We are blogging as we dig into the archaeological records archived at Independence National Historical Park (INDE) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. These records were created over the past 50 years as archaeologists researched sites within the park's boundaries. The Independence Park Archives is currently creating a Guide for this vast collection of documents. This blog serves toward that end. It functions as a platform where archaeologists, archivists, and the interested public can share ideas about how to make these materials more widely available and more useful to the user.
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Saturday, November 13, 2010

INHP 1950’s Mall Debris → Fill for reclaiming wetlands?

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Chickies Rock and
a Pennsylvania Railroad Low Grade (rail siding) located northwest of Columbia, PA, along the Susquehanna River. Oral history and brief preliminary research suggest that demolition debris created during the construction of Independence Mall in the 1950's may have been used to fill in a lake located adjacent to this segment of rail line.

Has new oral history given us insight into a new Independence NHP-related archaeology site? Possibly so!

A possible important archaeological and archival insight emerged out of the blue this week when the chief of the History branch at INHP (Jed Levin) traveled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to serve as keynote speaker for the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County's 44th annual meeting.

The delivered talk was about the Independence Mall re-development project (in specific, the President's House site) --but the urban archaeology and mall-based focus of the presentation led to new oral history information about a possible new Independence Park-related historical archaeology site.

After the speech, four different members of the event's audience spoke to us (myself and Jed Levin) about how rubble from the original Independence Mall development, circa 1950's, was sent by railroad car from Philadelphia to be used as land fill in Lancaster County.

According to these oral history informants, demolition debris from the (original) Mall development was taken to a location along the Sesquahanna River between the towns of "Columbia and Marietta". There it was used "to fill Kerbaugh's Lake" which was "located between Chiques/Chickies Rock" hill and "Point Rock" (also known by one informant as "Spinning Wheel Rock"). In that spot the railroad line runs in a straight line along the river's edge and a lake formed on the other side of the tracks (between the rail line and the hillside) when the river overflowed. The informants remember the debris from the Mall development being used to fill up the lake.

Demolition Debris as an Artifact
In creating Independence Park several hundred 18th and 19th century buildings were demolished leaving the open green spaces seen today. At the time, the building rubble was routinely pushed into the pre-existing subterranean (below ground) basement spaces with the fill contents leveled off at the ground surface. Any remaining debris was carted away. (Note: Current procedures deal differently with construction debris that is created or encountered in the park.) Photographs taken at the time also show earth moving equipment digging below ground grade while creating the Mall. This image (adjacent), posted at the ushistory.org web page, is a 1951 photograph taken by the Evening Bulletin newspaper (Urban Archives, Temple University). It shows the demolition of 524-530 Market Street, including deep earth moving activity in the location of the President's House ruins.

Demolition debris deposits dating to the park's creation have regularly been encountered during archaeological work in the park, most recently at the Mall sites of the National Constitution Center (constructed 2000-2003), the Liberty Bell Pavillion (constructed 1999-2001), and the President's House site commemoration (excavated in 2007). The debris is composed of building elements (for example, wood, stone, mortar, brick, plaster, and cement structural remains) along with material culture evidence (namely domestic and small industry-related artifacts).

These artifacts were generally items long ago deposited in brick lined shafts (privies, and wells), root cellars, and or trash pits, or were materials broadcast onto backyard ground surfaces. These material remains relate to the life experience of the city's resident's from the 18th through the mid-20th century and reflect the development of a major urban and industrial city. These 'time capsules' of history were eventually (often times) impacted by construction of later 19the and 20th century development of the city, including development of the Mall at Independence.

In recent years it has become clear that Native American life experience in the area that become the city of Philadelphia can survive, in-situ, the ravages of city development. Indeed, a fantastic on-line exhibit about this at the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum's web page includes Native American archaeological remains discovered during the recent Mall re-development (at the site of the National Constitution Center). However, this means, in turn, that Native American material culture evidence from the shores of the Delaware River could also be part of the relocated Independence Mall construction debris now buried along the Susquehanna.

It is generally difficult for us to imagine demolition debris-- urban fill--as cultural evidence but this product of human actions is, technically, a cultural artifact. At Independence Park it forms part of a constructed landscape (an urban park space created in the making of a commemoration to the birth of the nation, and before that an urban metropolis, and it contains material culture residues (artifact evidence) that can inform us about American and Philadelphia history. Consider that in the Near East such urban debris deposits -- known as tels-- are a fundamental resource exploited in archaeology.

But was the evidence of Philadelphia (and American) history relocated and buried in Lancaster County? And if so, what does it mean for Independence Park archival science and for historical archaeology?

Some Quick Research
A brief look at a Pennsylvania Railroad Technology and History webpage dedicated to the Atglen & Susquehana Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad (Keystone Crossings, edited by F. Abendshein) suggests a location for Kerbaugh Lake and some supporting evidence for its being filled. An annotation recorded for Lake Siding located at Mile Post 40 (likely 4.0) says the following:
Lake siding ended here at the base of spectacular Chickies Rock, a sheer cliff whose base was beside the A&S. Lake got its name from Kerbaugh Lake which the contractor formed while having the A&S cut off part of the Susquehanna by running straight rather than following the curve of the hills as the Columbia Branch did. In the 1963 flood the Susquehanna cut through both ends of the fill turning part of the A&S into an island. After World War II the PRR filled the lake in and it is now part of a Lancaster county park.
Likewise, the Harrisburg Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society web page holds some promising information. A 2002 program for an event celebrating the centennial of the Rockville Bridge (The Rockville Limited) includes the following statement: "MP [Mile Post] 40.0 Lake R-"Cola". Named for down-river Kerbaugh Lake (now filled in), named for an A&S contractor for this section."

