Fishtown One Site

fish1-mapThe Fishtown One Site was located in the Kensington “Fishtown” section of Philadelphia and encompassed an approximately 1.05-acre parcel of land bounded by Palmer Street (west), Salmon Street (north), Delaware Avenue (south), and Montgomery Avenue (east).

At the time of excavation, the Fishtown One Site consisted of bare ground beneath the I-95 viaduct and grass-covered land to the south of the highway between Palmer and Montgomery Avenues. The entire site, encompassing Block One, was open and level. Prior to the construction of I-95, much of the site area consisted of undeveloped backyard and interior block space.

Site History Summary

Urban development on the Fishtown One Site did not really begin until the late colonial era, and even then, the area remained fairly rural. At the time, it formed the southern portion of a large block bounded by the streets now known as Girard Avenue, Montgomery Avenue, Palmer Street, and Richmond Street. Descendants of Anthony Palmer, the founder of Kensington, owned much of the land before it was divided and purchased by men such as shipbuilder Manuel Eyre and lumber merchant Peter Keyser at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries.

From the 1810s through the 1860s, the block saw a period of greater development, with many of the remaining large tracts of land being subdivided and the First Presbyterian Church of Kensington being constructed near what is now the corner of Wildey and Palmer Streets. Salmon and Eyre Streets were opened in the center of the block, leaving the area with the church cut off from the rest of the properties. Further development occurred between Montgomery and Eyre when First Presbyterian moved to Girard Avenue in the late 1850s, and the George Chandler School was constructed on its former land in the early 1860s to serve the needs of Fishtown’s children. This building, plagued by drainage problems and antiquated facilities, was replaced in 1907 by a new school building, which was later converted into condominiums.

Being on the traditional outer edge of the Fishtown area, a fair number of the residents during this time were involved in maritime trades—with fishing and shipbuilding families such as the Bennetts, Bramells, Bakers, Faunces, Hills, and Tees populating much of the block—but there was also occupational diversity. Numerous glassworkers employed at nearby glasshouses, such as Union Glass Works or Dyottville, also lived on the block, while other residents operated businesses essential to any neighborhood at the time: bakeries, groceries, barber shops, dry-goods stores, saloons, and numerous boardinghouses to accommodate industrial workers and the mariners who frequented the area.

After the Civil War, heavy industry moved into the area and the demographics of the block changed somewhat. More of the inhabitants were employed in factories, iron foundries, and mills, though the shipbuilding industries and, to a much lesser extent, the fishing industry remained active. On the east end of Richmond Street, more and more small businesses and light industrial enterprises sprang up during this time, replacing some of the original Fishtown residents. Residents were also displaced on the western end of the block by an influx of Irish immigrants and those of Irish descent. Along Palmer Street, brick twin homes were constructed in the mid-1890s, providing homes for the ever-growing number of industrial workers.

Most of the homes and businesses along Richmond Street were demolished around 1924, when Richmond Street was widened into Delaware Avenue, and replaced by light industrial buildings and small warehouses. This trend soon spread to Montgomery Avenue and Salmon Street, as well, leaving Palmer the last mainly residential street on the block before it too was demolished in the late 1960s for the construction of I-95.

What Did the Archaeological Excavation Reveal?

Excavations confirmed that intact archaeological deposits and features were well-preserved beneath existing recent fill deposits across nearly the entire site. Identified archaeological resources include historic house and other building foundations, early-nineteenth- through twentieth-century subsurface features (brick and wood-lined privies, refuse pits, etc.), and sections of undisturbed historic ground surface (yard deposits). Excavation of the buried ground surface also revealed a scatter of mixed historic artifacts and deposits of Native American artifacts, tentatively dated to the Middle Archaic through Early Woodland culture periods (5000 B.C.–A.D. 900).

Although low numbers of debitage (stone tool making debris), consisting of materials such as argillite, chert, jasper, quartz, and quartzite, and fire-cracked rock (FCR) were identified, the quantities of flaked stone tools—particularly bifaces (chipped stone tools with flakes removed on both sides or faces)—define this occupation. Approximately 20 stone tools were identified during field excavations.

Archaeological investigations also revealed that the majority of the former 1st Presbyterian Church cemetery grounds today lay beneath an asphalt parking lot situated between I-95 and the former Chandler School building (now converted into apartments). A small portion of the burial ground plot, encompassing its far northeast corner, does extend into the current I-95 project area and was tested for the presence of intact graves during this investigation.