“The Kensington Screw Dock & Spermaceti Works” — Kenneth W. Milano, (March 28, 2008)

March 28, 2008

A chain-of-title search for this property revealed Deed AM, Book 22, 209 (December 14,  1831):

“Buildings, Spermaceti Works, Oil Factory, Blacksmith Shop, Stable Coach House, Tool House, Carpenter’s Workshop, and Wharf, Screw Dock, & Lot…together with all machinery, fixtures, tools, utensils, implements of the said Spermaciti & Oil factory, and 40 Screws & Fixtures & apparatus to the Screw Dock, & other buildings, wharves, docks, landings, landing places, streets, & ways.”

According to Joseph Blunt, editor of the American Register, the Kensington Screw Dock Company was formally incorporated in 1832-33:


James Mott and Thomas M. Coffin are the husband and brother of famed abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Lucretia Mott (buried nearby at the Friends Fairhill Burial Grounds, 9th & Cambria Streets). The Coffins (including Lucretia, Thomas and their father) moved from Nantucket, MA, to Philadelphia, originally as commission merchants. James Mott was a teacher at Nine Partners, New York, where he met Lucretia Coffin. James Mott joined the Coffins in Philadelphia and later, married Lucretia.

Soon after the erection of the Kensington Screw Dock, it was advertised for sale (Dec. 13, 1833):

“Valuable Real Estate. Kensington Screw Dock. Will be sold at the Merchants’ Coffee House, Philadelphia, on the 19th of December next, at 7 o’clock in the evening, 

“All that valuable property known as the “Kensington Screw Dock, situated on Penn-street, Kensington, containing in front on said Penn-st. 150 feet, and containing that width into the river Delaware; together with all the improvements, consisting of a new brick building, 50 feet square, with all the machinery therein contained, forming the most complete establishment in the country for the manufacture of sperm oil and candles; a frame building 75 feet by 20 feet, both fronting on Penn-street. Also, blacksmith’s shop, tool house, stable and coach-house, carpenters’ shed, &c.; together with the screw dock, in complete order, and which has been in successful operation for the last two years, having raised during this time one hundred and fifty sail, from canal boats to ships of 600 tons burthen. This plan has advantages over every other for the purpose, is simple, and not liable to get out of order; an appropriation of $200 from its earnings being sufficient to keep the whole property in repair. It is secured by patent; and by an act of the legislature passed at the last session. A company can be incorporated for conducting the business. With constant employment it is capable of earning $10,000. The receipts for the present year have been $4,000; and from the whole property exceeding $5,000; the expenses for labor, hire of horses, about $1,000. 

“Upon the lot there is sufficient room without interfering with the operations of the screw dock, for the erection of buildings of any description, particularly for any manufactory where steam power might be required.

“This property presents the greatest advantages for conducting the whale fishery of any manufactory where steam power might be required.

“To the capitalist it affords an opportunity of safe investment, being situated in an highly improving district; and in the vicinity of the termination of the Delaware and Schuylkill and Trenton Railways.

“A tenant can be procured who will take the property upon lease of seven or ten years, and give security for the rent.

“Any further information can be obtained upon application to Thomas M. Coffin, upon the premises, or to Shober and Bunting, Philadelphia.

“Lippincoott, Richards, & Co. Philadelphia, Nov. 25th, 1833.” [1]

This advertisement brought a buyer:

“The valuable property known by the name of the Kensington Screw Dock, was sold at the Merchants Coffee House on Thursday last for $40,400. It was purchased by Mr. Thomas W. Morgan for a New-Bedford House, whose intention is to erect on the premises an extensive Manufactory of Spermaceti Oil and Candles. It is intimated that the enterprising owner after seeing the manufactory in full operation intends establishing a line of whaling ships which are to bring the crude oil direct to his wharf at Kensington.” [2]

The purchaser, Thomas W. Morgan, was one of the initial commissioners of the Kensington Screw Dock, and also from a New Bedford whaling house. 

Deed AM 51, 570 (1834) shows William R. Rodman purchasing “all the machinery, engines, screws, fixtures, apparatus, tools, utensils, & implements, to the said oil factory, & screw dock, with other buildings and improvements.”

