Wissahickon Creek runs through Fort Washington State Park
|Regions||Montgomery County, Philadelphia County|
|Length||23 mi (37 km)|
|Basin||64 sq mi (166 km2)|
Wissahickon Creek is a stream in southeastern Pennsylvania. Rising in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, it runs about 23 miles (37 km) passing through and dividing Northwest Philadelphia before emptying into the Schuylkill River at Philadelphia. Its watershed covers about 64 square miles (166 km²).
Much of the creek now runs through or next to parkland, with the last few miles running through a deep gorge. The beauty of this area attracted the attention of literary personages like Edgar Allan Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier. The gorge area is now part of the Fairmount Park system in Philadelphia, and the Wissahickon Valley is known as one of 600 National Natural Landmarks of the United States.
The name of the creek comes from the Lenape language for "catfish creek" or "stream of yellowish color". On the earliest map of this region of Pennsylvania, by Thomas Holme, the stream is called Whitpaine's creek, after one of the original settlers with William Penn. Industry sprang up along the Wissahickon not long after European settlement, with America's first paper mill set up on one of the Wissahickon's tributaries. A few of the dams built for the mills remain visible today.
Though at first fairly tame, in its last 7 miles (11 km), the Wissahickon stream drops over 100 feet (30 m) in altitude. Its dramatic geography and dense forest attract thousands of walkers, riders, and bikers. Except for the main trail that parallels the stream, Forbidden (or Wissahickon) Drive, permits are required to bicycle or ride horseback on the trails. All users of the park are asked to stay on marked trails to protect against erosion.
Forbidden Drive, also known as Wissahickon Drive, is the gravel road which follows the Wissahickon Creek from Lincoln Drive to the County Line and is the most popular point of access to explore the stream valley. Originally known as Upper Wissahickon Drive, it received its current name in the 1920s when automobiles were first banned from the road. As stated above, Forbidden Drive is the only trail open to bicyclists and equestrians without a permit.
A paved path on the west bank connects the junction of Forbidden Drive and Lincoln Drive south to Ridge Avenue at the confluence of the Wissahickon and Schuylkill River. This path is a popular access point for cyclists coming off the River Drive bike paths to Center City Philadelphia, or for pedestrians departing the R6 transit route at Wissahickon Station or Bus Interchange.
Forbidden Drive is also accessible at its midpoint at the Valley Green Inn. Valley Green Road can be reached from Springfield Avenue in Chestnut Hill, two blocks west of St. Martin's Lane and the St. Martin's R8 Station. Just above Valley Green, Wise's Mill Road meets Forbidden Drive, connecting it to Henry Avenue in Roxborough. Wise's Mill Road may be the same as that described in Edgar Allan Poe's 1844 story "Morning on the Wissahiccon": "I would advise the adventurer who would behold its finest points to take the Ridge Road, running westwardly from the city, and, having reached the second lane beyond the sixth mile-stone, to follow this lane to its termination. He will thus strike the Wissahiccon, at one of its best reaches […]". Forbidden Drive ends at Northwestern Avenue (which is the county line) after crossing Bell's Mill Road.
A number of trails climb out of the valley from Forbidden Drive to the "upper trails" which run along the precipitous walls of the valley. Many of these upper trails have been marked with colored blazes. The green blazed trail has been designated a multi-use trail approved for mountain bikers with permits. The blue blazed trail has been designated a hiking trail only. All trails in the Andorra Natural Area are prohibited to all bicycles.
Devil's Pool is an attraction best reached from Valley Green by crossing the stream and taking the footpath on the eastern bank, going downstream to the mouth of the Cresheim Creek. As the ravine widens into the Cresheim, the waters gather in a basin surrounded on either side by rocky outcroppings before flowing into the Wissahickon Creek. Legend has it that the Native American Lenape tribes used this as a spiritual area. Although it is not legal due to unsafe levels of pollutants, Devil's pool has become a popular area to swim, lounge, and drink. Unfortunately, Devil's pool often falls victim to litter and vandalism. However, recent efforts to clean the site by the Friends of the Wissahickon have been moderately successful.
One of the most romantic hikes in this park leads to a precipice overlooking the gorge. It can be found by entering the main footpath at the Ridge Avenue entrance and following the west bank to Hermit's Lane Bridge. Coming from Blue Stone Bridge, follow the path at the west end to Lover's Leap.
Another well-known outlook in the park is Mom Rinker's Rock, on a ridge on the eastern side of the Park just north of the Walnut Lane Bridge, close by the Toleration statue. Here on a moonlit night in May 1847, George Lippard, romancer of the Wissahickon, was married to his frail young wife according to so-called Indian rites. Years afterward in 1883, the Toleration statue was erected, a marble statue of a man in simple Quaker clothing. Atop Mom Rinker's Rock, the nine-foot-eight-inch statue has the single word “Toleration” carved into its four-foot-three-inch base. Created by late 19th century sculptor Herman Kirn, it was brought to the site by landowner John Welsh, reported to have purchased the statue at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Welsh, a former Fairmount Park Commissioner and U.S. Ambassador to Britain, donated his land to the Park prior to his death in 1886.
