Penn's Landing

William Penn's "greene country towne" has finally become a reality here.

The area today known as Penn's Landing stretches along the Delaware River for about 10 blocks from Vine Street to South Street, and encompasses the spot where William Penn, Philadelphia's founder, first touched ground in his "greene country towne." After Penn's arrival, this area quickly became the center of Philly's maritime soul and the city's dominant commercial district. Today, however, Penn's Landing is a riverside park and the place where Philadelphians gather in the summer to hear music and on December 31 to usher in the New Year.


William Penn first sailed up the Delaware River in the fall of 1682 aboard the ship Welcome, an aptly named vessel, for in Penn's progressive vision of his colony, all religions would be welcome to pray as they pleased. Penn arrived in Philadelphia by barge from the downriver town of Chester where the Welcome had moored. He alit near a tidewater basin called the Dock fed by a creek of the same name. At the time of Penn's arrival, the area was inhabited, though sparsely, by some landowners in his "holy experiment," as well as by Swedes, Dutch, and Indians. Many of these locals gathered to welcome Penn near the Blue Anchor Tavern, an inn being built along Dock Creek.

Nineteenth-century historian John Fanning Watson, author of the nonpareil "Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania," believed that the landing of Penn in Philadelphia rivaled the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in importance and should have been similarly canonized. Writing in 1842, a time when the Penn's Landing area was a web of wharves and commerce, he rhapsodized fancifully about what Penn might have seen in 1682: "the creek adorned with every grace of shrubbery and foliage, and beyond it...a few of the natives' wigwams, intermixed among the shadowy trees."

Penn himself, mindful of the salubrious effect of greenery and open space within a city, had intended to have a tree-lined promenade planted along the area today named for him. Economics dictated otherwise.


Not many pioneering settlers had houses waiting for them upon their arrival. Some early purchasers into Penn's dream dug caves into the high banks along the Delaware River to dwell in while their houses were being built. Francis Daniel Pastorius, an early abolitionist and founder of the historic Germantown section of Philadelphia, is known to have been one such cave dweller. Other cave dwellers were not so reputable. In 1685, the town's Grand Jury objurgated Joseph Knight, for "suffering drunkenness and evil orders in his cave"; and several debauched persons were also reproved for condoning drinking houses. Later Philadelphia memoir-keepers alluded to members of the world's oldest profession conducting their form of commerce in these caves as well.

According to historian Watson, once the settlers' houses and businesses were built, they ended up being a bit closer to the river than Penn had intended when the city was laid out. Further, the valuable plots of land near the river were subdivided, and Penn's concept of a city with spacious, green-covered lots was forsaken.

Penn's surveyor, thomas Holme, laid out Philadelphia in a 1,200 acre rectangular manner spreading west from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River. Clearly, though, the land along the Delaware including the Penn's Landing area was the most valuable. Maritime trade fast became the backbone of the nascent city's economy. Many captains, riggers, sailors, shipbuilders, and ship-owners worked and lived hard on the river.


In Philadelphia's early days, farmers and manufacturers of raw materials filled schooners and brigantines with goods headed for England. Colonists, under English sovereignty, were forced to export goods only to the mother country. The King saw the colonies as a natural market for England's own manufacturing, and an exploitable source of raw material and foodstuffs. By the 1720s an armada of British ships brought wool, linen, nails, a variety of metals — even gunpowder — into the busy Philadelphia waterfront. A 1720 painting by Peter Cooper, the earliest work of art depicting an American city, portrays a flotilla of ships on the Delaware dotted by docks and Philadelphia burgeoning with houses.


The diligent colonists found they could produce much more than they could sell to England, however. Thus, illegally exported lumber, livestock, crops, and tobacco found outlets in non-British ports. Those willing to run the risk of evading British tax patrols often made high returns on their money.

Over time, the wealthiest merchants came to own the most valuable land along the river in order to facilitate their shipping interests. Penn had hoped to retain a parcel of high-banked land along the Delaware for himself, but poor financial straits caused the city's founder to sell out to mercantile interests. Penn's rosy notion of an arbored riparian quay gave way to an ocean of mercantile commotion.

Shipping continued to play a very important role in the city into the 20th century. Even today, you find tankers and freighters docked farther down the river.


It took about 300 years, but Penn's dream of a tree-lined riverfront promenade finally came to fruition. Starting in 1967, the city began to redevelop the area's dilapidated docks into a recreation park along the river. Walkways were put in, an amphitheater was built, a World Sculpture Garden installed — and finally, trees were planted along the river.


