Park Signage History: An Appreciation

News // May 18, 2015

As park users enjoy the benefits of the new, more comprehensive–and more costly–signage system recently installed by FOW, it is appropriate to acknowledge the value of the existing upper trail signs and the work and dedication that went into their construction and installation.

In 1996, after much public discussion, debate, and hand wringing, a limited number of specific trails were first designated as multi-use (open to cyclists, equestrians, and pedestrians). At that time there were effectively no signs on the upper trails and close to no money in the Fairmount Park Commission (now Philadelphia Parks & Recreation–PPR) budget to create and install them. Yet, there was an obvious need for a clear and simple way to indicate to park users which trails were open to which uses.

Enter Chris Palmer, then head of Fairmount Park District 3 (now Operations Manager for PPR) and David Bower, then part-time Volunteer Coordinator for Fairmount Park (as well as volunteer chair of FOW’s Conservation Committee). Palmer designed the signs and tasked Bower with installing them. The signs were constructed both by students at the Swenson

Skill Center and Bower himself at District 3 headquarters.

Bower, who now works full time as a Volunteer Coordinator for PPR and who remains a highly self-motivated park steward, managed almost single handedly to complete and install close to 100 of the heavy wooden hand-made signs. He accomplished this feat in about two seasons, in addition to fulfilling his other responsibilities. FOW’S Newsletter reported in the winter of 1997: “New trail signs are sprouting up in the Wissahickon as part of Fairmount Park’s efforts to implement the new regulations for trail usage in the Valley. The signs are intended to be rustic and as unobtrusive as possible, yet inform hikers, bikers, and horseback riders which trail [they are permitted] to be on. Some 50 of these signs were installed this fall by David Bower. . . . Another 40 signs will be installed next spring.”

Signage on the fifty-plus miles of natural surface trails in the Wissahickon has not been addressed comprehensively since 1997. Although, in 2001, under the leadership of Mark Focht, the Fairmount Park Commission conducted a major overhaul of the signage along Forbidden Drive–removing signs of various vintage, quality, design, effectiveness, and appropriateness, and replacing them with seventeen high-quality signs of beautiful, appropriate, and consistent design.

The new signage system will improve navigation on the upper trails, as well as provide much useful information. But it is worth remembering how much the public has benefited from the existing signage system for eighteen years and appreciating the efforts of the people who, with very limited resources, worked so quickly and diligently to bring it into existence. Had this system not been in place, much more work would have been required to create the new system, and much more confusion would have been experienced by visitors to Wissahickon Valley Park.

By David Dannenberg, FOW Board Member