Work on the Schuylkill River Trail may soon connect Philadelphia’s water people

Photo by Margo Reed

Photo by Margo Reed

A Tale of Two Rivers

by Matt Bevilacqua

When Alan Robinson saw the turtle, he knew things had changed. 

It was 1990, and Robinson had recently taken up race walking after turning 40. He was practicing for the Schuylkill River Loop, a popular 8.4-mile race that takes participants from Boathouse Row, up to and across the Falls Bridge, down to the art museum and back up to the boathouses. Near the two stone railroad bridges at the southern end of East Falls, he made an exciting discovery.  

“There was a turtle,” says Robinson, an environmental consultant. “I thought, ‘A turtle on the Schuylkill River! My first turtle!’”

Robinson, who rowed on the river during his college days, was more accustomed to seeing garbage and industrial waste on the water’s surface. He can recall, for instance, dodging 55-gallon drums while practicing for regattas. To him, the turtle meant that after decades of cleanup, wildlife was finally returning to the river.

Today, Robinson sees not only turtles but also herons, bald eagles and ospreys along a much prettier and accessible Schuylkill River. Minnows often gather off the dock of the University Barge Club, the Boathouse Row institution that Robinson, now 66, joined nine years ago when he took up rowing again. Since then the sport has exploded in popularity—with Philadelphia as its national center point, thanks in no small part to the improved quality of the Schuylkill water. 

“I rowed in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I never saw the bottom of the river,” Robinson says. “Now, going upriver, it’s clear. You can see the bottom. It was never like that before.”

Isolated by industry for a century and a half, the Schuylkill River long suffered from pollution and neglect. Yet in the last 30 years, it has gradually reopened to the public for recreational use, changing the look of the city and giving its people new ways to lead active lifestyles. More and more rowers have taken to the river, as have kayakers, paddleboarders and canoers. Philadelphians who fish can now safely cook and eat their regulation-size catches, and swimmers can jump into the current for certain organized events. 

The Schuylkill is clearly a different river than it used to be, and it continues to be
a different river for Philadelphians who access its waters at different points. The beauty of Boathouse Row invites you from the highway and from street level. In the less affluent neighborhoods of the Southwest, the highway cuts off easy access, and fishing and canoeing—not regattas—have been the main activities. But these two worlds on the same river may soon connect through an ongoing effort to complete a regional trail network that has opened up huge tracts of the city’s riverfronts to walkers, joggers and bicyclists. 

Taken altogether, these recent developments on the Schuylkill represent a fundamental change in how civic leaders view the role of Philadelphia’s waterways, which may yet give Philadelphia a more solid identity as the river city that it is.

A Habitat Returns
Forty-four years have passed since the federal Clean Water Act forced local and state officials to start thinking about how to improve the waterways in their own backyards. In the Delaware Valley, according to Philadelphia Water Commissioner Debra McCarty, that meant starting with wastewater treatment plants in Philly and Camden that pumped their noxious byproducts into the rivers. 

“Those plants came online and were upgraded and have been performing quite well,” says McCarty, who took over her department in January. “It takes awhile—there’s a lag—but river quality has been improving.” 

The next phase is to address stormwater runoff, which washes litter and toxins from streets, roofs, parking lots and other hard surfaces into the river system. To that end, Philadelphia Water (formerly PWD) created an internationally lauded plan, known as “Green City, Clean Waters,” to build infrastructure that captures stormwater rather than let it escape into the sewers or flow directly into the rivers. Adopted in 2011, the plan’s aim is to cut down stormwater pollutants by 85 percent within another 20 years. 

“The biggest problems we face now are not point-source pollution” like raw sewage, says Chris Linn, an environmental planner with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. “It’s runoff from developed areas.” 

Organized swimming is allowed in the Schuylkill, although you probably don’t want to compete in a triathlon in the days after a heavy rainstorm, when runoff levels are at their highest. Linn recalls when a friend took him for a swim out to Peter’s Island, in the river off of West Fairmount Park, on a clear day when there wasn’t as much runoff to worry about. 

As runoff decreases, the rivers will become better suited for people and animals alike. Fishers and bird watchers will mention that the water has grown more abundant with creatures to catch and spot, an observation backed up by official wildlife population counts. Indeed, Philly’s
erstwhile river ecosystem has started to rebuild itself.  

“Our indicators of healthy rivers are different varieties of fish,” McCarty says. “We’re seeing different varieties returning to our waterways. We’re also seeing their predators.”

That should come as good news to people like Steph Mumford, a lifelong University City resident who has been fishing in the Schuylkill since the early 1990s. Mumford says his father would take him to catch catfish and crabs off of a wall next to Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philly. That wall has since been torn down, but Mumford found a new favorite spot on the northeast side of Bartram’s Garden, where commercial ships used to dock before proceeding downriver to the Delaware or upriver past a pair of swing bridges. The site now houses the garden’s small boat launch. 

