From Wetland to Urban Land: A Social and Environmental History of Philadelphia’s Tidal Islands
When Swede Peter Lindestrom first ranged the tidal Delaware in the middle of the 17th century, the landscape he encountered tested his ability as a geographer to describe a land in flux. In some cases Lindestrom found that the great expanses between the small creeks and inlets were actually reed covered islands—some like Hog, and League, and Petty’s—of good size. Europeans regarded these places with great trepidation, with their shallow lands navigable during high tide and low tide revealing their dangerous shoals. Petty’s Island, called Aequikenaska, was considered an encumbrance, a reedy blockage to a landing at Cooper’s Point. But for the rest of the 17th century, Europeans lacked Lindestrom’s direct experience of the tangled warren of muddy creeks and marsh grasses. The difficulties of these tidal lands eluded European mapmakers. Robert Morden’s Map of Some of the South and East Bounds of Pennsylvania in America, Being partly inhabited placed Philadelphia on the unfavorable land on the western side of the Schuylkill where the river met the Delaware. Here actually was a situation like at Petty’s— what some mapmakers called “drowned land” so low that at high tide all that remained were great seas of swaying grasses.
Despite their marginal quality for most of the 18th century, these “drowned lands” took on greater significance as Philadelphia developed into a densely populated industrial and maritime center. For most of the 18th and into the first quarter of the 19th century, the need for open dock space meant that Philadelphia’s Delaware waterfront crept from bustling Southwark north to Kensington. Beginning in the first quarter of the 18th century, maritime industries like ropewalks, shipways, mast lots and sail makers developed in the relatively open areas north and south of the settled city. Residences were strewn indiscriminately among the industries and workers in the yards or subsidiary industries were rarely out of earshot of the pulse and clamor of shipbuilding on the Delaware.
The area around Benjamin Franklin’s “Grand Battery” at Weccacoe, built in 1748, became the epicenter of naval construction during the colonial and early national periods. The infant industry with its subsidiary suppliers grew all along Catharine, Queen, and Christian Streets and the rutted roads paralleling the river. By the 1760s, ramshackle development had proceeded to such a degree that the city was compelled to regulate the laying and paving of streets in the new suburb of Southwark. Among the narrow boatyards, John Wharton and James Penrose’s yard between Christian and Queen Streets stood larger and more complex. It was here that young apprentice Joshua Humphreys, Jr. oversaw the construction of numerous galleys, sloops of war, and warships during the Revolution and the politically tumultuous late 1790s. While the Humphreys and Wharton yard served the wood and sail navy well, by the middle of the 19th century, however, the city’s growing population coupled with the new industrial processes in shipbuilding meant full utilization of the city’s riverfront land was needed. By the end of the Civil War the tiny U.S. government shipyard built on the site of the Humphreys yard could not construct the ships necessary to supply the nation with a modern steel fleet.
While the 1876 move of the Navy Yard south to reedy League Island was premised on transportation technologies like the horsecar and trolley, new production methods also accelerated the outward migration of industry. In the years after the Civil War, multi-stage industrial processes like steam engine fabrication, locomotive building, shipbuilding, and steel processing required ever- larger building footprints. This meant utilizing formerly unusable land on the city’s fringes. New building technologies like dredging and piling along with better drainage techniques meant that the tidal land that had baffled early Europeans like Peter Lindestrom could be reclaimed and put to use within the urban economy.
Transportation innovations such as regularized streetcar and steamboat service also reduced the inaccessibility of these once-marginal spaces and dramatically reshaped the spatial realities of the pedestrian city. When the Navy Yard opened at the foot of Broad Street in 1876, South Philadelphia was bisected with countless dykes, canals, and covered in great expanses of green bending reeds. “Mashers” and “Neckers” living in small communities like Martinsville or Frogtown worked the land as fishermen, truck farmers, sod cutters, or refuse collectors. Yet despite its distance from the main population centers of the city, the yard was easily accessible to machinists, shipwrights, riveters, carpenters, naval architects and laborers who toiled to create the modern navy. By 1889, workers could board the 12th Street car heading south and change at Broad and Porter streets for the League Island trolley, for an additional charge. Steamboats provided regular service from points on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey sides of the river. Understanding the value of full employment and high traffic on its lines, the individual streetcar lines and later the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company and the Philadelphia Transit Company all continued to expand their services. Soon recreational riders could take a jaunt along the 15th Street trolley right into the yard. “The adventurousness of a trip to the navy yard begins,” wrote Christopher Morley in 1920, “as soon as one steps off the car and finds great grey hulls almost at one’s side.”
