The roots of the nation's environmental movement can be traced to the people, places, and events of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area. It was here that naturalists like John Bartram and John Audubon began to document their surroundings in an attempt to understand our world.
Hawk Mountain Overlook
In the 19th-century, the City of Philadelphia took a pioneering step by purchasing land along the Schuylkill River with the sole intention of protecting the river as a source of drinking water. Nearly a century later the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the United States government embarked on the nation's first and largest environmental cleanup project on the Schuylkill River. Our nation's conservation ethics and environmental responsibility were born here.
Understanding Our World
The 18th century was a time of incredible curiosity and discovery about the natural world. In Sweden, a young medical student name Carl Linnaeus became fascinated with the variety and multitude of plants around him. He set out on a life's quest to catalog and categorize not only plants, but animals, and other forms of life as well. His classification system became the scientific standard that is still in use today.
Historic Bartram's Garden, Philadelphia
credit: Greg Matosky
Linnaeus influenced his colleagues around the world in a significant way, particularly in the American colonies. John Bartram, a Quaker farmer born on the outskirts of Philadelphia became intensely interested in plants and botany at a young age and set about collecting, studying, and propagating plants from around the world at his farm along the lower Schuylkill. King George III appointed Bartram Royal Botanist in 1765, a position he held until the American Revolution. Bartram is considered to be the nation's first true botanist and among the first to study and propagate native plants. His garden contained over 200 species of plants, some of which still survive today.
Both John Bartram and his son William traveled extensively throughout North America. John traveled north through Montgomery and Berks Counties regularly. He was among the first to explore the Kittatinny Ridge and the areas surrounding Hawk Mountain.
The elder Bartram also served as Conrad Weiser's guide on his 1751 expedition to meet the Iroquois Nations in Albany, NY at the height of the French and Indian War. William is well known for his trips into the swamps of Georgia and Florida, and his journals, which he published as the book Travels.
In the late 18th century the family of Caribbean born Frenchman John James Audubon settled into a large estate near the confluence of the Perkiomen Creek and the Schuylkill River. The Audubon family stayed at Mill Grove for only a short time, but retained ownership of the property, which was rich with mineral deposits and fertile soil. John James returned in 1803 as a young man to oversee and manage the farming and mining operations. It was at Mill Grove that Audubon first began to explore the natural world, and developed his interest in and love of birds. He spent hours traversing the forests and creeks in and around Montgomery County seeking, hunting, collecting, and sketching wildlife. It was along the Schuylkill and its tributaries that Audubon first learned to "see" nature and began painting nature as it had never been painted before. Audubon's life work, The Birds of America, changed the way the world viewed birds and their environment. He awakened in the public an appreciation of the beauty and majesty of birds and mammals of all types, a move that lead a few dedicated individuals to speak openly about the need to protect our environment, not only for humanity, but for our animal counterparts.
Protecting our environment
The Industrial Age of the 19th century was certainly not an atmosphere that we would consider conservation-friendly. The nation and its economy were growing by leaps and bounds and using every available resource to do so. Rivers were dammed, forests were cut, and minerals were extracted at an astounding rate. By the mid-19th century coal operations in Schuylkill County had turned the Schuylkill River into an inky black mess. As villages and hamlets along the river grew into cities and towns, they increasingly turned their back on the river as its quality decreased and powerful industries harnessed it to power their operations. The river became an open sewer, as communities diverted their industrial and residential waste into the water.
Fairmount Water Works, Philadelphia
credit: Greg Matosky
The problem with this "out of sight, out of mind" approach was that there is always someone downstream, and in this case, the City of Philadelphia was on the receiving end of the river and all that it carried with it. Philadelphia, the largest city in North America at the time, relied upon the Schuylkill for its drinking water. The Fairmount Water Works, constructed in 1812, drew water out of the river and supplied it to the city's citizens through a network of pipes. Philadelphia's water system was a North American first, and an engineering marvel around the world. The picturesque Neo-Classical buildings of the Water Works quickly became the most reproduced image of the 19th century.
Concerned with the protection of the Schuylkill as a source of drinking water, the City and the State chartered the Fairmount Park Commission in 1867 for the purposes of acquiring land along the river to prevent industrial development and pollution. This is among the first recorded instances of a government purchasing open space as a protective measure. Fairmount Park went on to acquire over 9,000 acres of land along the Schuylkill, Wissahickon, and other water courses in the City. The Park remains one of the largest urban parks in the nation today.
In the late 1920s bird hunting was at an all time high along the Kittatinny Ridge. Thousands of raptors fell every year as hunters lined the ridge during migration season. Concerned with the rapid population decline of these important birds, New York born conservationist Rosalie Edge leased 1,400 acres on the border between Berks and Schuylkill Counties in 1934 and the next year opened the lands to the public for recreation, not hunting. The locals called the place "Hawk Mountain" and the mountaintop preserve quickly became a popular visitor attraction. Hawk Mountain was the world's first refuge for birds of prey and quickly grew into a worldwide leader in bird and habitat conservation.
Reclaiming our river
At the conclusion of World War II, Philadelphia and all of southeastern Pennsylvania remained among the most densely populated parts of America. The Schuylkill River, while still a major source of drinking water for millions of people, was more polluted than ever. The river was virtually lifeless, with barren banks, and few if, any fish and plant life to speak of. Chief among the problems was the coal silt that accumulated in the river as a result of the washing and sorting activities in the coal fields at the headwaters.
In order to rejuvenate the river and reclaim it as a viable source of water, the State of Pennsylvania and the United States government began the Schuylkill River project in 1947. The Commonwealth made use of the dams and land holdings of the defunct Schuylkill Navigation Company that it had acquired in the 1930s to construct large basins to settle the coal out of the water. The river was diverted into 26 80-150 acre basins along its length beginning in lower Schuylkill County on the south side of the Kittatinny Ridge. Once filled, the water in the basins was allowed to stand until all of the silt and sediment had settled to the bottom. The water was allowed to seep slowly back into the river, and once empty was allowed to fill again. After several feet of debris had accumulated, dredging equipment was brought in and the coal dust was reclaimed for use in a variety of products including charcoal briquettes for backyard BBQs.
The Schuylkill River project was the first major environmental clean up effort undertaken by a government agency in the United States. At its peak, it was also the largest operation of its kind in the world. Reclamation efforts continue to this day, with products like river stones being harvested between Schuylkill and Montgomery Counties. Many of the basins were allowed to revert to native wildlife habitat after reclamation efforts ceased. Black Rock Wildlife Sanctuary in Phoenixville, and Kernsville Basin near Hamburg are two such sanctuaries open to the public. These basins provide outstanding birding, hiking, and picnicking opportunities. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania designated the Schuylkill as the state's first Scenic River in 1972.