Archeological Dig Will Explore Philly’s Pre-colonial Waterfront

May 24, 2019 | by Kimberly Haas


This parking lot sits on the site of West Shipyard, a long-lost piece of 17th century maritime history along the Delaware River waterfront. A New York developer has plans to build on lot, but not before an archeological study is conducted. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Most Philadelphians are familiar with the efforts to preserve and repurpose some of the historic pier buildings along the city’s Delaware River waterfront. But there are other remnants of Philly’s maritime history that are especially challenging to save.

One such site was discussed at a meeting at Cherry Street Pier on Thursday, May 23 as a major New York City developer, The Durst Organization, seeks to purchase the West Shipyard, with plans to erect a mixed use building on the waterfront. The Manhattan skyline is peppered with multi-million dollar projects by the 100-year-old, family-owned business, including One World Trade Center and One Bryant Park.

What makes the parcel a bit different is what lies beneath it: archaeological remains from maritime industries that date as far back as the late 17th century. The site at Vine Street and Columbus Boulevard was home to the shipyard founded by James West in 1676.

“The site was first identified in 1982,” explained Douglas Mooney, principal investigator with AECOM, the engineering firm leading the archaeological due diligence for the developer. The following year it was deemed important enough to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, despite being unexcavated at the time.

This lithograph from 1830 shows the Penny Pot Tavern, with the bow of a ship at the West Shipyard to the right. | Image courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

In 1987, it became the first archaeological site to be added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, based on a partial excavation. That project revealed a bulkhead, 18th century wharf timbers, and a ship’s way, or launching ramp, from the early 19th century. After the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC) acquired the site, a second excavation was undertaken in 2012 to search for earlier evidence in the area where the shipyard was known to have been located. That project found timbers that were possibly part of a wharf and artifacts from the late 17th century.

Last year, the DRWC issued a request for proposals to develop the site. President Joe Forkin said they were looking for plans with “special attention to that historic context and a sensitivity to it in the redevelopment. Which we don’t think are mutually exclusive.”

Unlike historic buildings, inclusion on the local register only indicates the historic importance of an archaeological site and does not preclude development or destruction, according to Mooney. He outlined the three-part archaeological standards that would be applied to this next excavation.

“First is to preserve in place those artifacts that will not be impacted by construction,” he said, explaining that after collecting data on them, any remnants of built features like a wharf would be covered over again. When such preservation is not possible because of the new construction, archaeologists engage in mitigation, which often means collecting as much information as possible before the integrity of the feature is compromised or destroyed. The final step is to report the findings of the excavation, which Mooney said will be presented to both professionals and the public. The disposition of any objects removed from the site has not yet been decided, though he noted they are typically gifted to the state museum in Harrisburg.

An overhead shot of the West Shipyard site in the 1980s.

An overhead shot of the West Shipyard site in the 1980s. | Photo: from The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992

At Thursday night’s presentation, a few dozen area residents expressed concern about the fate of any found artifacts, asked whether the planned development would be adapted or halted if there were significant findings, and questioned why the parcel couldn’t be developed as a historic site open to the public.

With the controversy of the One Water Street complex fresh in their minds, neighbors also wanted to know about the planned use for the parcel. Alexander Durst, chief development officer for the Durst Organization demurred, saying they were waiting until the archaeological due diligence was completed to design the plans. When asked about potential height and use limits, the DRWC’s Forkin noted that under the CMX-3 zoning in the Central Delaware Riverfront Overlay District overlay, a mixed-use commercial and residential building up to 244 feet high would be permitted if bonuses were applied for providing amenities such as open space, public art, or affordable housing. It was pointed out that the parcel is large enough to require a Civic Design Review.

Forkin explained another facet of preservation that the DRWC included in the request for development proposals. Adjacent to the western edge of the West Shipyard parcel is a stone staircase connecting Front and Water Streets, known as the Wood Street steps. It is the last surviving of a series of staircases at various locations along Front Street that were envisioned by William Penn to connect Front Street with the waterfront, which, at that time, was at Water Street.

“Philadelphia in the 17th and 18th centuries had a high bluff that ran along the waterfront, which at the time was essentially marked out by Front Street,” explained Mooney. “The steps were intended as public access points, so people could move from the high ground of Front Street down to the waterfront and the wharves and piers that extended from Water Street out into the river.”

This set of stairs connecting Front and Water Streets is the last of 14 stairways connecting the city to the river left from William Penn’s original plan. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Although not contained within it, the DRWC would like to see the Wood Street steps integrated into any plan for the West Shipyard. “Can we look at ways to either visually or physically connect those steps somehow to this site and keep that connection to the waterfront alive?” asked Forkin.

The steps are visible and intact, with a historical marker at the top, unlike the West Shipyard, which lies hidden under a parking lot. Mooney, however, stressed the significance of the site. “This is one of the best known and one of the most important archaeological sites in the city of Philadelphia. And it has that status even though there are still comparatively large areas within the site that have never been archaeologically examined or documented.”

Its importance is amplified because so little of the waterfront’s history is still intact today.  “Much of the original waterfront was destroyed when I-95 was constructed,” said Mooney. “So this particular site might represent one of the last and best opportunities to get a real good understanding of the early history of the city of Philadelphia and how the waterfront grew over time.”

Mooney and his team from AECOM expect to begin the archaeological due diligence in June. They plan to have public viewings during the excavation and online updates throughout the project.


About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.


  1. Wolf says:

    Fascinating article. I hope they find much and preserve it well.

    Is there any chance for the public to participate or view the excavation? I would love to be a part of it!

  2. Kimberly Haas says:

    The company performing the archaeological due diligence, Aecom, has said they intend to have public viewings of the excavation, as well as online updates on their progress and findings.

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