When the nation entered the First World War, planners reconfigured Philadelphia’s undeveloped tidal land on Hog Island and brought its highly skilled workforce to bear on military production. Much like League Island before it, the construction of the great shipyard at Hog Island hinged on new construction methods and an excellent transit network. At the height of its production, railroads and trolleys ferried hoards of workers from Philadelphia and Delaware County to the shipways at Hog Island—a barren stretch of tidal land that hovered above sea level. Hog Island only existed because of the backbreaking labor of nearly 30,000 workers toiling throughout the cold winter of 1917-1918. Before the construction of canteens and the YMCA, workers’ accommodations were rough and hardships abounded. Steam injections softened the frozen ground before workers could excavate for sewer lines. Other workers waded into the cold Delaware to dig out the channels for the shipways. Gangs of laborers dug trenches for utility lines by hand while others built forms for concrete foundations and the shipways themselves. There on the windswept island, a unique identity formed among the “Hoggies.” They worked among their friends—blacks, Italians, Polish, Irish, and Germans—all under the glaring eyes of the foreman, the engineer, the military policeman. These men brought their traditions, faith, and foods to the barracks where they lived—including the bulky, fortifying sandwich that took on the island’s name. On December 23, 1918 the boys band from St. Francis Xavier-Holy Name parishes played for a flag-raising in the bitter cold. During their down time, the Hog Islanders squared off on the gridiron against the other military installations up and down the river. Much like the soldiers in the field, the “Hoggies” who worked the shipways during the war were forced to coexist and cooperate, drawing strength from the uniqueness of their difficult work.
Just as new transportation technologies could concentrate labor, it was also seen as a great dissipater of the tensions that some believed were growing in working class neighborhoods. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the city had become a labyrinth of ethnic neighborhoods, each dominated by the ceaseless rhythm of the workday. City elites, operating out of a paternalistic care for the city’s laborers and anxiety about the rising tide of immigrants, encouraged workers to “recreate” themselves in wholesome pursuits consistent with rigid Victorian codes of conduct. With the public Fairmount Park as their model, enterprising entrepreneurs addressed the need for recreation and relaxation and built private “pleasure grounds” at pastoral spots in and around the city. Steamships and trolleys democratized the search for relaxation. At Petty’s and Smith’s Islands, promoters offered workers cool Delaware River breezes and a brief escape from the claustrophobic canyons of row homes and mills. In the 1880s developers converted an old liquor-soaked hideout at Smith’s Island just off Market Street into a “respectable” resort—Ridgway Park—designed for families. The new complex, accessible by the diminutive steamboats “Tom Smith” and “John Smith” sported a music stand, two large baths, a roller skating rink and a two- story confectionary and ice cream saloon to replace the noxious bar. Though the new management’s interest was “to provide a cheap, pleasant, and healthful place of resort to the respectable masses of Philadelphia,” Smith Island’s prior reputation continued to attract brawlers and ne’er-do-wells. On May 10, 1880 the island’s police force, assisted by some city police made a “charge” on some rowdy denizens of Smith’s Island. In the melee “children were trampled upon and women had their hats knocked off and clothing torn by the struggling crowd.” It appears that “Willow Grove” on Petty’s Island suffered the same fate as Ridgway Park, its accommodations frequented by those seeking to imbibe beyond the watchful eyes of city authorities.
In the latter half of the 19th century, new transportation technologies expanded the dimensions of the city and created a new urban geography of work and recreation in Philadelphia. But it was the demands of the urban land market, coupled with new construction technologies that saw that much of Philadelphia’s tidal land was developed into overtly “productive” industrial or commercial space. At first regarded with suspicion or puzzlement, these spaces were made habitable and open to a variety of human uses through urban technology. Once transformed into valued parcels of urban real estate, these “marginal” spaces became intimately connected to the urban land mart. Some islands, like Smith’s, were unable to prove their utility. As early as 1838, Smith’s Island’s fate was in jeopardy, with the Camden and Amboy Railroad cutting a ferry canal through its midsection. Eventually, the island could not justify its existence as a pleasure ground against the city’s powerful commercial interests. Shippers, warehouse operators, stevedore companies, and those interested in the health of the port considered these islands an impediment to ship traffic. In 1891, the Army Corps of Engineers approved “the removal of Smith and Windmill Islands to a depth of about 8 feet below mean low water,” the remains of the island to be deposited, ironically, at League Island. While slightly less perceptible than population declines, racial transformations, or sectoral shifts in our economy, environmental change in Philadelphia is a story of a city’s evolving attitudes toward its landscape. As the city struggles to find ways to reclaim its connections to its rivers and tidal lands, exploring how over time urban spaces become programmed for exclusive uses can guide us as we try to live best on the land.
Christopher R. Dougherty has a masters degree in American History from the University of Scranton and is currently pursuing a masters of science is community and regional planning from Temple University. He works as a planner for Philadelphia's Department of Parks and Recreation.