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The Schuylkill River (/ˈsklkɪl/ SKOOL-kil,[1] locally /ˈskkəl/ SKOO-kəl)[2] is a river in eastern Pennsylvania. It flows for 135 miles (217 km)[3] from Pottsville southeast to Philadelphia, where it joins the Delaware River as one of its largest tributaries.

Schuylkill River
The Schuylkill River with Center City Philadelphia's skyline in the background, September 2007
The river's watershed drains parts of the western side of Broad Mountain and the ridge-and-valley Appalachians of the southcentral Pennsylvania Coal Region.
Etymology"hidden/skulking creek" in Dutch
Location
CountryUnited States
StatePennsylvania
CountiesPhiladelphia, Montgomery, Chester, Berks, Schuylkill
CitiesPhiladelphia, Norristown, Pottstown, Reading
Physical characteristics
SourceEast Branch Schuylkill River
 • locationTuscarora, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, United States
 • coordinates40°46′24″N 76°01′20″W / 40.77333°N 76.02222°W / 40.77333; -76.02222
 • elevation1,540 ft (470 m)
2nd sourceWest Branch Schuylkill River
 • locationMinersville, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, United States
 • coordinates40°42′51″N 76°18′46″W / 40.71417°N 76.31278°W / 40.71417; -76.31278
 • elevation1,140 ft (350 m)
Source confluence 
 • locationSchuylkill Haven, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, United States
 • coordinates40°38′01″N 76°10′49″W / 40.63361°N 76.18028°W / 40.63361; -76.18028
 • elevation520 ft (160 m)
MouthDelaware River
 • location
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
 • coordinates
39°53′04″N 75°11′41″W / 39.88444°N 75.19472°W / 39.88444; -75.19472
 • elevation
0 ft (0 m)
Length135 mi (217 km)
Basin size2,000 sq mi (5,200 km2)
Discharge 
 • locationPhiladelphia
 • average2,875 cu ft/s (81.4 m3/s)
 • minimum995 cu ft/s (28.2 m3/s)
 • maximum40,300 cu ft/s (1,140 m3/s)
Discharge 
 • locationBerne
 • average1,120 cu ft/s (32 m3/s)
Basin features
Tributaries 
 • leftLittle Schuylkill River, Perkiomen Creek
 • rightTulpehocken Creek, French Creek

The river's watershed of about 2,000 sq mi (5,180 km2) lies entirely within the state of Pennsylvania, stretching from the Ridge-and-Valley Appalachians through the Piedmont to the Atlantic Plain.

Historically the Schuylkill lay within the territory of the Susquehannock and Lenape peoples. In 1682, William Penn founded the city of Philadelphia between the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers on lands purchased from the Lenape. The Schuylkill River became key in the development of the city and the surrounding region.

While long used for transport, the river was made fully navigable via the Schuylkill Canal in 1825, followed by the construction of the Reading Railroad Main Line in 1838 and the Pennsylvania Railroad Schuylkill Branch in 1884. Through these corridors, millions of tons of anthracite coal flowed down the Schuylkill from Pennsylvania's Coal Region.[a] The canal was abandoned in 1931, while the Schuylkill Expressway was completed in 1959.

Industrial pollution and mining silt plagued the river in the 19th and 20th centuries. Early concerns over water quality led to the creation of Fairmount Park in 1812. Protections came with the 1972 passing of the Clean Water Act, and the Schuylkill was designated as the first Pennsylvania Scenic River in 1978. Water quality has largely recovered in the years since.

The Schuylkill River above Fairmount Dam has been a major rowing venue since the founding of the Schuylkill Navy in 1858. In recent decades the Schuylkill River Trail cycle and foot path has been constructed along the river. The Schuylkill Heritage Corridor was designated a Pennsylvania Heritage Park in 1995 and a National Heritage Area in 2000 to promote the river's historic, environmental, and recreational significance.[4]

Course

The source of the Schuylkill's eastern branch is in heavily mined land, one ridgeline south of Tuscarora Lake along a drainage divide with the Little Schuylkill River, about a mile east of the village of Tuscarora and about a mile west of Tamaqua, at Tuscarora Springs in Schuylkill County. Tuscarora Lake is one source of the Little Schuylkill.

