Tuomi’s Time Machine: Wintertide Glide

Historic hot spots for neighborhood ice skating 

With winter upon us and the holiday leftovers long since consumed, it’s a great time to examine a sport that was a city-wide seasonal fad in the mid- to late-19th century — ice skating, which surged in popularity during a long string of really cold winters in the Northern Hemisphere. FUN FACT: the first all-steel skate was created in Philadelphia in 1850, and it revolutionized the sport by providing unprecedented speed and control (and mass-produced for affordability).

Early accounts suggest the Delaware River provided the best experience, with ice several feet thick plus fire pits, food and beverage concessions, and even horse-drawn ferries across to New Jersey. (The Schuylkill was a close second.) However, smaller, more natural settings had their appeal, as well. In addition to locations on Wissahickon Creek that ran slow and deep enough to support skaters, there were several local ponds that provided perfect conditions for ice skating.

Perhaps the most well-known was the Germantown Skating Park, which was located at a spring-fed pond north of West Chelten Avenue, in the vicinity of what is now the Delmar Apartments. The pond appears to have opened as a skating park at the close of the Civil War and quickly became popular — in its heyday during the 1870s, the park hosted up to 700 people per day!

According to a 1917 “Man on the Corner” article published in Philadelphia newspapers, the park was touted as being the “largest and handsomest of the kind in the city, with the solitary exception of Eastwick’s Park, a fashionable resort on the west side of the Schuylkill River, below Gray’s Ferry…” Visitors to the Germantown Skating Park were charged 25 cents; season tickets were sold for $3 each.

It is unclear when the Germantown Skating Park closed, but the 1884 arrival of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s branch to Chestnut Hill (now SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill West line) would have certainly brought an end to the park, as it ran through what would have been the eastern portion of the pond, just a bit northwest of Chelten Avenue station.

Image credit: Germantown Historical Society

The Germantown Skating Park pond was not the only local pond available for ice skaters in winter in the 19th century. Others included the Kelly pond, located behind the old Scatchard Mill located on East Chelten Avenue (now the property of the Central Association of the Miraculous Medal). This pond was fed by a tributary to the Wingohocking Creek, which today is located almost entirely in sewer lines beneath Belfield Avenue and adjacent streets.

A second skating pond was located at Harper’s Dam (just northeast of LaSalle University’s campus); it was filled in by around 1910 and is now underneath Kemble Avenue. A third local skating pond functioned as the water source for the Germantown Water Company, which stood at the edge of the pond near the present-day intersection of Lincoln Drive and Morris Street. This pond was fed by the waters of the Monoshone Creek/ Paper Mill Run and had been filled in by 1920.

There were many smaller ponds suitable for skating scattered all over the area, almost all of which no longer exist; these have long since been filled in, a result of the development of many of the peripheral areas of Germantown in the 20th century. For those wishing to skate outdoors as they did “back in the day,” only a few portions of the Wissahickon Creek remain as options.

The good news is, Philadelphia has lots of great venues to get your skate on — at all different price points — here in town or out in the ‘burbs. Got a favorite spot or local tip? Please chime in below in the Comments.

Tuomi’s Time Machine goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian of Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. Read last month’s article here.

Historic Germantown’s Library and Archives include an incredible wealth of fascinating documents and publications — lots you can view online, and also available in-person and even via mail. Over 5,000 photos plus books, church records, deeds, scrapbooks and maps going way back to colonial times. Open Tuesdays (9AM -1PM) and Thursdays (1PM – 5PM), contact office for Sunday hours or additional assistance.

Learn more about the history of Germantown and surrounding northwest Philly neighborhoods!  Contact Alex at (215)844-1683, or email library@germantownhistory.org with any inquiry. 

About Alex Bartlett 33 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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