Header:Philadelphia History

Dock Street

From the Evening Bulletin, January 27, 1919


Within the old incorporated city of Philadelphia — the city proper as it was once called — every street is laid out at right angles with another except one. The visitor who comes to Philadelphia for the first time and walks through the central district seldom fails to remark something about our topographical checkerboard. But if he goes down toward the river region of the Fifth Ward, he finds he seldom sees the one exception to the rectangular arrangement. This is Dock Street, which takes a curving or irregular course, from southeast to northwest, between the vicinity of Spruce Street and comes to an end at Third Street, in front of the old Bank of the United States. It is not a handsome street; it is old, full crude commercial bustle in the hours of the day, and after night-fall or in the early hours of the night until the nocturnal preparations for the next day, it is almost wholly deserted. Wholesale traders in provisions and fruits and other such activities as mark the nearby parts of Front Street give the street its characteristic aspect. Perhaps not one Philadelphian in fifty, outside of those who are interested in the daily buying of produce, and fish and oysters, has occasion to go through it once in a year. But in some respects it is a peculiarly interesting bit of old Philadelphia in what it has been and in what it still suggests.

The area which Dock Street now covers was once a stream or indentation of the Delaware River and was sometimes described as a spacious cove or "harbor." The choice of the site of Philadelphia was doubtless due to the favorable impression which this stream or creek made upon the original planners of the city. The reason why the name of Dock Creek was given to it was that they expected it to become a capacious and permanent dock. The Native Americans, to whom it was a convenient inlet and outlet for their canoes, called it Coocaconoon, and doubtless its shore at the mouth had been places of rendezvous for them long before white men first came up the Delaware. It was familiar to the Swedes and other whites who were here before Penn took possessive his province, and near it was born one Drinker, whose life lasted more than a hundred years or until after the Revolution, Franklin once saying, when asked how long people lived in Philadelphia, that he could not tell until "old Drinker" died.

There were three branches of Dock creek in the early days of the city. One of them extended northwestward from third Street, between Walnut and Chestnut, and terminated between Fifth and /sixth above Market. Another extended from Third Street, between Walnut and Chestnut, to the vicinity of the present Athenaeum Building on Sixth Street, opposite Washington Square. Still another flowed southward toward the present Second Street Market and in the vicinity of Society Hill-a region where the Free Society of Traders had special privileges from the founder of the city for carrying on their commercial operations. At the mouth of the creek, or on its northern side, where the upper corners of Front and Dock Streets now are, the first tavern in Philadelphia was built-one of a row of houses known as "Bud's Long Row"--and it was there that Penn established one of the two earliest public landings, the other day a Blue Anchor sign with "1682" on it was affixed, as it had long been, to the premises at the northwest corner of Front and Dock, where many of the son of bibulous cheer have delighted to refresh themselves, and near Walnut Street there has been for many years another Blue Anchor sign which would create the impression among the patrons of the tavern that Penn must have sailed up Dock Creek. As a matter of fact, the Blue Anchor at Front and Dock Streets marked the true place of the tradition; that is; it was there that the first Blue Anchor--the Blue Anchor of the landing-- existed , although not the slightest trace of it is now to be found.

Along or near the shores of Dock Creek Some of the most prosperous of the early citizens of Philadelphia erected their homes. The soil was grassy. the water clean, and in the summer time the view was pleasant. But trade and industry also promptly took advantage of the opportunities which this waterway gave them. Anthony Morris had a notable brewery there, and William Frampton another, and members of the Society of Friends had so little thought that there was anything undesirable in the making of good beer that Penn himself had a little brew-house on his manor estate in Bucks county. Tanneries and lumber yards were added to the industries of Dock Creek, and in the course of time it ceased to be a wholesale stream. This deterioration had probably begun when Penn came to the city for the second and last time. It was then that he lived in the Slate Roof house, on Second Street, where his American son was born, and from its windows he could easily see Dock Creek. Doubtless the barge in which he would sometimes come down the Delaware from Pennsbury to the city would be rowed into the creek and landing made at the Blue Anchor. Nor is it difficult to imagine how the first Edward Shippen, from the windows of his mansion on Second Street, looked out over the creek and enjoyed the breezes which came across it from the Delaware.

It was so difficult, in even the earliest years of the city, to keep Dock Creek clean that citizens who owned property along its shores or slopes were almost always urged to the duty of maintaining it in an orderly condition. The breweries and tanneries could not be prevented from discharging their refuse into the stream, and the residents made use of it as a receptacle for their household sweeping and rubbish. Forty years after Penn, in the city's charter, had named the Blue Anchor as a public landing, the creek was commonly charged with having become a nuisance. When Benjamin Franklin as a member of the Common Council of the city and active as editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he served on a committee which had been appointed to inquire into the question of what should be done with the creek. One of the earliest visitations of the yellow fever in Philadelphia was supposed to have had its origin in the filth of the stream. There seems to have been a conflict between public interest and private interests in the course of the inquiry, and some citizens subscribed money to clear out the creek, wall it, and improve the sewers which led into it, but this was not in accord with the official view, and the creek continued to be regarded as a nuisance to public cleanliness and health.