Rodman, was a merchant in New Bedford, MA.—then the whaling capital of America—and a member of a prominent New Bedford family with whaling interests. Rodman’s mansion survives in New Bedford.

Rodman had Kensington shipbuilder Samuel Bowers—an earlier owner of this site—convert the “Rebecca Sims,” a famed ship originally built by Bowers, into a whaling ship.

Deed GWC, 50, 160 (April 7, 1850) shows Rodman sold the property for $30,000 to Edward Rowley, Algernon Ashburner, and George B. Keen, trading as “Rowley, Ashburner, & Co.,” later “Rowley, Ashburner, & Co., Kensington Screw Dock.” 

Marble & Co. not only misidentifies Rowley, Ashburner, & Co. as shipbuilders, but also states they were the original owners and operators of the Screw Dock (page 54, 1BII Report), when in fact they were commission merchants, who had been supplied over the years by the products of the Spermaceti Works and then bought the place in 1850. The forming of their partnership and the fact that they are commission merchants is mentioned in a newspaper advertisement of 1843:

“Co-Partnership Notice. Edward H. Rowley and Algernon E. Ashburner have this day entered into a copartnership under the firm of Rowley & Ashburner, for the transaction of a general commission business, at No. 6 South Wharves. Edward H. Rowley, Algernon E. Ashburer, Phila. January 2, 1843.” [3]


  1. The New Bedford Mercury, (Dec. 13, 1833)
  2. Baltimore [MD] Gazette and Daily Advertiser (Dec. 26th, 1833)
  3. The North American and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA), January 6, 1843

“Samuel Bower’s shipyards at Point Pleasant, Kensington, 1789-1830” — Kenneth W. Milano, (March 28, 2008)

March 28, 2008

In 1858, Samuel D.S. Bower wrote the “Bower Family of Philadelphia” which describes the history of Samuel Bower’s two shipbuilding operations in Point Pleasant, Kensington, above and below Laurel Street, both on the Sugar House site.

The author, Samuel D.S. Bower (1796-1863), was the fourth child Kensington shipbuilder Samuel Bower (b. 22 May 1760 – d. 10 Dec 1834) and his wife Mary Sutter (b. 16 April 1774 – d.12 Jan 1850). He worked as a shipwright, presumably with his father. The manuscript includes information from the shipyard’s business ledgers and papers, including the names of ships and their owners. Building and repair costs for the ships is also listed, down to the dollars and cents.

Samuel Bower was originally from the Southwark section of Philadelphia County. During the American Revolution, while his older brother William served as a Captain (later Major) in the Pennsylvania Militia, the teenager Samuel assisted building transport boats for the Continental Army on the Susquehanna River at Wrights Ferry. After a brief stop in Baltimore in 1781, Samuel came back to Philadelphia and located in Kensington. 

At one point he was partners with his brother Joseph Bower and brother-in-law Morris Goff, but by 1789 he went to work for himself. He first resided on the western side of Penn Street, near the southern extremity of Point Pleasant. His first shipyard was on the Cheeseman property, a few feet south of what was then Maiden [Laurel] Street, at Point Pleasant, Kensington.

Bower was selected a member of the Master Ship Wrights’ Society in January 1789 securing himself a career as a master shipwright. About the year 1792, Bower moved to the actual Cheeseman House, at the corner of Maiden and Penn streets. In 1793, during the Yellow Fever panic, Samuel and his family briefly moved upriver to Bristol, PA. 

Around 1800, Bower was solicited by the Spanish Government to become its Chief Naval Constructor, however after talking with friends and family, he declined the position. In the summer of 1801, Samuel Bower moved from the Cheeseman’s House back to their first residence on south Penn street, which became the Homestead where the family would live for about fifty years. 

On a number of occasions, Bower became both merchant and shipper and he owned a part of one or more vessels. This same year (1801) Bower was appointed by the Secretary of the Navy of the United States to be one of the Committee of Survey,  to examine and report on the condition of the Frigate Constellation. 

In 1803, Bower was elected and commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel of the Eighty-Eighth Regiment of the Militia of Pennsylvania, Second Brigade of the First Division of the Militia of the City and County of Philadelphia.