Some miles away is the path leading to the Indian statue, a dramatic 15 ft (4.5 m) high white marble sculpture of a kneeling Lenape warrior which was sculpted in 1902 by John Massey Rhind. (The statue is popularly but erroneously known as "Tedyuscung," the name of an eighteenth-century Delaware chief.) Commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Henry, it is a tribute to the Lenape Indians who hunted and fished in the Wissahickon prior to the arrival of colonists. The statue can also be viewed from Forbidden Drive across the creek if one stands just north of the path to the Rex Avenue Bridge.
A tremendous variety of geology is evident along Wissahickon Creek. Three of the geologic regions that the stream passes through are the Newark Basin of Triassic sandstone and shale, the limestone and dolomite of the Chester Valley, and the Wissahickon Formation where the waters of the stream flow into the Schuylkill and eventually the Delaware Rivers.
A unique and very distinctive rock of the Wissahickon Creek valley is Wissahickon schist, the predominant bedrock underlying the Philadelphia region, found over a broad swath of southeastern Pennsylvania from Trenton into Delaware and Maryland. This Precambrian to Cambrian stone, first studied in the Wissahickon gorge, has flecks of glittery mica, small garnets, and many-toned shadings of gray, brown, tan, and blue, and is attractive enough to have become a common building material in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In addition to Wissahickon schist, there are layers of quartzite in the valley. Both schist and quartzite are metamorphic rocks formed from sedimentary deposits of mud and sand that one time were washed from ancient continents into a shallow sea. These sedimentary deposits were over time compressed into shale and sandstone. During long periods of mountain building, the shale and sandstone were slowly transformed into the schist and quartzite found today. In some places, the compression and heat were extreme enough to fuse the schist with emerging igneous rocks into hard-banded gneiss.
Other rocks in the valley are layers of igneous pegmatite and remains of granite plutons, embedded crystals within the schist. A few locations close to Devil’s Pool and along Bell’s Mill Road have a talc schist which contains the mineral talc, so soft it can be scratched with a fingernail.
A virtual geologic tour of Wissahickon Creek is available at this site.
In 1694, Johannes Kelpius arrived in Philadelphia with a group of like-minded German Pietists to live in the valley of the Wissahickon Creek. They formed a monastic-type of community and became known as the Hermits or Mystics of the Wissahickon. Kelpius was a musician, writer, and occultist. He frequently meditated (some believe in a cave—the Cave of Kelpius ) along the banks of the Wissahickon and awaited the end of the world, which was expected in 1694. No sign or revelation accompanied that year, but the faithful continued to live in celibacy by the stream, searching the stars and hoping for the end. Kelpius described the type of meditation he used in his Method of Prayer. (See Further Reading below on this book.) Kelpius died in 1708 and the group disbanded some time thereafter. Some members likely gave up on celibacy and married. A few joined the somewhat like-minded religious colony of Ephrata Cloister under Conrad Beissel in Ephrata, Lancaster County, even though no previous connection existed between the two communities. At least two from the original group, Johann Seelig and Konrad Matthaei, continued as hermits along the Wissahickon into the 1740s.
Other religious groups were also associated with the Wissahickon: On Christmas Day in 1723 the first congregation of the Church of the Brethren in America - often called Dunkard Brethren – baptized several new members in the stream. Around 1747 an individual with connections to both the Dunkards and the Ephrata Cloister built a stone house on land previously owned by Dunkards. The structure, used for church retreats, still stands today, and is known as The Monastery, a remaining witness to the Wissahickon’s days as an isolated religious refuge.
The same steep slopes and gorge that provided an attractive isolation to religious adherents in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, provided an efficient source of energy for the development of water mills in later years. One miller had by 1690 already constructed a dam, sawmill, gristmill, and house by the narrow shelf of land at the confluence of the Wissahickon with the Schuylkill River, but the rugged terrain of the valley forestalled further development alongside the stream itself. By 1730, however, eight mills had been constructed, and by 1793, twenty-four, along with many dams. Most of America was still wilderness, but the Wissahickon Valley was a developing industrial center. There were more than fifty watermills by 1850, though the thickly forested region about the stream still retained the character of a wilderness. Access roads were being constructed into the steep valley, but there was still no road that followed the stream itself. The nature of the rugged terrain can be comprehended in an event that had occurred during the Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown, which was fought not too far from the stream. The American General John Armstrong, compelled by the rough terrain to abandon a cannon in the valley, expressed his contempt for the "horrendous hills of the Wissahickon." Later legends tell of American spies taking advantage of the terrain to retrieve information from an informant named Mom Rinker, who allegedly perched atop a rock overlooking the valley to drop balls of yarn which contained messages about British troop movements during the occupation of Philadelphia. This is likely a legend, for other stories speak of a witch named Mom Rinkle who had little to do with the Revolution. There is a Mom Rinker's Rock in the park today.
