It’s apparent that Philadelphia has discovered the importance of reinvigorating the connections to its waterfront, by focusing on the few east-west streets remaining in the wake of Interstate 95’s slash along the Delaware River. Vine Street, unfortunately, is not part of this effort, for it is wholly severed at Front Street by the highway.
However, the abrupt interruption of this street, once so important to Philadelphia (and still important in that it bears an eponymous expressway through the heart of Center City), is the least of Vine Street’s problems. The foot of Vine—between Front and Delaware Avenue (Columbus Blvd.)—has had a long and tortured history, more so than most of the streets ending at the river.
In planning the city of Philadelphia, William Penn had his surveyor, Thomas Holme, lay out a grid of straight streets extending west from the Delaware River. The checkerboard pattern that Holme devised proceeded north from Cedar (now South) Street to the city’s original northern boundary, a 50 foot wide lane called Valley Street.
Valley Street? This was the original name of Vine Street, as the natural depression of a ravine or vale led to the Delaware at that point. Abraham Ritter reports in Philadelphia and Her Merchants (1860) that “it was a muddy limb of the river, and, except at high tide, more to be avoided than desired.” Rain rushing down this gully often made crossing Front Street difficult for wagons in the early 1700s. Nevertheless, the valley offered easy access into the region’s interior, which is why a boat landing was found there even before William Penn’s era. Hunters and traders from settled territories in New Jersey had crossed the Delaware at that point throughout the 1600s to get to the bountiful lands of what became Pennsylvania.
Penn first dedicated the landing at Valley/Vine Street for public use in 1683, at a time when it was commonly called “the slip.” Penn further proclaimed in his 1701 City Charter that “the Landing-places now and heretofore used at the Penny-pot-house and Blue-anchor…shall be left open and common for the Use and Service of the said City and all others.” (More on the “Penny-pot-house” below.) Penn wanted to prevent some enterprising Philadelphian from buying the rights to these landings, which he intended for public use indefinitely. Therefore, the 1701 charter provided that landings at the foot of certain (if not all) streets should be forever open to public use.
The Vine Street Landing was one of the busiest ferry landings on the Delaware River. In the early 1700s, it included a lumber yard that sold wood cheaper there than anywhere along Philadelphia’s waterfront. Plus, the Upper Ferry—operated by William Cooper and otherwise known as “Uncle Billy’s Ferry”—used the landing at Vine Street. A more formal venture, the Cooper’s Point Ferry, took over the transit route and later became associated with the Camden and Atlantic Railroad. That rail line, eventually taken over by the Pennsylvania Railroad, would later run trains to Atlantic City and other shore resorts.
Cooper’s Point Ferry billed itself as “Philadelphia’s Front Door to Atlantic City.” Countless Philadelphians boarded ferryboats at Pier 16 North to get to the line’s Camden (New Jersey) terminal, where they would board trains that would take them to the seaside for a few days of relaxation. When it went out of business in 1926, the Vine Street Ferry was reputed to be the oldest ferry service in America, operating continuously for more than two hundred years.
Nearby was once the West Shipyard, one of four local yards fabricating fishing craft, riverboats, and oceangoing vessels years before the arrival of William Penn in America. In August 1689, Penn’s agents granted James West a 60 foot wide lot on the west bank of the Delaware, from Water Street to the Delaware River. This ground was adjacent to the Vine Street Landing—a very important point. Within a year, West obtained another grant of property consisting of forty feet of the riverbank north of the earlier lot. This was apparently where his shipyard had been located since about 1676.
In the days before dry docks, sailing ships needing repair would be dragged up slipways (launching ramps) to enable repairs to be made. After West’s death in 1701, his son took over and developed the shipyard into a miniature “company town,” complete with shops and inns to support its workers. But the yard became less useful as ships became both larger and equipped with steam engines driving propellers and paddle wheels—hauling ships ashore was no longer practical.
West’s shipyard had faded from the scene by the early 1800s, and the old slipways and quays were filled in as Philadelphia’s waterfront was pressed farther east into the Delaware. By the early twentieth century, a rail yard of the Reading Railroad covered the block. Now topped by a parking lot across from Pier 19, the West Shipyard (though buried) may be the last intact vestige of Philadelphia’s colonial port heritage.
The bowsprits of ships at West’s yard almost reached the eaves of buildings on Water Street. One of these was the Penny Pot Tavern. James West bought this well-known landmark from a widow in 1689 or 1690. The two-story brick structure, with its front facing south, was situated three houses north of the northwest corner of Vine and Water Streets. The tavern was allowed to sell beer for “a penny a pot” (or quart), as per the Duke of York’s decree in 1682. It was therefore a place where beer could be bought for about half the price of most other brew houses.
