We Burrow Through Time To An Original Delaware River Cave

 

The 1680s caves along the Delaware River, as imagined by an unidentified painter. | 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

Nathaniel Popkin is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including the forthcoming Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (Temple Press) and a novel, Lion and Leopard (The Head and the Hand Press). He is the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



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.

Leave a Reply

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

Recent Posts
Fear & Floating At The Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade

Fear & Floating At The Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade

November 22, 2017  |  Last Light

Michael Bixler has this tribute to the zany hometown floats of the old Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade > more

New Book Claims PAFA As Catalyst For Modern Design

New Book Claims PAFA As Catalyst For Modern Design

November 21, 2017  |  Walk the Walk

In his new book, "First Modern," historian George E. Thomas asserts that Frank Furness opened the door to Modernism in 1876 with his design of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Joe Brin walks us through the architectural brilliance of the nation's first art school with this review > more

After 45 Years, Brandywine Workshop Still Thinking Creatively

After 45 Years, Brandywine Workshop Still Thinking Creatively

November 20, 2017  |  Vantage

It looks quiet, but the old 19th century firehouse at 730 South Broad Street, home of Brandywine Workshop, is buzzing with art and adaptation. Contributor Karen Chernick takes us behind the blue-green doors. > more

Cret Exhibition Captures Vibrations Of The City

Cret Exhibition Captures Vibrations Of The City

November 17, 2017  |  Vantage

Illustrator Ben Leech enlivens the dying art of architectural drawing with his exhibition, "Cret Illustrated: Revisiting a Philadelphia Icon in Sketches," at Woodlands Cemetery. Michael Bixler has the preview > more

Task Force Inches Closer To Delivering

Task Force Inches Closer To Delivering “State Of Preservation” Report

November 16, 2017  |  News

Mayor Kenney's Historic Preservation Task Force convened today for their fourth official meeting. Starr Herr-Cardillo reports > more

Give $$$, Get a Cool Perk: 2017 Campaign

November 13, 2017  |  Uncategorized

  Now more than ever, independent journalism needs the support of readers like you. DONATE to the Hidden City Daily today and receive something nifty in return. > more