A River Runs Through Penn's Woods: Tracing the Mighty Schuylkill

By Joan Wenner
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXIX, Number 2 - Spring 2013

After his return from Europe in July 1870, Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) began painting pictures of rowing on the Schuylkill River. His 1871 canvas The Champion Single Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) has become an American masterpiece METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Congress designates a National Heritage Area as "where a diversity of resources exist that combine to form a cohesive distinctive landscape." The Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area was so named in 2000. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania announced the entire Schuylkill River watershed of two thousand square miles comprising the counties of Schuylkill, Berks, Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia as a Pennsylvania Heritage Area in 1995. The goals of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area (SRHA), the organization responsible for managing the region with support from the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, are many and include conservation, recreation, education, cultural and historic preservation, and tourism. Each of these goals can become a tool for community revitalization and economic development, says Kurt D. Zwikl of Allentown, SRHA executive director (and former chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission).

The river, unaware of compass lines, flows wherever the path is easiest. Native Americans and pioneering families understood the value of following a river. A river also knows nothing of political boundaries, flowing through municipalities, townships, counties, and states. Rivers link these areas together, and so it is with the Schuylkill.

Early History

The Schuylkill River nearly met its demise in the nineteenth century. Once the grand watercourse was home to the Delaware Indians who called it the manaiunk meaning "rushing and roaring waters". Later it was named Schuylkill or "hidden river" by a Dutch merchant referring to its confluence with the Delaware River at League Island, nearly hidden by dense vegetation. The Lenni Lenape of West Philadelphia's "original people" considered the lower river their home. The Schuylkill then figured prominently in giving rise to booming industries along its banks. Before colonial settlement Pennsylvania was nearly ninety-eight percent forested. Most of the earliest settlers were farmers who utilized the river to transport crops to burgeoning markets downstream. Iron ore, hardwood, and river power, in addition to other natural resources of the watershed, soon led to its growth. With the discovery of coal in the northern headwaters, the river became a mode of transportation via the Schuylkill Navigation System, a network of interconnecting locks and dams opened in 1824.

James Fuller Queen (1820/1821–1886) painted Grays Ferry Looking South in 1858 depicting steamboats and barges on the Schuylkill River, with a marsh in the foreground. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

In 1776 General George Washington ordered the building of a bridge connecting Philadelphia to the west under the supervision of distinguished army General Israel Putnam (1718–1790). Putnam and his troops destroyed this pontoon-style bridge of floating logs and scows later that year to impede the advance of the British after the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. (Brandywine Battlefield Park is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in partnership with the Friends of the Brandywine Battlefield.) The following year General Sir William Howe (1729–1814), familiar to most as Lord Howe, directed Captain John Montressor to erect a second bridge, but the hastily built span was ruined by rushing water. Montressor and his troops collected the debris and constructed a third bridge, which remained after the British departed the area.

English traveler Henry Wansey (1751/1752–1827) visited the United States in 1794 and offered a description of the third bridge in An Excursion to the United States of America published two years later: "[two iron chains] strained across the river parallel to each other, about six feet distance; on it are placed flat planks, fastened to each chain; and in this the horses and carriages pass over. As the horses stepped on the boards they sank under the pressure and the water rose between them; no railing on either side, it really looked very frightful and dangerous."

Thomas Paine (1737–1809), revolutionary political activist and author of Common Sense (1776), published at the beginning of the American Revolution, along with several leading wartime figures, prepared plans in the 1780s for an iron bridge but the project lay dormant until 1798, when Timothy Palmer's (1751–1821) design for a wooden structure was selected instead. The directors of the Schuylkill Permanent Bridge Company in 1801 called on Palmer, the best known wooden bridge builder at the time, to erect the span at Market Street. Construction commenced in 1803 and was largely completed by 1805. Palmer reputedly built the longest bridge spanning an American river. His covered bridge with three arches measured 1,300 feet, 550 feet of which rose above the water. Market Street was originally known as High Street, and many early residents called it the High Street Bridge. Seven years later the single-arch Spring Garden Street Bridge, designed and built by German engineer Lewis Wernwag (1769–1843), provided access to Mantua, a neighborhood in West Philadelphia. At the time of its opening it was recognized as the longest single arch span in the world.

Market Street's Permanent Bridge, destroyed by fire in 1850, was reconstructed and widened to accommodate the rail lines of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and its successors. The structure was again leveled by fire in 1875 and quickly replaced by a wooden bridge. The fourth bridge was superseded by an iron cantilever bridge with stone fortifications that opened for traffic in 1887. The existing bridge was constructed in 1932.

