the delaware river was explored by henry hudson-- 10/26/15

Today's selection -- from Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront by Harry Kyriakodis. The Delaware River was named after Sir Thomas West, the third Baron De La Warr and the first governor of the colony of Virginia who may never have seen or visited the Delaware River. Located on the west bank of the Delaware, the city of Philadelphia grew, and as it did, residents moved out of the caves they dug into the banks of the river in the 1680s, and eastward into houses situated on narrow cobblestone alleys.

"When William Penn founded Philadelphia, the area between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers was sparsely populated by tribes of Lenni-Lenape Native Americans (the Delaware Indians), who had inhabited villages along the Delaware for one thousand years. 'Coaquannock' was their name for the region, meaning 'grove of tall pines.' This referred to the pine forest between the two rivers.

"The Delaware Indians fished for shad by the river. These fish were so abundant in the Delaware and Schuylkill that Penn described them in correspondence: 'Shads are excellent fish and of the Bigness of our Carp. They are so plentiful, that Captain Smyth's Overseer at the Skulkil, drew 600 and odd at one Draught; 300 is no wonder; 100 familiarly.'

"At 330 miles long, the Delaware River is the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi. ... The river and bay were named after Sir Thomas West (1577-1618), the third Baron De La Warr and first governor of the colony of Virginia. The English erroneously thought that he had discovered the river, but there's no evidence that West ever saw or visited the Delaware. It was actually first explored by Henry Hudson (ca. 1570-ca. 1611), who called it 'one of the finest, best, and pleasantest rivers in the world.'

37 N. Water Street_ Philadelphia - 1900 A view of the stairs leading down the old river bank between
Front and Water Streets. These stairs used to line the Philadelphia waterfront but were almost completely
destroyed with the construction of I-95

"Along the Delaware's western bank in Philadelphia, the muddy/gravelly edge of the river originally lapped up to the future location of Water Street -- a rutted lane now mostly gone in the city's old waterfront district. Immediately above this tidal flat was a sheer embankment bluff, between ten and fifty feet high, all along the local shoreline, as the river had scoured a deep channel over the eons. The top of this bluff later became Front Street, the first roadway to parallel the river when Philadelphia was planned.

"Some of the city's first settlers actually lived in caves they dug into the embankment, pretty much within the space between where Front and Water Streets came to be. These shallow dugouts, long part of Philadelphia lore ... provided the newcomers with their initial shelter upon reaching Penn's settlement in the 1680s.

"Water Street developed as the pier-head line during the eighteenth century and provided direct access to the various docks and wharves by the Delaware. As time went on, the riverfront east of Water Street became filled with 'made-earth.' (This is the more accurate term for landfill when hard ground is formed by piling soil and rock atop water.)

"Wharves were built into the water by employing pilings and casements of logs in the shape of boxes, which were then filled with soil and stone and topped with wooden planks. As the wharves extended eastward, the planks were replaced with a harder surface, like flagstones, Belgian blocks or gravel. This eventually became solid ground, on which port structures were often erected. Docks, piers, ferry landings and the like continually moved eastward into the river in this fashion.

"A series of east-west alleys cut through this new landscape over time. Commercial structures -- stores, shops, lumberyards, warehouses and shipbuilding facilities -- were also built on the made-earth between Water Street and the Delaware.

"The embankment steps at Wood Street show how steep the western bank of the Delaware was before the march of time obliterated all traces of the riverside's original landscape.

"The terrain at Vine Street had a more gradual descent to the river than that to the south -- say, between Race and Market Streets -- where the change in elevation was greater. Therefore, the number of actual steps (treads) composing the Wood Street stairwell is less than that of the other long-gone Penn stairways. That is to say, the other public stairs -- which no longer exist -- were generally more impressive than the stairwell at Wood Street. ...

"This goes to show that Philadelphia originally had two levels: 1) the main upper plane starting at Front Street and proceeding west and 2) the lower plane beside the Delaware River. This dual set of elevations can still be seen when looking at the city westward from Penn's Landing. The buildings on Front Street are much higher than those on Columbus Boulevard (formerly Delaware Avenue). Penn's Landing here is about thirty feet below the rest of Philadelphia.


Harry G. Kyriakodis


A History of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront


The History Press


Copyright 2011 by Harry Kyriakodis


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