Underground Wissahickon: Springs And Fountains

Conservation // September 30, 2020

Water, water, underground…

The most visible water source in Wissahickon Valley Park is the Wissahickon Creek, but there’s a whole other world below the surface. Beneath much of the park is an aquifer, an underground layer of permeable rock and sand, silt, and gravel which holds large amounts of groundwater. Occasionally, the groundwater pressure in the aquifer forces water to the surface of the valley and downhill towards the creek, forming a natural spring – and there are dozens of them in the Wissahickon!

If you’re looking for springs in their natural state in the park, they’re pretty easy to spot walking along Forbidden Drive. During the summer, dense vegetation in soggy areas (like ferns, reeds and jewelweeds) is a good indicator of a natural spring on the slope above. In winter, sections of rock with lots of icicles are also a good pointer that spring water is flowing and freezing down from nearby. Between the Kitchen’s Lane and Walnut Lane Bridge, there are numerous visible examples of natural springs and seeps that are easy to recognize as they emerge from the rocks.

Many of the springs along the drive are also capped by fountains and other structures that once provided accessible, cool, and relatively pure water before modern times: 

  • By the Thomas Mill Covered Bridge, don’t miss Philadelphia’s first public drinking fountain, which was built in 1854 for travelers on Forbidden Drive when it was known as the Wissahickon Turnpike. Free-flowing, clean water spouted from this fountain for 103 years, not quite living up to its inscription “PRO BONO PUBLICO, ESTO PERPETUA” which translates, “For the public good. Let it remain forever.” By 1957 the water had become too polluted to drink and the fountain was permanently sealed.
  • Around Valley Green, there are also two springhouses from the 19th century, used to preserve food in an era before refrigeration. The water of the spring maintains a constant cool temperature inside the spring houses throughout the year, and meat, fruit, and dairy products could be kept safe in them from animal depredations as well. Hermit’s Cave, in the east of the park, also served as a springhouse during points in its history.
  • Some of the springs and fountains in the Wissahickon are decidedly mysterious. At McFarland Springs, a Roman sarcophagus served as a water trough for horses. Identified in the summer of 2000 by Donald White of the University of Pennsylvania, who came across the remnants of the sarcophagus while he was walking his dogs, there is no record of the donor or why this valuable antique was placed at this location. You can read more about this curious story here.
  • Another spring of note feeds the grand William Leonidas Springs Fountain, on Lincoln Drive below the Henry Avenue Bridge. Constructed by Jeannette Springs in 1899 as a memorial to her father William Leonidas Springs, the fountain served both horses and travellers along the road. Interestingly, Springs’ last name was quickly associated with the springs which feed his memorial, and almost entirely forgotten until archival research by FOW Volunteer David Bower established the original name.

 

 

 

 

Sadly, the Wissahickon’s historic fountains no longer run due to increased pollution levels in the springs that feed them. That’s why it’s so important to protect the land around our drinking water sources, a task that FOW undertakes with our partners at Wissahickon Trials and the Chestnut Hill Conservancy. Learn more about our work to preserve the land around the watershed with conservation easements and protect the water quality of the creek and aquifer as part of the Wissahickon Clean Water Partnership, here.