Lock 60 at Mont Clare, Montgomery County, was completed in 1827 and named in honor of Thomas Oakes, chief engineer of the Schuylkill Navigation Company. It closed in 1947 and was restored by the Schuylkill Canal Association to become the only working lock on the waterway today. PHOTO BY J CLEAR/WIKIPEDIA

Northeastern Pennsylvania's booming anthracite industry built the river's canal system but also destroyed its water quality. The processing of hard coal yielded a waste byproduct that was carried by water to the nearest tributary and ultimately to the main stem of the Schuylkill. Channels were choked with the sediment, called culm or silt, which built up behind dams and eventually clogged the canals. Maintaining sufficient water levels for navigation became costly because of the deposits; mining wastes eventually grew to more than three million tons each year. In 1927 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calculated double-digit tons accumulated from the headwaters near Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, to Philadelphia's Fairmount Dam. Renewal efforts began in the 1940s along with a major de-silting effort completed in 1954. Incidentally, in his last will and testament Benjamin Franklin remembered the Schuylkill. "Out of the salary that may remain due to me as President of the State, I do give the sum of two thousand pounds sterling to my executors ... to be employed for making the river Schuylkill navigable."

Silt was not the only pollutant ruining the Schuylkill. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, sixteen municipalities drained sewage and waste into the river. Norristown, Montgomery County, with a population of 14,500 in 1884, discharged foul water from oil refineries, slaughterhouses, woolen mills, iron factories, and breweries into once pristine waters. The Philadelphia Water Department continues to cite a tributary, the Stony Creek, as one of ten priority water systems in the country to monitor.

Traffic across the river was chiefly handled by Gray's Ferry in the south, Middle Ferry at present-day Market Street, and the Upper Ferry at today's Spring Garden Street.

Schuylkill Shad

Most of what is known about early shad fishing survived through oral traditions. The Lenape consumed shad as one of the major foods of their summer diet and aligned seasonal settlements to coincide with shad shallows, places along the river where tributaries emptied and created optimum conditions for the fish. They used netting made from tall sedge grasses and brush nets to herd the schools of shad to areas where they could be easily speared. Early Dutch and Swedish arrivals adopted these methods and during the colonial period the Schuylkill emerged as the most prominent shad fishing ground in the region, particularly near Manayunk, now a trendy neighborhood in northwestern Philadelphia.

Construction of dams in 1818 in the city's Shawmont area and the Berks County seat of Reading and the Fairmount Dam two years later (enabling the Water Works to pump clean water from the river for residents and businesses), along with the failure of the Schuylkill Navigation Company to provide fishways for migrating shad had ended the spawning runs. Anglers needed to employ gill nets to catch them farther away from shore. Despite improved state legislation and regulation in the late 1880s to improve fisheries along a 100-mile stretch of the river from the combined pressures of overfishing, pollution, and environmental degradation, the Schuylkill basically collapsed.

Stocking Shad for Anglers

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has undertaken enormous efforts to reintroduce shad to the Schuylkill. PENNSYLVANIA FISH AND BOAT COMMISSION

For modern anglers seeking the American shad, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) reports a large number of adult shad have returned to the Schuylkill River for the first time in recent years thanks to the agency's stocking efforts. PFBC's long-term goal is to decrease reliance on stocking by developing a self-sustaining population of shad, and that a restored fishery will support some 60,000 to 170,000 angler trips each and every year.

Initial restoration efforts began in Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna River not long after the American Civil War, and modernly in earnest in the 1970s on the Schuylkill. The program was re-energized in the 1990s, buoyed by successes on the Susquehanna and Lehigh Rivers. Since it began stocking the Schuylkill in 1999, PFBC has released nearly 1.5 million shad fry. For those wanting to dine before or after dropping a hook there is no shortage of riverfront eateries - and locals are happy to recommend their favorite fishing spots.

Catching Catfish

The East Falls Development Corporation (EFDC) takes great pride in promoting the history and heritage of the neighborhood which spans more than three centuries. Originally a settlement of the Lenni Lenape, East Falls was a collection of houses situated in the vicinity of the Falls of Schuylkill. Calling the area Ganshewahanna ("noisy river"), the Native Americans hunted, farmed, and lived off the abundance of fish brought up the river with high tide. They departed the area about 1755 and traveled to lands near the Susquehanna River.

According to EFDC, new European settlements sprang up in the early eighteenth century to take advantage of the natural amenities of East Falls and their revenue potential. The first fish hatchery, Fort Saint David, was built in 1732 and attracted similar investments and improvements. The river provided residents and entrepreneurs with waterpower to operate mills, attracting even more residents.

In the early nineteenth century, few places could rival the Falls of Schuylkill for fishing. In Early History of Falls of Schuylkill, published in 1869, Charles V. Hagner (1796–1878) wrote, "I have seen men, in one scoop of the dip-net, have it so full of catfish as to be unable to lift them in the boat, but were obliged to take them out of it with their hands and other contrivances." In 1830 seventy-four-year-old Godfrey Schronk remembered catching as many as three thousand catfish in one night during his youth.