The walk starts by heading over the Market Street bridge onto the Landing. From the bridge, you look across the river into Camden, New Jersey, where one's eye is drawn to a tower attached to an old factory. The sharp-sighted walker will make out at the tower's top an enormously large dog fashioned from mosaic tiles listening to a gramophone. The factory belongs to RCA; the dog's name is Nipper and he is listening to "His Master's Voice."

At the base of the bridge a placard honors Stephen Girard. In the early part of the 19th-century Girard was arguably the wealthiest man in the United States and his credit helped finance the War of 1812. He made a good deal of his money in shipping. As such, much of his business life revolved around the Penn's Landing area. When Girard died in 1832 his will provided $500,000 to improve the area. The money led to the construction of bulkheads, the first lighting along the river, and better paved waterfront streets.


In addition to the river's busy commercial traffic, a fleet of ferries once crossed the Delaware River to various points in New Jersey. In the 1870s, a frequent ferry passenger from Camden to Philadelphia was the poet Walt Whitman — who now has a bridge named for him that is visible about two miles south. Ferry travel was doomed, however, when the bridge just to the north honoring Ben Franklin was built in 1926. Designed by the architect Paul Philippe Cret, the electric blue Benjamin Franklin Bridge was the largest suspension span in the world upon its completion. To help celebrate America's Bicentennial, the renowned architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates augmented Cret's work by adding a computer-controlled lighting system to the bridge. Each cable is lit from beneath by massive kleig-like lights — similar to those used in filmmaking. As a train passes, the lights blink on and off, cable-by-cable, in a rapid-fire manner.

Follow a brick promenade south, walking parallel to the river. One notices that the bulkheads funded by Girard are still there, though now no ships are tied to them. Rather, the rope-smoothed moorings serve as resting places for groveling seabirds.


First stop off the brick path is the Gazela, a 177-foot-long square-rigged vessel built in 1883. In her first incarnation, she was a Portuguese fishing boat and as recently as the 1960s she was still active seeking cod in Canada's Grand Banks.

The Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild acquired the ship in 1969. This organization maintains and operates the venerable vessel which functions as a floating classroom for wanna-be tars interested in learning knot-tying, nautical terminology, and all manner of maritime affairs. The Gazela is still seaworthy and sets sail each year to visit ports of the world.

The Gazela was the oldest tall ship to participate in the OpSail Tall Ship Festival in 1976, and also took part in the Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday celebration in New York Harbor in 1986.

Just south of the Gazela is the Blue Cross River Rink, a place for outdoor ice-skating. Orange is the dominant color as locals wearing Philadelphia Flyer hockey jerseys share the ice with those seemingly ubiquitous perfect figure skaters pirouetting in the rink's center. The rink is public and open to those of us who merely circle the rink holding onto the rail.


Skating south from the rink we come upon the Great Plaza, a tiered amphitheater which overlooks the Delaware River. On Memorial Day Philadelphians host a New Orleans-inspired festival, and in July the Plaza resounds to the blues as many bluesmeisters spend a weekend in Philly. Concerts, musicals, dance troops, and ethnic programs are featured throughout the summer.

Also contained within the plaza is a historical account of Philadelphia's waterfront history. Informative markers scattered throughout the area detail Philadelphia's growth, give lessons on ships' flags, detail the geology of the Delaware River basin, chart the city's population growth, and offer information on Philadelphia's many neighborhoods. Finally, inscribed stones set into the ground celebrate Philadelphia as a "city of Firsts."


This museum, which opened in 1995, celebrates Philadelphia's maritime history and is a waterfront educational and cultural center. The museum explores Philadelphia's waterfront and its impact on the nation as a whole. The centerpiece exhibit is called "Home Port: Philadelphia" which dives into a dozen different waterfront worlds including commerce and trade, naval defense, shipbuilding, and the immigrant experience. One can even go fishing off a pier in a re-created outdoor environment. Interactivity is a byword of the museum and a visitor can try unloading cargo containers, doze on hard bunks used by immigrants, take quizzes concerning Philadelphia's maritime history, or imitate Rosie the Riveter at the interactive welding and riveting site.

At the "Coming to America" exhibit, Philadelphia's Washington Street Wharf, analogous to New York's Ellis Island — the port of entry for immigrants — is re-created. Three films highlight the various trials of Italian, Jewish, and Polish immigrants. By pressing buttons, one gets to hear first-person testimonials detailing the experience of arriving and working in the New World. An Italian woman who came to Philadelphia is heard recounting the crowded ship conditions and the lavia vecchia, or "the old ways," when arranged marriages were common. "We married. Then we fell in love," this nostalgic immigrant remembers. A Jewish voice recalls Philadelphia as being a new Jerusalem — "it was like the old country but without the fears."

