Immigration Tour

Immigration Tour

Philadelphia waterfront along Delaware River (Penn's Landing)

Immigration Tour

Welcome to the "Immigration Tour," a self-guided stroll along and near Philadelphia's waterfront that highlights sites of interest in the city's immigrant past. The tour route is 2.2 miles, and takes about an hour to walk.

Before the tour

If you're taking public transit, you can get off of the 2nd Street stop on the Market-Frankford line, walk one block east to Front Street, then cross one of the bridges to Penn's Landing (at Market, Chestnut, or Walnut streets) to start your tour. Or, you can take either Bus 21 or 42 east; the Chestnut Street bridge to Penn's Landing is the last stop for both. Visit the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) for route maps and schedules.

If you're driving, you can park in one of the lots at Penn's Landing, near the Independence Seaport Museum, accessible along Columbus Boulevard near Market Street, Walnut Street, or South Street. The Market and Walnut lots are on the east side of the street; the South lot is on the west side of the street. There is also some on-street parking along Front Street, as well as a garage on 2nd Street between Chestnut and Walnut. Or if you would rather park closer to the end of the tour, you can find FREE parking a few blocks south of Washington Avenue, to the east of Front Street (under I-95). Follow Columbus Boulevard or Front Street north to get to Penn's Landing on foot.

Tour route


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1. Independence Seaport Museum

Independence Seaport Museum

Start at the Independence Seaport Museum, near the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge. Opened in 1961 as the Philadelphia Maritime Museum and at its present location since 1995, the museum preserves and exhibits the history, science, and culture of the Delaware River and the Philadelphia waterfront. One of its exhibits, "Coming to America," examines the immigrant experience. The museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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2. Penn's Landing

Great Plaza at Penn's Landing during an Irish festival in 2008

From the Seaport Museum, proceed north through the Great Plaza of Penn's Landing, up to the Chestnut Street bridge. From the time Samuel Carpenter built Philadelphia's first wharf in 1685 until the mid-20th century, this area was the center of Philadelphia industry and commerce. By 1960, the waterfront's decline reached the point where city planner Edmund Bacon proposed redeveloping it for public recreational use. This occurred between 1962 and 1976, with most of "Penn's Landing" completed in time for U.S. bicentennial celebrations. The Great Plaza is the centerpiece of Penn's Landing, the site of many free concerts and festivals during the summertime. See the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation site for an event calendar and more information.

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3. Irish Memorial

Irish Memorial

Head west toward Chestnut Street. After you cross the bridge over I-95, but before you reach Front Street, you will see a monument park to your left. Enter the park and view the Irish Memorial, dedicated in 2003 to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Irish famine. The monument and the surrounding interpretive signs depict Irish suffering during the potato blight of 1845-47 and the emigration of many to the United States through the early 1850s.

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4. U.S. Customs House

US Customs House

At Front Street, follow Chestnut Street west through possibly the oldest continuously commercial block in Philadelphia. At 2nd Street, take a look at the 17-story U.S. Custom House, built between 1932 and 1934 by the architectural firm of Ritter & Shay. The building's primary tenant is the U.S. Customs Service, which regulates imports that pass through the port of Philadelphia through the collection of duties and taxes, the prevention of smuggling, and other measures. Among the other federal agencies it houses is the Philadelphia Passport Agency, the U.S. State Department organization that serves U.S. citizens and nationals traveling abroad or seeking foreign visas.

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5. Welcome Park

Welcome Park

Head south on 2nd Street. On your left, shortly before Walnut Street, you will come across a plaza called Welcome Park.

Even William Penn was once an immigrant to the city he founded, first landing in 1682 at the confluence of the Delaware River and Dock Creek (now Dock Street), near Front Street. In 1684 he returned to England, not returning to his colony of Pennsylvania until 1699. For a short time from 1700 to 1701 (when he returned to England permanently), he resided at a home known as the Slate Roof House, which stood here until 1867. Welcome Park opened in 1982 to commemorate the site of Penn's former home.

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6. City Tavern

City Tavern

Look across the street at the three-story building with the awning out front. Philadelphia's City Tavern opened in 1773 and quickly became an important meeting place for merchants and other prominent citizens, including those who decided that Philadelphia would host the First Contintental Congress in 1774. The original tavern was demolished in 1854; this reconstruction was completed in 1976. It still operates as a restaurant today, serving a largely 18th-century cuisine; its menu and hours are posted on a sign under the awning as well as on its website.

