Within the bounds of the city of Philadelphia lies a treasure. Its possession, in this day of speed and confusion, marks our city as unique in the whole nation; and its possession bears testimony to Philadelphia’s love of beauty – God-made, which has not been allowed to spoil or be destroyed.
Do you know the valley of the Upper Wissahickon? It is yours, – yours to enjoy, yours to display, and yours to safeguard. Have you tested its powers of re-creation? Are you intimately acquainted with all its phases, from new leaf to snow-laden bough, its carpet of wild flowers, its banks of fern and moss and sparkling spring, its ice-hung rocks?
From the laughing child paddling along its edges to the silver-haired stroller along its paths, the Wissahickon allures all. It is a place to picnic with a group or to be alone – to know your child, your friend, or yourself better. Whether you are afoot or on a horse, in a canoe or on a pair of skates, nature greets you and bids you welcome.
(We must) inspire love for the Wissahickon. (We must) incite everyone to help protect its natural life – trees, birds, and flowers – from the unthinking, who for a fleeting moment of personal satisfaction destroy forever growths of beauty that cannot be replaced.
Welcome to the Wissahickon.
From “The Wissahickon Valley Within the City of Philadelphia”
Francis Burke Brandt, 1927, Corn Exchange National Bank of Philadelphia
Edited by David Bower , 2014
The Wissahickon Valley has for many years been a very special destination for people who come here to enjoy its scenic beauty and its variety of recreational opportunities. Trees, shrubs, wildflowers, ferns, grasses, rocks, and water are home to birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, amphibians.….and people.
The Wissahickon is also special because of its rich and colorful history. For millions of years it was a pristine wilderness, undisturbed by humans. It was home to the Lenape people. It was an industrial valley that was strongly linked to the development of the Philadelphia region and of Pennsylvania as a colony and later as a state.
Revolutionary War skirmishes were fought here and millworkers made blankets here during the Civil War.
Today the Wissahickon Valley is a place that helps protect drinking water, provides habitat for animals, and is a wonderful place for people to visit. Here in the Wissahickon we immerse ourselves in the nature that sustains life, lifts our spirits, and feeds our souls.
People have long been fascinated by the history of the Wissahickon. Wissahickon history is not just facts and figures. Wissahickon history includes both natural history and the stories of the people who lived here and worked here, and of those who restored, preserved, protected, and sustained the valley throughout the years.
It is important to remember that facts and fiction about the history of the valley are often interwoven. Although historians and visitors may disagree on some “facts” and some of the Wissahickon history is really fiction, this is part of the fascinating story of the Wissahickon. We continue to learn new parts of the story as time goes on.
It is also important to remember that Wissahickon history is not frozen in time. We are still creating Wissahickon history every day as Friends of the Wissahickon, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, and other groups, agencies, and individuals work to preserve and sustain this wonderful place.
The Wissahickon Watershed and surrounding lands were probably under an ocean at one time. The valley in Philadelphia was formed when the sides of the valley were pushed up and as the creek eroded adjacent land. The watershed and its flora and fauna evolved as an ecosystem over millions of years. The last major climactic event that affected this evolution was the end of the most recent Ice Age about 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. Glaciers in that Ice Age never reached the Wissahickon but they did come as close as the Allentown area. As they receded, the Wissahickon warmed and evolved into the ecosystem which the first humans found when they arrived here.
THE LENAPE – THE FIRST PEOPLE
The Lenape lived in the area of the Wissahickon for as many as 2000 years before Europeans arrived. The Lenape….pronounced “Len-AH-pay”… did not have a written language so it is impossible to determine when they arrived or where they lived before colonial times. They hunted, fished, trapped, and farmed in the area but probably did not live in the valley. Lenape artifacts are rare because there were not many Lenape here, they had no permanent settlements in the valley, and they left virtually no trace of their existence in the Valley. The Lenape moved westward by the 1750’s after surrendering this area to colonists.
Colonists, mostly British and Germans, first settled the area in the mid-1600’s. Mills and quarries existed from the 1680’s until the 1880’s. Inns and hotels existed from the 1700’s until about 1916.
THE PRESERVATION ERA
The Fairmount Park Commission began obtaining land for what we now call Wissahickon Valley Park in the 1860’s as part of the city’s effort to clean up and protect the city’s water supply. The Philadelphia Water Department has a great exhibit about this process at the Water Works Interpretive Center on Kelly Drive near the Art Museum.
Nearly all of the watershed was privately owned; was used for farms, industries, and residences; and was later sold or donated to Fairmount Park or to WVWA.
Most of what we now call the Wissahickon Valley Park in Philadelphia was assembled prior to The Great Depression. The Andorra Natural Area and a few other smaller parcels were added in subsequent years.
Friends of the Wissahickon organized in the 1920’s and has been working actively to preserve, improve, and sustain the park since then. FOW partners with government agencies and other non-profit groups to achieve mutual goals.
Many improvements such as plantings, structures, trails, and stormwater management were implemented in the 1930’s as part of the WPA: Works Progress Administration or Works Projects Administration.
The number of Fairmount Park staff peaked in the 1970’s and has declined steadily until recently.
The Wissahickon in Philadelphia is currently managed by Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, the agency which was created with the merger of the former Fairmount Park Commission and the former Philadelphia Department of Recreation.
Other agencies that oversee the Wissahickon include Philadelphia Water Department, PA Fish and Boat Commission, PA Game Commission, PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and US Environmental Protection Agency.
Wissahickon history is not in a time capsule. It is alive and thriving and growing today. New events are taking place. New stories are being created. New people are undertaking the enormous amount of work that is needed to preserve and protect the valley.
Someday, future generations will tell the stories of what is happening in the park today, and of FOW volunteers who are currently restoring old structures and building new ones, repairing and rebuilding trails, planting trees, protecting habitat, raising money, advocating on behalf of the park.
William Penn envisioned Philadelphia to be a “Green Country Towne”. This vision has been sustained by many generations and has led to the preservation of the Wissahickon Watershed, the Wissahickon Valley in Philadelphia, and hundreds of other parks and green spaces throughout the city and the region.
It has come to this generation a grave responsibility – the preservation of the natural beauties of our land. They are menaced as never before. They must be protected now, if the generations of the future are to have the refreshment and delight that nature alone can give.
Today in the midst of the stir and strife of city life is needed more than ever the calm and quiet of this sanctuary of peace.
Written by David Bower, FOW Crew Leader and former employee of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.
David Contasta & Carol Franklin, St. Joseph’s University Press, 2010
Herbert C. Kraft, New Jersey Historical Society, 1986
The Early Mills of Roxborough
John Myers, Roxborough-Manayunk-Wissahickon Historical Society, 1991
The Quarries and Stone Masons of Chestnut Hill
Michael Yanni, as told to F. Markoe Rivinus, 2004
Compiled by T.A,. Daly, Garden Club of Philadelphia, 1922
The Wissahickon Valley Within the City of Philadelphia
Francis Burke Brandt, Corn Exchange National Bank, Philadelphia, 1927
Guide to the Wissahickon Valley
Frances Ballard and Marion Rivinus, FOW, 1965
History of the Fairmount Park Guard 1868 -1972
Check out this Google Map to explore this and other unique historical points of interest, and become acquainted with the many trailheads in Wissahickon Valley Park!
Explore more Wissahickon-related historic points of interest, stories, art, videos, games, and much more on our Virtual Valley!
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.