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I-95 dig offers a peek into 18th-century life

The following article appeared in the June 16, 2009 Philadelphia Inquirer

By Jennifer Lin
Inquirer Staff Writer

Rich Remer mined his family's Kensington past for a quarter-century.

He found deeds, wills, letters, newspaper clippings, maps, diaries. The material took him to the first Remer in the colonies, a German butcher who lived on Shackamaxon Street by the Delaware River in the mid-1700s.

A decade ago, he thought he had exhausted all leads.

Then came unexpected news two weeks ago: Archaeologists for the state had unearthed 25,000 artifacts from a Fishtown property once owned by his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, the butcher Godfrey Remer.

In six pits used as 18th-century Dumpsters, they found such household items as a painted pearlware bowl from England, a chamber pot, a fractured teapot. They dug up a bone button, a domino, a piece of a flute-like recorder.

They unearthed scraps from colonial meals: apple seeds, a peach pit, fish bones. And in undisturbed layers of earth, they chanced upon stone points from spears and arrows, probably wielded by Native American hunters 1,000 years ago.

"I couldn't believe it," said Remer, of Williamstown, Gloucester County. "About 10 years ago, I ran out of discoveries. Any new information now is a breakthrough. . . . That's what delights me."

Remer has PennDot - and, more specifically, the I-95 upgrade - to thank.

All federal construction requires historical review of affected areas. In 1959, when work began on the Pennsylvania stretch of I-95, the mandate didn't exist. Now, with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, it does.

The improvement project should start later this year on a three-mile stretch of I-95 heading north from Race Street.

By happenstance, archaeologists picked for their investigation a sliver of land - 10 feet wide and more than 100 feet long - by a highway retaining wall on Shackamaxon Street. They had no clue beforehand that the plot was part of the backyard of a home that Godfrey Remer bought for his shipwright son, Matthew, in 1778 in what was then called Kensington and now Fishtown.

"This whole thing has been serendipity from beginning to end," Remer said.

His interest in the discovery extends beyond his own family history. For more than a decade, he has worked with two Kensington residents, Torben Jenk and Kenneth Milano, to research their neighborhood's history.

Through the years, Milano said, archaeologists have overlooked areas north of Vine Street and south of South Street, preferring to focus on the colonial epicenter around Independence Hall.

Now the whole area is abuzz with activity.

Under their federal permit application, the SugarHouse Casino developers have had to chronicle the historical assets in their 22-acre Northern Liberties/Fishtown parcel.

As part of the I-95 review, the archaeologists for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation last winter unearthed part of the Aramingo Canal, a wood-sided waterway built in 1847.

They will continue working at other scattered sites along the three-mile section of I-95 until the end of the year, said Douglas Mooney, a senior archaeologist for the engineering firm URS Corp., who is overseeing the project.

A month ago, Mooney mentioned the Shackamaxon dig to Jenk, who told Milano and Remer. They pulled out a tape measure and their files - stuffed with deeds and maps - and concluded that the excavation site was a former Remer home that had been razed when I-95 was built.

The patriarch, Godfrey, most likely came to America as an indentured servant, eventually buying side-by-side houses for himself and his son, Matthew. During the Revolutionary War, Matthew joined the Kensington Artillery and helped repair the fleet of Durham boats before Gen. George Washington led troops across the Delaware River on Christmas Day 1776.

Later ancestors on Shackamaxon - an Algonquin word for "meeting place of great people" - were potters and peddlers, or "hucksters."

Mooney called the trio's contribution invaluable.

"For 10 years, they've been intensely investigating the history of not only this one site, but the whole length of the area," he said. "They've done a lot of the legwork."

Of the three, only Remer, 60, retired from the Social Security Administration in Philadelphia, has an advanced degree, a master's in early American history from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

Jenk, 48, who restores old buildings, is the group's map expert and surveyor. Milano, 50, a genealogist, works for a rare-book dealer and is expert at deciphering old handwritten documents.

Among them, they have written five books and five scholarly articles on Kensington-Fishtown history and created two Web sites, including an online encyclopedia of all things Kensington.

But Jenk and his colleagues have become more widely known for clashing with SugarHouse and challenging key historical conclusions.

Two points of contention: whether the casino property once housed a British fort from the Revolutionary War and a men's social club called Batchelor's Hall. The casino's experts say no. The three local historians say yes, and have provided more than 60 maps, 40 pages of deeds, and about 30 diaries.

Their relations with PennDot have been more collaborative. At the dig along I-95 last week, Kimberly Morrell, site manager for URS, gave Remer, Jenk, and Milano an inside-the-pit tour. Crews excavated an area only about four feet wide, but more than 100 feet long.

Morrell pointed out the different layers of earth, where shards of pottery, oyster shells, even a broken cow bone were sticking out.

Soon the excavation will be filled in and the contents - now PennDot property - will be shipped off to the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

But the site, Remer said, already has shown what his documents could not. Bowls the family might have used for dinner. A creamer that perhaps sat on their table. Bones from a meal, maybe. A peek inside their lives.

"This completes the record," he said. "I'm touching my ancestors."