The Penny Pot became the Jolly Tar Inn after 1800 and was later incorporated into the Rising Sun Hotel next door. It burned in a fire that destroyed the entire block in 1850. The building currently on the site contains a quarter-sized facsimile of the tavern on the roof, best seen from Front Street. It was erected by the architect who moved there in the 1970s.
Now, in front of the Penny Pot Tavern was a boat landing, about 60 foot wide. The Penny Pot Landing, built by James West, seems to have been the first of the two lots granted to him. It was between his shipyard and the adjoining Vine Street Landing.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the Penny Pot Landing was filled in. The resulting piece of ground was 57 (or 60) feet wide between Front Street and the Delaware River, as Delaware Avenue had not yet been built in that vicinity (but soon would be). The site was properly located in the District of Northern Liberties, which extended from Vine Street northward. Recall that Northern Liberties and other districts and townships of Philadelphia County such as Southwark were not combined into the City of Philadelphia until the 1854 Act of Consolidation.
It should be stressed that Vine Street was originally 50 feet wide (as it still is in Old City), but that it approaches double that width east of Front Street, near the Delaware. This brings us to a legal squabble that occurred around 1850. A controversy arose between the City of Philadelphia and the Northern Liberties District as to jurisdictional rights over the Penny Pot Landing site. Northern Liberties contended that the ground bordering Vine Street—east of Front Street and touching the Delaware—was under its jurisdiction, and that this authority would thus entitle the district to the wharfage tolls generated on that riverside spot.
Akin to tax challenge between Philadelphia and, say, Cheltenham Township today, the dispute had an antecedent in 1835 when the city of Philadelphia rearranged curbstones on the north side of Vine Street to favor the city. The commissioners of the Northern Liberties responded by resetting the stones back the way they were.
Despite the riverside frontage in question being rather small, the wharfage fees produced there were large enough for a court case to make it all the way to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. In Penny Pot Landing or Com’th ex rel. Northern Liberties versus The City of Philadelphia (i.e., the Penny Pot Landing Case), 16 Pa 89 (1851), the City alleged that it was entitled to collect wharfage fees from the Penny Pot Landing site, as it had been subsumed into the Vine Street Landing—the two landings had ultimately become one and the same. The joint site was by then part of Vine Street east of Front Street, making the foot of Vine Street 107 feet wide—the combined width of both landings at that time. Northern Liberties, conversely, asserted that Philadelphia’s northern boundary was no wider than the 50 foot width of Vine Street, as originally laid out by Thomas Holme. As such, all ground lying north of the street was part of the County of Philadelphia, not the City of Philadelphia. The Penny Pot Landing site would therefore be within the boundaries of the Northern Liberties.
Affirming the lower court decision, Judge George Chambers ruled, somewhat illogically, for Philadelphia. He declared that Vine Street was widened by all or part of the Penny Pot Landing immediately next to West’s shipyard lot, and that this enlarged street was “appurtenant as a boundary, and as a public highway it ensured not only to [West’s] use and that of the other lot holders in the vicinity, but to the use of the public.” In other words, the Penny Pot Landing had been incorporated into the Vine Street Landing simply by being close to that landing, and by virtue of this, it became part of the foot of Vine Street when the landings were later filled in. Since William Penn had bestowed the Vine Street Landing for the public’s use in 1701, the place where the enlarged street met the Delaware was similarly reserved to the public.
In a further bit of confounding reasoning, Judge Chambers said, “Penn, having by his agents and accredited officers granted this addition to Vine Street for the public use and accommodation in 1690, could not revoke that grant by any subsequent act or deed.” That is: the rights of neighboring lot holders and the general public to Vine Street (including the annexed Penny Pot Landing site) were vested rights that could not be divested by even William Penn. And if Penn himself could not divest or impair his grant and dedication of the landing and/or the extended street, then neither could any other subordinate governmental agency do so after Penn’s death.
A reason for Judge Chambers’ twisted logic seems to be this: Penn specifically mentioned the Penny Pot Tavern in his 1701 City Charter: “the Landing-places now and heretofore used at the Penny-pot-house and Blue-anchor…” But whatever the case, all this ignores the manifest fact that the Penny Pot Landing was simply not within the stated borders of Philadelphia.
The matter was moot a few years later when Philadelphia consolidated. But think about this intensely contested spot on Earth—the north side of foot of Vine Street—and all its history the next time you pass by on the way to Dave & Busters. And have a drink to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania—unless you’re from Northern Liberties.
About the author
Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.
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