Ode To Tom Sawyer Island

June 19, 2014 | by Michael Bixler


The gravely path of progress | Photo: Michael Bixler

The gravely path of progress | Photo: Michael Bixler

Allow me to get sentimental for a moment. I’m going to miss the old Pier 53. I’ve stopped myself from writing this eulogy of sorts a few times for fear of appearing trivial. In light of so many beautiful buildings, so many layers of Philadelphia history seriously threatened or already lost to decay and demolition, waxing romantic about some overgrown bushes on the Delaware seems a little trite. Though, if you’ve ever hopped the fence and taken a walk out onto the pier, you’ll understand.

Once upon a time on Tom Sawyer's Island | Photo: Michael Bixler

Once upon a time on Tom Sawyer’s Island | Photo: Michael Bixler

“Tom Sawyer Island”, as someone dubbed it along the way, was a true hidden gem. Half nature-reclaimed riverside hobo encampment, half ever-evolving outsider land art installation, the place had a magical quality about it. In the summer, it was impossible to not feel like you were in some enchanted, postindustrial Neverland.

I’m going to miss the old Pier 53 and I have regrets. I regret that I never spent the night out there. A night on the Delaware with the creaking trees and briny river slapping against the old rotting posts would have given anyone a new lease on city life.

I regret that I never met the artist(s) who built the huge geometric web of driftwood that stood as a centerpiece to the broken ceramic mosaics, pink minimalist tree paintings, and brittle brick walkways. It was art for art’s sake and it gave the pier a bewitching air.

I regret that I never did any serious fishing there. It appeared to be the Pennsport angler’s go-to spot and I can understand why. The massive canopy of thick green limbs blanketed the entire pier right out to the shoreline. From the outside, the pier looked like a big overgrown thicket. The inside view, though, was a massive, human-sized rabbit’s burrow. It was a peaceful shelter from the frenzy of Delaware Avenue and provided ideal shade to while the hours away with hook and line.

The ghosts of drum circles haunt the vestiges of Tom Sawyer's Island | Photo: Michael Bixler

The ghosts of drum circles haunt the vestiges of Tom Sawyer’s Island | Photo: Michael Bixler

I regret that I never went to a drum circle out there, which is a strong statement for me. In any other circumstance I would rather have my ears boxed with river rocks than to sit though another endless djembe session. Though, after finding a message board online for monthly night pier drumming meetups, it was difficult not to imagine being out there in the dark with the breeze blowing cool air inland and the sound of ship horns bouncing off of opposing shores set to a steady beat. Sadly, I never went.

My biggest regret is that I didn’t go out to the old Pier 53 but for a handful of occasions. I thought I had time and that it would remain unnoticed for a little longer, a historical landmark that would continue to slip past the eyes of redevelopment. I didn’t get out there nearly enough and now Tom Sawyer Island is all but a quiet, little-known memory.

But Pier 53 lives on and its next iteration is exciting. From the boardwalk, with its proposed 55-foot tower and the Jody Pinto Land Buoy sculpture to the ecological wetlands preservation, the old pier is getting an intelligent, civic-minded makeover. Washington Avenue Green will provide a smart example of how to approach the southern sector of the waterfront. I’m a little sad to see the old Pier 53 go but elated to see the new Pier 53, one in which Philadelphia’s little Ellis Island will finally get the consideration it deserves.


About the Author

Michael Bixler is a writer, editor, and photographer engaged in dialogue and documentation of the built environment and how it relates to history, culture, and the urban experience. He is the editorial director and chief photographer of Hidden City Philadelphia.


  1. Laura Blanchard says:

    I mustered the courage to shimmy under the fence and explore Tom Sawyer Island on New Year’s Day 2012, and it was demolished early that summer. I regret that I never was there while the leaves were on the trees. I’d love to see more of your pictures.

    Do you remember that red piece of artwork? I almost salvaged it and brought it home. I do have photos of the remnants of the Tom Sawyer Island sign.

  2. Ethan Wallace says:

    This is beautifully stated and a feeling I know all to well. As a photographer of places in their final days I have made the mistake of thinking there was ample time to see a place or to return to it another time. Whether a structure faces demolition or renovation, it still means a major change and the loss of what was.

    For the majority, places like these are ignored or seen as “eyesores” and obstacles to progress, but for those of us who seek the forgotten and hidden spaces and who find beauty in cracked bricks, empty windows, and nature springing from and retaking the ruins it is always hard to see these places cleaned up, painted and opened to the masses.

  3. John Livewell says:

    A fitting tribute…great words…

  4. Vori kriaris says:

    Terrific article…I too discovered the little gem years ago, along with other secret places up on the Northern end. Sadly almost everything is being redeveloped, which was inevitable. Back in the 70’s the entire stretch of Delaware Ave was full of fence hopping opportunities.

  5. Stephen Nasobko says:

    Fortunately, I could not resist taking a photographic tour during my visit there last year. Now to publish them to the internet to share with everyone who can appreciate the art and “feel” that was there.

  6. John Vidumsky says:

    Good article. I only went to that spot once, but it was magical.

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