Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Philadelphia Fish and Fishing
Less than a century ago, Delaware Bay, Delaware River, Schuylkill River, Pennypack Creek, Wissahickon Creek, and dozens of other creeks in this swampy region were teeming with edible fish, oysters and crabs. They may be coming back, cautiously.

Tourist Trips Around Philadelphia and the Quaker Colonies
The states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and southern New Jersey all belonged to William Penn the Quaker. He was the largest private landholder in American history. Using explicit directions, comprehensive touring of the Quaker Colonies takes seven full days. Local residents would need a couple dozen one-day trips to get up to speed.

Right Angle Club: 2013
Reflections about the 91st year of the Club's existence. Delivered for the annual President's dinner at The Philadelphia Club, January 17, 2014. George Ross Fisher, scribe.

Philadelphia to Savannah: A New View

Bob Reinecke and I recently took a trip by boat down the inland waterway to Savannah. There isn't time to recite all the details, but four or five real surprises popped up, and maybe there is time to talk about them.

The first discovery was an accident of my visiting my daughter in Northern Virginia, and discovering there is no direct train service to Williamsburg. It's only once a day, each way, but it is direct from 30th Street Station to the train station about a hundred yards from the hotel in Williamsburg. Actually, it starts in Boston and goes to the Portsmouth Naval Base, branching off at Richmond toward the banking centers of Charlotte, North Carolina. But Williamsburg is about the only tourist destination in Virginia if you haven't been paying attention, while 30th Street is about the only place to take a train, right? We had a lot to learn.

A travel brochure announced there was a cruise boat of about a hundred passengers, which leaves Richmond, goes down the James River, and then heads south on the Inland Waterway, making stops along the way until it ends up in Savannah, Georgia. On this particular trip, there was a busload taking tours of Revolutionary history, and a second one taking Civil War excursions at every stop, take your pick. Most people took the Civil War choices, but the lecturers were both excellent, and it pretty much turned into two tours on a single boat. We learned the hard way that the only train to Richmond gets there after the boat has already departed, so it was necessary to arrive a day early and stay in a hotel. We were certainly glad we did because Richmond is having a revival since the devastation of the Civil War. A dozen hotels and restaurants cluster around the train station, which is a few blocks from the renovated Capitol, sitting on top of a hill. The hill has been extensively undermined and turned into a pretty elaborate museum, well worth a two-hour visit if you get there at the right hours. Not far away is a perfectly spectacular art museum, apparently donated by Paul Mellon, and well worth a four-hour visit. Paul Mellon has also donated his huge collection of British Art to the Yale Museum, and of course, the Mellon Gallery in Washington was largely given by his father. The Mellons of Pittsburgh may well have been pretty tough bankers, but in the art world, they certainly knew their stuff. Even if the Virginia museum didn't contain a single painting, the building itself would be worth a trip to visit.

Richmond also has a secret treasure in the James River. A century ago, every major river on the East Coast would have a major run of spawning shad fish, about the middle of April. One by one, the rivers were dammed up at the "fall line" and industrial pollution put an end to the shad run. That was probably also getting to be true at Richmond until General Grant and his army put an end to industrialization. For whatever reason, Richmond is the only major city on a river that still has a spring shad run. Since the river runs through the center of town, the big problem for fishermen is to find a boat to rent, and this spring event is largely forgotten. Four or five big restaurants were pointed out as specializing in seafood, but although I called them all, none of them knew what a shad is.

When you go down to where the tourist boat docks, however, you soon find the local teen-aged boys know all about shad, and a hundred or more of them line the banks with their fishing gear. As you might expect, fishing is best toward dusk in the evening, and around dawn in the morning. Unfortunately, we were late. The boys were all pulling in strings of six or eight fish on a line, but they were uniformly small ones. The big fish spend all winter in the Bay of Fundy, and return to the river where they were born, to spawn again. So the big fellows, the fish that were supposed to have rescued George Washington at Valley Forge, had already gone upstream to spawn, and all that was available to the teenagers were young fry, trying to return down the river toward the Bay of Fundy. Incidentally, although the Hudson River has also pretty much lost its industrialization, there is no shad run on the Hudson. The explanation seems to be that the striped bass congregates along the abandoned piers on the New York waterfront, and devour the shad fingerlings on their way out to sea. In Philadelphia, it seems to be the refineries at Marcus Hook that give the shad their fatal problem.

So off we sail from Richmond, making the first stop at the mansions along the James River. Of particular interest is the splendid mansion of William Henry Harrison, of Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too. You know, the fellow who won election to the Presidency by advertising he had been born in a log cabin. Off down the James River, where two more surprises await the callow Philadelphia visitor. We knew about Williamsburg, but it was a surprise to find that both Jamestown and Yorktown have been restored within an inch of their lives, each one just as interesting as Williamsburg. The woods surrounding these three colonial villages are manicured and painted, filled with an incredible number of retired military. As you tour the area in buses, it becomes clear that almost the entire peninsula between the James and York Rivers is filled with military reservations of various sorts, Air Force, Naval, Marine, and at least two hush-hush CIA establishments. This is what Generals Grant and McClellan fought over as the "wilderness", attempting to take Richmond from the rear. If you add to this military complex the huge establishment of government contractors neighboring Washington, it is easy to see why the demographics and politics of the Old Dominion are rapidly changing.

One of the military retirement villages in the area is Fort Monroe, on an island in the mouth of the Chesapeake. Like Pea Patch Island in the Delaware, and Fort Sumpter to the south, this fort was constructed after the War of 1812 as one of a chain of defenses for the Atlantic Coast. It once housed President Jefferson Davis as a prisoner after the Civil War, and the house where Lincoln stayed is proudly on display. It looks like a really nice place for a retired Colonel to live if he enjoys sailing and fishing. Nearby, both the Merrimac and the Monitor are under reconstruction as museums, together with the museums which display how naval warfare was completely transformed by two iron boats in a single afternoon.

So off down the Inland Waterway on a ship that scraped bottom a couple of times on the previous journey. Because of our maritime unions, only a ship that has been constructed in America is allowed to sail between two American ports, and only American employees are allowed. That makes for scarcity, and although it is pleasant to be surrounded by a thoroughly American crew, it makes this sort of cruising expensive. But the sense of American history is heightened, as you go past towns that were burned by the British, and gardens that were planted by members of the Continental Congress. Particularly Beaufort, which General Sherman decided was too beautiful to burn. You can walk the side streets of Charleston, where "Porgy and Bess" was portrayed, and imagine you see the bombardment of Fort Sumpter. Savannah, the fictional home of Rhett Butler the blockade runner in "Gone with the Wind", the home port of Revolutionary blockade runners, the site of smugglers for prohibition days -- affects an atmosphere of decay and decadence which air conditioning has rendered obsolete, but still attracts tourists looking for a thrill.

And so we ended the trip as we began it, by telling the local guides a thing or two. It was thirty miles north of Savannah on the Savannah River, that our famous Philadelphia river expert, Ruth Patrick, advised the President of DuPont to place the manufacturing center for the hydrogen bomb. She lived to be one hundred five years old, and the building which bears her name can still make bombs as needed. And not one guide or employee of that ship, or resident of that town, had ever heard of her.

Originally published: Thursday, July 18, 2013; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019