Water was once so important to Philadelphia that the Wissahickon Valley Park was created to protect it
Did you know that August is National Water Quality Month? It’s celebrated each August to raise the awareness of the importance of clean water and its role in having a healthy environment, both for human beings and for the environment.
This is especially relevant to a discussion of the Wissahickon Valley, where clean water has often been in short supply. During the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, many mills lined the banks of the Wissahickon Creek and its tributaries. These included textile and grist mills, which released pollutants into the Creek, which in turn emptied into the Schuylkill River. The construction of the Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill River beginning in 1812 and continuing to 1872 meant that much of the City’s water supply was being contaminated by the mills in the Wissahickon Watershed.
As a result, in the 1870s the City began buying up the land along the Wissahickon Creek and demolishing the mills and other structures which had been polluting the Creek and its tributaries for decades. By around 1890, none of the mills were in operation and most had been demolished or left to collapse into ruin. Therefore, the Wissahickon Valley Park (and much of Fairmount Park as well) was created largely to protect the City’s water supply, with a park system being a secondary objective.
Suburban development occurring after the end of World War II posed new threats to the water quality of the Wissahickon Creek and its tributaries. Once open farmland – for example, that located in Upper Roxborough and Andorra and in eastern Montgomery County – was developed with often densely-developed areas of housing. This reduced the surface area available for storm water drainage, which ultimately wound up in the Wissahickon Watershed, bringing silt from increased erosion as well as pollutants from newly opened streets with it.
In similar fashion, many springs along Forbidden Drive provided potable water to many passersby over the decades; these springs also suffered as a result of increased development. In some cases, the water table was altered, causing the springs to dry up; in others, the water became polluted and was no longer potable. In more recent years, global warming has caused increasingly violent storms to occur; these have caused higher rates of erosion, with the silt created from the erosion sometimes choking the Wissahickon and its tributaries.
However, there is hope. Global warming and climate change have brought a new sense of urgency and awareness to issues associated with water quality and have resulted in increased levels of activism and advocacy. The tireless work of area non-profit organizations like the Friends of the Wissahickon and the Wissahickon Restoration Volunteers to control erosion in the Wissahickon Valley have helped stabilize area streambanks and have helped further increase the visibility of water quality issues, which bodes well for the future health of the Wissahickon Valley and for that of the Wissahickon Watershed.
NOTE: The nine-volume series of local historian Edwin C. Jellett’s Wissahickon Anthology (available at the Germantown Historical Society) informed the writing of this article.
About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.