Department of Records - City of Philadelphia

Philadelphia Information Locator Service

From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, # 26 (October 1975)


by Ward J. Childs

Throughout its history the Port of Philadelphia has been a most important aspect of the City's economic life. In the colonial period it was the premier port of the thirteen colonies, and held this position until it was eclipsed by New York after 1825. Philadelphia is still fourth in the nation in the amount of tonnage handled, and second in the number of ship arrivals. The Port also has the unique distinction of being the largest fresh water port in the world.

The Port's economic importance has found reflection in myriad governmental functions connected with its operation. These functions have been divided among the different levels of government. In the Colonial and Revolutionary periods the City and the Province or State controlled the Port. To these were added the Federal Government after the ratification of the Constitution in 1787. We wish to discuss the records held by the City Archives which reflect the City's role in the operation of the Port with some reference to records held by other institutions that complement these.

The Port of Philadelphia derives its legal origin from the City Charter of 1701, granted by William Penn, which is in the custody of the City Archives. The Charter not only incorporated the City, but also constituted it a Port or Harbour to be called the Port of Philadelphia. The Charter created what may be termed the first Port official by designating the county sheriff as water bailiff. It also gave the Corporation of Philadelphia its first share in the regulation of the Port by providing that the Mayor, Aldermen and Common Council might determine how far into the river inhabitants might build piers.

No adequate study of Philadelphia's subsequent role in the operation of the Port could be made without referring to the Statutes at Large or Acts of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania and Ordinances of the City of Philadelphia pertaining to it. The Statutes define the responsibilities of the Corporation and other City officials. (They often describe specifically each and every activity that comprise a public official's functions of office.) Duties of Philadelphia officials defined in the Statutes include such things as the purchase and repair of wharves and collection of wharfage, fire regulations aboard vessels in the harbor, issuance of permits for the landing of passengers, the naturalization and indenture of passengers, appointment of port officials, licensing of pilots and establishment of rates of pilotage, customs, health regulations, and the construction and maintenance of bridges and ferries. Ordinances often apply the purpose of the act to a specific local context. The City's ordinances relate to such topics as the construction, alteration and repairs of wharves, survey of them, repair of the river bank, creation of a Board of Harbor Commissioners, advertising of the Port, and the leasing of the City's wharves to the Philadelphia Port Corporation.

The City Archives holds published Statutes at Large for the years 1676 to 1809, manuscript or published ordinances 1803 to date and digests of ordinances and Acts of Assembly 1812 to 1910. A complete set of the Pamphlet Laws or Acts of the Assembly and earlier digests are held by the Jenkins Law Library of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Unfortunately, the first compilation of the City ordinances did not take place until the publication of Zachariah Poulson's 1798 digest and, therefore, there is no complete set of the City's ordinances for the first seventy-five years of its history. However, this deficiency is partially remedied by reference to the Common Council Minutes for the period 1704 to 1776 which the City Archives holds in both manuscript and print. The Minutes present a vivid picture of the Corporation's role in the operation of the Port.

In the pre-Revolutionary period the Mayor of the City, in his judicial capacity as presiding magistrate of the Mayor's Court, performed a number of duties outside of those incumbent on the Corporation as a whole. By virtue of an Act of Assembly dated February 14, 1729-30 the Mayor was to be informed by the Collector of Duties of all vessels carrying passengers and to examine the master of the vessel under oath concerning the character and circumstances of each before granting a permit for passengers to land. Moreover all sales or assignments of servants within the City were to be made before the Mayor or in his absence before the Recorder. Because of the fear that the Province would be saturated with German Colonists, an order of the Provincial Council of September 14, 1727 made it mandatory that German passengers be registered and administered an oath of allegiance. These oaths too were often administered at "the Worshipful, the Mayor's house." The City Archives holds a volume of Apprentice and Redemptioner Indentures for the years 1771-1773 which includes information on the name of the redemptioner, the master's name, residence and occupation, the term of the indenture and, often, the name of the ship captain, the port sailed from, and the amount paid by the master for passage. A similar volume for other years is held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Ships' registers for the years 1727 to 1776 and registers of German passengers, and ships' lists are held by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the years 1727 to 1775 and 1785 to 1807. The lists of German Passengers have received a most authoritative publication in Strassburger and Hinke Pennsylvania German Pioneers. Although the Mayor's Court ceased its Provincial naturalization function with the demise of the 1701 City Charter, the Mayor's Court as re-established by the 1789 Charter, was engaged in the naturalization of United States citizens as were the County Common Pleas, District and Quarter Sessions Courts. All the existing naturalization papers of these Courts are now in the custody of the City Archives. Federal naturalizations and passenger ship lists are also held at the local Federal Records Center of the National Archives.