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7. Polish American Cultural Center

Polish American Cultural Center

Walk south (out of Welcome Park, turn left; out of City Tavern, turn right) to Walnut Street; turn right onto Walnut Street. Shortly past 3rd Street, you will pass the Polish American Cultural Center at 308 Walnut Street. Operating here since 1988, the center is representative of the several societies in Philadelphia that recognize the history and culture of ethnic and national groups in Philadelphia and in the nation. Philadelphia experienced an influx of eastern Europeans in the late 19th century, including many from Poland. Their influence is perhaps most seen today along Fabric Row, which you will pass through later on the tour.

The center is housed in the old home of the American Fire Insurance Company of Philadelphia, built in 1840 and remodeled and enlarged by the famous architectural firm of Furness, Evans & Co. between 1881 and 1886.

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8. Old St. Mary's Church and Cemetery

Old St. Mary's

Continue on Walnut Street until you reach 4th Street. Turn left, and head south. Shortly past Locust Street you will come to Old St. Mary's Church and Cemetery on your right.

Old St. Mary's, built in 1763 (the cemetery dates to 1759), is the second oldest Roman Catholic church in Philadelphia. It is perhaps most noteworthy for being the site of the first public religious commemoration of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1779. As an early Catholic church, it also became the worship and burial site for many 18th-century Irish and French immigrants. Among these are refugees from the French Revolution; French-born Michael Bouvier, the great-great-grandfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Irish-born John Barry, the Revolutionary War naval commodore and "Father of the American Navy"; and Irish-born Thomas Fitzsimons, a signer of the U.S. Constitution.

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9. Physick House

Old Pine Street

Follow 4th Street south. Just past Spruce Street you will come to the Physick House on your left; the largest free-standing house in Society Hill, the neighborhood in which you stand. The house was the home of Physick Syng Physick, the father of American surgery; it was also a childhood home of his daughter, Susan, who married David Conner, a naval commodore in the Mexican War. During the early 19th century, Philadelphia was the home of the nation's largest naval shipyard, at Federal Street in present-day South Philadelphia.

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10. St. Peter's Church and Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church

Old Pine Street

Continue south on 4th Street. At Pine Street, you will come to two churches. To your left, St. Peter's Episcopal Church; to your right, Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church.

The Society of Friends (Quakers) were, of course, the predominent religious group of Philadelphia's earliest years (the neighborhood in which you are standing, "Society Hill," was named for the Society of Free Traders, a group of Quaker merchants), but by the early 18th century they had been surpassed by English-born Anglicans and Scottish- and Scots-Irish-born Presbyterians. These churches were born out of the mid-18th century population boom that turned Philadelphia from a town into the largest city in the American colonies.

The Penn family deeded the churchyard to your left to members of Christ Church (the first Anglican church in Philadelphia, near 2nd and Market) in 1758. Those members lived in Society Hill and wanted a meeting place closer to their homes. Robert Smith, the architect of Carpenter's Hall and the Christ Church bell tower, built St. Peter's Church, which held its first service in 1761. It remained united with Christ Church until 1832.

They deeded the churchyard to your right to a group of Presbyterians in 1764, when the first burials began; Old Pine Street was founded in 1768 as the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and is today the oldest Presbyterian church building in the city. It has since merged with two other congregations, giving it an official name that reflects both the immigration and waterfront aspects of our tour: The Third, Scots and Mariners Presbyterian Church.

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11. South Street

South Street

Continue south on 4th Street to South Street. This road has undergone many changes over the years; in the 18th century, this was Cedar Street, the southern border of Philadelphia. Because Quakers disallowed amusements within city limits, this southern half of this street--being immediately over the border--became home to Philadelphia's first theatrical productions. Philadelphia's first permanent theatre, for example, was the Southwark Theater, which opened just to the west of 4th Street in 1766. In the 1790s, President George Washington occasionally attended shows there, and had a box fitted with cushioned seats, red draperies, and the U.S. coat-of-arms.

By the late 19th century, South Street was still home to a couple theaters, but their productions were in Yiddish! Between 1880 and 1920, two million Russian Jews immigrated to America; Philadelphia was their second-largest destination. This part of South Street became the heart of Philadelphia's Jewish Quarter. The Blitzstein Bank, which aided Russian Jewish immigrants in bringing relatives to the United States, stood a block north of here at 4th and Lombard.

By the 1960s, many Jewish Philadelphians had long since moved to West Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion, or the more distant suburbs, and plummeting property values led to the influx of artists and "hippies" that began to transform South Street into the shopping and tourist destination it is today. In 1976, West Philadelphia cheesesteak purveyor Jim's Steaks opened a location here that has continued to keep this intersection near the epicenter of South Street life.

