Throughout the year 1919, World War I troops returning to the homefront were celebrated along the banks of the Delaware River.
With brass bands reverberating and American flags waving, crowds collected on piers in South Philadelphia to properly honor the heroes as they arrived from Europe on repurposed passenger ships.
One of the waterfronts welcoming soldiers home was Pier 53, which juts out into the river where Washington Avenue meets Christopher Columbus Boulevard. Recently, caretakers of the space, which is now known as Washington Avenue Green, came across a piece of art depicting such sites that was published in the “Philadelphia Public Ledger” on June 8, 1919.
Inspired by the image, the Friends of Washington Avenue Green, which was established in 2010, are attempting to recreate the scene exactly 100 years later, as on Saturday, June 8, a tribute to World War 1 troops will be hosted in the public space.
“It’s fascinating to read newspaper accounts from the summer of 1919,” said Susan McAninley of the Friends group. “All the piers along that area were welcoming these ships coming in. They were coming in by the dozens, and thousands of people were coming into Philadelphia.”
Practicing the philosophy of reenactment as a tool for historical learning, the event, which is titled “Coming Home,” will feature early to mid-20th century elements, transporting 21st-century attendees back to 1919.
Along the Delaware River from noon to 4 p.m., the celebration will include two performances by local band Hickory Brass, which will play music from that era.
Set to the sounds of early 20th-century songs, children will wave 48-star flags throughout the afternoon.
“What we’re trying to do is a 1919 account of what happened when these troops came in,” McAninley said.
The event itself will be derived from the January 1919 arrival of the S.S. Haverford into Pier 53, which carried hundreds of troops home from Europe a couple of months after the war ended.
“As they made their way up the bay, there were people cheering, and there were cannons going off,” McAninley said. “There were people on both sides – on the Camden side and on the Philadelphia side cheering as the ship came in.”
McAninley has always had an interest in transporting modern audiences to past times. The South Philly resident helps lead the Pier 53 Project, which is a collaborative venture between the Friends of Washington Avenue Green and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation.
The project entails interviewing descendants of immigrants who arrived in the United States on Pier 53, as the port holds a range of historical significance, including as an entrance point for new citizens in the 1800s and 1900s.
“It was our own Ellis Island,” McAninley said.
After collecting research through interviews, McAninley creates “passenger tags” for visiting students to hold on the pier, as they stand where those immigrants once stood. One side of the tag reveals the name and nationality of the passenger and the ship on which they arrived as well as the date of their arrival. On the other side of the tag, students find a short biography of the person.
McAninley, who was inspired to perform this project after learning that her two grandfathers arrived in the United States from Europe through Pier 53, says she plans to conduct this activity on the day of the June 8 event.
“By being there, they’re a part of history,” she said. “ We have to, sort of, stake out our claim historically that this is an important place.”
Through her experience with the public space, McAninley notes that Washington Avenue Green, which is considered a “passive park,” frequently goes unnoticed even by longtime South Philly residents.
Ideally, the event will not only raise awareness of the site but will also help preserve the cultural significance of the pier, especially since the neighboring areas along Columbus Boulevard have – and continue to face – the potential development of highrises and casinos.
These additions to the waterfront, McAninley says, could deter appreciation for the historical South Philadelphia pier.
“We have to establish a bulwark, a bulkhead, if you pardon the pun, on that pier, saying, ‘This is an important place. You can’t touch this,’ ” she said. “And incidentally, all the area around it should take notice that this is an important place.”
To learn more about the event or Washington Avenue Green, visit