A boat being restored for the Philadelphia Seaport Museum.

by Lou Mancinelli

For nearly six weeks in November 1777, during the Battle of Germantown, a garrison of about 400 sick, starving men fought the British, whose fleet was trying to enter Philadelphia by way of the Delaware River, near where the airport now stands. If the they succeeded, it would have served to replenish diminishing British supplies and might have decimated Washington’s Army that winter.

But the patriots sunk a ship and prevailed at Fort Mifflin. The tale is part of “Disasters on the Delaware,” a current exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing.

Two longtime locals, John Brady, of Wyndmoor, the museum’s executive director, and Bill McLaughlin, of Chestnut Hill, chairman of its board of directors, are spearheading museum efforts to rebrand itself and increase public awareness through increased programming, renovations and new partnerships. They want to make the museum a destination for tourists and locals alike.

“We decided about a year ago the museum needs to chart a new course,” McLaughlin said .

Their vision is for the museum to tell the story of Philadelphia’s civic and maritime history through the river, represented as the “river of freedom.”

It was along the Delaware River in Penn Treaty Park in modern Fishtown that William Penn first made a treaty with Lenni Lenape Indians under the Shackamaxon tree, a sprawling elm that provided shade for hundreds of residents.

Later, towards the end of the 19th century, Philadelphia existed as the shipbuilding capital of the world, where companies like Cramp and Sons operated. The U.S. Navy was born in Philadelphia, where the first ships were built for the War of 1812.

While plans, designed by Alan Metcalfe Design, have yet to be officially shared with the city, according to Brady, the museum is focused on making the site more attractive to visitors, and overcoming a sense of being disconnected from the city by I-95. Ideas include wrapping the entire building in glass, creating an artistic scene using digitized river information about tides and traffic, and creating a sculpture that reacts with the wind. A plan could be revealed next year, with work beginning soon after.

“It’s a way to be in touch with nature that I don’t think you can match any other way,” said Brady, 60, a military child who moved around and settled in Toms River, N.J., at 12, where he developed his affinity for the water and sailing. That’s also when Brady started working on boats as a carpenter, which ultimately became his career.

The museum is a place rich with the story of the evolution of technology as well as the growth of American liberty. Its exhibits, which are the brainchild’s of Brady’s year-and-a-half tenure as executive director, include old restored wooden boats – two of which Brady worked on – and artifacts collected along I-95 that are 2,500 years old.

The exhibits are one way, in addition to updated educational offerings for students and adults, the museum is working to develop a renewed relationship with its public. City officials could review plans within the next few weeks, according to Brady, who said they are at the beginning of the process of transformation.

Stepping onto the USS Olympia, the flagship of Commodore George Dewey during the 1898 Battle of Manila Bay and now operated by the museum, is like walking into a floating time capsule. One enters first into the officers’ quarters constructed with deep, polished wood drawers and a desk. Sailors slept on hammocks hanging from ceilings over metal floors. Beneath the water, engine rooms illustrate the story of modern progress.

“We want to make sure the direction we are going is the direction people are appreciative of,” said Hope Koseff Corse, director of marketing.

Part of that direction includes participating in the SeaPerch program, a contest between hundreds of students to create an underwater robot. In the future, it could mean getting students out on the water. It means reminding a public of this maritime resource. In its archives and library, are more than 15,000 volumes of reference books ranging from Philadelphia history to marine ecology, more than 400 rare maritime books, and thousands of ship plans and passenger lists.

The museum also features a boat-building workshop where students from schools like the Charter High School for Architecture and Design work on projects. When the Local visited the museum, a 28-foot whaling boat used by harpooners to attack whales was being restored.

This fall the museum hosted the Old City Seaport Festival, which brought five tall ships that had sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River to its harbor. Brady plans to increase the number of ships in time.

“There’s something unique about being on a traditional craft that’s handmade,” said McLaughlin, 50, an Archbishop Ryan High School and St. Joseph’s University graduate who has made a career as an investor. McLaughlin’s two children attend Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

Founded in 1960 as the Philadelphia Maritime Museum, the institution was incorporated a year later functioning as a library and repository of archival data. In 1974, the museum moved into Independence Center quarters, before a $15 million expansion project moved the museum to its current site south of Market Street on the waterfront. The projected new building could cost up to $35 million, while renovations would cost about half that, according to Brady. McLaughlin will help to navigate the financial waters.

For Brady, his role as executive director, provides him with the opportunity to share the history that has been his life.

“Whenever I could get a boat job I did it,” he said.

A graduate of Rutgers University, Brady, after working at the seaport in New York City, moved to Philadelphia in the early 80s to work as a carpenter on a ship called the Gazela Primera. He was later hired by the Maritime Museum as a boat builder, and, after working on a schooner in Nova Scotia, returned to Philadelphia where he served as superintendent of the Philadelphia Ship Preservation Guild before joining the museum again in the mid-90s.

Last spring the museum hosted “Home of the Brave: The War of 1812 in Art, Story and Song.” Its current exhibition, “Digging the City: Archaeological Discoveries from the Philadelphia Waterfront,” concludes Feb. 3.

For more information visit www.phillyseaport.org.