Unearthing history along the river

Ar­che­olo­gists search along Colum­bus Boulevard, just a few blocks south of North­ern Liber­ties, for evid­ence of the West Shipyard. The shipyard is be­lieved to have been in place on the Delaware River six years be­fore Wil­li­am Penn set foot in the state that would bear his name.

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 hmit­man@bsmphilly.com.

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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