Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Windmill Island

As a city's structural evolution spans centuries, it's easy to forget how much the natural landscape changes as well. City building involves much more than moving trees. Rivers are displaced, streams are eliminated, and mountains are torn down. If Mother Nature had her way, London would be under water. With engineers constantly working in the background, we see her coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk every day.

Philadelphia and the Delaware River showing Windmill and Smith's Island and its' canal for the Walnut Street ferry

At the site of a shipwreck sometime prior to the late 1600's, in the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden, nature began reclaiming its own. As dirt collected around the decaying barge, two islands began to take shape.

Smith Island in 1880

Windmill Island was once located in the Delaware River, somewhere in the vicinity of Market Street. In 1838 a canal was made to accommodate the Walnut Street ferry carrying passengers to Camden and the north side was named Smith's Island, after its owner, John Smith

Penns Landing in 1868

Passengers would depart Philadelphia's bustling waterfront to enjoy a day at Smith's Island.

Windmill Island was named for a windmill built in 1746 by John Harding and his son. Legendary pirate stories evolved from the execution of three men who were hanged on the island for looting a ship.

Not long after the Revolution an agreement was reached between New Jersey and Pennsylvania to award Delaware River islands to each state alternately. As Petty Island above belonged to New Jersey, Windmill Island would belong to Pennsylvania.

Windmill and Smith's Islands can be seen in this drawing of Philadelphia in 1840.

Smith's Island's willow trees attracted visitors seeking refuge from the city on hot summer days as early as 1826. Ferries would carry bathers to the island from Walnut Street. The city's lower class used the resort as a place to bathe and escape the cramped quarters of Philadelphia's notoriously blighted ghettos.

Windmill and Smith's Islands from Penn's Landing in 1890 shortly before its' removal.

By the late 19th Century, Smith's Island housed a bathhouse and restaurant, and entertainment included a beer garden, circus performances, live musicians, and even hot air balloon rides. An amusement park was built on Smith's Island by Jacob Ridgway in 1880. The south end of Windmill Island was used as a coal depot for the Lehigh Navigation Company.

As Philadelphia's presence in the shipping industry grew, the federal government began a six year project in 1891 to remove the islands all together. By 1897 no trace of the islands remained.

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