The West Branch starts near Minersville and joins the eastern branch at the town of Schuylkill Haven. It then combines with the Little Schuylkill River downstream in the town of Port Clinton. The Tulpehocken Creek joins it at the western edge of Reading. Wissahickon Creek joins it in northwest Philadelphia. Other major tributaries include: Maiden Creek, Manatawny Creek, French Creek, and Perkiomen Creek.

The Schuylkill joins the Delaware River at the site of the former Philadelphia Navy Yard, now the Philadelphia Naval Business Center, just northeast of Philadelphia International Airport.

Major towns

Name

The Leni Lenape (called Delaware Indians by European settlers) are the original inhabitants of the area around this river. It remains unclear whether they historically had a single name for this river. There is evidence that the Lenape called the river Ganshowahane (which means "falling/roaring waters").[5] There is also some belief that the Lenape called the river Tulpehane ("Turtle River") or Tulpehakink ("Turtle Place").[6] There is a tributary named Tulpehocken near Reading.

The first European explorers of the river were from the Netherlands, Sweden, and then England. Historical documents attest various names used by Europeans, including Manayunk, Manajungh, Manaiunk,[7] and Lenni Bikbi. The Swedish explorers called it Menejackse kill or alternately Skiar kill, or the Linde River.[8][9] The (then believed) headwaters of the river, up near Reading, was later called Tulpehocken by the English.[10]

The river was then called the Dutch name Schuylkill (pronounced [ˈsxœylkɪl]). As kil means "creek" (e.g. Dordtsche Kil) and schuylen (now spelled schuilen) means "to hide, skulk" or "to take refuge, shelter",[11] one explanation given for this name is that it translates to "hidden river", "skulking river" or "sheltered creek"[12] and refers to the river's confluence with the Delaware River at League Island, which was nearly hidden by dense vegetation. This name has traditionally been credited to Arent Corsen (or Arendt Corssen), an agent of the Dutch West India Company who purchased land "on the Schuylkill River" in 1633.[13] Another explanation is that the name properly translates to "hideout creek" in one of the Algonquian languages spoken by a Leni Lenape in their confederation.[b][citation needed]

 
Winter scene
 
The Strawberry Mansion Bridge at dusk
 
The Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill River were once the source of Philadelphia's water supply and are now an attraction in Fairmount Park.

History

Pre-settlement

 
An 1872 allegory of the Schuylkill River by William Rush now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The mighty Susquehannock confederation claimed the area along the Schuylkill as a hunting ground, as they did to the lands down along the Chesapeake Bay to the left bank Potomac River across from the Powhatan Confederacy when traders first stopped in the Delaware River and settlers arrived in the first decade of the 1600s.[14] With ample tributary streams, the Schuylkill was ground zero during the early years of the Beaver Wars, during which the Lenape tribe became tributary to the victorious Susquehannocks. The Susquehannocks were an Iroquoian people also often in contention with their relatives:[14] the Erie people west and northwest through the gaps of the Allegheny in eastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania (between the upper Allegheny River and Lake Erie), as well as the Five Nations of the Iroquois, another Amerindian confederation eastwards from the right bank of the Genesee River through the Finger Lakes region of upper New York down the St. Lawrence.

The Lenape had settlements on the river, including Nittabakonck ("place where heroes reside"), a village on the east bank just south of the confluence of Wissahickon Creek, and the Passyunk site, on the west bank where the Schuylkill meets the Delaware River.[8][15]

18th century

American patriot paper maker Frederick Bicking owned a fishery on the river prior to the American Revolution, and Thomas Paine tried in vain to interest the citizens in funding an iron bridge over this river, before abandoning "pontifical works" on account of the French Revolution.

19th century

Over the next few decades, industrialists Josiah White and protege and partner Erskine Hazard built iron industries at the Falls of the Schuylkill during the Jefferson's administration, where White built a suspension bridge with cables made from their wire mill. During the War of 1812, the two took delivery of an ark of anthracite coal which was notoriously difficult to combust reliably and experimented with ways to use it industrially, providing the knowledge to successfully begin resolving the ongoing decades long energy crises around eastern cities.[16] The two then heavily backed the flagging effort to improve navigation on the Schuylkill, which efforts date back to legislation measures as early as 1762.

