From the Archives: On the Waterfront
This blog post is part of an ongoing series in collaboration with Archives Month Philly, a city-wide festival each October celebrating historical records, archives, and rare books. Learn more and check out their events calendar at https://archivesmonthphilly.com.
Guest blogger: Katherine Haas, Director of Historical Resources, Girard College.
Several of the proposed monuments pay homage to Philadelphia’s waterfront: one calls for a waterfront spiral, while others suggest monuments inspired by sail and tugboats. The Delaware River is a vital working river-- in 2017 Philadelphia’s port is the country’s twelfth largest. This connection between land and river has always shaped Philadelphia’s history. As this 1797 map shows, settlement of Philadelphia (the darker areas) originally clustered along the Delaware River, the nation’s largest port until the rise of New York after 1825.
What this map can’t convey is the bustle of activity and teeming workers that defined the waterfront area. Archival collections throughout the city help reveal this world; one important source is the Stephen Girard papers at Girard College, which preserves five decades’ worth of shipping records from the Philadelphia mariner and merchant who died in 1831 as the richest man in America.
To look at just one example, on March 13, 1816 Girard’s ship the Rousseau arrived from Liverpool, England with a crew of twelve men, ranging from the captain, Robert Thompson, to John Smith, seaman, who signed his receipts with an “X”. In April, the ship headed out for Charleston, again with Thompson as captain, but having recruited a new crew. The lists of men and paychecks give us names and hint at stories—on April 15, 1816 John Dredger signed as security for seaman Thomas Esskalson, promising that he would report for the Rousseau’s April voyage. Esskalson drew a month’s pay in advance ($15), signing his own mark as a shaky X. But an April 24th document indicates that Esskalson had failed to show up, making Dredger liable for the advance, plus a penalty. Dredger paid the fine, but we are left to wonder why Esskalson never made it on board.
The men who actually sailed the Rousseau were only one part of the waterfront crowd. Girard’s papers document the shipwrights who built and repaired the vessels, the riggers who fitted them out, the coopers who made barrels and casks, the suppliers who sold provisions for the ships, the river pilots who guided the vessel safely into and out of harbor; even the laborers who hauled the goods on and off.
These sailors and workers were a diverse group, both black and white. An 1815 sailor’s passport for James Ervin, born in Portland, ME, describes the 28-year old as having a “mulatto” complexion, black hair & eyes, and scars on his cheek and arm. An 1807 note in one of Stephen Girard’s disbursement books records a “donation for assisting to bury Peter Taylor a black man who died this morning. Said Taylor was several voyages in Mr. G’s employ.” We don’t know if Ervin’s scars came in the line of work, but Girard’s disbursement books also remind us that sailing was a dangerous and uncertain profession--there are many donations for “poor seamen,” presumably those too old, too sick, or too injured to work.
Going back to the 1797 map, a keen observer might notice another oddity—the easternmost street in the city is “First Street”—now Front street. A path had grown up along the waterfront, but it would take a bequest from Stephen Girard to create Delaware Avenue. Personally familiar with the congestion and dirt of the waterfront, Girard provided money in his 1831 will to “lay out, regulate, curb, light and pave a passage or street…not less than twenty-one feet wide, and to be called Delaware Avenue.” The new street would be built from 1834 and 1845 at a cost of approximately $250,000.
Want to find out more?
- Explore the Stephen Girard papers, which are preserved in Founder’s Hall at Girard College and are available on microfilm for research use at the American Philosophical Society
- Tours of the Founder’s Hall collections are regularly available 9-2 on Thursdays or by appointment.
- A special Archives Month tour will take place Thursday, October 5 at 6 PM and special Second Saturday tours will be available October 14, 12-3pm.