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.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.