At the Navy Yard Exhibit the longshoreman's life is spotlighted. Press a button and hear Dominic Brancato, a 54-year employee of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, recount his rise from a 26-cents-an-hour rivet catcher to a foreman with 85 workers under his supervision.

From there one can enter the bridge of the guided-missle destroyer, the U.S.S. Lawrence. Press a button and all of a sudden find yourself in the midst of a general quarters drill with flashing sirens, beeping monitors and the threat of imminent attack.

Nine more dynamic exhibits await the visitor to the Independence Seaport Museum.

Also displayed throughout the museum are interesting natuical relics such as a champagne bottle encased in sterling silver which was used to christen the U.S.S. Philadelphia. Shipbuilding tools, products brought into Philadelphia, and artwork are featured throughout. An entire room of the museum was dedicated to a temporary show by the ship-painting artist Antonio Jacobson.

One can easily spend a half a day or almost an entire day here. Anchors aweigh.


Another offering at the museum is Workshop on the Water. Classes are offered for locals would like to try their hand at boatbuilding. Instructors give hands-on lessons on the construction of skiffs and sailboats. Students may learn how to make a catboat (a pleasure boat of the last century) or a railbird skiff (a flat-bottomed boat used for hunting in marshes). Other courses teach model-making and paddle-making. Visitors to Independence Seaport Museum can observe these traditional boatbuilding classes.


Back outside, the brick pathway juts out into the water at this point. One continues walking past a small marina and finally the walk dead ends onto some brick benches across from the Chart House Restaurant and a ship called the Spirit of Philadelphia with its registry listed as Norfolk, Virginia. One of the best views of the city can be had from this point. Christ Church, the Philadelphia Customs House, I.M. Pei's Society Hill Towers, and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge all seem to sparkle more resplendently when seen from the water. Return from the dead-end to the museum.


Dominating this grassy two-acre garden is another Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates project. An obelisk celebrating the quincentennial (500 years) of Columbus's arrival in America is both a work of art and a source of information. This piece unabashedly celebrates the Genoan as a hero. Inscribed on the base are some of his traits — Explorer, visionary, navigator, cartographer.

Here, too, is Sphere, a 16-ton, 8-foot-in-circumference monolithic stone obtained from Costa Rica. Anthropologists aren't sure if the sphere, one of many found at a Costa Rican site, was used for ritual or scientific purposes. Regardless, there is something irresistible about this rock. Other items in the sculpture garden are a totem pole from Canada, a cow sculpture from India, and a bronze statue of William Penn, age 38, in 1682.

From here we continue south to the National Naval Shrine. At the foot of Spruce Street, two symbols of America's nautical past have found a home port in Philadelphia.


"For the past few months we have tried to get the support of folks around this great nation who take pride in their American Heritage to help us secure the future of this Philadelphia historic landmark known as USS Olympia C6." You can help: Friends of Cruiser Olympia

"You may fire when you are ready, Gridley." Thus Commodore Dewey ignited the 1898 Battle of Manila Bay from the bridge of the Olympia. Seven-and-a-half hours later the Spanish fleet in the Philippines had been destroyed and the U.S. had arrived as an imperial power.

The Olympia, built in 1892, was one of America's first steel. She became the flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron, and protected American interests in many foreign countries. During the First World War, the Olympia served as an escort ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The historic ship's last assignment, in 1921, was bringing the body of the Unknown Soldier back from Europe and carrying him to his final resting ground at Arlington National Cemetery.

One is struck by the amount of fine woodwork used in the officers' cabins and the other amenities of civilization that are found aboard the Olympia. The spacious Admiral's Quarters features fine cabinets and crystal wine glasses. Walking about, it seems one is walking on a cruise ship rather than a battleship. A city in miniature, a swabbie could visit a barbershop, dentist, or the ship's store, while on board. The store is recreated to look as it did during WWI and is stocked with vintage items.

The ship's 26 cannons and 6 torpedo tubes belie any cruise-ship notions, however. When in fighting shape, the great ship was home to a crew of 440 men and 34 officers. Be sure to go below and see the remarkable engine room.

We forward to you a note from a visitor to these pages, a long-time devotee of restoration and whose wife works for the Smithsonian, who said, "The condition of this important ship is deplorable! The historic vessel needs a major overhaul and restoration judging from what I saw." He also noted that as the ship is a self-guided tour, more signs were needed to make the visit more meaningful. We have been informed (May 1996) that the Independence Seaport Museum is now responsible for the ship and has received two sizeable grants towards refurbishing the Olympia and the Becuna.


