From the Archives: The Wissahickon Turnpike

Education // August 28, 2017


Another article in an occasional series of articles that appeared in FOW’s publications in the past and still resonate with us today. This piece was written by Franics Markoe (Koey) Rivinus (1915-2006). He served as FOW’s president for 22 years, until 1982. In 2004, he and his wife, Anne Hutchins Rivinus (1916–2010) were awarded the Wissahickon Achievement Award for 50 years of service to the Wissahickon Valley. A rain garden was dedicated to them in front of Valley Green Inn in 2007. This article first appeared in FOW’s fall 2001 newsletter.

The valley of the Wissahickon Creek, which was blocked by a barrier of stone just above the Ridge Avenue bridge until 1826, was first breached that year to allow horse and cart traffic. Later it was made wider and wider.

The building of a railroad from Philadelphia to Norristown was planned in 1830. The Wissahickon Valley was considered as a possible route but deemed impractical because of the sharp turn that would have to be made where Forbidden Drive leaves Lincoln Drive.

The idea of a turnpike, a toll road, first appeared in 1851 when the Wissahickon Turnpike Company was formed. It was five years before the road was completed, built by Irish laborers directed by Alan Corson.

Wagons drawn by horses or oxen were spared the labor of hauling loads up Germantown or Ridge Avenue and could follow the more level course along the Wissahickon.

According to one printed source, we know that there were three tollbooths. One was at Rittenhouse Lane, presumably to allow exit to Germantown, another was at “Spruce Mill just above Fountain,” which we cannot identify today. The third was at city line, now Northwestern Avenue. The small structure that still stands today, just off the Bluestone Bridge at the foot of what once was Shurs Lane, perhaps was used in connection with the toll road and the covered bridge that once stood there.

We do not know how much it cost to use the turnpike. In the Wissahickon archives at the Friends’ headquarters, there is a toll token which suggests that tolls were paid by token instead of cash.

Toll roads were common and widespread for a number of years. The evidence for this are the names of surviving roads such as Bethlehem and Ridge Pikes.

In 1857 the Wissahickon Turnpike was blocked by the collapse of the Allens Lane bridge, at what is now the foot of Mt. Airy Avenue. A freshet washed away the piers to the covered bridge, which collapsed into the stream, forming a dam. The water backed up behind it and flooded the Wissahickon Turnpike. The turnpike sued the owner of the bridge and won, and in 1858 the Turnpike resumed operation.

On December 31, 1868, the Wissahickon Turnpike was sold to the City of Philadelphia for $35,000. The City formed the Fairmount Park Commission and gradually bought all the land for park use that we now know as the Wissahickon.