By Jon Musselman, Upstream Municipal Watershed Planner
“Sawmill Creek” sounds like a name you’d hear in the Poconos or Catskills, not Philadelphia. Looking at Cheltenham’s Lynnewood Gardens and Melrose Park, and Philadelphia’s East and West Oak Lane, it’s difficult to imagine that at one time a natural stream ran through these neighborhoods, powering a sawmill and perhaps other early industry.
Today, we can see the Tookany Creek tributary of Mill Run (with a shortened name) flowing from Cheltenham Avenue and Granite Road a little over one mile to where it joins the Tookany Creek — the creek emerges from under Cheltenham Avenue through a huge, rectangular concrete pipe or culvert. The water seems like it’s running over a waterfall out of sight under Cheltenham Avenue. What is the history behind this waterway?
Prior to the colonial era, the land was forested with a natural creek system. Before the development of present-day housing and commercial areas, these neighborhoods were mostly farms and large estates. As the land was cleared and farmed, the streams were used for waterpower for mills, as well as to provide water for farms and homes. By the early 1900’s, a stream still ran from near Washington Lane in Cheltenham across the large estate and farm of Peter Widener called Lynnewood Farm. This is the present day location of the east side of Cheltenham Square Mall and Lynnewood Gardens Apartments.
The stream is joined by another stream coming from near Ogontz Avenue in the middle of Northwood Cemetery in Philadelphia. The combined stream then exited the cemetery and flowed east under Old York Road through other estates toward Cheltenham Avenue. The 1895 Bromley Philadelphia Atlas shows a lake or pond between 12th Street and Lawnton Avenue; here the creek is labeled “Saw Mill Creek”. It is possible that the pond was built for the operation of a mill at an earlier period. Below the lake, the creek flows back under Cheltenham Avenue. The 1916 A.H. Mueller Atlas of this area shows Asbury Lake on the Cheltenham side of Cheltenham Avenue on the estate of T. Henry Asbury that stretched across the area from the Avenue past the Melrose Park Train Station (Oak Lane Station at that time).
According to a local history book, the “lake was a popular recreational site, providing boating in the summer, ice-skating in the winter, and beautiful landscaped grounds with paths for strolling.” (Old York Road Historical Society. Images of America: Cheltenham Township, p.31. Arcadia Publishing, 2001.) However, the Asbury Estate was increasingly sold off for new housing as the economy changed, and by 1927, the lake was filled in and the creek buried.
By 1910, the Bromley Atlas shows that the lake in the city (also on the Asbury estate) no longer existed, but a small pond was built on the Bromley estate near what was (and still is) Lakeside Avenue. It is interesting to note that estate owner James Bromley was the owner of a very large complex of mills much further downstream on the Frankford Creek, the TTF’s final reach.
Progressively after 1910 the creek branches in the city and Cheltenham were enclosed in underground pipes and culverts.
Photos from the 1930’s show a section being buried in a culvert west of Broad Street.
In the City archives, photos from 1954 show new precast concrete sections being installed.
Running the pipes underground allowed the extension of the rectangular grid of streets, with the subdivision of smaller row housing and twin lots typical of the city. Rainfall needed to be managed, so it was piped directly from roofs, roads and driveways into underground creeks. Unlike large parts of Philadelphia, this creek did not become a combined sewer, in which sanitary waste and stormwater flow together. However, all of the stormwater from large sections of West and East Oak Lane were piped directly to the underground system. Today, stormwater from Cheltenham, including Lynnewood Gardens (built 1948-52) and half of the Cheltenham Mall (opened in 1959) empties into this system, flowing into Philadelphia underground near Pittville Avenue, under the Northwood Cemetery and Lakewood Avenue and back to Cheltenham. The beautiful Asbury Lake site is now home to apartments.
Along its entire length, what remains of Mill Run is completely hidden. This is a textbook case of the enclosure of a creek, and along with it a lot of history. Burying the creek and building and paving over most of the land around it destroyed the creek’s natural functioning. Runoff quickly builds in the pipes and is discharged into Mill Run, causing significant bank and stream erosion in its remaining unburied stretch. Without stormwater filtering, high loads of pollutants entering the “creek” through runoff from roads, yard drains, and parking lots. These pollutants include oils, gas, coolants, trash, road and tire sediment, and brake dust. Leaks and cross connections from sewer lines have caused elevated bacterial levels. This polluted stormwater makes its way through Melrose Park and dumps into the Tookany Creek in Tookany Creek Park, just east of New Second Street behind the firefighting training center. As a result, Mill Run itself is impaired, and contributes to the poor water quality of the Tookany Creek itself.
At TTF, we believe that efforts to reduce stormwater flows into drains by using an array of techniques including rain barrels, parking lot bio-retention, green roofs, and rain gardens across our watershed will result in better water quality for Mill Run and all our streams. Addressing our enclosed streams is one of the most difficult challenges we face. Over time, the installation of green infrastructure as part of both existing and and new development will lead to improvements in Mill Run and other creeks.