By 1816, needing energy resources and disenchanted with the lack of urgency found in other investors to accelerate the anemic and underfunded construction rate of the Schuylkill Canal, the two jumped to option the mining rights of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, which disenchanted stockholders were giving up on. They then waited until a charter to improve the Lehigh went delinquent, resulting in two groups of investors forming two complementary companies in 1818 that jump-started the industrial revolution: the Lehigh Coal Company and the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company. Following White's plan, the latter company improved down river navigation on the Lehigh River, using his Bear Trap Locks design to deliver over 365 tons of anthracite to Philadelphia docks by December 1820, four years ahead of promises to Stockholders. The success, along with the pending opening of the first operable sections of New York's Erie Canal spurred stockholders of the Schuylkill Canal to finally fund the works. A project which had languished for over a decade got capitalized and began operations in 1822—the same year the Lehigh companies combined into the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, having had to raise additional funds for repairs due to badly ice-damaged improvements, a common problem with northern canals.

The success of these projects and the rosy promise of anthracite (a new wonder fuel in the day) to alleviate energy problems spurred canal construction for the next decade in the east, and commercial opportunities funded three decades of investment from Illinois to the Atlantic Ocean, including the ambitious 1824 Main Line of Public Works bill to connect Philadelphia with the newly emerging states of the Northwest Territory via the Allegheny & Ohio valleys at Pittsburgh and to Lake Erie— leveraging the wide-ranging branches of the Susquehanna River in the state's center. In the 1830s railway technology and new railroads grew in leaps and bounds, and the Schuylkill Valley was at the heart of these developments, as well as the new Anthracite iron and mining industries. From 1820 to the 1860s Iron works, foundries, manufacturing mills, blast furnaces, rolling mills, rail yards, rail roads, warehouses and train stations sprang up throughout the valley. Tiny farm villages grew into vibrant company towns then transitioned into small cities as a major industry and supporting businesses transformed local economics and populations swelled.

Restoration of the river has been funded by money left for that purpose in Benjamin Franklin's will.[17]

The river is known to have been on fire more than once throughout history, for example in November 1892 when the surface film of oil that had leaked from nearby oil works at Point Breeze, Philadelphia, was ignited by a match tossed carelessly from a boat, with fatal results.[18]

20th century

Silt and coal dust from upstream industries, particularly coal mining and washing operations in the headwaters, led to extensive silting of the river through the early 20th century. The river was shallow and filled with extensive black silt bars. By the early 20th century, upstream coal operations contributed over 3 million tons of silt annually to the river.[19] In 1948, led by then governor James H. Duff, a massive cleanup effort began. Twenty three impounding basins were excavated along the river, to receive dredged silt. The 1945 Desilting Act helped begin this cleanup task.[20]

21st century

The quality of the river has improved much over the past decades. A fish ladder to support shad migration has been constructed at the Manayunk dam. Mayfly hatches (signifying good water quality) now occur yearly along the Montgomery sections of the river.

Transportation

 
The Schuylkill River between Royersford and Spring City

The Schuylkill River valley was an important thoroughfare in the eras of canals and railroads. The river itself, the Schuylkill Canal, the Reading Railroad, and the Pennsylvania Railroad were vital shipping conduits from the second decade of the 19th century through the mid-20th century. The rise of trucking capabilities and state & county development of road and highway networks progressively took increasing amounts of business away from both competing transport industries. By the mid-1930s the canals inflexibility and a geographically limited pool of customers steadily shifting energy usage away from anthracite doomed most eastern canals, so the Lehigh, Delaware and Schuylkill Canals all ceased operations during the Great Depression years. The zooming rise of automobile ownership post-World War II, the development of suburbs, and dispersal of industrial buildings into far flung parks serviced by the government supported highways and new Interstate Highways doomed intercity rail transport; even as Interstate Commerce Committee regulations required railway operating companies to maintain passenger rail services past its economic viability—which costs further imperiled the railroad's profits leading to a widespread collapse of the industry in the 1960s and 1970s.

Rail freight still uses many of the same valley rights-of-way that the 19th-century railroads used. Passenger and commuter rail service is more limited. Today, the old rail bed rights-of-way along the river between Philadelphia and Norristown contain SEPTA's Manayunk/Norristown Line, formerly Reading Railroad and the Schuylkill River Trail.

There are efforts to extend both rail and trail farther upriver than they currently reach. The Schuylkill River Trail continues upriver from Norristown to Mont Clare, and designers plan to connect it to sections above Pottstown. SEPTA Regional Rail service currently does not go farther upriver than Norristown. Visions of resuming commuter rail service farther up the Schuylkill valley ("Schuylkill Valley Metro") have yet to become reality.

