From Harper’s Meadow to the Philadelphia Canoe Club, the Wissahickon Creek and the valley it forges present a veritable outdoor museum of landmarks both natural and manmade. But no place in all the Wissahickon encapsulates the natural and manmade quite like Devil’s Pool.
The delicate dance between man and nature at Devil’s Pool has been the source of joy and consternation for decades, especially notable since the onset of social media. However, in spite of its well-documented issues — issues that Friends of the Wissahickon continues to regularly address through thoughtful interventions — Devil’s Pool remains a spectacular natural asset, arguably the most beautiful place in Philadelphia. And it remains worthy of our ongoing protection.
DEVIL’S POOL: CRESHEIM DENOUEMENT
In a 14-page cover story profiling the nascent Fairmount Park Commission and the public land it served, the January 1871 issue of Scribner’s Monthly devoted several pages to the Wissahickon Valley. Accompanied by a detailed etching, it described Devil’s Pool:
“One of the most picturesque places in the valley of the Wissahickon is where Cresheim’s creek runs into the larger stream. Here a pool, dark and deep, lurks under a huge overhanging rock. It is called the Devil’s Pool, and the glen which surrounds it is a highly-prized resort for picnic parties, on account of its beauty and retirement.”
At roughly three miles in length, Cresheim Creek is the longest tributary of the Wissahickon Creek in the city of Philadelphia. With headwaters on the grounds of the US Department of Agriculture’s Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, the Cresheim descends 250 feet over its short course, carving a deep and dramatic valley that serves as the place where the Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods meet.
To complete its journey to the Wissahickon, Cresheim Creek tumbles through a steep ridge with such intensity that through time it has formed a natural basin up to 15 feet deep and 25 feet wide: Devil’s Pool. The exposed layers of schist serve as a veritable geologic exhibit, a testament to the power of water. For the 150th anniversary of the Pennsylvania Geological Survey in 1986, Alan Geyer and William Bolles wrote this of Devil’s Pool:
Following zones of weak rock, the water has cut down through the rock to form this small gorge; the force of the water flowing over the falls through time has caused erosion of the rock beneath the falls and has formed the large depression known as the Devil’s Pool… Large outcrops of mica schist and quartzite (Wissahickon Formation, Lower Paleozoic age) surround the pool; weathering has decomposed the mica schist, and mica flakes may be seen flashing in the sunlight.
Devil’s Pool’s geologic significance is rivaled only by its cultural significance.
SACRED ORIGINS, IRRESISTIBLE ALLURE
Prior to European colonization in the 1680s, the Cresheim and Wissahickon valleys were inhabited by the Lenape people. The name “Devil’s Pool” has its origins in them, or at least in legend passed down through generations since these indigenous dwellers were forced from their lands.
While the story contains many variations, at its essence, a battle between the Great Spirit and the Evil Spirit resulted in the creation of Devil’s Pool. The Great Spirit prevailed, hurling a huge boulder at the Evil Spirit, either killing him or banishing him to the bottom of the pool, depending on which variation you prefer. In wrapping up her description of Devil’s Pool for the September 13, 1958 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Blanche Day imprints the mystical lore onto the physical landscape:
“The boulder still rests on the brink of the pool. If you look closely you can see the great spirit’s thumb print.”
Devil’s Pool held a place of importance in the earliest days of white settlement, too. In her 1993 book Rediscovering the Wissahickon Through Its Science and History, FOW Trail Ambassador Sarah West writes:
“Stories tell of Pietist rites at the site… In 1776 it was the site of a prayer service for a band of militiamen and their families. The men, including Jacob Rittenhouse, were leaving for duty in the Continental Army. The group prayed for their protection and safe return. One other account from Revolutionary War days says that during the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777) some of Armstrong’s men captured 14 Hessians here and, after taking them to nearby Livezey, shot them.”