Between the enactment of the City Charter of 1789 and the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter of 1951 control of the City's wharves and public landing places passed successively to the Corporation, to the City Commissioners, a Commissioner of City Property directly responsible to Councils' Committee on City Property, and the following departments after the consolidation: Wharves and Landings, Markets, Wharves and Landings; Markets and City Property; Public Works; Public Safety and Wharves Docks and Ferries. The City Archives holds two volumes of minutes of the Committee of City Property for the years 1836 to 1838 and one volume of the Committee's agreements for the years 1836 to 1855 which contains information on the repair and maintenance of wharves including some drawings. The appendices to the Journals of Council 1835-1854 include the reports of the Committee and also returns of receipts for the rental of City property including wharves from the City Commissioners. Reports of the post-Consolidation departments appear in the Mayor's Annual Message and Reports of Departments.:t Prior to 1907 these principally list the receipts from rentals, although some annual reports of the Bureau of Surveys also contain information on dredging at the City piers. Accounts for the wharves containing journal listings of date, amounts paid and materials and services purchased appear in one volume of City Treasurer's Expenditures. Among the records of the Department of Wharves, Docks and Ferries, which was established in 1907, are a 1929 volume which lists the unimproved properties on the Delaware River between Allegheny Avenue and Poquessing Creek with the names of owners, types of business, lot locations, improved and unimproved river frontage, methods of transportation used and maps, a volume dated 1930 showing the dimensions, facilities of piers, bulkhead and street lines of North and South Piers of the Delaware River and 149 volumes of scrap books which form a documentary history of the Port and political activity in the City from 1913 to 1953. The scrap books contains information on vessel arrivals and clearances, maritime activities in the United States and foreign nations, trade figures and background, labor relations, Port advertising, maritime disasters, Port expansion, transportation, personalities and Port activity in World Wars I and II. In the Department's annual reports 1907 to 1938 may be found statements of city owned river front property and ferries showing leases in force and revenues therefrom, licenses granted by the Department, annual statements of appropriations and expenditures, contracts in force. Also listed are vessel arrivals from foreign parts, memorandum of steamship lines entering the Port of Philadelphia and places where they dock, coastwise arrivals, costs of maintenance and repairs, information on inspection of warehouses, as well as inspection and patrol of the waterfront, operation of the ice boats, dredging operations and salaries of departmental personnel. The earlier history of the City's Ice Boats may be traced in the records of the Trustees of the Ice Boats and Bureau of Ice Boats, which contains ice boat Log Books 1869 to 1884, and financial records including a cash Journal and Ledger, Receipt Notices 1837-1846, Warrant Stubs 1854-1865 and Towage Account Book 1842-1855. The Log Books are especially useful for the information they contain regarding weather conditions at the Port. Annual reports of the Trustees of the Ice Boats are found in the Journal of Councils for ' the years 1837 to 1854 and post-consolidation annual reports 1856 to 1908 for the Trustees and Bureau of Ice Boats are found in the Mayor's Annual Message and Reports of Departments. The City Archives' photograph collection has photographs from the Departments of Public Works and Wharves, Docks and Ferries which include shots of wharves, diagrams and cross sections of wharves, ice boats, the river-front area and vessels.

Information on police protection of the waterfront including arrests, value of property recovered, convictions and extraordinary incidents may be found in the Annual Reports of the Department and Bureau of Police 1858-1938 in the Mayor's Annual Message . . . and in files of the Marine Unit, 1967-1970.

Lists of the wharves and landing places held by the City and the various Districts, Boroughs and townships just before consolidation and by the consolidated City afterwards may be found in the series 120.13, Committee on City Property, Inventory of Property . . .1852-1855. The City's titles to its real property including public landings are explained in three Law Department's Reports on Titles to City Property dated 1810, 1840 and 1854 and in the 165 cubic feet of Deeds to City Property dating from 1750.

