Penn's Landing: Page 2


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.


Ben Franklin Bridge

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.


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.