Midway between Old City and Northern Liberties on Front Street, a set of ancient stone steps leads between houses down to Water Street. This ten-foot-wide stairwell, on the 300 block of North Front, is a passageway to the lower street on the line where Wood Street used to be an alley in this riverfront neighborhood.
The Wood Street Steps are also a passageway back in time, for they are the last of at least ten public stairways on alley streets from Callowhill to South Streets, built over three centuries ago at the direction of William Penn. The founder of both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania ordered these “Penn stairs” to be installed on the Delaware River’s western embankment to ensure public access to Philadelphia’s waterfront. Other than Gloria Dei Church in South Philadelphia, this stairwell is the city’s only remaining relic of the colonial era along the Delaware.
Now, after more than 300 years, the Wood Street Steps (and the others they represent) are finally receiving the statewide recognition they deserve, with the dedication of a Pennsylvania historical marker at a noontime ceremony on October 12th at the steps.
Neighbors of the steps–primarily the members of the River’s Edge Civic Association–had already gotten the Philadelphia Historical Commission to specify the steps as historic property back in 1986. The Wood Street Steps are also listed on the city’s Register of Historic Places, which protects them from development and demolition. But these designations were not necessarily widely known and no marker was provided.
More recently, the civic association and others (including myself) lobbied the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to post a Pennsylvania Historical Marker on Front Street to alert the public to historic importance of the stairwell. In 2011, the commission’s five-member panel of historians rejected the Wood Street Steps, saying the site lacked statewide historical significance.
But a second review was recently approved. As the Philadelphia Daily News reported, Karen Galle, the commission’s historical marker coordinator, said that “the fact that the steps were commissioned by Penn and the fact that they were critical to Philadelphia… tipped the vote to approval.” Thus, a blue Pennsylvania marker will be dedicated on October 12th.
I’ve got a bit of a history with William Penn’s steps. Before it broadened into a chronicle of Philadelphia’s entire riverfront between Spring Garden Street and Washington Avenue, my book, Philadelphia’s Lost Waterfront (2011), began as an investigation into this and the other stairwells. The following is a history of this staircase, surely the most famous and important in Philadelphia, save for the Rocky Steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In a future story, I will relate what I found about some of the other Penn stairs—all of which no longer exist.
To begin with, the embankment steps at Wood Street show how steep the western bank of the Delaware River in Philadelphia was before the march of time and progress obliterated all traces of the riverside’s original landscape. The muddy/gravelly edge of the Delaware originally lapped up to the future location of Water Street—a rutted lane now mostly gone in the city’s old waterfront district. Immediately above this tidal flat was a sheer embankment bluff, between ten and fifty feet high, all along the local shoreline, as the river had scoured a deep channel over the eons. The top of this bluff later became Front Street, the first roadway to parallel the river when Philadelphia was planned.
Some of the city’s first settlers actually lived in caves they dug into the embankment, pretty much within the space between where Front and Water Streets came to be. These shallow dugouts, long part of Philadelphia lore, provided the newcomers with their initial shelter upon reaching Penn’s settlement in the 1680s.
William Penn had wanted his “Greene Countrie Towne” of Philadelphia to unfold evenly between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. As part of this plan, he reserved the high frontage along the Delaware for the Proprietary (or Propriety) of Pennsylvania, with land set aside for Penn and his family to use as they saw fit. He further hoped that a promenade with a parapet would stretch atop the length of the Delaware’s west bank to provide a pleasing, uninterrupted view of the river from Front Street.
It’s doubtful that Penn long pursued his plan to preserve the high ground paralleling the Delaware River for the purpose of beautifying his city. A practical man, and a shrewd real estate developer at that, he must have realized that shipping facilities had to line the edge of the river if Philadelphia was to become a prosperous commercial metropolis. This would be the only way to accommodate ships transporting merchandise and travelers to the Atlantic Coast and foreign seaports.
Soon, everyone wanted to own prime real estate in the nucleus of Philadelphia, so they clustered by the river. Even more disturbing to Penn was that waterfront land buyers were under the impression that they owned the waterfront abutting their holdings. The riverbank lot purchasers also claimed the privilege to hollow out space in the high bank next to their lots so as to create “vaults” for use as storerooms. This was the first private versus public conflict concerning the development of Philadelphia’s waterfront.
Leading merchant Samuel Carpenter was the first buyer to make such a demand. Early in 1684, he asked Penn for permission to “dig cellars or vaults between the Edge of the bank and [his] land provided it be done and kept without prejudice to the Road [Front Street] above.” Penn rejected this request, but Carpenter returned with an even more alarming proposal. He wanted to construct a set of wharves and warehouses on his sizable bank lot between Walnut and Chestnut Streets. Such harbor structures would impede everyone’s access to the river for almost a city block.
In response to this and other claims for the east side of Front Street, Penn firmly declared that the riverbank was a common area owned by the Propriety—not by any banker or other first purchaser. He then softened his stance by offering a compromise. This language appears in a letter dated August 3, 1684, a few days before Penn returned to England:
The Bank is a top common, from end to end. The rest, next [to] the water, belongs to front-lot men no more than [to] back-lot men: the way [Front Street] bounds them. They may build stairs—and, [at] the top of the bank, a common exchange, or walk; and against [Front] street, common wharfs may be built freely;—but into the water, and the shore, is no purchaser’s.