Though regional government is thought of as a fairly modern concept, it has actually been in practice since at least the Eighteenth Century, though on a much smaller scale. Two boards, closely connected with the Port of Philadelphia, which had their origin in the 18th Century could in today's terms very justly be termed aspects of regional government. One of these was the Board of Port Wardens, the other, the Board of Health for the City of Philadelphia, Districts of Southwark, Northern Liberties and township of Moyamensing, which later had its jurisdiction extended to other subdivisions of Philadelphia County. Though the Board of Port Wardens was established by Acts of the Assembly of 1766, 1767 and 1802 as a state office, it was also made a City department by councilmanic ordinance of 1870. Moreover, by virtue of an Act of 1854 its members were already elected by the two council chambers of the City of Philadelphia and by the Burgesses and Councils of the City of Chester and Bristol, although, the Chief Warden and Harbor Master were appointed by the Governor. The Board licensed pilots on the Delaware, had charge of buoys and lighthouses, removed obstructions in the river, regulated river traffic and established the wharf line. It also was given supplementary duties such as cleaning wharves which logically should have belonged to local government. The City Archives holds Digests of Laws regulating the Port Wardens for the years 1862 and 1895. Their annual reports are found in the Mayor's Annual Message and Reports of Departments for the years 1873-1874 and 1882 to 1885. The minutes of the Port Wardens for the years 1966 to 1880 were compiled in typed form by the Pennsylvania Historical Survey of the Works Project administration under the sponsorship of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission together with other records such as lists of naturalizations in the City of Philadelphia, 1794-1880, Arrivals and Clearances of Vessels, 1783-1880, crews from the Port of Philadelphia 1787-1880, Slave Manifests 1880-1841, Letters of Marque 1804-1815 and a record of wrecks 1874-1937.

The fear that the Port would act as a conduit of pestilence and disease as well as for economic gain was prevalent even before the Port of Philadelphia existed as a legal entity. An "Act to prevent sickly vessels coming into this Government" was passed as early as November 27,1700. This was followed by a number of quarantine laws throughout the eighteenth Century that culminated in the establishment of the Board of Health by Acts of 1794 and 1803. The Board of Health (and also the Department and Bureau of Health) records for the years 1794 to 1951 are held by the City Archives. The minutes of the Board, especially for the first half of the nineteenth century, are replete with information concerning the efforts to prevent the transmission of disease through the Port. Included in the Minutes are regulations governing the Marine Hospital or Lazaretto, reports of sickness aboard ships, depositions of crew members, list of patients in the Marine hospitals, statistical reports on the number of admissions, deaths and discharges, committee reports, appointments of officials, financial reports and correspondence. Correspondence between the Board and the Marine Hospital or Lazaretto physicians, Quarantine Master or Lazaretto Steward are also found in the Papers of the Board 1809 to 1854 (record series 36.2 and 76. 2) and in the Letter Books 1820 to 1836. The Public Notices 1802-1807 contain some which are addressed to river pilots. The Lazaretto Committee Minutes 1859 to 1893 contain much of the same type of information found in the earlier Minutes of the Board as a whole and reflects the necessity for a division of labor within the Board as its duties increased. The financial and housekeeping records of the Board would be of interest to the social and economic historian especially the Bill Book, Accounts, Day Book and Inventories of Goods and Chattels at the Lazaretto which provide such information as the price of commodities names of vendors, cost of services, costs of board, medical attention, burial, wines, liquors and spirits at the Lazaretto, and types of equipment, furniture, furnishings and other household items in use. There are also Vessels, Foreign Ports Registers 1825 to 1892 and Vessels, Coastwise Registers 1809-1824 which each contain the name of the ship captains and last port. The Vessels, Foreign Ports Registers also add home ports, numbers of crew and passengers, and cargo. Both series provide some index of the patterns of the Port's trade relations for selected years.

The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter of 1951 transferred the City's port facilities to the Department of Commerce under the direction of the City Representative. Information about the Port during the last twenty-four years may be found in the annual reports of the Department 1956 to 1967 and in such specialized publications and reports as the magazine Ports of Philadelphia 1959-1965, the reports on the Philadelphia Waterfront Industry 1955, Port Progress at Philadelphia 1956 and Penn's Landing 1963. The City Archives also holds annual reports special reports and publications of the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA)and its predecessor, the Delaware River Joint Commission including to DRPA Log which contain information of a related nature. The City Representative's Administrative Files 1959-1960, 1964-1966 includes information on such topics as a program to obtain a Delaware Channel guidance system, dredging, a fumigation service for imports, relations with terminal companies, port labor including a hall to serve as a central hiring point, recommendations on the sugar industry, the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, Penn's Landing and leases. The Administrative Files also contain information on the establishment of the Port Corporation and minutes of its Executive Committee and Directors in 1965.

In 1965, the City of Philadelphia, the State and Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce chartered a non-profit corporation, The Philadelphia Port Corporation, the purpose of which was to expand the commerce of the Port of Philadelphia. The City has leased all of its Port facilities to the Corporation and today, the Commerce Department performs its functions relating to the Port principally through it.

Links to related information...
--> PhILS Home
--->Philadelphia City Archives