But the land at and about the original Blue Anchor Tavern fro the time of George Guest, who was the first of the landlords at the abode of hospitality and refreshment, was a favorite place for the comings and goings of ship captains, traders and other enterprising citizens of Philadelphia in its infancy. The Water Bailiff of the harbor could be found there; boats carried passengers from its wharf to other points on the Delaware, or to Windmill Island, or to ships that were anchored in the stream; and for more than two centuries men have made the cannikin clink there, although in modern times they have done so in chiefly plain way of tippling and certainly without that sturdy and large capacity for punch which marked the daily habits of the patrons of the Blue Anchor. The tradition that William Penn had his first glass of ale there after he came ashore did not serve to injure either his public or his private reputation in the slightest degree among even the most pious or the most censorious of Philadelphians; and indeed the Blue Anchor, as the Public Landing, was related to the municipality itself. What would be the astonishment of George Guest, the landlord, who was a member of the Society of Friends, and of the great founder of the city, if they could now come back and contemplate not alone the disappearance of Dock Creek, but the preparation for the extinction of all the taverns in Philadelphia, such places to them having been essential works of rational pleasure and prime necessity.

In the region where the creek crossed Third Street, halfway below Chestnut Street, there was at one time, or when the main portion of the population of the town lived on or near Front Street and Second, a mansion which was regarded as an example of opulent life. With its grounds and garden it was known as Clarke Hall, the name having been derived from William Clarke, who was a rich member of the bar and who built the house probably not long before Penn's second and final visit to Philadelphia. It occupied the lot on which the Mariner and Merchant Building of the Stephen Girard Estate now stands, and it was viewed by the people at the close of the seventeenth century as an evidence of Clarke's prosperity and importance. For a while it was occupied by James Logan, John Evans, Roger Monpesson and William Penn, Jr., in common. Evans was appointed as Governor, although he was not more than twenty-six years old, and the son of the Founder was still younger; and they gave great scandal by going on an all-night spree at a public house in Pewter Platter Alley and in beating the watchman who quelled the tumult. Clarke hall must have been as pleasant a place as could then be found in Philadelphia for merry gentlemen who wanted to rest up quietly or entertain their friends in seclusion. Not only was the brick house perhaps the largest in the city, but the garden was modestly laid out in a style which had been much imitated in England after the advent there of the Prince of Orange as William the Second. There were trees and plants which seemed to have given a slight suggestion of a bit of Dutch landscape, and the ground sloped down gently with the effect of a terrace to the waters of Dock Creek, seemingly at the site of the edifice which is now known as the Girard National Bank. This was built for the first Bank of the United States when Washington was President and when Clarke Hall, then nearly a hundred years old, was used as a United States was opened, the press which printed the Evening Bulletin, was situated in the soil where Dock Creek had once flowed along the edge of the grounds of Clarke Hall.

In the early days of the city, when Captain Kidd and other freebooters in the West Indies and along the American coast were well known, it was not uncommon for those of them who were not under the ban of the law to make their appearance on the river-front when seeking diversion. King Street, which afterward became Water Street, and the vicinity of Dock Street, were full of hospitable taverns and coffee houses for seafaring men. It was said that one of the most famous of pirates, the enterprising and fearless Teach, known everywhere as "Blackbeard" and not yet forgotten as such, was at times a familiar figure in these resorts, and, therefore almost undoubtedly he was also a denizen of the Blue Anchor. On Second Street, in after years, where the waters of Little Dock Creek crossed Spruce Street in the direction of Society Hill, Captain Benjamin Loxley had his abode in what was long known as the Loxley House, and it was there that the Revolutionary legend of Lydia Darragh and the British officers and her journey of warning to the outposts of the Continental army near Whitemarsh had its initial scenario. Nearby was situated, on Second Street, the Bethsheba Bower and Bath, and it is to be supposed that the waters of this resort and spring were not unconnected with those of Little Dock Creek.

What was considered as one of the great improvements after the Revolution took place when all of the discontents and agitation's of more than half a century over Dock Creek came at last to a head, and it was decided that the stream should cease to exist. It had become stagnant and ill smelling' there was no doubt that it had often bed pestilential disease, and lawless characters found places on its banks for hiding from constables and watchmen, while tipsy men at night sometimes fell into the foul water. After much controversy over the question as to what should be the policy of the city in dealing with the nuisance, recourse was had to the Legislature for relief. It appears, however, that a large proportion of conservative citizens did not favor such action, and especially the measure which the friends of public improvement finally agreed upon. This was nothing less than the abandonment of the creek and the creation, in its place, of a street or avenue. It was provided that the stream be confined within stone walls and arched walls and arched with substantial brick and that the top of the upper part of the upper part of the creek should be filled in with earth or dirt so as to enable a level of a street to be formed. This new street extended as far as the drawbridge at Front Street and in later years the portion of the creek between Front Street and the Delaware was include in the operation. Everything was so changed for the better with marts and shops and sidewalks and a broad highway that public sentiment came to be loud in its approval. A quarter of a century afterward Dr. James Mease, who was a resident of the neighborhood, congratulated his fellow citizens on the fine improvement when he wrote his "Picture of Philadelphia," and on the displacement which had been effected in much vice, poverty and filth.

Dock Street it then became, and so it has been to this day. Still some of the waters of the creek could be seen in the big archway, or culvert, at the outlet, and at one time, after the Bank of Stephen Girard had replaced the bank of the United States, on Third Street, a story was told of a plot that was said to have been formed by some desperadoes to the end of kidnapping Girard by going through the archway in a boat.