Historic Sites

The Department of Docks, Wharfs and Ferries: Making Philadelphia’s Modern Waterfront

Arguably Philadelphia’s most progressive mayor of the early 20th century, Rudolph Blankenburg (1912-1916) the “Old Dutch Cleanser” – sought to reform and modernize many of the city’s graft-ridden and inefficient departments. Blankenburg, realizing that Philadelphia was locked in competition with New York, Boston and Baltimore for international maritime trade, spurred the recently created Department of Docks, Wharves, and Ferries to better coordinate the city’s port facilities. As one port official put it in 1912, “New York is one of the best ports to enter, but one of the most expensive to get through.” If Philadelphia was to compete with a more advantageously situated New York, its port infrastructure had to allow quicker and easier movement of ships and cargo.

At the head of the Department, Blankenburg placed George W. Norris – a talented banker and lawyer who worked closely with the energetic reformer and technocrat Morris Cooke, the director of public works. In a move that pleased both the public and the city’s shipping and transportation interests, Cooke and Norris secured an agreement barring grade railroad crossings in South Philadelphia in 1913. From his office at the Bourse, Norris’ oversaw the collection of rents from pier tenants, regulated construction of piers and the movement of ships, and planned large-scale expansions to the city’s port. Norris’ most ambitious project, the creation of the Moyamensing and Southwark piers, would greatly expand the city’s ability to receive ships and their cargo. The “finger piers” were to extend down the Delaware waterfront to the Navy Yard like cilia, making Philadelphia the undisputed “Port of Pennsylvania.” Though the “Port of Pennsylvania” scheme was never fully realized, Philadelphia had four times the amount of municipal docks when Norris left office. The prolific engineer George S. Webster succeeded Norris as director of the Department and continued to build modern piers along the north Delaware waterfront.

The municipal piers constructed by the Department in the late 1910s-20s were sophisticated industrial machines designed to speed the movement of cargo from one mode of transportation to another. Railroad tracks ran laterally through the long buildings which also served as warehouses. Cranes and flat loading bays allowed easy movement of cargo onto waiting boxcars and all piers were connected to the Philadelphia Belt Line Railroad which ran down Delaware Ave. The piers’ reinforced concrete neoclassical facades suggested monumentality and authority while seeking to soften the gruffness of the rough commercial waterfront. The Department also built recreation piers such as municipal pier No. 57 at Penn Treaty Park in 1919.

Though finger piers became obsolete after World War II with the advent of larger ships and containerization, the presence of several municipal piers along the Delaware reminds us of the ambition and foresight of the Department of Wharves, Docks and Ferries in the early 20th century.


  • Lloyd M. Abernathy “Progressivism, 1905-1919,” Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, Russell F. Weigley, ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982), 546-554.
  • Frank H. Taylor and Wilfred H. Schoff, The Port and City of Philadelphia, (Philadelphia: International Congress of Navigation, 1912),M2 Accessed 7 September 2007.
  • Donald W. Disbrow “Reform in Philadelphia Under Mayor Blankenburg, 1912-1916,” Pennsylvania History 27 (October 1960), 379-396.