Penn’s declaration is an example of his Solomonic wisdom, since he devised a way to balance both public and private interests. He allowed Carpenter and other riverfront developers to build on their bank lots as they desired, but only if they allowed the public to have convenient access to the Delaware.
Another reason for the mid-block stairways was that Penn wanted to let cool, fresh air from the Delaware River into the hot, congested city. This is echoed by Abraham Ritter in Philadelphia and Her Merchants (1860):
I may advert to a row of small two and three-story brick houses, of sombre weather-beaten hue even sixty years ago, and tell of a gap here and there between, as airholes from the river to fan the more condensed atmosphere above; or show the forethought of Father Penn in facilitating ingress and egress to and from Front to Water street by an occasional flight of stone steps.
The Penn stairs thus enabled the town and the river to stay linked both physically and ecologically.
In the end, William Penn instructed the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania to mandate that bank lot owners install stepped passageways along the Delaware River between Philadelphia’s principal east–west streets. These mid-block stairs helped form strong ties between docks at the Delaware’s edge (the city’s “lower” level) and the core (“upper”) level beginning at Front Street. Some blocks had more than one set of steps. Precisely how many of these stairways were installed is undocumented. The number varies from eight to twelve in the literature and gradually diminished until only the Wood Street Steps remained. Having served their original civic purpose, some stairs were closed as far back as the late eighteenth century. Others gave way to the construction of I-95 in the 1960s, but not as many as often supposed.
In any case, the terrain at Vine Street had a more gradual descent to the river than that to the south—say, between Race and Market Streets—where the change in elevation was greater. Therefore, the number of actual steps (treads) composing the Wood Street stairwell is less than that of the other Penn stairways. That is to say, the other long-gone public stairs were generally longer and more impressive than the stairwell at Wood Street.
The stairway was once an extension of a slender alley between Vine and Callowhill called Wood Street. The steps were built between 1702 and 1737, but while the treads originally could have been wooden, there’s some evidence that the granite steps there today may date from the late seventeenth century. The stone treads were there for sure in 1737, when Wood Street was first registered as a public street. The passageway is still labeled as “Wood” in city records and is administered by the Philadelphia Department of Streets. A narrow Wood Street still exists on the other side of I-95 in Old City and is interrupted by the I-676/I-95 interchange in its march west toward the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where it terminates.
A land warrant (patent) by William Penn to one Henry Johnson in March 1689 actually established the Wood Street Steps. Johnson was the buyer of forty feet of ground on the east side of Front Street north of Vine. A provision reads:
[T]he said Henry Johnson his Heirs and Assigns shall further leave a Proportionable Part of the said Lot for Building one publick Pair of Stone Stairs of ten Foot in Bredth leading from the said Front Street down to the said Lower Street or Cartway and so forward to the Wharfs and one Pair of Stone Stairs from off the Wharfs down to Low Water Mark of the said River in the Middle or most convenient place between Vine Street and the North Bridge.
This passage substantiates the authorization of stone steps back to William Penn himself, although it doesn’t prove if and when any steps were built. It also indicates that the Wood Street Steps were initially meant to be made of stone. Local historians have generally thought that this and other bank stairs were made of wood until the 1720s or 1730s, at which time granite steps were installed. The warrant shows that Penn wanted stone rather than wooden steps and makes it more likely that the existing Wood Street Steps were built prior to earlier estimated dates.
The warrant also directs that the riverbank stairs between Vine and Callowhill were to extend down into the Delaware River at low tide on the east side of Water Street (the “Lower Street” or “Cartway”). It’s unclear if these particular steps ever, in fact, reached into the Delaware, but other bank stairways did continue on the east side of Water Street as walkways with additional stairs that descended straight into the river for use at low tide. (The Delaware is of course a tidal waterway, rising and falling about six feet twice a day. Penn Treaty Park is a perfect place to survey this natural phenomenon.)
That this last set of William Penn’s public stairs to the Delaware River survives is a miracle of sorts. As late as the 1980s, the Wood Street Steps were in jeopardy. An adjoining owner wanted the city to strike the passageway from the street plan so that he could acquire the ground to enlarge his property. The River’s Edge Civic Association put a stop to that plan.
This staircase consists of fourteen granite blocks, including twelve treads and two landings. Four treads of the Wood Street Steps have cracked in half and are sagging as a result of subsidence. River’s Edge is planning to repair the steps and conduct an archaeological investigation beneath them. What treasures (and trash) might be found under the steps, untouched after three centuries?
In the meantime, all are invited to celebrate the Wood Street Steps, their longevity, and their purpose, as well as to remember the other Penn stairs that no longer exist. Join members of the River’s Edge Civic Association and others on October 12th at the dedication ceremony for the long-awaited and hard-fought Pennsylvania State Historical Marker.