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12. Fabric Row

Fabric Row

Continue south on 4th Street. From Bainbridge Street through Catharine Street you are passing through Fabric Row, the remnant of the old garment district which thrived in the days of Philadelphia's Jewish Quarter (roughly between Spruce and Christian Streets, and between 2nd and 6th Streets). Philadelphia was once the world's "preeminent" manufacturer of men's wear, according to the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, and "Fabric Row" was a major source for silk and woolens. Though less ambitious today, the street is still the hub of city fabric shops, tailors, dress shops, carpet shops, and upholsterers. Here, unlike on South Street, the Jewish and eastern European character of the neighborhood is still visible with the Famous 4th Street Delicatessen (700 S. 4th St.) and several textile businesses owned by second, third, or fourth-generation families, including home decorating and bridal accessories store Marmelstein's (760 S. 4th St.), founded in 1919.

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13. Philip Neri Church

Philip Neri Church

Continue south on 4th Street until you reach Queen Street. Turn left, and follow Queen Street east. After you pass 3rd Street, you will arrive at a park to your left and a church to your right. Both relate to the history of immigration in Philadelphia.

First, the church: St. Philip Neri Church opened in 1841, a year after the formation of the new Catholic parish of Southwark, spanning all of Philadelphia County east of Broad Street and south of South Street. Many parishioners were Irish immigrants, and most made their livelihood from the Delaware River wharves. In 1844, tensions between Irish immigrant groups and nativist gangs erupted in riots in Kensington (then a separate district north of Philadelphia) and here in Southwark (then a separate district to the city's south). In Kensington, nativists burnt two Catholic churches to the ground, St. Augustine's and St. Michael's. They attempted to attack St. Philip's here, but the governor sent militia to protect the church and, after a small skirmish, the mob was repulsed and St. Philip's saved. Kensington's and Southwark's inability to police themselves was one of the driving forces in the city of Philadelphia's takeover of the rest of the county a decade later in the 1854 Act of Consolidation.

Across the street is Mario Lanza Park, named for the prominent opera singer and actor. Lanza was born as Alfredo Arnold Cocozza at 636 Christian St., about four blocks west of here. He was born in 1921, the son of Philadelphia's most famous immigrant population: Italians.

There were 20,000 Italians in Philadelphia in 1900, a number that would grow rapidly to over 60,000 by 1920 and about 200,000 by 1930. At first living near their waterfront jobs on the Delaware, after World War I Philadelphia's Italians grew to the south and west into the South Philadelphia neighborhood that they are known for today.

Lanza debuted on stage as Fenton in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" in 1942; performed in two Army productions during World War II; and starred in several movies between 1949 and 1959--most notably playing his idol, Enrico Caruso, in MGM's 1951 film "The Great Caruso"--before dying of a heart attack at the age of only 32.

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14. Mummers Museum

2009 Mummers Parade, on Broad Street at Washington Avenue

Continue east to 2nd Street. Turn right, and follow 2nd Street south to Washington Avenue. Across the street you will see the Mummers Museum, opened in 1976 in commemoration of the history, costumes, and music of Philadelphia's unique New Year's entertainers.

Mummers originate in the medieval post-Christmas revelry of Northern Europe. Specifically, the Mummers trace their presence in Philadelphia back to the area's first settlers, the Swedes, in the mid-17th century. The Swedes celebrated the "Second Day of Christmas" on December 26. Gradually the tradition expanded in duration, extending to New Year's Day, and in popularity, winning adherents from British, French, Irish, and German ("Mummers" comes from the German word "Mumme," meaning mask) settlers. By the 19th century many working-class Philadelphians celebrated New Year's Day with masquerades and impromptu parades, even ignoring an 1808 act from the Pennsylvania Legislature that threatened fines and imprisonment against those who engaged in the "public nuisances" of "masquerades" and "masquerade Balls." The act was repealed in 1859.

By that time, the revelers had already begun to organize into various clubs and parade together through the city on New Year's Day; the first recorded one was called "The Chain Gang" in the 1840s. By the turn of the century, many Mummers formed string bands which marched in the parade; in 1906 they began to compete against each other for cash. Around the time Mummers also began to develop a unique marching style or "strut" based on the cakewalk, a popular dance of the era. These elements--along with other developments such as the greater participation of later immigrant groups, especially Italians; the banning of blackface in the 1960s; and the inclusion of women in the 1970s--are essentially what still make up a Mummers Parade today.

