Source: Plan Philly
Date: June 5, 2008
Byline: Kellie Patrick Gates and Isaac Steinberg
Corps seeks help on SugarHouse dig
The federal agency in charge of the historic review of the SugarHouse Casino site has asked for help.
The review is mandated because SugarHouse needs a federal permit to build as planned on its Delaware Avenue site. Thursday morning, the Philadelphia office of the Army Corps of Engineers — the agency that will decide if SugarHouse gets its permit — sent a letter to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the federal committee that ultimately bears the responsibility for protecting the nation's historic resources, seeking its guidance.
The site was once home to a British Revolutionary War fort and to much Native American activity before that. A learned society called Batchelor's Hall — botanist John Bartram was a member and tended the garden — was located there. And it was the site of much early industry, maritime and otherwise.
The Corps says in its letter that it hasn't yet determined whether issuing the permit would harm historic resources. "... studies are ongoing. However, it is possible that there may be an adverse effect on archaeological resources (both historic and pre-historic) as a result of the applicant's proposed project."
Army Corps spokesman Khaalid Walls said his agency reached out to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation because the issues are both heated and complicated.
The Corps would like the Council to weigh in on whether more archaeological digging is necessary and to look over what has happened so far in the case to make sure the proper procedures have been followed, Walls said.
Some local historians, activists, environmentalists and archaeologists who are advising the Corps on the SugarHouse case — they're officially called consulting parties — have requested that a public hearing be held, and Walls said this is another matter in which the Advisory Council's input would be helpful.
"We would value any input they have, any guidance they can give us," Walls said.
Both SugarHouse and some of the consulting parties say they are pleased that the Corps has sought the Advisory Council's help — for different reasons.
"We're happy to have another agency review the process," said SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker. "We are confident that ACHP will confirm that our extensive archaeological activities to date have been conducted appropriately, thoroughly, and professionally, and are in full compliance with all federal regulations and guidance we have received from the Army Corps and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission."
But the consulting parties hope the Council will find that not enough has been done, and require more digging. They also think the Army Corps — which earlier in the process inadvertently neglected to contact the Native American tribes who once lived in this area — is in over its head and needs help getting through this process properly.
"They don't have the skills," said historian Torben Jenk. Jenk said that Jim Boyer, who leads the process for the Philadelphia office of the Corps, is smart and well-intentioned, but a biologist.
Walls said the decision to seek the Council's help — a step that he said is not unusual — had nothing to do with the staffing of the Philadelphia Corps office.
In its letter to the Council, the Corps cited media attention and a process that has been "contentious at times," among its reasons.
Contentious is an understatement.
Because SugarHouse needs the permit to build its casino as planned, and federal law requires the history of the site be considered as part of the permit request, it is not only avid historians who have taken an interest in the process.
While it is unlikely enough could be turned up to prevent development on the site, further study would delay the casino. In addition to unearthing more information about Philadelphia's history and prehistory, the digging and delay costs SugarHouse money. And it buys the anti-casino activists more time.
The Council does not have to help — it may decline to get involved, said spokesman Bruce Milhans. It may also decide to do a review of proceedings so far and determine that the Corps has handled things well, and no further action by the Council is necessary, he said. Or, it could decide to do a full-scale review.
The Corps will not be taking any further actions toward reaching a decision on SugarHouse's permit at least until the Council decides what it will do, Walls said. That includes allowing any additional archaeology work, he said.
Neither Walls nor Milhans could predict how long it would take the Council to make any decisions. But some historians who have taken an interest in the case, including Michigan-based Revolutionary War expert Robert Selig and local amateur historian Ursula Reed — plan to lobby the U.S. legislators whose districts include the site in hopes that they will take an interest in the fort and other historic aspects and lean on the Advisory Council to lean on the Corps. Selig and Reed already have regular contact with the legislators through their efforts to get federal recognition for the 550-mile Washington-Rochambeau Trail. Legislation is pending.
SugarHouse says it will continue to follow the guidance of the Army Corps of Engineers. Archaeologists have recently done more digging at the request of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission — the Pennsylvania history experts who advise the Corps on these matters — and the results are expected soon. But SugarHouse and its consultant have maintained that anything from the fort is gone forever, destroyed by time and the rise and fall of the industrial era.
Historians took great exception to that point of view Wednesday evening, when about 65 people gathered at the University of Pennsylvania to hear a discussion of the site sponsored by the Color Guard of the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
To illustrate his point, Jenk showed slides of what archaeologists found at another fort — Fort Ligonier, which was built in Western Pennsylvania in 1758. When it was excavated in 1965 archeologists found over 81,000 Native American objects, with 36,000 of them being man made. Jenk noted that the artifacts there had lasted over 200 years and still were in very good shape.
The artifacts were preserved because they were ensconced in mud, Jenk said. Protective mud is at the SugarHouse site, too, he said, because British Fort No. 1 had a moat that flooded with the tide.
"If the artifacts there were still intact, why would artifacts from the British fort not be there?" Jenks said.
Selig showed a photograph of a cheval de fries, a long wooden spike used as a defense obstacle, found in 2007 near Fort Mifflin in great condition. British Fort No. 1 also used these spikes to thwart would-be invaders, and Selig believes they could be found on the SugarHouse site if more digging were done east of Penn Street.
"They are doing additional digging, but not at the right place," he said.
Selig surmised that finding the Fort, which was on the shore, could impact the amount of land classified as riparian land. The riparian lands are publicly owned, but developers can get licenses to build upon them. In modern times, this has most often happened via an act of the state legislature. SugarHouse, the contingent of state legislators who represent the waterfront and City Council are now embroiled in a Supreme Court battle over whether the city had the right to issue SugarHouse a permit. After a change in administration, the City later revoked the permit, saying it never had the power to issue it in the first place. The Supreme Court will decide whether the permit is still valid.
Attorney Hal Schirmer gave a history of riparian rights at Wednesday's event.