Not until 1826 were the cliffs near the creek’s mouth blasted away to provide access to the cluster of mills at Rittenhousetown, approximately 1.5 mi (2.4 km) up the creek on Paper Mill Run (also known as Monoshone Creek), a small tributary of the Wissahickon. Here William Rittenhouse (grandfather of the astronomer David Rittenhouse) had in the early 1700s built the first paper mill in America. Gradually this road and other mill access roads were connected, and in 1856 a private toll road, the Wissahickon Turnpike, linked the entire valley (1908 photo). Long gone were the religious mystics; here instead the mills of Wissahickon Creek made paper, cloth, gunpowder, sawed lumber, milled wheat and corn, and pressed oil from flax. A sizable population worked at the mills and lived in the valley in small villages like Rittenhousetown and Pumpkinville. The nation was becoming an industrial nation, and the Wissahickon was leading the way.
This would soon change. Benjamin Franklin already had noted in his will the high elevation and quality of Wissahickon water, proposing that in some future day the stream be dammed to supply a safe and pure water source for Philadelphia’s water supply, and even allocating funds for this purpose. This did not happen, but the quest for pure water affected the Wissahickon’s subsequent history. Seeking to prevent the stream’s industrial discharges from affecting the purity of the water of the Schuylkill River, the Fairmount Park Commission took title of much of the land along the Wissahickon in 1869-1870, and continued to expand its holdings in subsequent decades. The mills were razed; the last active mill was demolished in 1884. Several decades later the Schuylkill River itself became seriously polluted by sources in the coal fields far upstream beyond Philadelphia’s control, but the waters of the Wissahickon had been restored and the beauty of the Wissahickon Valley had been preserved. Most of America became more industrialized, but the Wissahickon valley quietly returned to its original wilderness character.
The reason the Wissahickon Valley retained its wilderness character, even after its clean waters were no longer essential to the water supply of the city of Philadelphia, was the advent of Romanticism and the changing attitudes which this thought engendered about nature. Before the nineteenth century, nature had seemed a capricious and ambivalent force, at times a dream, but at times a nightmare. Nature, according to orthodox Christian thought, had fallen with man; though the Renaissance brought about both a new view of mankind and nature, this new attitude took time to grow, but it eventually resulted in a literary and artistic movement known as Romanticism. Romantics valued heroism and chivalry in people, and regarded the wild, free, and untamed nature as the “natural” model of true beauty. Philadelphians finally came to value their Wissahickon valley for its wild character. Even when the mills were still operating, there were remote stretches of wild bluffs and overarching trees; now the old mills had become romantic and picturesque, with mossy stone walls suggesting medieval ruins. In 1924, area residents formed the non-profit group "Friends of the Wissahickon", which still works to maintain the park's unique landscape to this day. Remarks on the Wissahickon in literature by such as Fanny Kemble, Edgar Allan Poe, George Lippard, and others are noted below.
However much the stream and its valley were appreciated, it still divided parts of the city. To help overcome this, in 1906 the Walnut Lane Bridge was built over the stream, a world-class undertaking at the time, the world's largest poured concrete structure, joining the Roxborough and Germantown neighborhoods of Philadelphia, formerly separated by the Wissahickon gorge. The bridge is but 480 feet (146 m) long, with a width of 60 feet (18 m), but its center arch spans an impressive 225 feet (69 m), the crown of the arch is 109 feet (33 m) above the water, and the sidewalks of the bridge 120 feet (37 m) above the Wissahickon.
The Henry Avenue Bridge over the Wissahickon was completed in the 1932 and is even more impressive. It is 915 feet (279 m) long, 84 feet (26 m) wide, and 185 feet (56 m) above water level of Wissahickon Creek. It was designed to carry a planned extension of a subway into Roxborough, but the subway never reached the bridge. It is one of the most beautiful bridges in the city, joining Roxborough and the East Falls-Germantown neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Today the Wissahickon is a quiet stream flowing through a beautiful gorge and park. The sole surviving commercial establishment from the pre-park days is the Valley Green Inn, but that establishment is now an integral part of the park and creek valley. Most visitors to the stream today seek the Wissahickon for reasons not too different from those of Kelpius and his followers in 1694: quiet respite from the world outside.