Even into the 19th century days of Wissahickon mills and industry (Cresheim Creek had five mills upstream), Devil’s Pool itself was a relatively undisturbed natural spot. The painter Thomas Moran depicted a scene here in 1864 while a young professional in Philadelphia. Seven years later, the paintings he made while a member of the Hayden Geological Survey played a critical role in convincing US Congress to establish Yellowstone as America’s first national park. Thomas’ brother John Moran was a renowned artist in his own right, a landscape photographer. His albumen print from 1870 depicts Devil’s Pool in a decidedly wilder time.
In addition to Moran, Devil’s Pool has been depicted in artwork by artists ranging from Carl Philipp Weber, who exhibited his painting of Devil’s Pool at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1889, to Sarah Kaufman, a Germantown-based photographer whose book of Devil’s Pool photography publishes in Fall 2021.
THE CITY BEAUTIFUL
In the romantic early days of Fairmount Park, including during the Centennial Exposition in 1876, Devil’s Pool was a favorite attraction, garnering mention in Expo guidebooks alongside Independence Hall and the Fairmount Water Works.
In 1892, as the City Beautiful movement swept cities in a wave of civic pride and infrastructure improvement, Philadelphia undertook a project to intercept sewage before it entered Wissahickon Creek. Under the direction of the Department of Public Works, led by director James H. Windrim, the Philadelphia Water Department and Fairmount Park Commission built a buried sewer through the park on the east side of Wissahickon Creek. To cross the Cresheim valley, they constructed an aqueduct 65 feet above Devil’s Pool — a single-arch stone bridge finished in Wissahickon schist.
In its review on August 14, 1892, The Philadelphia Times said, “The bridge has been built in a neat and substantial manner that adds to the already beautiful scenery of that neighborhood. Beneath it is a rustic walk and wooden footbridge over Devil’s Pool. There is also a rustic arbor there for the use of the weary pedestrian.”
The rustic footbridges and arbor, built in the same Adirondack style as FOW’s trailhead kiosks installed in 2015, were popular attractions in the early 20th century. They featured in many views of Devil’s Pool on penny postcards of the era, along with the new stone bridge overhead. The footbridges survived until 1972, when they were destroyed during Hurricane Agnes.
In 1991, as part of improvements to the Devil’s Pool area and the Orange Trail specifically, FOW installed three new metal footbridges. Designed by a University of Pennsylvania engineering class taught by longtime FOW board member David Pope, one bridge was installed on the craggy Chestnut Hill side, one on the steep Mt. Airy side, and one crossing Cresheim Creek 50 yards upstream from Devil’s Pool. The latter washed away during Hurricane Floyd in 1999. The other two were removed around 2010 and not replaced. Now, hikers and runners on the Orange Trail must either ford the wide delta of the Cresheim Creek or clamber up, over, and back down the same steep and craggy rocks. But these challenges to access have hardly dissuaded people from visiting and lingering at Devil’s Pool. In fact, it’s more popular than ever.
WORST KEPT SECRET
Every year, the local news cycle features a story about Devil’s Pool that begins with people having innocent fun and jumping from the rocks into the water, then it morphs into a narrative of danger and pollution, trash and graffiti. Sometimes the stories position the pool as a hidden gem of Philadelphia, a best kept secret. The same news cycles, such as a July 2011 photo on the front page of the New York Times, make keeping that secret difficult.
But the problems associated with Devil’s Pool in the summertime are no secret to Friends of the Wissahickon. Every summer, people arrive in droves to swim, to dive, and to party, despite highly visible signs indicating that swimming is prohibited. Philadelphia Parks & Recreation’s rules explicitly state, “No person shall bathe or swim except at authorized pools and only when a lifeguard is present.” The Philadelphia Water Department also cautions against swimming at Devil’s Pool and other city waterways, although pollution data for Cresheim Creek has not been published since 2007.
Especially in the covid era, when park use everywhere soared, it’s not unusual for well over a hundred people to be stationed up and down the banks of Devil’s Pool with grills, coolers, even noisy boomboxes. Sadly, many of them leave behind piles of trash — beer bottles, cigarette butts, styrofoam containers, dirty diapers — a paradoxical and frustrating treatment of the beautiful landscape that brought them here. But while the trash and graffiti can be frustrating and disheartening, the volunteer cleanups and graffiti abatement that follow are equally rewarding.
Dedicated cleanups of Devil’s Pool are documented as far back as the 1970s, when Mayor Frank Rizzo dissolved the Fairmount Park Guard, and they continue to this day. FOW’s volunteer crew leaders organize several cleanups each summer, often supported by groups like the Student Conservation Association and corporate outings. When possible, recyclable materials like aluminum cans and glass bottles are separated for recycling.
LEAVE NO TRACE
Since 2015, FOW has hired seasonal employees to establish a friendly presence, engage with visitors, and help mitigate the trash. In 2019, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation removed the trash cans onsite, moving the park closer to the national park ethos of “pack it in, pack it out.”
In summer 2021, the “Hot Spot” weekend will shine a light on this ethos at Devil’s Pool. Held in partnership with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, the Hot Spot event will feature a series of educational workshops, volunteer service projects, guided hikes and more to engage the community and instill Leave No Trace principles. The ultimate goal is a deeper appreciation of the Wissahickon, Devil’s Pool in particular, and a deeper understanding of the role we each play in protecting and preserving these special places for people, plants, and wildlife.
As new generations come to appreciate and love the Wissahickon, the effort to protect and preserve Devil’s Pool frequently (and righteously) takes on new spirit. But at its core, the effort carries forth a tradition of stewardship that’s driven FOW since 1924; a tradition of conservation set forth by Fairmount Park Commission in 1868; a foundation of open green space for the public laid out in William Penn’s green country town of 1683; and a respect for Mother Earth originating with the Lenape.
In its final year of publication, 1902, The Philadelphia Times ran an editorial supporting the City Parks Association’s effort to expand protected parkland in the Wissahickon Valley outward along the Wissahickon Creek’s tributaries in Roxborough. Citing the Cresheim Valley and the “legendary Devil’s Pool,” it concludes, as this essay will, with this passage:
“We can make open spaces in town, but no art can ever create another Wissahickon or Cresheim creek.”
Written by Bradley Maule, FOW Crew Leader
- Brandt, Francis Burke. “Short Hikes to Scenic Spots.” The Wissahickon Valley Within the City of Philadelphia, pp 97–99. 1927.
- Contosta, David, and Franklin, Carol. “Cresheim Creek Gateway at Confluence.” Metropolitan Paradise, Vol. 2, pp 289–290. 2010.
- Contosta, David, and Franklin, Carol. “Vandalism.” Metropolitan Paradise, Vol. 3, p 520. 2010.
- “Cresheim Valley lures many lovers of nature.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 October 1909, p 1.
- Day, Blanche. “Legends of the Wissahickon.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 September 1958, pp 7-8.
- “Fairmount Park.” Scribner’s Monthly, January 1871, pp 225–238.
- Geyer, Alan, and Bolles, William. Outstanding Scenic Geological Features of Pennsylvania, pp 221-222. 1987.
- Klibanoff, Hank. “Heeding the Call of the Valley.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 August 1983, pp 1B, 7B-8B.
- “Over Cresheim Creek.” The Philadelphia Times, 14 August 1892, p 1.
- Reilly, Bernard F. “The Early Work of John Moran, Landscape Photographer.” American Art Journal, vol. 11, no. 1, 1979, pp. 65–75. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1594133. Accessed 6 July 2021.
- Sheehan, Kathy. “Idle time fills the Devil’s Pool.” Philadelphia Daily News, 3 July 1991, p 3.
- West, Sarah. “History Walk 5: The Cresheim Creek Valley.” Rediscovering the Wissahickon Through Its Science and History, pp 94–97. 1993.
- “The Wissahickon.” The Philadelphia Times, 4 June 1902, p 1.
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You probably don’t need us to tell you how special Wissahickon Valley Park is. It’s 1800 acres provides habitat to wildlife, refuge & recreation to over a million visitors per year, and protects the drinking water for one third of Philadelphians. The park can’t take care of itself, however. It needs responsible park users and stewards to keep this special place clean and sustainable for generations to come.