Port Richmond Site

port-richmond-mapThe Port Richmond Site (Site Number 36PH0203) is located on the former city block bounded by Richmond, Ann, Melvale, and East Cambria Streets in the Port Richmond section of the city. This historic block now falls within the Conrail Philadelphia property. 

At the time of the 2010 excavations, the Port Richmond Site fell within an empty, overgrown lot in the Conrail yard. This lot was bounded on the southwest by East Cambria Street, on the southeast by Melvale Street, on the the northeast by Ann Street, and on the northwest by a chain link fence separating the overgrown lot from a paved parking area under I-95. The property within the Conrail yard had been heavily truncated during the twentieth century, with the ground dropping significantly from the fence eastward into the site. Rather than investigate this entire lot, archaeological investigations focused on a narrow buffer, approximately 60 feet wide and following the proposed centerline of relocated Richmond Street. Regardless of the limitations of the excavation area, numerous significant historic features were uncovered.

Site History Summary

The land that is now the Port Richmond Site was originally part of William Ball’s eighteenth-century estate, and largely remained in his family until the 1840s, when developers acquired much of the block bounded by Richmond, Cambria, Melvale, and Ann Streets. Up to this point, little development had occurred on the block, which had only a few frame houses scattered across it and an old schoolhouse located at the corner of Cambria and Melvale. This situation began to change in the 1840s and picked up pace in the 1850s, as the village of Richmond transformed into the bustling Port Richmond with the construction of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad’s terminal nearby.

As the population grew, buildings sprang up around the block and were quickly filled with residents and businesses catering to the rapidly expanding community. A few of the block’s residents during this time were on the wealthier side, such as Irish labor contractor Philip Duffy, who hired the workers for the infamous Duffy’s Cut, and coal merchant Charles McCoy, the so-called “Richest man in Richmond.” A majority of those living in Port Richmond, however, were working-class Irish or German immigrants employed as laborers or in maritime trades. Others ran the boardinghouses, drug stores, clothing shops, bakeries, and saloons that lined Cambria and Richmond Streets. The spiritual needs of the neighborhood were met, as well, when the Richmond Presbyterian Church was constructed in the center of the Richmond Street side of the block.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Port Richmond underwent a slow but noticeable shift. While the neighborhood kept its working-class port character, new immigrants diversified its ethnic makeup. Large numbers of Polish immigrants joined the Irish and Germans, in addition to immigrants from various other ethnic groups. Occupations shifted slightly, as well, with more of the residents being involved in heavy industry, railroad work, and modern shipping, as opposed to the older maritime trades.

What Did the Archaeological Excavation Reveal?

Excavations at the Port Richmond Site involved machine excavation down to subsoil along the proposed centerline of relocated Richmond Street to reveal historic features behind the structures that once stood on Richmond, Melvale, and East Cambria Streets. Remnants of walls were encountered, consisting primarily of later twentieth-century walls of unknown function near the middle of the site and the remains of foundations along East Cambria Street. All of these foundations were substantially impacted during intense twentieth-century grading of the site. Fortunately, many of the privies and shaft features behind these structures reached depths below this later disturbance, surviving to be investigated archaeologically. Archaeological investigations in 2010 revealed a total of 10 brick shafts, 11 box privies, 8 barrel privies, and a large number of pit, post, and trench features. These features fell within the historic boundaries of 15 different properties on Richmond, Melvale, and East Cambria Streets. All of the features revealed during mechanical stripping were investigated archaeologically, producing over 60,000 artifacts dating from the mid–nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. In a neighborhood that has been largely neglected in the histories of Philadelphia and entirely unexplored archaeologically, the Port Richmond: Cambria-Ann Site provides the first glimpse into the daily lives of the people living and working in this part of the city during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The individuals and families represented in the recovered artifacts span a wide socioeconomic spectrum in the neighborhood, from immigrant laborers and longshoremen along Melvale Street, to the shopkeepers and small businesses along East Cambria Street, as well as wealthier mariners, clerks, and coal merchants along Richmond Street.

Interactive Site Features

Feature Map

A Closer Look at Everyday Life

A “Closer Look at Everyday Life” provides an opportunity to explore the artifacts from specific features in more detail. In this section, you will find images and information about individual artifacts and groups of objects recovered during the archaeological excavations in this neighborhood that provide additional insights on the people who lived, worked, and played on these properties.

Feature 1

The artifacts recovered from Feature 1 represent a variety of common household objects manufactured and used in the mid to late nineteenth century. Some of these objects may have broken during service, others were probably discarded when they were no longer useful, and some may have been thrown away while house cleaning or during a move. Although these artifacts do not represent every article the occupants of the household used, they provide us a glimpse at the objects people used in their everyday lives. This shaft feature (Feature 1) is particularly interesting because of the number of artifacts related to infants and children, leisure, fashion, and home decorating.

Feature 5

The artifacts recovered from Feature 5, located behind 2923 Richmond Street, represent common household objects manufactured and used in the mid-nineteenth century. Some of these objects might have broken during use, others may have been discarded when they went out of style, became obsolete, or in the process of cleaning or relocating the household. While these artifacts do not represent every article the occupants of the household used, they provide a look at some of the objects utilized in this home during this time period. This shaft feature is interesting because of the presence of a number of artifacts related to food storage and dining. In addition, some of the ceramics and glassware represent portions of matching sets.