In April of 1809, to start a second shipyard, Bower purchased land 190 feet north of Laurel Street, with a front on the east side of Penn Street of 150 feet and extending eastward into the Delaware River to low water mark. 

“I now come to speak of a new operation which my ancestor [father] commenced on the 29th of April, in the year 1809, in the purchase from Mr. Benj. R. Morgan, for the sum of $6,250 the ground, known in Revolutionary times and afterwards as ‘The Battery. This favorite spot was the result of many citizens on Sundays, during the Summer season, where they sat beneath the boughs of a large, spreading willow which cast its shade far and wide, while with anxious stare they gazed upon the unruffled waters of the Delaware, as they passed by, with its eastern boundary the Jersey shore.

“The gravelly plain beneath was often filled with anxious spectators as they watched the interesting ceremony, as in the days of John the Baptist, as seeing their fellow creatures plunged beneath the cooling element in confirmation of their faith….”

Adult baptisms aren’t a surprise. In 1803, Samuel Bowers was one of the founders of the Second Baptist Church. 

After purchasing the land, Bower applied for a license to build a wharf, receiving this note from the Warden’s Office, Philadelphia, on May 4, 1809:

“License is hereby granted by the Board Wardens to Samuel Bower to erect a wharf on his property in the Northern Liberties agreeably to his plan lodge in this office. If the said wharf is not erected in six months from date hereof, then this license to be null and of no effect. 

“John Ashmead, Master warden.”

Followed by this description:

“Permission having been thus granted, as soon after this rising eminence gave way to the action of the shovel, spade and pick, whose constant inroads brought to light many Indian implements which no doubt, to the rising race, be curious to behold, while its crumbled form was carried by the barrow and cast into the water below.”

Bower also built a building 120 feet long, two-stories high. The lower story was divided into two workshops. The upper story was the “mould loft, where vessels were laid down and the models were made for the framing of the vessel. During the first five years of this new shipyard (1809-1813) saw Bower built or repaired 55 vessels. 

In 1815, Bower was appointed “by Col. W.W. Irvine, Agent for the United States, to make the necessary arrangements for the purchase of materials and the erection of Chivand de Frizes [sic], to sink in the River Delaware, to prevent the enemy, the British, from coming with their shipping to the city and destroying it.” 

During his shipbuilding career, Samuel Bower constructed 56 new vessels (27 Ships, 18 Brigs, 5 Schooners, 2 Gunboats, 3 Steamboats, and 1 Sloop), while repairing 323 vessels (149 Ships, 101 Brigs, 62 Schooners, 4 Gunboats, 1 Steamboat, and 6 Sloops). A total of 379 vessels were built or repaired at both of Bower’s Point Pleasant shipyards.

By deed of 13 August 1830, Bower sold his shipyard on east Penn Street, 190 feet north of Laurel Street. Thomas M. Coffin, the purchaser of Bower’s shipyard, would go on to erect the Kensington Screw Dock and Spermaceti Works.

Samuel Bower died on 10 December 1834, and was buried at the old Hanover Street Burial Grounds in Kensington. His remains were later removed to Monument Cemetery. 

Samuel S.D. Bower was 34 years old when his father, Samuel Bower, sold his shipyard north of Laurel Street in 1830. He was 62 years old when he wrote the “Bower Family of Philadelphia,” in 1858. Five year later, on 22 February 1863, Samuel S.D. Bower died and was interned at Hanover Street Burial Ground, with his father.

Port Warden Records and Pier Surveys were not used

March 28, 2008

Torben Jenk, Ken Milano & Rich Remer provided evidence for and wrote (3/10/2008):

The “Hills 1797 Map” includes the note “The Line from Vine Street Public Landing to Eyre’s Wharf was fixed by the Port Wardens, March 21st, 1796.” Eyre’s Wharf stood just below Maiden/Laurel Street, in the middle of the SugarHouse property. 

The Port Wardens records describe and show the nineteenth-century history of bulk heading and pier extension into the Delaware River. Port Warden records survive for the entire SugarHouse site including the internationally-acclaimed shipwright Samuel Bower, who was issued a license on May 4th, 1809 to build a wharf for his second shipyard (1809-1830), on the east side of Penn Street, 190 feet north of Maiden/Laurel Street. Others, like this detail view from a survey of 1884, confirms the various lots purchased by George Landell as early as 1831.

