Archaeologists make exciting find at once-buried 17th century shipyard near Penn’s Landing

Six years before the arrival of William Penn, when Delaware Avenue was still the Delaware River – developers had not yet filled in the waterway to push Philadelphia’s shoreline further outward – James West owned a shipyard near Water and Callowhill streets.

An archaeological excavation of the site in the 1980s found four slipways and a retaining wall demarcating what was once the river’s edge, concluding more could be learned about 17th century living by further study of the area.

Researchers began digging a little deeper into the city’s past this week with the opening of three trenches on the site, owned by Hertz Rent-a-Car from the 1960s until the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation took ownership about two decades later.

In one of the trenches yesterday, they found a building foundation, possibly one that West’s family built on the site after the shipyard. “We might be inside a 19th century warehouse,” said Wade Catts, Associate Director of Cultural Resources for John Milner and Associates. “We’ll have to go back to the historical background and pin down exactly what it is.”

The area was also home to West’s Penny Pot House and Landing, a rowdy tavern that catered to boozing sailors and shipbuilders. “As I understand, the name comes from the fact that you could buy beer for a penny a pot,” archaeologist Tim Mancl said. That was about half the price at which beer could be legally be sold at the time, making the inn a popular destination with a somewhat seedy reputation.

“There’s some debate about where the Penny Pot House was, this corner or the next block over,” Catts said. “If we find evidence, the tavern could be in this area.” He said the researchers are mainly looking for evidence of industrial activity, like tool fragments, glass and the remnants of building demolitions.

“Given the work they did in that shipyard, domestic materials are not common,” Catts said. But the findings still carry a lot of weight. “Those unearthed in the 1980s are the only archaeological slipways on the East Coast,” he said. “If we find something like that here, it will be very significant.”

Archaeologists will today sift through small squares of the trench by hand to try and get a better idea of what treasures may await them. Tours of the site are open to the public today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and tomorrow from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Digging the heat

With the heat index smashing through the 100s, the sweat-drenched archaeologists digging in the direct sunlight were forced to restrict their hours this week, working largely in the morning. “You need to make sure to take a lot of breaks, drink fluids and when you feel woozy, you need to sit down,” Mancl said. “The heat is making things a little slow.”

“It didn’t slow down the visitors, though,” Catts contended. So much so that the DRWC is looking at adding more public tours next week, when a fourth trench is expected to be opened.

“It’s been great,” Catts continued. “We’ve had all ages – small children, junior high students, seniors, neighbors. It’s was a nice group for such a hot day. They’re interested in the excavation. … With archaeology, you may have a sense of what you’re going to find, but you never know exactly what you’re going to find.”

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