The town of Marcus Hook was occupied by Dutch, Swedish and Finnish settlers as early as the 1640’s, when it was part of what was then called New Sweden. A map dated 1676 even refers to the strip of land lying between Tinicum Island and Fort Cristina as “Laplandt”. By the early 18th century, the area was under British rule and Marcus Hook was a bustling community and market town, a public market there having been chartered by William Penn in 1701. By 1708, Marcus Hook rivaled the neighboring settlement of Chester in size, both places being described in period documents as having nearly 100 houses. By the middle of the 18th century, Marcus Hook had become a major regional center for the building of wooden sailing ships, and remained so until the late 19th century when demand for larger-tonnage vessels began to outpace that of the smaller sloops and schooners built at Hook. In fact, the only iron-hulled American merchant schooner still sailing, the Pioneer, was built in Marcus Hook in 1885.
Much of Marcus Hook’s historical significance, in fact, comes from its identity as a maritime town. Marcus Hook was the first port of call for Philadelphia from its earliest days, and later would become the farthest upriver that large ships could safely navigate without knowledge of the local shoals and ties. The Hook was also a haven for pirates in the early 18th century, when piracy plagued the lower Delaware River. The market at Marcus Hook provided sea-rovers with a place to sell plundered goods and re-supply for their next voyage while remaining a safe distance downriver from the watchful eyes of the authorities and customs officials in Philadelphia. In fact, the early maps show that what is now Second Street was originally called Discord Lane apparently because it was the location of much of the pirates’ revelry while they were in town. Although there is currently no evidence to support it, there is a local oral tradition that the Marcus Hook Plank House was once the home of a mistress of the notorious pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Blackbeard is known to have operated in the Delaware River during his piratical career and to have probably visited Marcus Hook. Ashmead’s 1884 History of Delaware County mentions Blackbeard frequenting Marcus Hook and John Watson’s 1898 volume, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, tells us of a “traditional story, that Blackbeard and his crew used to visit and revel at Marcus Hook, at the house of a Swedish woman.”
Marcus Hook also played an important role in the early history of the United States. During the American Revolution, a line of cheveaux-de-fris placed across the channel of the Delaware at Marcus Hook provided the first line of defense for Philadelphia against British naval forces. Marcus Hook also served as a training center for Pennsylvania militia forces, and the continental Army was encamped there in the fall of 1777. The town was bombarded by British warships more than once, which is probably part of the reason why, with the notable exception of the Plank House, there are to our current knowledge no pre-Revolutionary period houses in the town. Marcus Hook again served as a defensive post along the Delaware when over 5,000 troops were stationed there during the War of 1812.
Later in the 19th century, Marcus Hook was a center for commercial fishing, particularly of shad and sturgeon. Sport fishermen and quail hunters also stayed in several of the resort hotels which had been established in town and provided easy access to both the Delaware River and the extensive wetlands around Tinicum Island and the area now occupied by Philadelphia International Airport. The town began to take on its modern character in 1901, when Sun Oil Company established a large refinery there. Nine years later, Union Petroleum established a refinery on the other side of Marcus Hook, making the town one of the largest petroleum refining centers in the country. In the same year, the American Vicose Company built a large industrial complex in Marcus Hook and the producer of synthetic fiber gave the town the distinction of being the “birthplace of American Rayon.” By the middle of the 20th century, Marcus Hook was well established as an industrial town, and it remains such today.
But in the midst of this industrial center lies a significant historical landscape. This landscape of the past began to be rediscovered when historians and archaeologists, both amateur and professional, became interested in the Marcus Hook Plank House. The Plank House itself is a one-and-a-half story, hall-plan house featuring a finished upper level and full cellar. The house is constructed using sawn planks fitted together with dovetail joinery and caulked with oakum in a manner similar to that seen in one of the only other plank houses known in the region, the Christopher Vandergrift House in New Castle County, Delaware. Some of the original riven lath remains on the interior of the house and it is felt that the walls were finished with plaster at the time of construction or soon thereafter. A stone and brick relieving arch in the cellar supports the fireplaces and chimney stack. The upper level of the house, accessed via a winder staircase located in the northeastern corner of the structure essentially mirrors the main room below except that it has an inclined garret ceiling, which follows the peak-pinned rafters. The upper room also features a fielded panel fireplace surround which is felt to be original. Both the architecture of the house and the archaeology indicate a probable construction date of circa-1735.
Early 20th century photographs of the Plank House also show another wing to the north which was apparently removed sometime in the early part of the 20th century. This north wing appears to have been contemporaneous with the construction of the main portion of the house or to have been built shortly thereafter. The Plank House also features an extant shed-roofed brick addition to the rear of the main part of the structure. This addition was one of the main foci of the archaeological investigation. It is believed that this addition was added relatively soon after the construction of the main portion of the house – probably within twenty years or so. The addition was used as the house’s kitchen during the 20th century occupation, and it is likely that this was its original function as well.
Archaeological investigations at the Plank House began in May of 2005 when a group of volunteers from Chapter 21 of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology became involved, working under the direction of chapter president Dr. Catherine Spohn. The volunteers began excavating a series of 5’ by 5’ excavation units in the area north of the extant portion of the house in order to recover evidence of the structure’s demolished north wing. Portions of the foundation walls of this wing were encountered, as was a stone feature that represents one of the footers for the bake oven associated with the addition to the rear of the house.
The Temple University archaeologists arrived on the site in October of 2005. Those excavations revealed a one-course-deep portion of another stone wall. This wall is not related to the main foundation for the north wing of the house and was originally thought to have possibly supported a small porch on this end of the structure. However, a recently discovered photograph reveals that this was actually the foundation wall for a third wing of the house. Thus far a sufficient sample of this area has not been excavated to allow the date or mode of construction of this wing to be determined. The help of Naeva Geophysics was enlisted, who graciously donated their services for both a high-resolution ground penetrating radar survey of the entire property and a sweep for electromagnetic anomalies. Ground-truthing of several anomalous reflections revealed by this survey will be the focus of work in future field seasons.
The Plank House provides an ideal place to get the public involved in archaeology and train volunteers in archaeological field and laboratory methods. The stratigraphy in the excavation units consists of a series of fills deposited to fill and level the area following the demolition of the north wing of the house. Underlying these fills is a relatively undisturbed 18th century land surface. This sealed context has proven to contain features as well as period artifacts. But importantly for our volunteer effort is that the profiles exhibit classic “layer cake” stratigraphy which is very easy to recognize and thus allows us to clearly demonstrate to our volunteers the basic principles of archaeological stratigraphy. The clear boundaries between the strata allow volunteer excavators to proceed with confidence as they dig. Additionally, these layers of fill are loaded with artifacts dating from the 17th through 20th centuries, so the thrill of discovery is a constant presence for workers at the site.
Volunteers at the site have worked side by side with professional archaeologists who were always on site whenever any excavation was being conducted. Volunteers were constantly learning about how archaeologists work, and we invite anyone interested in the effort to participate, whether they become “regulars” or just dig with us for a couple of hours – to check our website for available dates and times. We also have had volunteers who were primarily interested in doing documentary research and it is through them that we have learned many facts about the early history of the area and have uncovered early photographs of the house. Our dedication to using volunteers at the site has been beneficial to all parties involved. Without them, we would not have been able to accomplish even half of the amount of excavation, lab work, and documentary research that has now been done, and we, in turn, provide them with an opportunity to not simply learn about archaeology, but to directly participate in the process.