The Schuylkill Expressway (Interstate 76) and the U.S. Route 422 follow the course of the river from Philadelphia to Valley Forge to Reading. Above Reading, Pennsylvania Route 61 continues along the main river valley to Schuylkill Haven, then follows the east branch to Pottsville. U.S. Route 209 continues along the east branch of the river to its head in Tuscarora. In Philadelphia, Kelly Drive (formerly East River Drive), and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (formerly West River Drive) flank the river.

Recreation

The Schuylkill River is popular with rowing, dragon boat, and outrigger paddling enthusiasts. The Schuylkill Navy was established on the riverside adjacent to the city of Philadelphia to promote amateur rowing in 1858. The Dad Vail Regatta, an annual rowing competition, is held on the river near Boathouse Row, as is the annual BAYADA Home Health Care Regatta, featuring disabled rowers from all over the continent, and in autumn the annual Head of the Schuylkill Regatta takes place in Philadelphia. Also, the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, the biggest high school regatta in the world, takes place there. The Chinese sport of dragon boat racing was introduced to the United States on the Schuylkill in 1983, and two major dragon boat regattas are held there in June and October of each year.

Water skiing, swimming and other aquatic sports are also common outside of Philadelphia city limits.[21]

The Schuylkill River Trail,[22] which generally follows the river bank, is a multi-use trail for walking, running, bicycling, rollerblading, and other outdoor activities. The trail presently runs from Philadelphia, through Manayunk to the village of Mont Clare, the latter of which are the locations of the last two remaining watered stretches of the Schuylkill Canal. There is also a section of trail starting at Pottstown and running upriver toward Reading. Plans are under way to complete the trail from the Delaware River to Reading.

 
The Schuylkill River looking north toward Center City Philadelphia from South Street Bridge in January 2020

Literature

Jules Verne's 1904 novel Robur the Conqueror starts out in Philadelphia on the banks of the Schuylkill River. In Jerry Spinelli's 2003 young adult novel Maniac Magee, the protagonists's parents die when their commuter train plunges into the river. Much of the story takes place along the river in Two Mills, a fictionalized version of Norristown. The Schuylkill River is also the setting of the fictional estate White Acre in Elizabeth Gilbert's 2013 novel The Signature of All Things, based on The Woodlands.[23] The main protagonist in Ta-Nehisi Coates' 2019 novel The Water Dancer first arrives in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia, overlooking the Schuylkill River.

In 2007 Beth Kephart published Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River, a series of poetic ruminations about the river. Philadelphia on the Fly, published in 2005, and Small Fry: The Lure of the Little, published in 2009 contain essays by Ron P. Swegman describing the experience of fly fishing along the urban Schuylkill River in the 21st century.

Film and television

In several episodes of Cold Case, a CBS television series based on the Philadelphia Police Department that aired from 2003 to 2010, various members of the Cold Case squad mention finding "a floater in the Schuylkill". In the 2019 film The Irishman, mob hitman Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, disposes of a gun he just used in a hit by tossing it into the Schuylkill River, noting, "There's a spot in the Schuylkill River everybody uses. If they ever send divers down there, they'd be able to arm a small country."

The Schuylkill River has been a plot point in several episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In the 2011 episode "Thunder Gun Express", Frank Reynolds, played by Danny DeVito, steals a tourist ferry and travels down the Schuylkill, noting that it is "the depository of all the unsolved crimes and murders in Philadelphia". In the 2013 episode "Mac Day", Mac, played by Rob McElhenney, films a stunt video that makes it look like he jumped into the river, after which his cousin Country Mac, played by Seann William Scott, shows him up by actually jumping into the river.

