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.



5 Comments


  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.

Recent Posts
Come Swing Away On The Porch

Come Swing Away On The Porch

August 31, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Leisure swings at 30th Street Station’s Porch, why it is Philly's duty to stay in town and welcome the Pope madness, a festival seeks to make the Schuylkill a community gathering space, and City of Brotherly Love rated 3rd best host to tourists > more

Renovations Furnish Lawsonia Building With Good Fortune

Renovations Furnish Lawsonia Building With Good Fortune

August 31, 2015  |  The Shadow Knows

The old Lawsonia furniture factory in Callowhill is being renovated for commercial and residential reuse after 13 years of false starts and vacancy. The Shadow plates up this little slice industrial heritage on Spring Garden Street > more

Reviving The Potential Of Broad & Washington

Reviving The Potential Of Broad & Washington

August 28, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Another development set for Broad & Washington, Old Navy flagship coming to Chestnut, Wawa to open early for Pope, Philly traffic numbers looking good, and some help on deciding which Fringe Fest events to attend > more

Courtyard Compass Reveals A City Off Axis

Courtyard Compass Reveals A City Off Axis

August 28, 2015  |  Walk the Walk

If you've ever feel like the city is just a tad off we have validating news for you. Philadelphia was built a few degrees left from its true north axis point. Contributor Joe Brin talks cartography and William Penn's city plan with Frank Morelli, Survey Bureau manager of the Streets Department > more

Fall Lighting Expected For North Broad Light Masts

Fall Lighting Expected For North Broad Light Masts

August 27, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Nutter and Clarke discuss the $8.7 million lighting of North Broad Street, committee okays further discussion on 2nd & Arch proposal, Francis Festival Grounds a more welcoming phrasing than Green Zone, and The Fillmore gets ready for October unveil > more

Global Media’s Tour Of Philly To Draw Connections With Pope, Church

Global Media’s Tour Of Philly To Draw Connections With Pope, Church

August 26, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Preeminent tour guide preparing for global media, the Commerce Department coming through with kiosks on 52nd Street, lackluster infill by Clark Park, and life after the Fringe Fest > more