Sitting right next to the great battleship is a submarine. Commissioned in 1944 to serve as the submarine flagship of the Southwest Pacific Fleet under General Douglas MacArthur, the guppy-class Becuna was credited with destroying thousands of tons of Japanese naval and merchant ships including a battleship. After the war, the Becuna was re-equipped with a larger electric battery, sophisticated radar, and torpedoes with nuclear warheads. The submarine went on to serve in the Atlantic and Mediterranean during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Finally, the Becuna became a training submarine at New London, Connecticut, and was decommissioned in 1969.

It doesn't take a nuclear submarine scientist to know that conditions aboard the Becuna are claustrophobic. But upon squeezing through the manholelike opening into the belly of the beast for the first time, one still isn't adequately prepared for the compactness that awaits. The self-guided tour starts in the torpedo room where the smell from the oil and grease coating the machinery constricts one's nose and stomach. On top of that, an average-sized adult will feel positively Brobdingnagian in here because it feels like walking into a dollhouse. For instance, a trio of tiered cots on the starboard wall look like kids' furniture until one sidles up to them and realizes they are of normal size. For all that, the sensations of claustrophobia and constriction start to fade quickly and the Becuna takes on an intimate feel. The most compelling parts of this compartment are its ten mesmerizing torpedo tubes. If you have ever watched a WWII submarine movie in your lifetime, Pavlovian results might now occur. In your mind you may find yourself reaching for a periscope and saying, "Fire one, fire two," as you hear the sizzling "pfffff" sound of deadly torpedoes slicing the water. The submarine is shaken by intense vibrations as the radio man announces, "Direct hit on an enemy warship."

Shaking off the fantasy and moving aft in the sub, one comes upon the officers' shower. An ecologically minded sign reads, "Save Water — Shower with a friend." The officers' quarters have unexpectedly spacious sleeping berths. Across from the berths, a recreation area shows a card-playing mannequin relaxing while off-duty. A non-politically-correct pack of non-filtered cigarettes is by the mannequin's side.

Passing into the next compartment one finds a memorial to the U.S.S. Thresher, a submarine lost in action, reinforcing the danger implicit in submarine duty. One moves on to the crews' quarters. Though not as well-appointed as the officers' quarters, there are tables featuring backgammon and chessboards.

From there, one moves into the control room and radio room. A mannequin is squeezed into the radio room and is shown writing down a message. Past that are the engine rooms highlighted by two pairs of diesel workhorses named Grunt and Groan, and Huff and Puff.

Heading back out of the sub one is struck by its length. For those interested in its measurements, the Becuna weighs 1,526 tons with a standard displacement of 308 feet in length and a beam of 27 feet. The sub was powered by four, 16-cylinder diesel engines producing 20.3 knots of surface speed and by 252 battery cells for underwater electrical propulsion of 9 knots. The maximum crew number was 66 — hard to believe!

bullet John Fitch demonstrated his steamboat before the Constitutional Convention here in 1787.
bullet In the 1680s people lived in caves dug into the banks of the Delaware River.
bullet The Ben Franklin Bridge was the world's largest suspension bridge when completed in 1926.
bullet In 1837, a crowd of 100,000 gathered at the Naval Ship Yard for the launching of the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, a 120-gun ship which took 15 years to build.
bullet The world's first ice breaker was built for the city of Philadelphia to break ice in the Delaware. City boat No. 1 remained in service for 80 years.
bullet Location: Columbus Avenue (formerly Delaware Avenue) between South and Vine Streets. (Map)
bullet Built: 1967
bullet Tourism information: There are four footbridges which cross over I-95 and Columbus Avenue onto Penn's Landing, at Market, Chestnut, Walnut, and South Streets. A riverbus runs between here and the Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey.
bullet Seaport Museum: Penn's Landing at Walnut Street. Open daily 10-5 (closed Christmas and Thanksgiving). Fees (see below). 215-925-5439
bullet U.S.S. Olympia & U.S.S. Becuna: Penn's Landing at Spruce Street. Open daily 10-4:30 (closed Christmas and New Year's Day); Summer hours 10-5. Fees (see below). 215-922-1898
bullet Gazela: Penn's Landing at Market Street. Labor-Memorial Day Sa-Su noon-5pm; Memorial-Labor Day daily 10am-6pm. 215-923-9030
bullet Riverlink Ferry: Connects Penn's Landing with Camden, NJ, the aquarium, entertainment center, Riversharks baseball, etc. Call 215-925-LINK
bullet Facilities: Public bathrooms, lots of benches, many nearby restaurants, and a couple of floating restaurants, including the Liberty Belle, in season.
bullet More information online:

Copyright © 1999- by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.