The Federal Road: Arsenal to Navy Yard

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On Hill’s 1796 map of Philadelphia, two dotted lines mark the course of future Federal St. (bottom of picture above) A note within the margins of the hypothetical road reads, “Federal Road from Gray’s Ferry to Southwark [authorized] by the Commissioners February 25, 1783.”

Though the mention of the Commissioners seems to suggest that the decision to build the road originated in the districts of Moyamensing and Southwark, Scharff and Wescott’s ponderous History of Philadelphia‘s account of the road’s construction complicates this interpretation. It states that in 1794 the state legislature ordered the opening of the “Federal Street” which was “surveyed under the act of 1787.” What was this act of 1787? It is unlikely that Scharff and Wescott are referring to the Federal Ordinance of 1787 which organized settlement in the Northwest Territory. Although it’s more likely that the “act of 1787” refers to a state act, other accounts insinuate that the Federal government did have a hand in the building of Federal St.

Robert Alotta’s Street Names of Philadelphia states that the street was deemed “Federal” “because it led from the early navy yard to the federal arsenal near Gray’s Ferry.” True, some structures at the Schuylkill Arsenal at 2620 Gray’s Ferry Road had existed since 1799 and Brandt and Gummere’s Byways and Boulevards in and about Historic Philadelphia reports that “records at the Arsenal begin with 1781 and include numerous transactions prior to 1800.” It is clear that the arsenal became a Federal facility—the third in the nation—around 1799. Similarly, Joshua Humphreys shipyard, located just south of Gloria Dei was federalized in 1801 becoming the first Philadelphia Navy Yard. Just as these two facilities were coming on line, Pennsylvania ordered Federal St. open.

As Alotta put it: “In 1790, the commissioners of the District of Southwark established Federal Street as a “new street” from the Passyunk Road to the Schuylkill River. Eleven years later (1801), the governor ordered the street opened from Swanson Street to the Schuylkill.”

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