The Wissahickon Creek valley runs through Philadelphia and has been a refuge for weary urban folks for centuries. It has inspired artists and writers from Thomas Moran and Thomas Sully to Edgar Allan Poe who wrote: “Now the Wissahickon is of so remarkable a lovliness that, were it flowing in England, it would be the theme of every bard, and the common topic of every tongue….” I have to agree with Poe. When I visit Philly, the Wissahickon continuously draws me to its steep wooded banks, gently flowing stream, and bridges crossing the valley up to 185 feet above. Here war and industry interacted with the land over several centuries.
On a recent 19-mile bike ride along that famous Philly river, the Schuylkill, on a perfect fall day, my friend and I veered onto the Forbidden Drive. This unpaved gravel road runs along the Wissahickon Creek and once connected the more than fifty mills that captured the water’s power and produced lumber, gunpowder, paper, cloth and milled grains. Taverns lined the road. The Valley Green Inn from the 1850s remains open for business, a remnant of this era.
By the mid-1800s the road had been made into a turnpike, an efficient way to move traffic along what was becoming a busy thoroughfare. Eventually automobiles arrived on the scene and a debate ensued. Would it be a peaceful road or a noisy road? The Fairmount Park Commission finally decreed in 1899 that cars would be forbidden on the road and though many people fought this over the next several decades, the rule stood. Today the road is perfect for runners and bikers and cars are forbidden.
About a mile up from the Forbidden Drive on a small tributary sits a jumble of stone buildings that constitute Rittenhouse Town, site of America’s first paper mill. A National Historic Landmark, the mill was founded in 1690 by William Rittenhouse and the few buildings are all that remain of the forty or so that surrounded the mill.
Apparently Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, expressed pride in the enterprise. Relatively few existed in England at the time and he was proud that one stood in his colony. According to some estimates 3 men could produce 1000 sheets of paper per day. The mill operated throughout the American Revolution, making paper for newspapers and pamphlets, cartridges and gun wadding. The mill building stood until the end of the 1800s when the Fairmount Park Commission demolished it.
The Battle of Germantown in the Revolutionary War was fought not far from the Wissahickon. American general John Armstrong was supposedly forced to abandon a cannon in the “horrendous hills of the Wissahickon” as he called them. One can only imagine that the valley might have been a refuge for spies during the years the British occupied Philadelphia.
Off the beaten path for tourists to Philly, the Wissahickon is well worth a visit, especially for those who need a break from the city. Nineteenth-century novelist George Lippard who got married along the creek at sunset wrote “A poem of everlasting beauty and a dream of magnificence – the world-hidden, wood embowered Wissahickon.”
I finished my bike ride invigorated by a crisp autumn day, the beauty of yellow leaves covered with a dusting of snow, and a feeling that I’d ridden through layers of history.
Have you spent time in the Wissahickon? Tell about it.
Photos by Jay Blossom.