PHILADELPHIA REFLECTIONS
Musings of a Philadelphia Physician who has served the community for six decades

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City of Rivers and Rivulets (2)

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The Wissahickon

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Sarah West

Recently, Sarah West came to the Right Angle Club and told us about the history of the Wissahickon Creek. Sarah taught at Germantown Friends School for twenty-five years, and in the course of it became the acknowledged expert on the Wissahickon. The mouth of the creek empties into the Schuylkill in Fairmount Park, but the mouth of it is so covered over with a tangle of clover-leaf overpasses, most people zip past without noticing. After that, the drivers of cars up to Chestnut Hill are so busy negotiating the sharp curves, they don't see much of the rest of the creek, either. There's a stop light opposite Rittenhousetown, so perhaps the little village is noticed on the other side of the rivulet, but the entrance is off to the left on Wissahickon Avenue, approachable only from the other direction, so even this cute little village is seldom visited. Pity.

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Johannes Kelpius

First, notice that the mouth of the creek is just opposite City Line Avenue, so it is an important geographical landmark. The creek is 23 miles long, going right past Roxborough and ending up well beyond Philadelphia's city limits. To a passing motorist, the creek seems to disappear at Rittenhousetown, and the commuter goes on his way through miles of city before reaching Chestnut Hill. In fact, the creek curves abruptly north at Rittenhousetown and travels twenty miles through woods and wilderness, accompanied by fifty miles of hiking trails. This Wissahickon Park contains about 1200 acres of the 9600-acre Fairmount Park; at one time it was lined with mills seeking water power for one industrial activity or another. From Rittenhousetown to Chestnut Hill College the creek is accompanied by Forbidden Drive, forbidden (in 1922) to automobiles, that is. It crosses Germantown Avenue at that point and circles around Chestnut Hill College, only a branch disappears back into the woods surrounding the edges of the College and Morris Arboretum. On its right that branch of it, starting at Chestnut Hill College, passes (and supplied water for) Washington's encampment at Fort Washington. As a sidelight, Forbidden Drive parts company with the creek at Chestnut Hill College and the main branch of the creek goes on for miles past the Whitemarsh Country Club, then the Germantown Cricket Club, and the Wissahickon Valley Park, eventually reaching its origin in the water runoff from a parking lot off in the country near Ambler, well past Fort Washington, out in Montgomery County.

Only a short part of the Wissahickon is visible from the paved road, which veers to its right near the top of the steepest dropdown of the cliff on the west side of Germantown. That's one of two ridges. Roxborough is on one side of the valley, Germantown and Chestnut Hill on the east. The longest part of the creek veers to the left up the wooded valley, along miles of Forbidden Drive before it re-emerges to sight of motorists as it crosses Bethlehem Pike. This was one of several routes followed by sections of Washington's army in their attack on the Chew Mansion in the Revolutionary War. Washington lost, partly because of the stout stone walls of the Chew House, and partly because two sections of his troops got lost in the the fog along the creek and started shooting at each other. Even today, the geography around here is so confusing it is really pretty hard to criticize Washington for getting mixed up.

The edge of the Wissahickon creek was first settled by an early group of Germans led by Johannus Kelpius in the Seventeenth Century; the Kelpius Society feels that colony was located around the Henry Avenue Bridge footings standing athwart the gorge, comparatively near the mouth of the creek into the Schuylkill. Swift waters running downward provided water power for mills, originally paper mills. Paper plus education leads to printing, and at this point was located the heart of German culture, running north and south through all the thirteen colonies; eventually, this settlement of Baptists, Dunkards and Church of the Brethren moved westward toward Ephrata and other more scattered locations. Sarah tells us that a good workman could produce about three hundred sheets of paper in a day, so it had to be of good quality. Many of the historical documents of the Revolutionary period were written or printed on this paper. Bear in mind however, that nothing smells so bad as a papermill.

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Wissahickon Paper Mill

It takes wood to make paper, so paper mills tend to denude the surrounding hills and start a process of washing away the topsoil. The creeks started to flood in the spring, and dry up in the summer. The final blow of this type was caused by Hurricane Floyd in 1985, which washed away many of the landmark buildings, leaving miles of the woods to the pleasure of hikers and joggers and environmentalists. Sarah West reports that you don't have to walk very far into the woods to find the remnants of mills and mansions, many of which had fruit cellars dug into the side of the basements. Some of these fruit cellars were then extended into tunnels, allowing the Underground Railroad to flourish here before the Civil War. And possibly earlier than that, because this area close to Philadelphia was a favorite place for spies to hide, attracting British raiding parties during the Revolution.