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15. Washington Avenue

Washington Avenue

Before heading east, look to your right and admire the long-time immigrant highway of Washington Avenue. From the Irish (the Mummers Museum and 2nd Street--"Two Street"--to the south) and Eastern Europeans (Fabric Row to the north) of the 19th century, to the Italians (the Italian Market, on 9th Street) of the early 20th, to the Vietnamese, Korean, and Mexican businesses of more recent years (mostly between 5th and 9th Streets), this wide avenue has long provided a home to recent arrivals. Part of the reason once stood at the east end of Washington Avenue.

Turn to your left, and start walking toward Front Street. In the distance, along the river, is a U.S. Coast Guard station; there in 1873 the American Line, a steamship company, and the Pennsylvania Railroad teamed to build the city's first immigration station. The American Line sent steamers between Liverpool and Philadelphia which between 1880 and 1910 brought most of the city's 20,000 annual immigrants, mostly from eastern and southern Europe. The Red Star Line, which sailed between Philadelphia and Antwerp, Belgium, also docked near Washington Avenue and brought many immigrants of its own. The Pennsylvania Railroad, which owned all the wharves in this area, then carried most of those immigrants quickly out of the city, though some stayed.

The federal government too got involved. The U.S. Navy long had its first shipyard just south of here, at Federal Street (hence the street's name); in 1884 the government established a quarantine center in the Delaware Bay (even though the state already had one of its own further up river), supplemented by a federal center for illegal aliens a couple blocks away from here at 2nd and Christian. The government also had federal inspectors stationed at Washington Avenue.

In 1896, the Pennsylvania Railroad expanded the immigration station's capacity from 300 to 1500 people, turning it into Philadelphia's Ellis Island, complete with medical examination rooms, a ticket office, a money exchange, a women's dressing room, a waiting room, a travel infomration bureau, and even an "altar" for impromptu weddings when necessary.

The Washington Avenue station was torn down in 1915. Inspections occurred on board ship until World War I and the Immigration Act of 1924 combined to bring an end to Philadelphia's heyday as an immigrant city, at least until the rise in Korean and Southeast Asian immigrants in the 1980s, and Mexicans a decade later, started to again reshape the city and Washington Avenue.

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16. Sparks Shot Tower

Sparks Shot Tower

At Front Street, turn left and walk north to Carpenter Street. On your left you will see a tall, brick cylinder: the Sparks Shot Tower.

Thomas Sparks, John Bishop, and James Clement built the 142-foot-high tower in 1808, in a then-sparsely-populated part of Southwark, south of the city, as a way of forming musket balls ("shot"). Molten lead poured through mesh at the top of the tower would form into round balls as it was falling; the balls would then land in a container of water to cool.

Sparks and his partners first erected the tower as a way of making inexpensive lead shot for hunting and sporting use because the Embargo Act of 1807 forbade trade with Britain, previously the major exporter of shot to the United States. However, with the start of the War of 1812--against Britain--the tower began producing ammunition for the federal government. (Bishop, a Quaker, sold his interest in the tower to Sparks.)

The Sparks family continued to manufacture shot here through 1903, including for use in the Civil War. In 1913, the city acquired the property and converted the land around the tower into a public playground, which it remains today.

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17. Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church

Gloria Dei Church

We end our tour with the oldest surviving structure in Philadelphia, the oldest church building in Pennsylvania, and the second-oldest church in continuous use in the United States: Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church.

Swedish settlers first arrived in the Delaware Valley in 1638, at what is now Wilmington, Del. In 1646, Swedes built the first church in the Delaware Valley, on Tinicum Island, near present-day Essington, Pa. Sven Svenson gave this land here, called Wicaco by Native Americans, to the Swedish church by 1666, when a blockhouse was built. In 1677--five years before William Penn landed upriver--the blockhouse was modified into a church. In the 1690s, the Swedes decided to construct one permanent building for use by both congregations, and chose the Wicaco site. Thus, in 1698 construction began on the building you see here; it was dedicated on July 2, 1700. Though its last Swedish pastor died in 1831, and it switched from Lutheran to Episcopal in denomination in 1845, Gloria Dei remains an active congregation today, 363 years after its founding.

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After the tour

If you would like to explore Philadelphia's immigrant communities further, you may wish to walk one block south to Washington Avenue and follow the street west to 9th Street, then north through the Italian Market. Continue north on 9th Street to reach South Street, Walnut Street, or Market Street, all of which provide public transportation options for returning to Penn's Landing if needed.

Otherwise, to explore the waterfront or simply to return to Penn's Landing or nearby parking, from Gloria Dei Church you can walk one block east to Columbus Boulevard. Turn left, and follow Columbus Boulevard north to Penn's Landing.

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