“I call it Catfish Row,” says Mumford, 33. “All the catfish are right here.”   

On a hot Friday in August, a rubber-sandaled Mumford took his own three children to his regular spot on the Schuylkill. Taking refuge in the shade of a maple tree, he cast five lines into the river and waited for the tide to come in, eventually catching a medium-sized catfish. (He chose to throw it back, even though catfish have no size limits.) His daughter, Lily, also reeled in a small perch with her Dora the Explorer-themed fishing pole. 

Although wildlife has been returning to the city’s rivers at large, this stretch of the Schuylkill has had bad luck with the nearby refinery complex, falling victim to a pair of large oil spills in the ’90s. Mumford says he has since noticed a decline in crabs, clams, river otters and snapping turtles. He also says that the fish here have gotten smaller and less abundant, and that he’ll have better luck with striped bass and shad further upriver, by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But he still finds himself returning to his regular spot at Bartram’s, near where he used to come as a kid.  

“When the water’s real calm, it’s like a mirror,” he says. 

The area around the Bartram’s boat launch won’t stay quiet for long. Plans are in the works to bring the city’s most popular bike and pedestrian trail down the west side of the Schuylkill, right through the garden grounds. Although he expects that more people will scare the fish away, Mumford says he welcomes the company. Garden staffers, too, hope to take advantage of the new foot traffic to ramp up programming. 

In fact, once the trail is completed and more people come across the Schuylkill, Bartram’s will become an access point to the river that could rival Boathouse Row.

Trail Connections
Before 2004, the Schuylkill River Trail, a partially built linear park that will eventually stretch 130 miles along the entire length of the river, ended at the Fairmount Water Works. All the land further south was a tangle of industry and commerce, discouraging planners from trying to extend the trail to the Delaware River as originally intended. But during a canoe trip in 1989, an architect named John Randolph had a vision for a riverside park in Center City. He established a nonprofit, applied for federal grant funding and held public cleanups to introduce people to the riverfront. 

“We had to generate enthusiasm in the general public’s mind that this would be a great idea,” Randolph says. “We had to take people by the hand and introduce them to the river and the potential that the river had.” 

Fifteen years later, the Schuylkill Banks finally opened, bringing the trail from the Water Works down to Schuylkill River Park at 25th and Spruce streets. 

Since then, the organization Randolph founded has continued to build more trail segments even further south than the Banks, opening up new parts of the river to public use. Under the leadership of Joe Syrnick, the Schuylkill River Development Corporation (SRDC) spearheaded the construction of the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, which opened in 2014 between Schuylkill River Park and South Street. A second section of the boardwalk, between South and Christian streets, is slated to open later this year. 

In 2012, SRDC opened the Grays Ferry Crescent, which arcs between 34th and Wharton streets and will be the last piece of the Schuylkill River Trail before it crosses to the west side of the river. Right now, though, the Crescent doesn’t really lead anywhere. For one thing, connecting it to the boardwalk will take a lot of time and negotiation, since active railroad tracks come close to this part of the riverfront. Getting over the water, meanwhile, will involve transforming a defunct railroad swing bridge into a crossing for bikes and pedestrians.

“The Grays Ferry Crescent has been underutilized since it opened,” Syrnick admits. “Having said that, it’s a quieter part of the trail, it’s not overrun with people and bicycles, and you sort of have it to yourself. But it would be good to connect it across the river and get that interchange of people from east to west and vice versa.”

Syrnick says the bridge restoration could begin as soon as next summer. Already under construction on the other side of the Schuylkill, though, is a segment of the trail known as Bartram’s Mile, which will lead from the swing bridge through Bartram’s Garden and on to just past 58th Street. Garden staffers are betting a lot on this trail. 

The oldest botanical garden in North America, Bartram’s has occupied 45 acres on the west side of the Schuylkill since 1728. While cherished by horticulturalists for preserving a variety of native plants, the garden has a location problem. Squeezed between the river, an industrial corridor and a housing project, it remains difficult to access for anyone without a car. The 36 trolley stops nearby, but it still takes a half-mile walk, partly down a street with no sidewalks, to reach the waterfront. The closest thoroughfare, Lindbergh Boulevard, is uninviting to pedestrians and downright dangerous for cyclists, with its fast-moving traffic
and trolley tracks just waiting to ensnare a bike wheel. 

“Getting to Bartram’s, you’re crossing some really industrial-designed roadways,” says Justin DiBerardinis, director of community and government relations at the garden. “There’s a bike lane on Lindbergh Boulevard, but I really wouldn’t advise most people to bike on it.” He adds that the unappealing road has limited visitors from the garden’s own neighborhood.