The magnificent Philadelphia Museum of Art overlooking the majestic Schuylkill River and the Fairmount Dam are iconic American landmarks celebrated by writers, artists, and photographers. PHOTO BY JACK E. BOUCHER/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A Mrs. Robert Watkins, proprietor of the Falls Hotel, introduced the catfish and waffles supper which attracted pleasureseekers from the city who drove out in carriages to the Falls of Schuylkill. Cornelius Weygandt (1871–1957), author of nearly twenty books, described the typical meal in The Wissahickon Hills, published in 1930. He contended the ample portions and courses bore a modest title for what was known as a gourmand's delight. The supper consisted of catfish served with relish, a beef steak accompanied by fried potatoes, and stewed chicken with waffles. "I liked beer with mine," Weygandt added. "Catfish is a rich fish - frying it in butter makes it richer. Good steak has streaks of fat, and there is butter in hashed-browns. Stewed chicken with gravy is rich too, even if the waffles sop up a good deal of gravy. Coffee is not enough to settle such a dinner. You need a hoppy beer. I know those who liked a sour wine, like a Rhine wine, but it takes too much of it, and it comes high. You wouldn't want whisky after 'catfish and waffles.' Beer was the thing to settle it. It would do the trick."

Completion in 1822 of a dam several miles downstream for the Fairmount Water Works submerged the Falls.

Boathouse Row

A collection of historic boathouses on the east bank of the river just north of the Fairmount Water Works, Boathouse Row has been celebrated by artists and photographers for more than a century. The history of Boathouse Row begins with the construction of Fairmount Dam and the Water Works. The dam submerged the rapids and later developments transformed the river from a tidal river into a slack water river that resembles a long freshwater lake. In 1835 the first regatta took place between the Blue Devils Club and the Imps Barge Club. The excitement accompanying the race sparked the formation of several barge clubs, although many were short-lived.

boathouses housing social and rowing clubs and their racing shells. It hosts several major rowing regattas, including the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta, Stotesbury Cup Regatta, Navy Day Regatta, Independence Day Regatta, and the Head of the Schuylkill competition. Each of the houses has its own address on Boathouse Row and Kelly Drive, named in honor of famous oarsman John B. Kelly Jr. The grouping of buildings has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

On the Water Trail

Boathouse Row fascinates visitors with its distinctive architecture, illuminated every evening beginning at dusk. PHOTO BY R. KENNEDY/GREATER PHILADELPHIA TOURISM MARKETING CORPORATION

Last year a National River Trail under the National Trails System Act was established by, and received funding from, Congress. (An annual Schuylkill Sojourn involves several hundred paddlers who participate in all or part of the seven-day 113-mile trip for people of all skill levels.) Helpful maps and guides to launch sites and portages are available at the Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area's new interpretive center in Pottstown, Montgomery County, which welcomes visitors to presentations of time-honored stories and legends. The center explores the fascinating history of the entire region and addresses the impact of the American Revolution, Industrial Revolution, and Environmental Revolution, all of which made the Schuylkill a nationally recognized treasure.


Joan Wenner, J.D., holds B.A. degrees in political science and English and a law degree. She is a longtime writer and researcher on a wide variety of topics and regularly contributes to publications in the areas of admiralty law, classic yacht restorations, and the conservation of marine resources. Her articles also cover the history of the American Civil War, historic preservation, and cultural and heritage events. Her feature on Civil War General George Gordon Meade, "General Meade's Press Warfare!," coauthored with Andy Waskie, appeared in the Fall 2010 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage. Her work on Meade was also featured in the Summer 2012 and Fall 2012 issues of The Artilleryman. The author is a member of the editorial staff of the nationally circulated Civil War News and a member of the National Federation of Press Women. A transplanted Northerner now living in Farmville, North Carolina, she is currently researching Pennsylvania's Main Line Canal paralleled today by the Juniata River Water Trail.

Kurt D. Zwikl and Laura Catalano of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area (SHRA) wrote Along the Schuylkill River which is available at the SRHA headquarters in Pottstown. Go to SHRA website or call (484) 945-0200 for information.


Pennsylvania River of the Year

The Schuylkill River placed second in the twentieth annual River of the Year contest, which engages Pennsylvanians in a friendly, spirited election for recognition of their favorite waterway. This is the third year the public has participated in the program, conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers (POWR). The Monongahela River captured first place by 140 votes.

Launched in 1983, the recognition program raises the awareness of the important historical, ecological, and recreational resources associated with the Commonwealth's rivers and streams. The River of the Year is feted throughout the year by local organizations that plan lectures, paddling trips, clean-up days, sojourns, and photography contests. The Keystone State's eighty-six thousand water miles are enjoyed by anglers, boaters, hikers and bikers, photographers, and history enthusiasts. Nearly four hundred local watershed associations throughout Pennsylvania help protect and preserve waterways by monitoring water quality, conducting fishing derbies, festivals, and other special events and activities. They also assist in preserving riverfront historic sites and communities.

The Commonwealth observes Watershed Awareness Month in May and celebrates National Rivers Month in June with special programs for families.

For more information, visit the DCNR website or the POWR website. A River Sojourn Organizer's Guide to Pennsylvania's Experience can be downloaded free at POWR's website.