The notion of building a canal in the Kensington-Fishtown-Port Richmond neighborhoods originated with local businessmen and property owners along the sluggish meandering stream known as Gunner’s Run. Incorporating themselves as the Gunner’s Run Improvement Company, on March 15, 1847, these men hoped the canal would serve to spur economic development and prosperity in their community. Work on the project began in 1848 and continued in fits and starts into the following decade. Originally known as the Gunner’s Run Canal, the name was officially changed to the Aramingo Canal in 1850. In 1856 the Pennsylvania State Legislature declared this new inland waterway a public highway.
The construction of the canal required the Gunner’s Run stream channel to be deepened and straightened, followed by the construction of wooden bulkheads and wharves along its shores. Originally intended to extend more than five miles inland, from the Delaware River to Frankford Creek, only about 1.5 miles of this route were ever fully completed. Though only ever partially realized, the Aramingo Canal did, for a time, help to significantly improve the economic status of this community, and led to establishment of many prosperous industrial enterprises and new residential blocks along its shores.
For about 25 years the Aramingo Canal did help to spur the growth and development of the local community. Over time, however, the constant dumping of industrial waste, residential garbage, and other refuse into the canal, along with the channeling of its waters into nearby sewers, gradually transformed the waterway into a stagnant, inky-black, disease breeding tidal inlet. By the mid 1880s, the canal was described as little more than a “shallow and open latrine,” a “vast leeching cesspool, a menace to the health of the population, and an eyesore to the city at large,” and people began calling for its removal. At the same time, local doctors regularly complained of the canal’s role in spreading disease – particularly the deadly outbreaks of typhoid fever and malaria that struck every summer. In 1899, thePhiladelphia Inquirer reported that “the old bulkheads and wharves are rotting away, and falling to pieces by small degrees, and are picturesque enough when photographed – for a picture is free from odor … the filthy tide that now fills the stream is noisome enough to disgust even a sewer rat.”
In the 1890s, the city began the process of doing away with the Aramingo Canal. Beginning first at its northern end, engineers channeled its waters into large brick storm sewers, filled its prism with soil and landfill material, and paved it over with newly created surface streets. By 1895, the open-water portion of the canal only extended from the Delaware River to Norris Street, where it terminated in a timber bulkhead. The massive engineering effort required to remove the last remnants of the Aramingo Canal began in 1900, and by 1902 it was no more.
What did the Archaeological Excavation Reveal?
Archaeological investigations of the Aramingo Canal were conducted on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, in 2007 and 2008, before the construction of new traffic ramps at the Girard Avenue interchange. Site excavations focused on uncovering and documenting the canal at the place where the old Norris Street Bridge once crossed over its waters. At this location, archaeologists discovered extremely well preserved sections of the canal’s timber sidewalls at a depth of 8 feet below the present ground surface.
Archaeological excavations primarily focused on exposing a 60-foot long section of the canal’s eastern timber bulkhead. Investigations were slow and difficult – because portions of an early 20th century Cramp Shipyard building had been constructed on top of the canal after its abandonment, and also because the canal itself, though now filled-in, still carries water from Gunner’s Run. Members of the archaeological team fully recorded and documented the construction methods used to build the canal bulkheads and found its 160-year old pine and spruce timbers to be preserved almost entirely intact. After the excavation, exposed canal timbers were carefully backfilled to ensure their continued protection. Based on this investigation, archaeologists believe that large portions of the Aramingo Canal may remain preserved beneath I-95, the adjacent Aramingo Shopping Center, and Aramingo Avenue.