Historic Sites

Aquatic Freeway

During the heady years of the late 19th century, the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers were as congested as the interstates that flank them today. Oil tankers, freighters, coal barges, and an occasional ocean liner clogged the Delaware River during the daylight hours. The Schuylkill River, although narrower and Inflatable Dome Tent shallower, was overrun with smaller vessels, such as the wooden sailing schooners showing in the above photographs. And as on the Schuylkill Expressway, accidents happened!

According to the photograph caption, the two ships collided during the “freshet” of May 1894. A freshet is a sudden spring thaw leading to flash floods. The freshet of 1894 killed 12 people throughout the state and, according to the New York Times, caused $3 million in damage in Williamsport alone, washing away buildings, bridges and railroads.1 These wrecked schooners, jammed against the South Street Bridge on the Schuylkill River, represented a small fraction of the damage.

During the Early Republic (1790 to 1850), the banks of the two rivers bristled with the masts and yards of sailing ships of all kinds: clippers heading to the Far East, navy frigates sailing up the River to the Federal Street Navy Yard for repairs, packets bound for England, and schooners headed for the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks and the Chesapeake Bay.

The sea-going paddlewheel steamer appeared in the 1830s. Although these new ships were no longer bound by the whims of tide and trade winds, they still carried full sets of sails in case of mechanical breakdown. Sailors and naval architects are generally a conservative set. The 10,000 ton luxury liners City of New York and City of Paris, built in 1889 for the Inman Line, had three masts that could be fully rigged for sails. Since they had two sets of propellers capable of moving the ship at over 20 knots, the sails were included more out of habit than out of necessity.2

The sailing ships involved in the collision were schooners. Schooners were the workhorses of the East Coast and the Great Lakes. They were used as “pleasure craft, cargo carriers, privateers, slavers, fishing boats and pilot boats.”3 Schooners were relatively small vessels – seldom longer than 125 feet – and usually had two masts. They were rigged with triangular rather than square sails. The tops of these sails were supported at the top of the masts by yards known as gaffs. Big triangular sails allowed schooners to sail close to the wind, and they required a relatively small crew to sail. Two schooners survive to this day at New York’s South Street Seaport. The first is the iron-hulled Pioneer, built in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania to haul sand up and down the Delaware River. 4 The second is the Lettie G. Howard, built in 1893 in Essex, Massachusetts as a fishing schooner.5

The rich cousins of the humble schooners were the great square riggers, boasting masts twelve stories high and up to three hundred feet long. In their day, they were the queens of the high seas, ferrying cargo and passengers across the oceans. Square riggers required large crews to hoist and trim sails, and best sailed when perpendicular to the wind. One of the few surviving tall ships is the Mosholu, constructed in the late 19th century, and is built of steel rather than wood.

Despite the ascendancy of the steam engine in the mid-19th century, sailing ships continued to play the Delaware River and eastern seaboard up until the 1910s. Schooners in particular were cheap to operate, and could easily haul cargo such as lumber, grain, and manufactured from a large port such as Philadelphia to smaller communities that lacked modern docking facilities. Or vise versa. By 1900, many sailing ships had auxiliary engines for river navigation, but they were still ungainly and hard-to-steer. Captains used to heeling hard-to-the-wind under sail now found themselves threading between bridge piers and dodging other ships the constricted shipping channels. In addition to navigating a constantly-shifting obstacle course, captains also had to fight treacherous currents and currents that swirled the muddy rivers.

After World War I, sailing ships quickly faded from the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, replaced by efficient but ugly barges and coastal steamers. Most ended their days in scrap yards. A few have survived to this day. They serve as static attractions like the Mosholu, cadet training ships such as the Coast Guard’s Eagle, and floating ambassadors of goodwill such as Philadelphia’s barkentine Gazela. One tall ship, the Sea Cloud, now serves as a luxurious small cruise ship.



1 The New York Times, “Flood Swept Away Millions” May 23rd, 1894 9F01E6D71F39E033A25750C2A9639C94659ED7CF&oref=slogin&oref=slogin (Accessed October 8, 2007.).

2SS City of Paris, 1889, Glasgow City Archives. (Accessed October 4, 2007.). (Accessed October 4, 2007).

4South Street Seaport Museum, Pioneer. (Accessed October 4, 2007).

5South Street Seaport Museum, Pioneer. (Accessed October 4, 2007).