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Wissahickon Valley

But water power was water power in Colonial days, and mills of all kinds flourished up and down the length of the creek, until steam power ultimately posed too much competition. For a while, the dwindling water-powered mills supplemented their power with steam generation, and tall smoke stacks, but eventually water power was driven away by steam power. Whether it was a flour mill or a nuts and bolts factory, grist mills or blanket factories, the product was usually shipped in white oak barrels, which hastened the destruction of the woods and made the flooding worse. Around each mill was usually found a cluster of houses for the workers, so the whole Wissahickon Valley eventually filled with settlements, usually with the owner's mansion dominating the scene, surrounded by little workers' houses. Eventually, the stream became polluted, and the pollution was unfairly blamed for Yellow Fever epidemics. The Schuylkill Water Works and and the migration of the factories elsewhere did a whole lot of good for typhoid fever, which definitely is caused by water pollution. So pollution control is sometimes useful even if there is no pollution of the kind you had in mind. The area became Fairmount park, dotted with mansions which used to belong to rich Quaker families with names like Evans and Livezy. There were once five covered bridges scattered along the creek, but mostly they were replaced by bridges, or just got washed away.

So, over the course of two centuries, the pioneers settled the woods, civilization created a factory town in the middle of a peaceful city, and then the environment took it all back. Now we have a forest in the middle of a city, and rather more unemployment than we want. It isn't fair to say the environmentalists won, it just seems to be cyclic. So enjoy it while you can.

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Taming the Creeks of Olde Philadelphia

For the past ten years, the Morris Arboretum has sponsored a mini-bus tour of the sewers of Philadelphia conducted by Adam Levine. In spite of its name, it attracts a pretty high-brow audience, who have a perfectly wonderful experience. Adam has been a consultant to the Water Department for decades, and he gives a pretty polished tour, which anyone interested in the City really ought to join some year. He's planning to write a book about it, some day, and instead of giving away all the best stories, I bet it will swell attendance at the tours considerably. Some of us know that writing books can be pretty hard work, however, while giving tours seems like a lot of fun.

When William Penn picked out this area for his new city, there were herds of swans swimming in the Delaware River around the mouth of the Schuylkill, and there were wide mud flats thrown up around what we call the airport, by the slowed waters making a big turn there. Although Mr. Penn originally planned to settle at what we now call Chester, apparently he thought the protected river above the mud flats would be a safer harbor. In the area of Philadelphia County in Penn's time, there were about three hundred miles of creeks, now reduced to about one hundred by the Water Department and the Department of Streets. Dock Creek was the main seaport at first, and it eventually became Dock Street by putting the creek into a culvert. In a sense, that is what has been happening for three hundred years, all over town. At first, the creeks supplied drinking water, and then they became sewers, and then they became streets on top of sewers.

As a matter of fact, there were further steps in the process. The railroads were laid on the banks of creeks, to reduce the amount of excavation and fill-in required. And as factories were built along the creeks to take advantage of the transportation and water power, the run-off of sewage was mixed with ground-water runoff, in what is delicately spoken of as a "combined sewer". The water department spends most of its time and money nowadays, separating rainwater sewage from the real thing, and diverting the rainwater into ponds and other catchment hollows, where the relatively clean water percolates through the soil and cleans itself up. The real sewage is diverted into massive pipe systems leading to the sewage disposal plants. Where, would you believe it, it gets cleaned and chlorinated and returns as drinking water -- purer than the river water that flows past, by a good bit.

But that gets ahead of the story somewhat. As the factory areas become liveable, the sewers incased in pipe are at the bottom, the rail lines are somewhat higher. Where there were no railways, the electrical and water pipes are high above it all, and often get encased in concrete. However, we can expect combined sewers to last a long time, since it is estimated that the project of uncombining two thirds of the sewer system will cost several billion dollars, and require twenty-five years to complete. The infrastructure money from the "Stimulus package" will be a forgotten episode of the past when this project is finished. Philadelphia likes straight streets aligned in grids, so you can almost be certain you are over a creek bed, when the road gets crooked in Philadelphia.

Now look at the grid of streets from the point of view of a Water Department engineer. Somebody gave the process the name of a waffle, and it is very apt. As the straight streets go as straight as they can, they cut through hills, and fill up the gullies. The fill from the hills is used for the valleys, so the straight grid streets are generally somewhat higher than the residential areas, giving the waffle effect, but leaving half of the houses with a sharp embankment in their lawns going down to street level, and the other half of the houses with water in their basements. It's up to the house builder to fill up the depression between the streets, with the streets nevertheless somewhat higher than the depressions. Sometimes the streams cut through, and are encased in pipes as they go under the streets. Sometimes it's just too much to handle, and we get green parks scattered around the city, breaking up the monotony of row houses, for a generally pleasing effect not seen in flat areas, like New Jersey.

The city has two watersheds, one draining into the Delaware River, and the other draining into the Schuylkill. And the trail between the two watersheds, the continental divide if you please, is Germantown Avenue.

