The land we know as Philadelphia was once crisscrossed by a network of streams and creeks. These swift flowing waterways were one of the primary reasons European settlers were attracted to the area centuries ago. Swift water could power mills — mills that could grind wheat to flour, run saws to process lumber, drive hammers to shape metal. Industry grew up rapidly along these waterways. Where it did the landscape changed, often dramatically.
One of the most dramatic landscape transformations in Philadelphia watershed history has been that of the Wingohocking Creek and its watershed. You can’t find the creek on a modern map…you can’t skip rocks along it’s banks. The Lenape name believed to mean ‘favorite place for planting’ just doesn’t jive with the landscape we see today. This surface stream has been buried – encapsulated into a sewer and paved over. The creek that made up nearly a third of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed has effectively been erased. However, with an expert eye and knowledge of Philadelphia’s lost waterways, you can read its legacy on the landscape. There are still places where the historic creek is evident, visible in subtle nuance. In some instances, its presence and impact is far more profound.
On November 7, we hosted a Wingohocking Creek bus tour, exploring the modern landscape of this lost waterway. With the expert guidance of watershed historians Adam Levine and Drew Brown of the Philadelphia Water Department, our group set off on an intriguing ride through Germantown, Mt. Airy, Logan and Juniata to see for ourselves what’s left of the Wingohocking.
Adam and Drew know this landscape well. Adam has been researching the historic waterways of Philadelphia for the Water Department for nearly 20 years. His website, phillyh2o.org, is an incredible compilation of articles, maps and historic photos of Philadelphia’s creeks and sewers. Drew is an environmental engineer and is well versed in Philadelphia’s historic infrastructure. Drew estimates that he and Adam have led around 15 tours of the Wingohocking so far.
Our tour began at the I st. & Ramona Avenue Gateway to Tacony Creek Park. On modern maps this location is where the Tacony Creek mysteriously changes names and becomes the Frankford Creek (we’ll come back to that.) 40 watershed explorers boarded the newly dubbed ‘Wingo-Bus’ and set off for the headwaters.
One of our first fascinating stops was at Awbury Arboretum, where we saw the only remaining surface flow of the creek throughout this tributary’s watershed. A spring emerges from the ground on the adjacent property alongside Washington lane, runs under the road and flows into a small pond before disappearing underneath the Washington Lane train station. Barring any large storms, that water won’t see daylight again till it reaches the Delaware River.
Where does the water go and what happened to the rest of the creek? The encapsulation of the Wingohocking began in the late 1800s and took over 40 years to complete. At the time, other urban streams in the city were used for disposing of household and industrial waste, turning these creeks and streams into open sewers. With poor water quality and disease running rampant in the city, engineers decided the best option was to enclose the creeks in brick lined sewer pipes and bring in fill to level the flood plains. This not only physically separated the population from their waste stream, it also enabled the city to subdivide the now level land, continuing Penn’s grid across the landscape.
The combined sewer system that the Wingohocking became is the largest of its kind in Philadelphia. Rain runs off streets and sidewalks into storm drains where it combines with household and municipal waste in the sewer. In dry weather, everything flows to the waste water treatment plant, but in heavy rain the sewer system can fill to capacity with excess stormwater. When this happens the excess sewer water is released via outfall pipes into the Tacony-Frankford creek.
Though the creek itself is no longer visible, there are still many clues to its past existence. Just driving along our tour route demonstrated this. Most streets in the city follow a regular, rectangular grid — we have Penn to thank for that. But have you ever noticed the way some of the streets in the city seem to wind through neighborhoods, disregarding their perpendicular neighbors and providing us with handy throughways and shortcuts? Many of these streets reflect the old landscape. Some followed ridges, as in the case of Germantown Avenue, the watershed divide for the TTF and the Wissahickon creeks. Others, like Belfield Avenue in Logan and Germantown, reflect some of the historic meander of buried streams, in this case the west branch of the winding Wingohocking. The alignment of the main Wingohocking sewer for the most part followed the original stream bed, though some of the sharper bends were engineered and straightened. Once the sewers were in place, it made the most sense to build streets right over the top, creating convenient avenues (and the reason you see so many manholes in the middle of the road.)
Our bus tour also consisted of stops to several still-standing historic mill buildings, which once stood along the Wingohocking banks. The landscape has changed so dramatically that in some instances, such as at the Glencairn Woolen Mills at Belfield Ave and Wister St., the surrounding streets are several stories above the original ground floor, demonstrating the tremendous amount of filling that took place.
The filling of the Wingohocking flood plain had profound impacts on the landscape. In one particular site in Logan, the floodplain was filled using coal ash, up to 40 feet deep in places. This proved to be an unstable base for the residential homes later built above. In the 1980s, houses began sinking. Residents had to be relocated and the homes destroyed. The landscape, known as the Logan Triangle, still sits fallow to this day, though the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority has begun to move forward, bringing the community together to discuss redevelopment.
At the end of the trip we arrived back where we started, at I St. and Ramona Ave. Much to their surprise, participants had boarded the bus right over top of the massive Wingohocking Creek outfall, the occasional mouth of the Wingohocking Creek. At 24 feet wide, this is the largest combined sewer outfall in the city. The outfall can be viewed by walking along the edge of the Frankford Creek below Ramona Ave. Most of the time the outfall sits quietly, any would-be creek flow being diverted by the intercepting sewers. However, in heavy storms, the roaring of the discharging outfall can be heard from the road above.
So what happens when you physically disconnect a population from its creeks and its waste-stream? Generations of Philadelphians have been raised in neighborhoods above buried creeks like this, many unaware that the stormdrain at the end of the block is the closest connection to the creek and the Delaware River, our source of drinking water. We believe that this disconnection has also disconnected people from their role and responsibility in preventing stormwater pollution.
The decision to encapsulate the Wingohocking creek was made in part to address the city’s water pollution problems of the day. It was a revolutionary idea that would be replicated elsewhere throughout other major cities in America and the world. However, the system came at a great cost, erasing an entire stream from the landscape. We now have a better understanding of the incredible value of natural systems and know that healthy streams make for healthier communities.
Currently, the Philadelphia Water Department is undertaking a vision of similar scale and magnitude. Cities are looking to Philadelphia as a historic innovator of clean water solutions. This time, however, the goal is to design a system that aims to replicate nature, not remove it. Through the Green City, Clean Waters plan the city of Philadelphia is bringing stormwater solutions back to to the surface. Read more about the 25-year Green City, Clean Waters plan here.
The Wingohocking Bus Tour was fun and wraps up our first-ever Trails through Time watershed history series for 2015. Thanks to Adam Levine and Drew Brown for their willingness to lead us and lend their expertise. We look forward to hosting more watershed history tours and events in 2016. Check out Upcoming Events and sign up for our e-newsletter here.
Looking for more Philadelphia Watershed info and history? Check out www.phillyh2o.org and www.phillywatersheds.org. Interested in a copy of the Wingohocking Creek Watershed Tour guide prepared by Drew Brown and Adam Levine of Philly Water? Contact Robin Irizarry, , 215.744.1853.