Once the stream enters the city of Philadelphia, the creek valley and its deeply wooded gorge form part of the Fairmount Park system in Philadelphia, a jewel of a park and of nature set in the middle of an urban landscape. The park here is a ruggedly beautiful valley for the naturalists, artists, fishermen, bicyclists, equestrians, and hikers who are drawn to the wooded, steep banks of the stream. Precipitous wooded inclines that rise more than 200 feet (61 m) above the water create a feeling of remoteness and mountain vastness. There are two main and many smaller bridle paths crossing the park's 1,372 acres (5.5 km²) along the Wissahickon Creek. Thomas Mill Road covered bridge spans the creek in the park. The Wissahickon Valley is one of fewer than 600 National Natural Landmarks in America. Recently, interest in reintroducing brook trout to the Wissahickon Valley portion of Fairmount park has been growing.
Among the earliest references to the valley was by William Cobbett in his book Rural Rides, which takes the form of a series of letters. In one dated 1821 he said,
These are the fogs that sweep off the new settlers in the American woods. I remember a valley in Pennsylvania, in a part called Wysihicken [sic]. In looking from a hill, over this valley, early in the morning, in November, it presented one of the most beautiful sights that my eyes ever beheld. It was a sea bordered with beautifully formed trees of endless variety of colours. As the hills formed the outsides of the sea, some of the trees showed only their tops; and, every now and then, a lofty tree growing in the sea itself, raised its head above the apparent waters. Except the setting-sun sending his horizontal beams through all the variety of reds and yellows of the branches of the trees in Long Island, and giving, at the same time, a sort of silver cast to the verdure beneath them, I have never seen anything so beautiful as the foggy valley of the Wysihicken.
Actress Fanny Kemble, grandmother to novelist Owen Wister, visited the stream in 1832; her writing awakened a more general interest in the stream and its valley. Her description of the gorge's dramatic end at the stream's confluence with the Schuylkill River and her verse To the Wissahickon both sparked a keen interest in this natural treasure often overlooked by its neighbors. She wrote:
The erratic and almost forgotten novelist George Lippard frequently wrote about the Wissahickon, and was even married at sunset on or around May 14, 1847, on a rocky crag called Mom Rinker's Rock, overlooking the stream. One of his books, The Rose of Wissahikon; or, The Fourth of July, 1776. A Romance, Embracing the Secret History of the Declaration of Independence (1847) may refer not only to the Wissahickon, but to his wife, the former Rose Newman. He wrote:
Christopher Morley also portrayed the valley's beauty in his writings.
The Wissahickon is mentioned very briefly in A Biography of the Poet, Sidney Lanier by Edwin Mims.
Mark Twain mentioned the Wissahickon during the short time he spent in Philadelphia working for The Philadelphia Inquirer: "Unlike New York, I like this Philadelphia amazingly, and the people in it […] I saw small steamboats, with their signs up—"For Wissahickon and Manayunk 25 cents." Geo. Lippard, in his Legends of Washington and his Generals, has rendered the Wissahickon sacred in my eyes, and I shall make that trip, as well as one to Germantown, soon […]"
The angler, artist, and author Ron P. Swegman has made Wissahickon Creek the focal point of two essay collections, Philadelphia on the Fly (Frank Amato Publications, 2005 "") and Small Fry: The Lure of the Little (The Whitefish Press, 2009 ""). Both books describe the Wissahickon Valley and the experience of fly fishing along Wissahickon Creek in the Twenty-First century.
Artists have portrayed the stream and its valley:
The Swann Memorial Fountain, a fountain sculpture by Alexander Stirling Calder that is located in the center of Logan Circle, also known by its historic name Logan Square, in Philadelphia, contains three large Native American figures that symbolize the area’s major streams: the Delaware, the Schuylkill, and the Wissahickon. The young girl leaning on her side against an agitated, water-spouting swan represents the Wissahickon Creek.
There exists a song called "The Gentle Wissahickon: A Ballad" published in 1857 by Edmund L Walker, 142 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. The words are by Col. James G Wallace, the music by Herman Trevor, and it recalls a "happy childhood time", "the picnic grove", and at the end "dear Alice Ray" who became the singer's "blushing bride."
There exists sheet music mentioning the Wissahickon:
"Wissahickon Drive" is the name of one of the tracks on the CD Here's to You by the Bog Wanderers, "a collection of original, contemporary and traditional slides, jigs, reels, waltzes and songs." Liner notes say the tune is "of the great fiddler/composer Liz Carroll."
In the 1982 Brian DePalma directed film "Blow Out" starring Nancy Allen and John Travolta, the car crash Travolta records is a of an auto traveling northbound on Lincoln Drive crashing headfirst into the Wissahickon Creek. The crash site on film is just south of the intersection of Lincoln Drive and Forbidden Drive. Travolta's character plays his recorded film footage repeatedly, and the creek's location is easy to determine.
Portions of the M. Night Shyamalan film "The Last Airbender" were filmed in the Wissahickon Valley Park.