When the Philadelphia naval station began operating on League Island in 1868, the only bridge to reach it extended from Broad Street. The construction of the Broad Street bridge set the stage for the subsequent filling in of the back channel. Charles Wharton Jr.’s application to the Pennsylvania legislature for permission to construct a bridge across the backchannel was approved in February, 1837. Wharton consulted an engineer and a commodore in the U.S. Navy regarding the potential consequences the bridge would have on the navigation of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers.
In a letter to Commodore Stewart, Wharton describes his plans to extend Broad Street not only over the backchannel but across League Island to “the navigable waters of the Delaware” on the island’s south side. The main purpose of his project to extend Broad Street, he writes, is “for the particular accommodation of coal” and “the trade from the interior of Pennsylvania.” By the 1830s, coal mining in the headwater regions of the Schuylkill River was flourishing, and the Schuylkill Canal provided a direct route to bring the coal to Philadelphia. Ports on the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers were already crowded sites of commerce in Philadelphia proper, but the southern waterfront had yet to be heavily developed due to the extensive systems of creeks and marshland. As such, both Captain Delafield and Commodore Sweeton expressed the opinion that the Broad Street bridge could only be seen as an improvement to the area by all involved. Pilots, insurance representatives, wharf-builders, and landowners around Broad Street also signed letters in support of Wharton’s application. A document titled “Memorial of owners of real estate” stated that “the measure is not only calculated to enhance the value of real estate, situated on Broad Street, but to benefit generally the city and county of Philadelphia.” Though Wharton sought the connection to League Island for his own commercial endeavors, “experts,” landowners, and the legislature saw value in making League Island more accessible.