Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: April 27, 2008
Byline: Jennifer Lin
Slots dispute goes underground
Billboards for the SugarHouse casino on Delaware Avenue herald a future with slot machines for 22 empty riverfront acres.
But it's a fascination with the past that is drawing new attention — and controversy — to the project.
It's a past that stretches back to 1,500 B.C., when native people assembled by the Delaware River to craft tools from stones.
And it's a past that includes a small British fort from 1777, one of 10 built by occupying troops to keep out Gen. George Washington's soldiers.
Pennsylvania's top agency on historic matters has called for more extensive archaeological work at the property, on the Fishtown-Northern Liberties border. Initial work has uncovered 182 American Indian artifacts, including an arrowhead, a drill, and fragments of waste from making stone tools.
A state archaeologist called the find "significant."
"Things like that are pretty darn rare, especially in an urban environment," said Mark Shaffer, an archaeologist with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The intense curiosity about the past has come up as a result of SugarHouse's request to the Army Corps of Engineers to build into the water.
SugarHouse needs federal permission to dredge, fill in more than an acre of water, and build a stone embankment. An archaeological review is part of the process.
The state's historic commission already is urging that one section of the property — a 30-by-50-foot plot that yielded the American Indian relics just inches from the surface — be excavated completely and considered for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Douglas Mooney, an archaeologist and president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, said the discovery was "exceedingly rare."
"In all of Philadelphia County, there are only a dozen known, recorded Native American sites," he said.
Before European settlers arrived, tribes were thought to meet regularly along the river near the SugarHouse site. Swedes and Quakers later built homes on the land, before being squeezed out by commercial enterprises: shipyards, wharves, a foundry, and, much later, a massive sugar refinery, railyard and power plant.
Terrence McKenna, the project executive for the Keating Group, which is building the casino, said the developers recognized the historic significance of the property and would comply with any guidance from the Army Corps or the state's historic commission.
The company already has spent $500,000 and more than a year conducting its own archaeological study, he said. It has documented artifacts as well as structures like colonial-era wells, cellars, shafts and privies.
But McKenna said he doubted that any physical evidence of a British fort still existed.
"There's no potential of finding any archaeological resources given the historic industrial use of the property," he said.
Many historians disagree.
"The potential for there to be very important things in this property are huge," said Mooney, who was field director for the Presidential House dig for Independence National Historical Park. "The resounding opinion is not enough has been done."
Based on more than a dozen maps that local historians have uncovered, the British fort most likely was under a cobblestone section of Penn Street, on the southwestern side of the site.
Three local historians — Torben Jenk, Ken Milano and Rich Remer — have submitted to the Army Corps a 61-page report listing maps, references, documents and evidence of the British fort.
"We've helped them pinpoint it to within a half-acre," Jenk said. "We're not asking them to dig up 22 acres."
The archaeological consultant for SugarHouse — A.D. Marble & Co. — began studying the site in January 2007 and came up with nothing on the fort. In fact, its first two reports didn't even mention the possibility of a fort.
The omission outraged local historians. Jenk sent a few e-mails a week to the Army Corps and state historical commission with evidence of "British Redoubt No. 1."
McKenna said the consultants had "corrected the record" to refer to the redoubt. "It was a simple oversight," he said.
The fort sat near the confluence of the Cohocksink Creek and Delaware River, Jenk said. It was one of a string of 10 redoubts stretching from the river to the Schuylkill. British troops needed this line of defense to keep supply lines open.
The redoubt on the Delaware was most likely an earthern structure, about the third of the size of a football field, with a moat. "Redoubt No. 1" was critical for defending a supply route to Bucks County farmers still loyal to the crown.
Archaeologists are most eager about excavating the area under Penn Street, which cuts through the property.
A road can help preserve evidence, Mooney said. "It seals off the ground and caps it, preserving what's underneath," he said.
Shaffer, the historic-preservation specialist for the state historical commission, said, "It's worth going back there to look for more evidence of this fort, but it's not like we're going to find a pristine fort."
He said the structure probably had been made of logs, which may have been dismantled after the war for lumber. At best, he said, researchers may detect discoloration in the soil to suggest an outline of the structure or find some artifacts — items that may have fallen into the moat, for instance.
McKenna, the casino's project manager, said active water, gas and electric lines under Penn Street had prevented the company's archaeologists from working there. They did, however, examine either side of the roadbed, without finding physical evidence of the fort.
He said SugarHouse would agree to do further work under Penn Street.
Given the potential importance of this area, Mooney said, any excavation should use deliberate, controlled and comprehensive methods.
"There are an amazing number of things that could be out there yet," he said.