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The hidden history of Philly’s Navy Yard as League Island

One might be tempted to take for granted today the massive corporate campus down by the Navy Yard – 1,200 acres of tax preferred land, seven miles of frontage, adjacent the sports complex, home to great restaurants and major businesses.

But this area of the city (especially FDR Park) once was a swampy sprawl, and the Navy Yard was separated from Philly by a back channel. It’s a great story of engineering and progress how League Island became a core part of the Philadelphia Experience.

Although many historic buildings have been restored fully or partially, some have been reclaimed by nature, and countless others remain only in our archives and historic records. The shipyard sitting nearby seems almost an afterthought. The eastern point of what was once League Island sits beyond an elephantine lot of recently-stevedored Hyundais and Kias.

What was the history of this place? How did League Island become the Navy Yard?

Even before the Navy Yard existed, South Philly was home to naval operations.

The 74-gun USS Franklin (1815) with a view of the New York bay in the background (note the Battery at left). The Franklin was the first US ship to be laid down in Philadelphia. The Franklin was razed and broken up in 1852.
Construction of the frigate Philadelphia at the Humphrey’s & Wharton Shipyard. Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church can be seen in the background. More at Hidden City.
Ship in dry dock, 1820. LOC.

But as new iron-clad vessels began the norm, use of League Island picked up, and by 1868 the City had transferred the land to the US Government for $1 (somewhat due to fear that they would leave the city otherwise, showing a long history of enticements to keep jobs at the Navy Yard).

Entrance to the Old United States Navy Yard south Front Street foot of Federal in 1870. HSP.

Construction for the updated campus commenced in 1871 following a blueprint that would set the master plan for League Island a century to come.

1891 USGS topographic map showing League Island still separated by the back channel.

By 1897, as documented in this Webster & Hunt map, the League Island Navy Yard bustled in the foreground as the City Hall tower rose in the distance (the decades-long project was just a few years from completion at that point). Webster & Hunt was based at 1215 Filbert St.

1897. Library of Congress.

The drawing even shows what looks to be a swimming pool within “Point Breeze Park”, land that would later be reclaimed as League Island Park for the US Sesquicentennial in 1926. More about that shortly.

Submarines in dry dock, 1917. LOC.

The Navy Yard was home to both vessel and man, with quarters varying depending on rank (from tent to manse).

Marine barracks. LOC.
Library of Congress
“Quarters A” or the Commandant’s Quarters was built 1874-1875, and used until 1960. In 1976 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1921, Philadelphia was selected to host the upcoming 1926 Sesquicentennial celebration (a relief to the city that still recalled the centennial exhibition in 1876 so fondly). The plan for the Sesquicentennial involved wholesale transformation of the marshland north of the Navy Yard, an area that would be renamed “League Island Park” (to memorialize the land that would soon be very much not an island).

The improvement plan was overseen by the firm of Olmsted Brothers (son & step-son of the more famous scion). These improvements included today’s Marconi Plaza (originally Oregon Plaza) and the landscaped portion of Broad Street stretching from there to the park.

The Sesquicentennial Stadium built for the event would be renamed Philadelphia Municipal Stadium and later JFK Stadium, home famously to the Army/Navy game as well as (briefly) the Eagles.

Hagley Digital Archive.

The Navy Yard’s most significant expansion followed the sesquicentennial and its associated infrastructure improvements; 86 buildings were added over the next two decades including several eight-story warehouses and a chapel.

A 1936 pamphlet shows the layout of the Navy Yard at the time. Note the closure of the back channel. HSP.

Today the Navy Yard is touted as a redevelopment win and it’s possible that the campus could get even larger, if say Amazon came to town.

But the grounds remain used for naval enterprises, not as much by the US Navy but rather Aker, which just this summer launched from the Navy Yard the “largest container ship ever built in America.”

New Matson vessel Daniel K. Inouye at christening ceremony, Philly Shipyard, June 30, 2018. (PRNewsfoto/Matson, Inc.)

Guided tours of the Navy Yard and its myriad architecture are offered occasionally, and there is also a self-guided walking tour that may be taken any time the campus is open (6am – 8pm). For more reading, you might want to check out the Hidden City archives.

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