The Philadelphia Navy Yard, which extends into the Delaware River at the southern tip of South Philly, is a great place to begin or end your exploration of the neighborhood. Dating back to 1868, it’s played a key role in the history of the US Navy, particularly during World War II. Retired as a naval base in the early 2000s, the 1,200-acre campus has been redeveloped into businesses, homes, about 20 acres of parks, and a mile-long waterfront trail. A fleet of retired naval ships are moored along the river bank, making this a picturesque place to explore.
In 1776, the same year the Continental Congress declared the US independent from the British empire, it leased land in Southwark (the neighborhood on the east side of South Philly) for a naval shipyard on the Delaware River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean at the Bay of Delaware, about 80 miles to the south. The first US military ships were built at the Southwark shipyard in 1779, and it became the first official US Navy shipyard in 1801, serving during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.
By the 1860s, new technologies such as ironclad ships were making the Southwark shipyard obsolete. The city of Philadelphia sold the US government League Island in the Delaware River at the southern tip of South Philly (it’s no longer an island, connected to the city by fill) for a new shipyard, which would remain active until 1996. It was particularly important during World War II when it employed about 40,000 people who built 53 warships here and repaired over 1,200 others. At a naval lab here, scientist Philip Abelson developed a method for enriching uranium that would become key to the Manhattan Project.
In the early 1990s, the Philadelphia Naval Yard was among several military facilities the US planned close as the Cold War ended. Despite efforts by local leaders to keep it open, it was retired by the Navy in 1996, at a cost of about 7,000 local jobs. In 2000, the city regained ownership of the land and the redevelopment began. Today, about 13,500 people work at about 150 companies located here.
A walk along the riverfront greenway is the best way to see the vintage ships and other reminders of the site’s naval history. There are also several other parks to explore here, and FDR Park is adjacent. If you’re hungry, check out one of the six cafes here, which are open to the public as well as office employees.
Cover image: R’lyeh Imaging, CC BY 2.0 via flickr.