A Winter Hike Through History
One of the greatest pleasures of visiting the Wissahickon in the winter (beyond the thrill of just getting outside!) is the unobstructed views of the valley landscape during the season. With little or no foliage remaining on the park’s primarily deciduous trees, it’s a lot easier to see the shape of the gorge and even interesting features that are usually concealed by leaves and green. And as you might imagine, there’s no better time to go history hunting when the foundations of the Wissahickon’s industrial past are on full view!
For nearly two centuries, the Wissahickon Creek was home to mills producing lumber, paper, cloth, dyes, and more for the growing city of Philadelphia and nearby communities like Germantown and Roxborough. Though the Wissahickon Valley’s rough terrain made it a poor site for farming, starting in the 1680s, European settlers began to harness the power of the creek for industrial uses: the earliest were Tittery’s mills, a gristmill and lumber mill at the junction of the Wissahickon and Schuylkill on the present site of the Philadelphia Canoe Club, and the 1687 Rittenhouse paper mill on Monoshone Creek (the first paper mill in British North America!) Other large mill sites included the Livezey Mills near Valley Green and Kitchens Mill complex by Kitchens Lane.
With the construction of the Wissahickon Turnpike in the 1850s, now Forbidden Drive, the Valley’s industrialization reached its peak, with more than 50 mills along the course of the creek relying on water or steam power. Many of the park’s bridges, including the Thomas Mill Covered Bridge and Bells Mill Bridge, were built to transfer raw materials and finished goods through the industrial zone.
Pictured: Wagons travel Forbidden Drive for the 1976 Bicentennial.
Where did the mills go?
In the 1850s, the Wissahickon Creek provided a large portion of the drinking water of the city of Philadelphia – as it continues to do today for more than 300,000 Philadelphians. City leaders were concerned about pollution from the industrial areas along the Schuylkill and Wissahickon, and established the Fairmount Parks Commission in 1867 to purchase the land to protect Philadelphia’s water supply. The Wissahickon’s mills were acquired piecemeal from from 1870 to 1891, in many cases with the resources of financier and property developer Henry H. Houston. Eventually, the city’s acquisitions totalled more than 4,000 acres, including the entire Wissahickon Valley and Fairmount Park.
Even during its busiest industrial periods, the Wissahickon Valley and its forests were popularly seen as a wilderness retreat compared to urban Philadelphia, a narrative that writers, painters, and travellers frequently promoted. Following this ideal, Fairmount Park Commission worked to create an artificial wilderness in its recently acquired parkland, though this often required significant alterations to the existing landscape! Once it acquired a piece of land, the Commission demolished any unoccupied buildings, including roadside inns, mill complexes, and dams, including all of the Wissahickon’s mills. Nevertheless, some remains are still accessible to park visitors hunting for history.
Livezey Mill Ruins
One of the largest colonial mill sites in the Wissahickon is on the east bank of the creek, at the end of Livezey lane. The “Great Mill” or Livezey Mill, was built in 1717 by Thomas Shoemaker, and was the largest grist mill in the colony for a several decades. It was sold to Thomas Livezey on October 10, 1749, who expanded the complex, and built a substantial stone home directly opposite; the mill continued to grind grain until the early 19th century.
The mill’s retaining walls (pictured) still stand, as well as the nearby Livezey House, Glen Fern. The adjacent dam (ca. 1700) was reconstructed during the Great Depression by federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) stonemasons.
About a quarter mile north of the Valley Green Inn (one of the only surviving Wissahickon roadhouses), the creek is bisected by a long and mostly intact dam across from Wises Mill Road. In the 19th century, the dam powered two large paper mills owned by the Megarge family, which produced a high grade of white paper using water from the hillside springs. At midcentury the Megarge mills employed an estimated 150 workers, who processed 16,000 pounds of rag every day to produce 12,500 pounds of paper. The dam is a popular picnic and photo spot today.
Historic Rittenhouse Town
Papermaker William Rittenhouse established the first paper mill in British North America in 1687, along a tributary of the Wissahickon which soon took on the name Paper Mill Run. For the next 200 years, eight generations of Rittenhouses turned flax from nearby Germantown into paper to supply Philadelphia printers, and the mill village grew to incorporate more than 40 structures, including a school, firehouse, general store and Baptist chapel. Rittenhouse Town is the best surviving example of the industrial communities that once dotted the Wissahickon’s banks.
While the historic Rittenhouse Mill (1702) was demolished by the Fairmount Park Commission in 1891, numerous colonial buildings remain and can be visited. These include the Rittenhouse Homestead (1707), birthplace of famed colonial astronomer David Rittenhouse, the Bakehouse (1725), the Federal-style Jacob Rittenhouse Home (1811), and the 1930s barn built by the Works Progress Administration, now home to the Paper Trail Bike Cafe. More information and hours are on Historic Rittenhouse Town’s website.
Looking for more Wissahickon history? Visit the Trails to the Past section of FOW’s Virtual Valley, and check out the weekly Wissahickon Wednesdays series from our partners at the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.
David Contasta & Carol Franklin, St. Joseph’s University Press, 2010
The Wissahickon Valley Within the City of Philadelphia
Francis Burke Brandt, Corn Exchange National Bank, Philadelphia, 1927
Historic images compiled from the Friends of the Wissahickon Collection in the Archives of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy.