Interpreting Shipyards and Coal Wharfs: The Time Dimension in Adaptive Reuse


As the good folks over at Phillyskyline have pointed out, PennPraxis held its last Delaware River walk this past Saturday, counting among its number the mayor himself, who rolled up his pants and traversed the rough terrain of the former Cramp’s Shipyard site in Port Richmond with the hoi polloi.

The midday jaunt from Penn’s Treaty to Pulaski Parks allowed members of the PennPraxis staff to lay out their vision for a reclaimed greenway built in the interstices of Philadelphia’s industrial past. The walk was an attempt to explore the very basic visual topography of the area and to emphasize the dimension of time and less the particulars of proposed designs.

These industrial parcels, though seemingly disconnected and incapable of unification, have concealed linkages that cry out for interpretation—the economic linkage of the hinterland to the entrepot, symbiotic connections of urban industrial operations, neighborhoods and the physical and psychical (dis)connections to work, and the reestablishment of a neighborhood’s connections once severed by urban “convenience” planning.

On an even more elemental level any greenway design must not only physically reconnect the surrounding communities to the water, but in a post industrial era where few consider the “waterfront” to be a space of work, these designs must reconnect communities to the concept of meaningful activity on the water. It may be said that in Philadelphia no other tidewater industrial site (until the establishment of the Navy Yard in South Philly in the late 19th century) rivaled the complexity of the Reading Railroad’s Port Richmond Terminal. By 1876, the physical dimension of the terminal were staggering: 21 wharfs totaling 15,000 feet in length could accommodate 250 vessels. To feed the East coast’s insatiable need for coal, the Reading’s infrastructure at Port Richmond moved 2.25 million tons of anthracite coal in the mid 1870s.



Yet behind this bustling terminus was an vise grip of corporate control. The Reading’s coal totals concealed a long supply link that extended into the hinterland of Schuylkill County where the Reading’s efforts to keep costs low meant constant reductions in miners’ wages per ton coal. While Port Richmond was choked with freighters, the Reading’s iron-fisted president, Franklin B. Gowen energetically sought to break up the the Molly Maguires while undercutting smaller coal operators and purchasing their holdings. Only through his corporate discipline could the wharfs of Port Richmond stay littered with black diamonds.

The Port Richmond terminal was more than a coal entrepot and like many large industrial operations its immensity made it integral to a host of smaller industries. The Port Richmond terminal symbiotically sustained shipbuilders like Wm. Cramp and Sons and Neafie and Levy, who existed just south of the coal wharfs. The Reading may have relied upon both shipwrights to supply them with their ever expanding fleet of iron-hulled colliers which roved the East Coast. Beginning in the 1880s, grain from the Pennsylvania hinterland was stored at a grain elevator at the Ann St. Wharf (in the 20th century a new grain elevator was constructed which lasted into the 1990s) and the Reading Railroad shipped entire carloads of Lancaster county tomatoes via the car floats to Campbell’s Soup Company in Camden before the arrival of the semi truck. And all around the the large yard cropped up coal dealers, supplying Port Richmond and Fishtown with warmth and industrial power.



While it is easy to get lost in the story of the the coal terminal’s bigness and complexity, to fawn over its importance in catalyzing and sustaining the “industrial revolution,” we should not forget the residents’ psychical ambivalence to the yards and the Reading Company. On one hand thousands of Port Richmond residents enjoyed the employment on locomotives, as train handlers, as dockmen, or managers or engineers; most also maintained a deep abiding pride in their work and the Reading Company. In an era when mastery over industrial processes was the ultimate definition of masculinity and most defined their worth by their labor, the yard served to edify both the workers and their families at home. As is the case in many large-scale industrial operations existing for decades, there was a sense of permanency to the rhythms of the railroad, the constant sound of coal cars moving through the throat of the yard between Lehigh and Somerset was as much a part of the landscape of Port Richmond as the streets, the churches, and the ethnic bakeries.

Yet with our post-industrial gaze we tend to romanticize this idealized world of stability: of consistent meaningful work, of consistently homogeneous ethnic enclaves, of the consistency of solid morals. Simultaneous to this vision is the reality of a noxious and dangerous place: a place of unstoppable corporate power: of shantytowns existing within the hollows between corporation boundaries (below), a place of crushed limbs and jobs contingent on the output of miners. Thus, we need to approach the interpretation of the richness of this connection of industry to neighborhood with discernment.



The end of this world and the severing of Port Richmond’s connection to its sustaining river came with the decline of anthracite in the 1950s and 1960s and the building of the Delaware Expressway in the 1970s. In interpreting the history of Port Richmond after the decline of coal, the extension of I-95—which most Port Richmonders regard as a catastrophic watershed—looms like an 800 lb. Gorilla over our story. The road did isolate the community and it is rightfully hated but it represents an era when planning sought to facilitate automobile movement—often to areas outside the city. In the sense that PennPraxis seeks to enhance non-automobile mobility for residents, the I-95 project may soon be interpreted as historic: as an artifact of gasoline looming above the artifacts of coal. Through the conversion of former Terminal or Cramp’s land into greenspace, residents of Port Richmond will have an outlet beyond the Interstate. And by interpreting the various heritage sites along the Delaware, both Port Richmond and the city can psychically reconnect to its legacy of industrial work.

Hill at Wm. Cramp's Shipyard (filled-in drydock) looking South


Here are some works on refiguring post industrial space.

3 thoughts on “Interpreting Shipyards and Coal Wharfs: The Time Dimension in Adaptive Reuse

  1. I worked for the Reading Company at Port Richmond from 1966 to 1970 as General Foreman and can tell you those were great days for me and the people of
    ” Richmond ” … those days are gone!

  2. Those who are old enough to remember the busy Ports of Philadelphia (specifically, the Reading RR in Port Richmond) may look back and feel some sense of sadness that this once great industrial venture fell into virtual obscurity. Not only was coal and grain moved, but many industrial commodities were also shipped across the Nation via a once thriving Port.

    The Rdg. RR & Port Richmond supported the War effort in both World Wars by transporting critical weapons and supplies that were manufactured in Philadelphia.

    Companies such as Power plants, Sears, the River Sugar houses, Schmidt’s brewery, Lumber importers/ exporters, food distributors, textile mills, machine shops, Chemical and metal recycling establishments were just a few of the many businesses that the Rdg. RR in Port Richm. serviced.

    The demise of this giant industrial complex may be a topic for future debate, but for those who have witnessed it, worked there or lived during that era, are left with memories of a time that once was a way of life …and is no more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s