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Philly has a rich maritime history, too

The vessels you see as you enter the Port of Philadelphia carry historical importance on a grand scale.

The vessels you see as you enter the Port of Philadelphia carry historical importance on a grand scale.

Read the other stories in this package: Destination – Philadelphia, Pa.   Philadelphia - If you decide to go

To port, just beyond the anchors of the Walt Whitman suspension bridge, is the largest ocean liner built in this country: the S.S. United States, a great white-and-black behemoth that once was the epitome of luxury in travel. She sulks, unapproachable now, rusting into the river. To starboard, the battleship New Jersey, moored with its freshly painted gray bow slanting aggressively upstream and away from shore, is a relic of 20th-century warfare. Launched a year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “dreadnaught” saw duty in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. And at Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia’s waterfront development park, is the white-and-yellow cruiser Olympia, Commodore George Dewey’s flagship during his victory in the Philippines in the Spanish-American War.

However, there is a whole fleet of boats not visible from the water, with a more intimate claim on history. The IndependenceSeaportMuseum at Penn’s Landing — just upriver from the Olympia — houses a collection of small craft developed for the waters of the Delaware River, Delaware Bay and the New Jersey coast. For boaters, the collection is fascinating. But a ticket into the museum gives entrée as well to the Workshop on the Water, which not only restores the boats on display but builds replicas of some of the area’s more fascinating designs. The shop’s output, like the boats of the region, is ever-changing.

This spring and summer, the workshop will continue building a replica of Silent Maid, a 33-foot New Jersey catboat built in 1924, and will rig the 1888 George Lawley sloop Elf with wooden spars it has created for that project.

“The cool thing about it is this area is huge in the development of boatbuilding,” says John Brady, a boatbuilder with 28 years of experience who directs the workshop. Brady, his four paid boatbuilders, and 10 or so volunteers will be happy to take a break from the sawdust and varnish to answer your questions when you visit, he says.

The workshop started on a barge in the early ’80s, Brady says. The museum was a few blocks inland, and the workshop was the “waterfront presence.” Its mission was to explore and educate about the area’s boatbuilding, something it did by restoring and re-creating local small craft. “Our big shift over time was to branch out to building bigger boats,” Brady says.

Brady has been with the workshop for most of his career, except for a period when he chose to work on the Gazela, a 178-foot (sparred length) wooden Portuguese barquentine built in 1883 that is docked upriver from the workshop. His first projects included the restoration of a “sneakbox,” a small boat used along the Jersey coast for duck hunting, and a sailing “garvey,” a pram-shaped boat used for oyster harvesting.

During a visit to the museum, you will see both of these boats on display. In the workshop will be a different scene. Hanging from the ceiling is a speedboat built in the early 20th century on the Jersey coast. Pushed up against one wall is a restored Adirondack guideboat, an odd project that the workshop accepted. Near the entrance, what looks like a small, ornately trimmed building will be a new wheelhouse for Commodore Dewey’s Olympia. And consuming most of the space in the workshop’s floor is the replica of Silent Maid, the big BarnegatBay catboat.

The original boat was owned by Edwin Shuttle, “a prominent yachtsman … who wrote a book about [the boat,]” Brady says. The replica is being built for one of the workshop’s benefactors, Peter Kellogg, a New York financier who sails on New Jersey’s BarnegatBay. Its frames were bent in the steam box that is suspended by ropes from the workshop ceiling and were fastened by the paid and volunteer crew.

When you visit, you could be talking to one of the workers who came out of retirement from the marine industry or with one of the professionals — doctors and lawyers among them — who volunteer. “We mix that up with kids,” Brady says, “high school kids, people in their 20s casting around, looking for something.”

In 2005, he says, volunteers donated 2,200 hours to the workshop, which has “everything it takes to build a sizeable boat with efficiency.” He says the shop has tools and equipment not found in the average garage. “The facility itself is just fantastic, but probably more important is the people and the experience they want to share,” he says.

Brady has a vision for the Workshop on the Water. “As I see our mission, it’s to present the maritime heritage of the region by actually doing it,” he says. He’d like to have a fleet of boats aboard which visitors could experience the Delaware River and Philadelphia’s waterfront.

“One idea I have is to either restore or build a local type boat to teach kids,” he says. “There’s a lot of sneakboxes to be had. We’re in the process of restoring one with high school kids. The idea is to build some and have kids sailing them.” Look for that on a future voyage up the Delaware. This summer, you have a date with an Elf and a Silent Maid.

For more information on the museum and workshop, including hours and cost of admission, visit