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Pennsylvania's First Industrial Revolution

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David Thomas

We tend to think of 1776 as the beginning of American history, but in fact the region around Easton was settled a hundred-forty years before 1776, and the forests were pretty well lumbered out. The backwoods lumbermen around the junction of the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers were about to move further west, when Washington crossed the Delaware and fought the battle of Trenton. This region nevertheless had three essential ingredients for becoming the "Arsenal of the Revolution": It was close to the war zone but protected by mountains, it had a network of rivers, and it had coal. The hard coal of Anthracite had the problem it was slow to catch fire, and iron making in the region didn't really get started big-time until a Welsh iron maker named David Thomas discovered that anthracite for iron making would work if the air blast was pre-heated before introducing it into a "blast" furnace. A local iron maker travelled to England to license the patent from Thomas, whereupon Thomas' wife persuaded her husband to move to Pennsylvania. Blast furnaces only got started into production by 1840, but by 1870 there were 55 furnaces along the Lehigh Canal. For thirty years this was America's greatest iron producing region. In fact, Bethlehem Steel only closed its last plant in 1995.

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Canal Boat

When iron-making got started, the local industrial revolution really took off, but the more fundamental step was to dig canals to transport the coal to other regions. Canals were the dominant form of transportation for only thirty years until railroads took over, and the entire Northeast of the nation was laced with canals. Curiously, the South had relatively few canals, so their industrialization was too late for canals, and too early for railroads, to help much in the Civil War. The Erie Canal was the big winner, but Pennsylvania had many networks of canals in competition, leading to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, whereas the Erie Canal was more headed toward the Great Lakes and Chicago. Eventually, J.P. Morgan put an end to this race by financing the Pennsylvania Railroad, and moving the steel industry to Pittsburgh, where bituminous coal was the fuel of choice. This industrial rivalry was at the heart of the enduring rivalry of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, as well as the commercial rivalry between New York and Philadelphia. It was more or less the end of the flousishing economy of the "Reach" including Easton, Bethlehem and Allentown. A reach is a geographic unit sort of bigger than a county, in local parlance. But you might as well include the city of Reading, which concentrated more on railroads and commerce with the Dutch Country. Out of danger from the British Fleet on the ocean, but close enough for war, the "reach" was more or less the forerunner of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in VietNam in several later wars. The Lehigh Canal stretched from Easton to Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe), the so-called Switzerland of Pennsylvania, only a mile or two West of the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

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Blue Mountain

The Allegheny Mountains stretch across the State of Pennsylvania, and the most easterly of these mountains is locally called "Blue" mountain because of its hazy appearance from the East, when seen across a lush and prosperous coastal plain. It represents the farthest extent of the several glaciers in the region, and the two sides of it present quite a sociological contrast. The Pennsylvania Dutch found themselves on the richest farming land in the world, whereas the inhabitants of the other side of the mountain had to subsist on pebbles. The mountain levels down at the Delaware River, so the Dutch farmers and the late immigrants from Central Europe mixed, in the time and region of industrial prosperity. Gradually, the miners and the steel workers began to drift away, but the Pennsylvania Germans tended to remain where they had been before all the fuss. So the Kutztown Fair is full of Seven Sweets and Seven Sours, the farm houses are large and ample, and mostly remain the way they were, too. You have little trouble finding a twang of Pennsylvania Dutch accents. But Bucks County in Pennsylvania was cut in half by the glacier, and north of the borderline you can see lots of pickup trucks with gun racks behind the driver. Everything is amicable, you understand, but for some reason the tax revenues of the two halves of the County are forbidden to be transferred, even within the same county. Better that way.

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Lehigh Marker

The Lehigh River runs along the North side of Blue Mountain, and trickles down to join the Delaware at the town of Easton. There were only 11 houses in the town in 1776, and now you can see several miles of formerly elegant early Nineteenth century town houses. At the point where the two rivers join, a lovely little park has been built to celebrate the high point of Colonial canal-making. Hugh Moore, the founder of the Dixie Cup Company is responsible for this historic memory, well worth a trip to see. If you have called ahead for reservations, you can have a genuine canal boat ride, pulled by two genuine mules. When you hear that the boat captain and his family used to live on the boat (Poppa steered, Momma cooked, and the children tended the mules), it seems small and cramped. But when you climb aboard, you find it holds a hundred people for dinner with plates in their laps. The food is partly Polish, partly Hungarian and partly other things Central European. And the captain plays guitar and fiddle, singing old songs he mostly composed himself. Surprisingly, no Stephen Foster, who held forth about four hundred miles to the West, until he drank himself to death at Bellevue Hospital in New York. Foster was a member of a rival tribe of canal boaters, the ones who travelled down to Pittsburgh via the Erie Canal. Along the Reach, you hear about three canals, the Lehigh, Delaware, and Morris. The first two are obvious enough, since they and the railroads which subsequently followed ran along the banks of two rivers joined. The Morris was Robert Morris, at one time the richest man in America, who bought Morrisville across from Trenton on the speculation he could persuade his friends to put the Nation's Capital there. It didn't work out, so he bought and went broke with the District of Columbia. Anyway, the Morris canal went on to New York harbor, where it prospered mightily shipping iron to New York, and iron for the rolling mills of Boston. The Morris Canal went over the Delaware River on a bridge that carried an aqueduct, over to Philipsburg; and then across the wasp waist of New Jersey.

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