Philadelphia is a town steeped in history.
And now, a little more of that local history is being unearthed in a parking lot two blocks south of Northern Liberties, at Columbus Avenue and Vine Street.
Archaeologists from John Miller Associates Inc. cracked into the weeded, paved parking lot across from the Dave and Buster’s restaurant on Columbus Boulevard last week. They’re in search of the West Shipyard, which was situated on the edge of the Delaware River - at one time, the river’s edge was at the middle of where this parking lot is now - and was owned and operated by James West beginning in 1676.
That would mean the shipyard was building boats for use on the Delaware River a full six years before William Penn set foot on the land that would eventually bear his name.
“This is very much an exploratory excavation,” said Wade Catts, assistant director of cultural research for John Miller Associates, Inc. during a tour of the site on Thursday, July 19.
The team will be doing gathering information for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation, which owns and is conducting a study on the site.
The team began its dig on Monday, July 16 and plans to finish on Friday, July 27.
Essentially, Catts said, the team is following up an investigation into that site from the 1980s, where archaeologists found a slipway - used in boat making - that is the only of its kind ever found on the East Coast.
Geoarcheologist Peter Leach said as they dig, the team members are hopeful that they will find well-preserved artifacts that detail the history of this area.
He said that due to the site’s proximity to the river, the soil could have preserved many artifacts. He said the river itself pushes up the underground water table. This helps preserve artifacts trapped in the soil.
In fact, under a layer of concrete near one wall, the team has found preserved wood and bits of food that Leach said often breaks down quickly in other locations.
“This preserved wood is fascinating and it has the potential to have something even older under it,” he said. “I mean, it’s like Christmas, archaeology is, you never know what’s going to be under the 19th century wrapper.”
While the excavation has only been underway for a few days, Leach said the team is excited about what it has found and he believes that before it is done, the team will find more evidence of the West Shipyard, including slips for boat building and possibly tools used in ship making.
“The thing is, we have the maps, we just need to figure out how much of that [what is listed on historic maps of the area] is still underground,” said Leach.
Along with the shipyard, Leach said there could be evidence of a pub that once existed here, called the Pennypack Tavern.
But, Catts said, the team will consider the dig a success if they find more evidence of the West Shipyard specifically.
“We really want the shipyard,” he said. “If we find that, we will have the earliest manifestation of people building ships [in Philadelphia].”
Smiling as he returned to the sunken ditches dug into the concrete parking lot, a hopeful Catts said that depending on what they find, researchers could learn a lot about historic shipbuilding along the Delaware River.
“What we should be able to see is the evolution of ship building throughout history,” he said.
This week, individuals and groups can tour the site by appointment. Call the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation at 215-629-3200 to set up a tour.
Star Staff Reporter Hayden Mitman can be contacted at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.