Music

The 2005 video for "Doesn't Remind Me" by hard rock band Audioslave is filmed by the Schuylkill River and the adjacent neighborhood of Manayunk. The Schuylkill is shown in the beginning of the 2015 video for "Looking Out for You" by Philadelphia indie rock band Joy Again. The 2017 video for "Pain", from A Deeper Understanding by Philadelphia rock band The War on Drugs, features the band floating down the river while performing on a barge.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ The Panther Creek Valley and other tributaries of the Little Schuylkill River thread through the most heavily endowed coal valleys in the southern coal region.
  2. ^ The bulk of the Unami Lenape tribal group actually lived along the Schuylkill River and the southerly located right bank Delaware lands of Greater Philadelphia. As the namesake of their greater peoples suggests, the Delaware River—which the Lenape called Lënapehane ("People-Like-Me River"), there were other Delaware living throughout the Delaware basin including the stretch up beyond the Lehigh River into the northeastern Poconos and easterly from Port Jervis to western Long Island and a bit of the lower Hudson Valley, and south and west through all of New Jersey, but not into the state of Delaware — which was occupied by the Nanticoke people into the 1700s.

References

  1. ^ Oxford Dictionary: definition of Schuylkill River (American English)
  2. ^ "Definition of SCHUYLKILL". www.merriam-webster.com.
  3. ^ U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map Archived 2012-03-29 at the Wayback Machine, accessed April 1, 2011
  4. ^ "History of Schuylkill River Greenways NHA". schuylkillriver.org. Schuylkill River Greenway Association. Retrieved 6 January 2024.
  5. ^ Donnalley, Thomas K., Hand book of tribal names of Pennsylvania, together with signification of Indian words, Philadelphia:Donnalley, (1908), p. 37
  6. ^ See The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education
  7. ^ See for example, Pennypacker, Samuel Whitaker, Annals of Phoenixville and Its Vicinity: From the Settlement to the Year 1871, Giving the Origin etc., Philadelphia:Bavis &Pennypacker, 1872, p.1
  8. ^ a b Scharf, Thomas (1884). History of Philadelphia: 1609 - 1834. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts & Co. ISBN 978-5-88351-710-4.
  9. ^ Nickels, Thom (June 6, 2001). Manayunk. Arcadia Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7385-0511-4.
  10. ^ Pennypacker, Samuel Whitaker (1872). Annals of Phoenixville and Its Vicinity: From the Settlement to the Year 1871. Phoenixville, PA: Bavis & Pennypacker, printers. pp. 5.
  11. ^ Hexham, Henry; Manly, Daniel (1675). A copious English and Netherdutch Dictionary. Leers. p. 965.
  12. ^ Oldschool, Oliver (1809). The Portfolio. p. 520.
  13. ^ Hanna, C.A., The Wilderness Trail, Volume 1, New York:Putnam's Sons (1911), p. 108
  14. ^ a b Alvin M. Josephy Jr., ed. (1961). The American Heritage Book of Indians. American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc. pp. 180–211, 188–189. LCCN 61-14871.
  15. ^ Isaac C. Sutton (ed.). "Notes of Family History: The Anderson, Schofield, Pennypacker, Yocum, Crawford, Sutton, Lane, Richardson, Bevan, Aubrey, Bartholomew, DeHaven, Jermain and Walker Families".
  16. ^ Bartholomew, Ann M.; Metz, Lance E.; Kneis, Michael (1989). Delaware and Lehigh Canals. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: Center for Canal History and Technology. pp. 4–5. ISBN 0-930973-09-7. LCCN 89-25150.
  17. ^ "The Last Will and Testament of Benjamin Franklin". Retrieved 2008-05-31.
  18. ^ "The River Set On Fire – One Life Lost, Two Men Badly Burned, & One Vessel Damaged" (PDF). The New York Times. 1892-11-02. Retrieved 2008-05-31.
  19. ^ Carl Kelemen (17 Feb 2006). "Feature – Desilting Basin Finds New Life as Wildlife Habitat, Educational Sanctuary". paenvironmentdigest.com. Retrieved 8 Feb 2015.
  20. ^ Bill Wolf (9 Jul 1949). "They're Cleaning up Pennsylvania's Foulest River" (PDF). The Saturday Evening Post. Retrieved 8 Feb 2015.
  21. ^ "Water skiing on the Schuylkill for good cause". 6abc Philadelphia. January 2, 2017. Retrieved October 15, 2017.
  22. ^ "The Schuylkill River Trail". Schuylkill River Trail Association. 2009. Retrieved 1 October 2012.
  23. ^ Crimmins, Peter (October 8, 2013). "Historic Philadelphia mansion leaves imprint on Elizabeth Gilbert's 'Signature of All Things'". NewsWorks. Archived from the original on June 5, 2014. Retrieved October 15, 2017.