Rollin' on the river

by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published April 11, 2002

For a century, the river was a means of transportation and communication between the wilderness west and north of Philadelphia and the European civilization represented by that city. But with the advances of the railroad, the Schuylkill became overshadowed by the steaming trains.

Not completely, of course. For generations, bargemen hauled coal down the river, using towpaths to provide the power to move the barges. If you could listen along the river in the early 19th century, you would hear all the songs we associate with bargemen along the Erie Canal.

Those same songs were sung on many a waterway in those days. Those bargemen were the long-distance truckers of their day. Soon they’d be replaced by the trainmen, but for a few short decades in America they represented the height of technology in transportation.

Along the Schuylkill, most of the action took place along the far bank of the river, for that’s where the towpath lay. Towns along that side of the river had the profit, and the pandemonium, that came with these raucous young men whose lives were no more settled that their boats.

Eventually, they sowed the seeds of their own demise on the Schuylkill. Anthracite dust falling from those barges would eventually silt up the river and make it unnavigable, even to the flat-bottomed barges of the coal trade.

With the Reading Railroad running along the “Welsh” bank of the river up to coal country, it made no economic sense to fix the problem. Bargemen went elsewhere and faded into the history of America’s industrialization. But capitalism wasn’t through with the river.

For the calm waters of the river were to be turned into a power source. With the end of its use as a means of transportation, the industrialists of the mid-19th century harnessed the power of the river to run their mills.

Look along the northern banks of the Schuylkill and their handiwork is still evident. They channeled and dammed the river to store up its energy, then directed it to where they needed it. There are still visible offshoots from the river that formerly took water – and its power – to run one mill or another. At the same time, Mill Creek flowed out of the Welsh Barony similarly harnessed to power scores of mills.

Throughout the history of the people along the river there are stories of the bad floods that would periodically sweep downstream, taking property and lives with it.

According to a report, on Oct. 4, 1869, a terrible flood occurred – worse than floods from 1822, 1839 and 1850.

“A canal boat, full of coal, docked in front of the Pulp Works, breaks from its moorings and floats over into the river,” said a contemporary report. “On the boat are the captain and a boy. The captain throws a yawl overboard and springs into it, calling to the boy to follow. For some reason the boy fails to do so and is carried down the river on the boat.”

In this flood, the water rose almost to the underside of the Green Lane Bridge, and the barge carrying the boy crashed into the bridge, destroying the barge, damaging the bridge and killing the boy.

Another wicked flood came on May 25, 1894. Reports say that people in the houses along the river had to get exit second story windows in boats. In this flood the water reached to within 3-1/2 feet of the high mark of 1869, bringing property damage. Fortunately, there no deaths.

On March 1, 1902, a long rainy period resulted in the river flooding all the way from Reading. Reports say the water rose two inches in 10 minutes, 12 inches an hour.

River Road was underwater and floating above it were “drift wood, boards, planks, small logs, big logs; huge tree trunks, that have lain along the banks of small streams for years; too heavy to be moved, except by deep water flow past,” according to a contemporary report.

“A cradle races down stream, followed by a chicken coop; a rowboat, that has broken its moorings; an outhouse, the gable end of a frame barn, the whole roof of a frame building.”

The water rose almost up to the eaves of the one-story houses and River Road residents carried everything to the upper stories. This time the water touched the eaves of the onestory houses, which was the high mark of 1869 flood.

In spite of flooding, people continued to live along the river – some mill workers, some making their living fishing the river. Following the turn of the century, the area became, well, backwater.

After the start of the Depression, floods of another kind occurred. Helen Dixon moved there in 1930 at the age of 4 when her family lost their house in Philadelphia. “My parents, Emil and Ellen Porter, had to move us out of the city,” she said. “My father took over a boathouse and I remember walking from the train here while he made it livable,” she said. “Our monthly rent was $8.”

Their house was located along with others on a property owned by Dr. Albert Marshall. It was just below the bridge where Mill Creek Road dove under the railroad tracks and met River Road.

During the Depression, destitute families lived in tents and shacks in a wooded area close by. The site was below Flatrock Park outhouse, and that’s where they camped in tents and built little shacks for their animals.

“I remember there was a tent city down from us in a grove of trees,” Dixon said. “I remember them as other families who had financial trouble from the Depression.”

There were also many old, high, mill-type houses along River Road and along the railroad bank. Sadie and Harry Sohn owned a small grocery store. Helen Dixon’s parents eventually bought the store from them and remodeled the outside and ran it for a long time, naming it “The Little Store.”

“I think the store burned around 1964 and my parents never rebuilt it,” Dixon said. “My mother died shortly after that.”

But the flooding didn’t let up. Dixon recalled chicken coops with chickens sitting on top and pigs floating on a wooden slab and “oinking” as they were carried by the river waters.

“When the water came up over River Road, people would have to be evacuated,” she said. “The police would be up on the railroad tracks and a canoe, or boat, and a rope would be used to help evacuate people.”

Dixon thinks it was a flood in 1936 that eventually did away with the tent city. After being washed away, the people were forced to find other places on high ground.

Across the bridge and going west on River Road were many different style houses that have been there for many years. But the community of 10 or so houses near the mouth of Mill Creek was doomed.

Lower Merion Township eventually bought properties and tore them down to build Flat Rock Park in the 1970s. “The township wanted to create a boat access to the river, and between that and all the flooding, this was where they put it,” Dixon said.

After her parents moved up the hill when they bought the store until 1955, Dixon married and continued to live in the same house. She now lives in Perkiomenville. “All the buildings, including ours, were demolished.”

Today there’s nothing left to recall either the doctor who chose to live “with the river people” or most of the people themselves. They were always strangers to the Main Line because their lives looked to the river, not the valleys that lay up the hill from the railroad tracks.

Mostly the park that replaced them seems almost abandoned. The river seems to be waiting, unassailable, for future floods.

The river has taken on a new role. It has become landscape. Perhaps soon it will become important again, important enough to be returned to a cleaner, more natural state.

If not, nature will continue to work on cleaning itself, sending swift waters to wash its banks of man’s footprints.