Historic Sites

The archaeological investigation at the West Shipyard is open to the public Friday

A 1914 picture of Pier 19 possibly taken from the West Shipyard
lot undergoing excavation.

When someone says the words “archaeological dig,” ancient Greece, Egypt or Rome tend to come to mind along with visions of buried treasure and mummies galore.

But Philadelphia has started its own archaeological excavation led by the John Milner Associates along with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation who have collectively started digging up a thatch of the waterfront at Columbus and Vine, across from Pier 19, in search of the remains of the West Shipyard.

The crew, of course, is not hunting for mummies. They are hoping to discover evidence of the ship building and repairing business that a man named James West owned from 1676 to 1701 — reportedly pre-dating the arrival of William Penn — according to the West Shipyard blog.

The slipway being prepared for excavation is commonly referred to as the Hertz Lot after a Hertz Rental Car opened a location there in 1969 and was listed as the first archaeological site on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, according to the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum.

Today the spot in question could not be more unassuming as a battered old parking lot across from the beer, fries, and gameland that is Dave and Busters.

In a recent story on the dig at Hidden City, Harry Kyriakodis, an expert on Philadelphia’s waterfront, describes the original use of the West Shipyard this way:

“In the days before dry docks, sailing ships needing repair would be dragged up slipways (launching ramps) to enable repairs to be made. New vessels, needless to say, were also built on such ramps. A ropewalk (a long straight narrow lane where rope was made) was immediately north of the West Shipyard.”

Kyriakodis reports that West’s son took over after his father’s death in 1701, turning the locale into “miniature ‘company town,’ complete with shops and inns to support its workers,” but advancements in shipbuilding technology eventually outgrew the small shipyard.

Of course the goal is not simply to unearth remains. The study is part of the DRWC’s larger stated plans to redevelop and preserve Philalphia’s once lively, but now underutilized waterfront.

The archaeological dig began on July 16 and is open to the public Friday afternoon, July 20, from 1:00pm to 3:00pm, but you can also click here to arrange an appointment to survey the dig during the week of July 23-27.

Update: An additional public tour time has been added due to popular demand. The site will also be open to the public on Tuesday, July 24, from 5-7pm.