Brief History of Delaware Avenue (Columbus Blvd.) and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge
Piers 3 and 5 were at the center of port activities along Philadelphia's river district at the time of their construction and afterwards, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Dozens and dozens of ships would anchor in the Delaware River waiting to unload their freight at several docks lining the water. Delaware Avenue was then the main transportation corridor for all of Philadelphia's shipping and handling of food, goods and general cargo. And besides cargo piers, numerous ferry landings to Camden and other New Jersey towns were located along the street in this locale.
But in the early 19th century, the "avenue" was a narrow, irregular path impeded by obstacles and a prime breeding ground for disease. Philadelphia merchant-financier Stephen Girard (1750-1831), who had lived and worked in the vicinity, wanted to help alleviate the poor condition of the waterfront and its approaches. (Click here for an 1805 diagram of the area, showing Girard's estate and portside enterprises.) Girard left $500,000 to improve and maintain the riverside area for commercial and recreational purposes for the city and its residents. Almost the whole rise in importance of the Port of Philadelphia is traceable to this bequest.
The original section of Delaware Avenue extending from Vine to South Streets was completed in 1839 with funds from Girard's gift. The money allowed for enlarging the pathway with landfill into the river and paving it with Belgian blocks. A 25-foot-wide thoroughfare was created, along with new warehouse piers jutting into the Delaware River. Commerce grew rapidly and the city broadened Delaware Avenue to fifty feet wide between 1857 and 1867. The street was also extended north and south throughout the years. (Click here for a view of Delaware Avenue around that time.)
More widening work occurred just before the 20th century. Over a two-year period beginning in 1897, Delaware Avenue between Vine to South Streets was expanded to 150 feet with more landfill, making the bumpy street the widest and longest waterfront avenue in the world. A new pier-bulkhead line was also constructed along the river to provide for larger and more up-to-date shipping facilities.
This phase of the Delaware Avenue's widening was dependent on the removal of Smith's and Windmill Islands from within the Delaware River. These had originally been a single alluvial shoal that had grown from the time of William Penn into a substantial land mass running from about Chestnut to South Streets today. Covered with willow trees, it was known as Windmill Island since 1746 when a miller erected a windmill there at a point opposite Pine or Spruce Streets. A resort was established on the northern part of the island in the early 1800s, complete with a bath house, a restaurant, a beer garden and even a swimming pool. It had been known as a "workingman's resort" and later included an amusement park. Special events added to the place's popularity: balloon ascensions, tightrope performances, and other unique attractions. When Windmill Island became an obstacle to the Philadelphia-Camden ferries, a canal was created through the middle of it in 1838. The southern half retained the original name while the northern half became known as Smith's Island, after John Smith, the resort's owner. (Click here for a picture of the islands in their heyday.) All of this ended with the removal of the two islands in the 1890s. Besides being a hazard to navigation on the Delaware, they were also in the way of Delaware Avenue's widening. Four-and-a-half million cubic yards of dredged material was taken away, most of it dumped on League Island to improve the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The project was completed in 1898. Smith's Island was located only about a hundred feet southeast of Pier 3's position today.
Railroad tracks ran on Delaware Avenue for about 18 miles from Port Richmond to South Philadelphia since the 1890s. Collectively called the Belt Line Railroad, these tracks served the freight-handling needs of all the docks and industries along the river. They enabled efficient transportation of goods to and from the central waterfront, but made travel on Delaware Avenue via carriage or automobile rather perilous, and jarringly bumpy, for decades. The Belt Line Railroad was jointly operated by and connected to the three trunk line railroads in Philadelphia during most of the 20th century. Although the railroad itself is now chiefly a real estate holding company, its tracks are still active in South Philadelphia. And to this day, one set of tracks, seldom ever used, remains in the center of the boulevard up to just north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
In addition, an elevated railway connecting to the Market Street Subway was completed on Delaware Avenue from Arch to South Streets in 1908. This route was known as the Delaware Avenue El or the Ferry Line, since its stops served the various ferries to New Jersey. There were two stops, one at Market-Chestnut and one at South Street where the line stub-ended. The Delaware Avenue El gradually lost passengers as ferry traffic diminished after the Delaware River Bridge opened in 1926, and especially after the Philadelphia-Camden Bridge Line, now known as PATCO, opened in 1936. The Ferry Line stopped running in 1939 and was torn down a few years later. There are no traces whatsoever of this elevated structure today.
Renamed Columbus Boulevard in the early 1990s, Delaware Avenue has been extensively landscaped in recent years. Instead of a rough stone street filled with railroad tracks, the thoroughfare is now smooth, well-lit and ornamented. Restaurants and nightclubs are found along the wayside, as are the attractions at Penn's Landing and vicinity. Indeed, Columbus Boulevard these days is a fulfillment of Stephen Girard's desire for a broad tree-lined boulevard along the Delaware River.
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Leaders from Pennsylvania and New Jersey began planning for a bridge between Philadelphia and Camden in 1919 after years of talking about building a tunnel under the Delaware River. Construction of the Delaware River Bridge began on January 6, 1922, and it opened to traffic on July 1, 1926, just in time for the nation's Sesquicentennial celebration in Philadelphia. It cost 37 million dollars to build and was the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world at the time. A huge success, it immediately started attracting some 35,000 vehicles a day.
Ferryboat lines between Philadelphia and several New Jersey towns had operated along the downtown river district since the time of William Penn. They transported commuters, shoppers and day trippers, and their cars, across the river in the days before there was a bridge spanning the Delaware. At the height of ferry business in 1925, some 100,000 passengers were serviced daily at ten cents a ride. There was a departure from each side of the river every three minutes during peak periods. In the same year, over five million vehicles were carried by the ferries. But after the Delaware River Bridge opened, the ferry lines started losing business and eventually closed. The last regular Philadelphia-Camden ferry run occurred in 1952. Today, a lone tourist-oriented ferryboat between Penn's Landing and Camden operates as a small connection to the past.
The bridge is 128 feet and 6 inches wide, and its main span is 1,750 feet long. From plaza to plaza, it is 1.8 miles long. Over 25,000 miles of cable were used in two main cables, each 30 inches in diameter. Its two towers stand 385 feet above mean high water. The chief designer and engineer was Ralph Modjeski; architect Paul Philippe Cret designed the massive stone anchorages on either side of the river. Interestingly, when the west (Philadelphia) anchorage was excavated in the 1920s, remains of old sunken wooden ships were found, thus showing how much broader the Delaware River was before Delaware Avenue was widened years before.
The Delaware River Bridge spawned a new era of long-span bridge construction that lasted through the late 1930s. It has been characterized as the "first distinctly modern suspension bridge built on a grand scale." The span's name was changed to Benjamin Franklin Bridge on January 17, 1956, to mark the 250th anniversary of Franklin's birth. Thirty years later, the bridge was lit with bright while lights by the architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates. And to mark its 75th anniversary in 2001, the bridge received digital lighting to bring flashing color to its deck and towers. Carefully managed and maintained by the Delaware River Port Authority, the Ben Franklin Bridge stands today as a proud symbol of both Philadelphia and Camden. Click here for some early 20th century picture postcards of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
By Harry Kyriakodis, Pier 3 resident and author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (The History Press, 2011)