The oldest original map that Marble uses seems to be the the “1838 Roberts Map” which identifies nine sites along the river’s edge (Vaughan, Howell, Donaldson, Screw Dock, Garrison, P[ublic] Landing & Ferry, Ledge, Derringer and Lippincott) and three structures on the hard land (Hay Press and Bank and 168).

 Why wasn’t that information researched to tell the real history of the development of the SugarHouse site?

“Throughout 2007 and the completion of field archaeology on Dec. 21, it appears that no seventeenth- or eighteenth-century primary source historic material was used — no manuscripts, no deeds, no surveys, no lawsuits, no journals — why?…” — Jenk, Milano & Remer (March 10, 2008)

March 10, 2008

“Thousands of relevant original documents survive in various local historical collections including the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, Streets Department, Survey Offices, Deed Office and City Archives. Skilled researchers know how to find the relevant documents in those repositories and they know whom to contact when they get stuck. Because of this poor initial research, Marble missed areas of high historic interest and archaeological potential, including the ancient river front and development of the piers shown in the Port Warden Records which Marble never consulted.” 

Deeds would have been most helpful because: “The acts, and in some cases the declarations of a surveyor when executing a warrant, are evidence; but after a survey has been executed and returned, neither his acts nor declarations can affect the right of the owner” (Opinion by Judge J. Huston, Ball and Others against Slack and Others, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Eastern District, PA, 2 Whart. 508; 1837 Pa. LEXIS 206 (April 29, 1837, Decided).

Eighteenth-century deeds are particularly descriptive as to dimensions, structures, contents and neighboring lots. Like pieces of a puzzle, the information and shape of one lot helps to place the adjacent lots. Names of grantors, grantees and executors gives a broader picture of the lives of the community. Partnerships are revealed, deaths are recorded, activities are described, properties are seized. These are legal documents and likely the most accurate.

Careful research would have revealed that both Laurel/Maiden Street and Penn Street were “cut through by Jury in 1775” (Deed Book 1, p. 321, in Common Pleas Old Road Record Book P70 Vol 2 and affitdavit 9/15/1883).

The term “cut through” shows there was hard land and that Penn Street was not built atop filled land in the Delaware River. The Phase IB/II Report (p. 52) only refers to Penn Street in 1845: “a petition, purporting to be signed by a majority of property holders on Penn street from Maiden to Shackamaxon street, and Shackamaxon street from Penn to Beach street, requesting the same to be pitched, curbed and paved.”

Yet again, Marble & Co. rely on mid- to late-nineteenth-century information, thereby ignoring and dismissing the rich archaeological potential of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

“The 250 Native Indian artifacts already found on the SugarHouse site make this the largest concentration of Indian artifacts ever retrieved by professional archaeologists in Philadelphia.” — Jenk, Milano & Remer (March 10, 2008)

March 10, 2008

This find should not be confused with other nearby Native Indian archaeological sites for: 

“ethnohistory often makes it clear that different clusters of individuals sharing the same culture may not operate their cultures in the same ways. Simply put, no two archaeological sites are identical. Often we believe that these differences may be due to temporal separation or environmental (ecological) adjustments to circumstances in the immediate neighborhood. Less often do archaeologists consider the possibility that the variations seen are the result of normative differences that can appear within a culture as the result of different kin groups and/or residential groups interpreting their supposedly similar culture in different ways. These cognitive differences may become more evident when we examine the range of variation among the various populations of a culture. Let us, then, examine historic data from the Middle and Lower Delaware River Valley, an area that until recently was considered inhabited by a single culture—the Lenape. This Lenape culture would be expected to produce archaeological sites roughly comparable from place to place within their realm. Yet it would also include the kinds of variation expected to occur within any constellation of related sites.” — Marshall J. Becker, “Cultural Diversity in the Lower Delaware River Valley, 1550-1750: An Enthnohistorical Perspective,” published in Late Woodland Cultures of the Middle Atlantic Region, ed. Jay Custer, University of Delaware Press, 1986), p. 91.