race Streets.

Inside the cave | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

That building itself is thought to be the site of the circa 1700 Penny Pot Tavern, in a part of the original city mostly buried under layers of development and infrastructure.

1908 rendering of the Penny Pot Tavern

Architect Alan Johnson, a principal in the now shuttered firm Alley Friends Architects, which was housed in the building, guided us through the layers, as if we were burrowing through time: from 1972, when he arrived, before the construction of that section of I-95, when the street was home to a Dietz and Watson slaughterhouse–“the hogs would arrive every Monday morning and by afternoon you’d see them leave as perfect hams,” he said–down through mid-19th century explosion and fire that destroyed the entire waterfront, past the installation of the earliest American cast iron building facade, now housed at the Smithsonian, to a mammoth wood beam that originated as a ship’s mast to cave itself, which was reached by passing through his workshop in the old Alley Friends studio.

Burrowing through time | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The caves were adapted in the 18th and 19th century by the owners of the waterfront mercantile buildings here for extra square footage beyond the building line (the cave we stood inside was under the sidewalk).

“Cartoon” Penny Pot above 309 N. Front | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

In the 1990s, Johnson created a “cartoon version” of the Penny Pot–perhaps the visual icon of this strange, isolated block–which he installed on the roof of the building.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. His essays and book reviews appear in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, The Millions, and Fanzine.


  1. Interesting! I had never heard of these caves before.

  2. Harry Kyriakodis

    See Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront (2011) for a rundown on these caves (and the nearby steps that Wm Penn directed to be built).

  3. Another great piece and wonderful to actually see the remnant of the cave, thanks Harry.

  4. I first learned about the existence of these caves when on one of Harry K’s tours. Another good detailed source of info is Rebecca Yamin’s book, Digging in the City of Brotherly Love. She devotes an entire chapter to waterfront archaeology, much of which can be read online, starting on page 120. See here: http://books.google.com/books?id=AL_G5WIDbqkC&pg=PR1&lpg=PR1&dq=rebecca+yamin+digging+in+the+city+of+brotherly+love&source=bl&ots=KXoFchEMYx&sig=UsB67cvmF4vwGzAG3cKtB_vxcSo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=8asuUM_tBqqp0AGc3oGoBQ&ved=0CEEQ6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q=rebecca yamin digging in the city of brotherly love&f=false

  5. There were caves or underground places under a lot of Old City. The apartment bldg. on Bread St. known as the Castings has a opening in the lobby that allows access to the old brewers tanks and piles of trash. It was my understanding that individual bldg. owners closed the tunnels off for security.

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