Friday, September 21, 2012

Harbor Master's House – Delaware Avenue – 1898/1899

Here is what I think is an interesting story told in pictures on Delaware Ave. in Philly. Here are some general details to tell this story. The specifics, details from further research, a lot of it is on the Internet.

Background, Congress passed an improvement package to east coast U.S. ports in 1888 in order to compete and accommodate newer and bigger ocean liners and freighters on the world’s shipping lanes.

One of the first appropriations from Congress was to negotiate a price for Smith’s and Windward Island in the Delaware.  Once condemned and bought by the government, the Army engineers began removing these obstacles to modern navigation by around 1893-1894 as well as dredge the river from something like a 26 foot depth to a 30 foot depth.  

The debris from dredging and the condemned island was transported as land fill to League Island further south on the river.

The overall plan was also to increase the width of Delaware Avenue to 150 feet along the downtown area, the target area for ocean liners and such and traditionally the busiest part of the port of Philadelphia. This widening began in earnest around 1897 and was finished by around1899.

The work itself on the widening of Delaware Avenue was financed, the majority of it, from the Girard Estate Trust to the tune of close to $500,000 and the City took out loans for the rest to pay dock and wharf owners for condemnation and revenues lost due to upgrades required to stay in business in the port redo.  Don’t know if there was anything like municipal bonds back then to finance city project etc.

One of the interesting photos of the transformed or nearly complete Delaware Avenue is below, an 1899 photo.

Upon closer examination, I saw this structure, building that looks like it has a glass observation tower. 

Saw this photo below on the old photos thread and then I looked and decided that this building was important enough to be moved across Delaware avenue from the city archive photo (1898) below to the Temple Library photos (1899) above.  The building changes it position in photos in relation to the Chester and Wilmington Steamboat building on the wharf.

I am assuming here and labeling the structure the “Harbor Master’s Building”. Anybody have better suggestions or better documentation than my historic speculation?

Since I am not a nautical person, further research on my part got me running into two terms that might be interchangeable. Those two terms are Port Warden and Harbor Master.

I think that the Port Warden is an inspector of boats and manifests once they are docked and needs to report cargoes to the Customs House to collect Federal tariff and excise taxes. That’s how they ran the government back before income taxes among other things.

The budgets described in some Pennsylvania budget reports would indicate that the Harbor Master job had to do with navigation traffic on the river as well and assigning docking space etc. with the two water fronts of Philly and Camden.



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