When the swing bridge reopens, however, it will offer the first safe, inviting route for people to cross this section of the river without a car. That will not only open up a sustainable commuting option between Southwest Philly and Center City, it will also present an opportunity for Bartram’s to attract new visitors.   

“Once that bridge opens up, that’s really the first big game-changer in terms of audience for us,” DiBerardinis says. “That’s where we’re going to see a substantial spike in our attendance.”

Sensing a chance to expand its appeal, Bartram’s got involved with planning the Mile. It partnered with SRDC to help with the logistics of building the trail and to provide attractions previously unavailable to park goers. The garden already has free kayaking and rowboating on Saturdays during the warmer months. DiBerardinis says it will start to host organized boat trips up and down the river this fall. He also hints at the possibility of starting a weekend ferry service between the garden and South Philly.  

“Once the trail is fully connected… our profile elevates from being sort of a hidden gem within the park system to being one of the preeminent sites in Fairmount Park,” he says. That means concerts, classes, more boating and an ongoing partnership with the Mural Arts Program to install interactive art exhibits along the trail. 

While DiBerardinis anticipates new visitors from across the river, he also says the garden wants to do more to attract its immediate neighbors to the water.  

“Every Saturday I come down here and do canoeing,” says Vanessa Pitts, who lives in the adjacent housing project known as Bartram Village. Pitts, a 59-year-old Philadelphia native, moved to the area 10 years ago after a long spell in Florida. A short, energetic woman, she had never tried boating before moving to the neighborhood. Upon discovering the boat launch, though, she took to the activity right away. Since then, she has had a big hand in planning the programming around Bartram’s Mile. 

As president of the Bartram Village Resident Council, Pitts acts as something of a liaison between the garden and the Southwest Philly community, organizing events and bringing new visitors to the riverfront. Right now, she’s trying to get a friend in the Coast Guard to teach a boating safety class to dozens of her relatives. (Pitts says that between her and her husband, she has more than 60 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.) By activating the river with her friends and neighbors, Pitts hopes to raise the area’s profile so that more people feel compelled to visit once the swing bridge and Bartram’s Mile open. 

“A lot of people don’t know that Southwest exists,” Pitts says. “If they don’t come down here or no one tells them about it, they don’t know there’s something here for them to come and enjoy.”  

A Busier River
While Pitts and DiBerardinis try to catch up with Boathouse Row, Alan Robinson is using the rowing community’s unique position in Philadelphia to advocate for a better river. All of the clubs on Boathouse Row belong to a longstanding organization called the Schuylkill Navy, which affords them the kind of political structure that can grab the city’s attention.   

The Schuylkill Navy is the oldest amateur athletic governing body in the United States; it dates back to 1858. In addition to sponsoring regattas and setting rules for rowing on the river, itserves as acollective voice for Philadelphia’s rowing community. It has called for dredging certain parts of the Schuylkill, for instance, to remove sediment that builds up due to the Fairmount Dam. (Rowers can be put in danger when they steer their lightweight boats into too-shallow waters.) As more people have taken boats out onto the river, the group has pushed for more resources to teach water safety.

Robinson chairs the Schuylkill Navy River Stewards Committee, which takes the lead on environmental issues on behalf of the organization. He’s partnered with other athletic groups, such as the Philadelphia Canoe Club, on river cleanups. He also convinced Philadelphia Water to donate thousands of reusable bottles to distribute during regattas in an effort to discourage the use of plastic bottles. Meanwhile, clubs on Boathouse Row, including Robinson’s University Barge Club, have adopted policies prohibiting disposable water bottles on their premises.  

“The city has been so responsive to having a group of users that’s organized enough to get things done,” says Deirdre Mullen, a retired lawyer and another member of the University Barge Club. Like Robinson, Mullen rowed while in college during the 1970s and returned to the sport in the mid-’90s, after a 15-year hiatus. She can also speak to how much her experience with the water has changed since she first picked up an oar.

“It was very tempting to put your hand in the water and smack it on your face just to cool off,” Mullen, 59, recalls of her college rowing days. 

“My coach had taken a bottle of water and put it on his desk. It instantaneously went into layers of sediment... He said, ‘This is what you’re putting on your face. Do not touch the water.’ So that is a world apart from where it is today.”

Sitting on the back deck of their rowing club, Mullen and Robinson talk about the growing number of people whom they see using the river. High school kids regularly take boats out as part of the Philadelphia City Rowing program. More and more people with fishing poles have shown up on the riverbank, catching bigger and bigger fish. While rowing is hard work and leaves little time to talk, crew members will take the time to call out to each other when they spot an impressive bird hovering over the water. 

“I never imagined I’d see an eagle in Philadelphia, much less on the Schuylkill River,” Robinson says, gesturing out from the boathouse dock. “Right here, on a Sunday morning.”