Hike dis­cov­ers the locks, canals of the Schuylkill River — the ‘Hid­den River.’

The Review - - FRONT PAGE - Mike Weil­bacher Colum­nist Mike Weil­bacher di­rects the Schuylkill Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion in Up­per Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at [email protected] schuylkill­cen­ter.org.

Two Sun­days ago, 20 in­trepid hik­ers walked 2½ miles along the Schuylkill River in Manayunk and Roxborough, hik­ing from Shaw­mont Sta­tion at the bot­tom of Shaw­mont Av­enue all the way to the Manayunk Brew­ing Co. at the end of Venice Island. As part of the re­gion’s an­nual River Days cel­e­bra­tion, we were re­dis­cov­er­ing and re­con­nect­ing to the river, in this case re­mem­ber­ing the river’s sur­pris­ing in­dus­trial past.

We were led by Philadel­phia Wa­ter’s Sandy Sor­lien, an ed­u­ca­tor and pho­tog­ra­pher who has been study­ing the nu­mer­ous locks and canals that were once part of the Schuylkill Nav­i­ga­tion Sys­tem, 32 dams and 70 locks built in the early 19th cen­tury “to bring coal from the best an­thracite fields in the world,” Sandy told the group, “to mar­ket in Philadel­phia.” We were walk­ing “only two of the 108 miles of the Nav­i­ga­tion Sys­tem,” she con­tin­ued, “and the drop in el­e­va­tion from be­gin­ning to end is 618 feet,” one of the steep­est river drops on the East Coast.

As we walked east to­wards Manayunk from Shaw­mont Sta­tion (the world’s old­est stand­ing train sta­tion, says the web­site Hid­den City Philadel­phia), we soon come across ru­ins of a once-mas­sive pump­ing sta­tion that pulled Schuylkill wa­ter up into the reser­voirs in Roxborough. Be­yond that was Flat Rock dam, which Sandy pointed out “was one of only four dams left of the old Nav­i­ga­tion Sys­tem.” While some have ar­gued for the re­moval of even th­ese dams, Sandy of­fered that Philadel­phia’s two, this one and Fair­mount Dam, were re­tained be­cause the Schuylkill is still a source of drink­ing wa­ter for Philadel­phi­ans.

North­west Philadel­phi­ans, we should be re­minded, drink the Schuylkill.

“Manayunk was orig­i­nally called Flat Rock,” she ex­plained, “and yes, there were flat rocks here,” some of which can still be seen when look­ing into the river from Green Lane. The dams cre­ated what she calls a “slack­wa­ter sys­tem,” long deep pools that could ser­vice barges bring­ing coal down from Read­ing and the Le­high Val­ley. Flat Rock Dam’s slack­wa­ter pool ex­tends more than 3 miles up­river, form­ing the pop­u­lar boat­ing area that River Road­ers love so much. Be­fore the canal sys­tem, the river was too shal­low and too rocky for boats, and the Falls of the Schuylkill at East Falls was im­pos­si­bly pass­able. The Schuylkill Nav­i­ga­tion Sys­tem drowned the fa­mous Falls, much to the cha­grin of many Philadel­phi­ans — but to the de­light of in­dus­try.

How the locks and dams worked was sim­ple. The dams made the river deep enough for barges and boats. Com­ing down­river, coal-laden boats would en­ter a lock, and once in­side, the lock would be sealed off at both ends; the wa­ter in­side would then be re­leased, slowly low­er­ing the boat so it could leave the lock at the new post-dam height of the river.

We stood at the edge of Lock 68, where the canal has com­pletely filled in af­ter it was closed off long ago. Philadel­phia Wa­ter has ob­tained fund­ing to re­open the lock and re­store the site, not as a work­ing canal and lock sys­tem, but as an in­ter­pre­tive, his­tor­i­cal site. It’s an im­pres­sive project. A sluice house once reg­u­lated the amount of wa­ter flow­ing into the canal and river; its re­main­ing ru­ins will be sta­bi­lized and in­ter­preted.

Look­ing at the photo, it’s truly amaz­ing how much na­ture has re­claimed the site, once bereft of al­most all trees. Now, it’s a forest with a sur­pris­ing amount of na­ture. Tur­tles were perched on branches and logs lay­ing in the wa­ter up and down the river and canal, in­clud­ing the en­dan­gered red-bel­lied tur­tle. An os­prey soared over the river, search­ing for the more than 50 species of fish now found in the lower Schuylkill. Beaver had fallen trees in one stretch just around where Foun­tain Street comes down — beaver in Manayunk! — and a great blue heron was stand­ing on a wall across from us.

So many liv­ing things have re­turned to the river, and that’s some­thing to cel­e­brate.

That lock is also the be­gin­ning of Venice Island, the sur­pris­ingly long and skinny stretch of land that par­al­lels much of Manayunk, formed when the canal cut the land off from the city, named of course for the fa­mous canal city.

“When Manayunk was called Flat Rock,” con­tin­ued Sandy, “there were only 11 houses in all of Manayunk. In 1819, when the canal was built, the first mill went in, built by Capt. John Tower. By 1828, there were 10 mills — de­vel­op­ment hap­pened fast af­ter the canal was built.” The town was re­named Manayunk, and mill­worker hous­ing be­gan pop­ping up ev­ery­where.

In short, Manayunk owes its ex­is­tence at the Schuylkill Nav­i­ga­tion Sys­tem.

We ended our walk at the brew­pub, where Locks 69 and 70 once par­al­leled each other, one now gone, two needed back then to ac­com­mo­date the large amount of traf­fic. It’s also where Venice Island ends and the Manayunk Canal re­joins the larger Schuylkill River.

“On March 15, 1819, the first toll was col­lected in Manayunk,” Sandy con­cluded. “So in March next year, there’s go­ing to be a big cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tion of the canal,” and Sandy, of course, will be there cel­e­brat­ing.

“Schuylkill” in Dutch trans­lates as “hid­den river” be­cause the first Dutch ex­plor­ers couldn’t find the mouth of the Schuylkill in the Delaware River — it was hid­den be­hind a vast ex­panse of marsh­land. (The Le­nape, of course, knew where it was.) For much of the 20th cen­tury, the Schuylkill and Delaware were hid­den from us as well, as we had turned our back on our river sys­tems. But peo­ple are re­turn­ing to the river, just like those herons and beaver, and re­dis­cov­er­ing the river sys­tems we live along­side.

The Al­liance for Wa­ter­shed Ed­u­ca­tion, of which the Schuylkill Cen­ter is a part, is spon­sor­ing a month of River Days events. While the month is al­most over, do spend some time this month re­dis­cov­er­ing the Hid­den River, as it is a truly re­mark­able — and his­toric — place.

A 1957 photo from the city’s ar­chives shows the sluice house at Flat Rock Dam, now in ru­ins. The ru­ins will soon be sta­bi­lized and in­ter­preted.


Philadel­phia Wa­ter’s Sandy Sor­lien points across the river to the Flat Rock Dam, one of only four dams re­main­ing form the his­toric Schuylkill Nav­i­ga­tion Sys­tem.

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