Columbia, Marietta, and Wrightsville, a book by F.H. Abendschein (Arcadia Publishing, 2009) reports similar information and includes images of the area under flood and during filling (see adjacent image)

Possibly helpf
ul in pinning down the location for this 'possible site' is information found in an archived chat board thread about Pennsylvania railroad tunnels (Sat. Oct. 5, 2002, Webcircle.com):
....in an 1866 act incorporating Columbia Bourough the Pennsylvania General Assembly defined the Bourough's borders. In the definition section the Act refers to "Point Rock Tunnel." If you're familiar with the area now that seems like a strange name. However in the 1800s this was a very logical name. Originally the canal followed the base of the hills between Marietta and Columbia. Point Rock stuck out in the Susquehanna and the canal simply swung out around it. When workers build the railroad between the canal and the hills there was enough room to do so except at Point Rock. There they choose to drill a tunnel rather than cut through the hill.

When the PRR built the Low Grade it took a straight line between the base of Chiques Hill (near Marietta) and Point Rock. This formed Kerbaugh Lake, named after one o
f the contractors, to the east of the low grade.....After WW2 th PRR filled in Kerbaugh Lake and ultimately tied in the the Columbia Branch to the Low Grade at the Columbia Yar. The railroad then pulled the tracks out from the base of the hills and the tunnel. .........here is Point Rock Tunnel [Microsoft Research Maps]....If you scroll NW you'll see filled-in Kerbaugh Lake and the original railroad's alignment, which is now a service road....
Current 'Site' Condition
A brief internet search also indicates that this potential site is possibly also somewhat protected (archaeologically-speaking as it is under the jurisdiction of a governmental agency--Chickies Rock County Park. The park's web page indicates that "A trail runs through the area of "Kerbaugh Lake", a reclaimed woodland and natural meadow between Chickies Hill and the river. The masthead image appears to depict the area in question (the lowland in the forefront of the picture, below the rock peak):

An Archival Coincidence!

When I reported Wednesday night's conversation to the Independence Park archivist it was karma! She picked up a piece of paper from her desk to show me that she is currently attempting to locate the documents related to the original mall construction. She told me she recently spoke to the archivist at the State Archives about whether the documents might be filed there. The project's records fell at the time under State jurisdiction as the Mall property was then managed by the Commonwealth.

This new information about a possible location for the Independence Mall development demolition fill-- material residues from within the park but no longer part of Independence Park--has now been documented in the archivist's Mall construction 'records search' file. This information will also be entered as a record in the INHP Archive's Archaeological Records Collection. This blog posting will in turn be forwarded to the sources named above, including the Lancaster County Department of Parks and Recreation and the State Archives. This 'might' also help if someday, in the far distant future, someone recovers 17th-19th century-dating artifacts at this spot on the banks of the Susquehanna River: The site wouldn't be misidentified as a settlement that once existed, and then vanished, circa 1950.

Relocated but Still Relevant

Assuming all this above is correct (and it would require more than the aforementioned quick and dirty internet search to verify), this newly discovered 'possible site' is interesting and important archaeologically as it remains potentially relevant for study at a 'gross level scale of analysis'. It is true that the 'fill' material remains would not be in their primary context (not in their original place of deposition and use) and therefore would not be useful for site specific level study. However, the materials would remain a viable information source for a study at a higher level of scale of 'research context': They can be useful for a study comparing, for example, a North American 18th and 19th century cultural expression with a similar dating cultural expression located elsewhere (e.g., Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom).

'Global historical archaeology' has included and postulated research at higher levels of scale of analysis comparing and contrasting material cultural residues not at the level of the site but at the level of, for example, global colonial frontiers. Occasionally these efforts have included trash dumps and or fill sites where the artifacts are not found in a 'primary use' context but rather as part of a secondary deposit.

Of course, as mentioned before -- a 'fill' dump is akin, in essence, to the tel sites excavated in the Near East and someday this lake fill could comprise a valuable site for examining the birth of the US and the modern industrializing world. (Assuming this oral history is as suggested.)

Lastly, it should be remembered that urban archaeology is not just archaeology 'in' the city but archaeology 'about the city' -- the material past of the urban environment including the processes of building and rebuilding and depositing and redepositing fills. Therefore, while the (possible) 'site' is close to 100 miles away from Philadelphia, the relocated debris fill would remain an urban archaeology artifact reflecting and related to mid-20th century American notions about the city, urban debris, debris removal, and 'wetlands reclamation' all enacted within a modern economic system supported by an integrated transportation network.

Read more about sliding levels of scale of analysis in historical archaeology...

Deetz, James (1991) Archaeological Evidence of Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Encounters. In Historical Archaeology in Global Perspectives, edited by Lisa Falk, pp. 1-9. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC.


  1. Are there records of the PRR ordering the evacuation of mall debris to the site of Kerbaugh Lake. Perhaps Hagley Library my have the "paper work" of such orders .

  2. Great idea! This seems like a promising research direction. Thank you for commenting. This idea will be added to the file as a suggestion for any future research toward this end.

  3. Interesting.

    But shouldn't you have included the names (and possibly the affiliations) of the four "oral informants" at the lecture, and especially the name of the Independence Park Archivist you conferred with later. Good politics -- and an opportunity to "make their day".