Independence. Innovation. Awareness.
The Schuylkill River Greenways National Heritage Area is the birthplace of the movements that shaped the nation, fueled its growth, and reclaimed its future. It was along the banks of this river and its tributaries that the American, Industrial, and Environmental Revolutions were born. Explore the stories, visit the places, and experience the region’s vitality by visiting the Schuylkill River Greenways. America’s past and its future start here.
The battle for the independence of America began and turned upon events within the Schuylkill River Heritage Area. In Philadelphia a group of men took bold steps and did something that had never been done before: declared their freedom from the most powerful nation on earth. At Germantown, Paoli, Fort Mifflin and Brandywine, the patriot army fought difficult battles with the British. At Valley Forge, a war-torn and weary group of men suffered through a grueling winter and emerged in spring as a well disciplined army. The farms and furnaces to the north and west provided much needed food and supplies to the patriot cause. American history turned here.
Politics and culture
By the mid 1700s Philadelphia had grown to be the largest English-speaking city in the world outside of London. It was also one of the most ethnically diverse cities, and the mix of cultures, values, and religions made Philadelphia the cultural, social, and political center of the North American colonies. This mix of people and ideas created an environment for talking about radical ideas that was unparalleled in other North American cities at the time. When anger over taxation and the policies of the British Parliament reached a fevered pitch in the early 1770s, delegates from each of the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia. Here they could debate their issues far more freely than would have been possible in Boston or Charleston. Those places were viewed as being too radical or conservative in their views. Philadelphia presented a unique opportunity for these men to gather and share their hopes, dreams, and fears about declaring their freedom. The mix of politics and culture in Philadelphia also allowed for the free expression of ideas and beliefs by the citizenry. English-born Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin. An outspoken critic of Parliament and its policies, Paine embraced the patriot cause and published Common Sense in 1776. The pamphlet was one of the most convincing cases for independence made up to that point, and helped convince the colonists to support the war effort. Following the Revolution, the task of establishing a new government was debated in Philadelphia. The Constitutional Convention met in the State House and toiled over the proper way to govern these newly independent states. The Constitution was signed in the Pennsylvania State House in 1787, and Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the document later that same year. Philadelphia was established as the first capitol of the United States, a role it served until 1800. Montgomery County born Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg became the first Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Battles and encampments
The Revolutionary War arrived in Southeastern Pennsylvania in earnest the summer of 1777. Prior to that time the impact of the war had been purely financial and political as the Continental Congress continued to meet in the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) and the financial resources of the region's citizens were tapped to support the war effort. However, a contingent of British troops landed in Maryland in August 1777 and began their march northward. Washington and his generals suffered three crushing defeats at Brandywine, Paoli, and Germantown over the next two months, and the British took control of Philadelphia in late September.
As battles between patriot General Horatio Gates and Sir John Burgoyne raged in upstate New York, Washington and his army feverishly worked to defend and reclaim Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In November, British General William Howe launched an offensive against patriot-controlled Fort Mifflin at the confluence of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. The lower Delaware was a critical supply route for the British and as long as Fort Mifflin was under Washington's control, Philadelphia was closed to British supply ships. For six weeks this tiny, incomplete island fort was laid under siege. From November 10 through 15, 1777, it is estimated that the British fired 1000 canon ball, shot & shell into the Fort every 20 minutes. Of the 406 men garrisoned, close to 250 were either killed or wounded. Howe and his army conquered the Fort, but the service of these men delayed the supplies that the British needed. If it was not for the men who served in Fort Mifflin, the British Army would have had their supplies earlier and General Washington's Army could have been destroyed. Following the defeat at Fort Mifflin, Washington moved his army up the Schuylkill to prepare for the winter. The tired and tattered group arrived in the tiny village outside the Valley Forge in mid-December. The army set up camp on the bluffs overlooking the Schuylkill River and waited out the long and unusually cold winter. As spring approached the largely untrained and ill-equipped militia began drilling and training under the direction of Prussian Baron Friedrich von Steuben. It was here that they learned to become an army and to fight the British on their own terms.
Supplying the cause
The concentration of battles, encampments, and political influence in Pennsylvania meant that food, weapons, and other supplies were in high demand. The fertile fields of Berks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties were pressed into service to meet the needs of the cause. The Schuylkill River Heritage Area was home to over 50 iron forges and furnaces in 1776, more than all the other colonies combined. While most produced household items like pots, nails, and hinges, several, including Hopewell Furnace, cast cannon and ammunition.
The American Revolution was largely a private cause fought on the public's behalf. The colonial assemblies supplied militia and some cash, but there was no unified system for the collection of funds or supplying of troops. Many wealthy individuals, particularly merchants, responded by fronting cash and supplies to the Continental Congress, who in turn distributed them to the Army. Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant was among the principal financiers of the American Revolution. Like many elite Philadelphians, Morris lived in the city during the fall, winter, and spring, but retreated to the country during the oppressive summers. Morris made his home at Lemon Hill on the banks of the Schuylkill River. Of course, not everyone in the region was supportive of the Patriot cause. The Pennsylvania legislature arrested many pacifist Quakers for their lack of support and relocated them to Virginia. Residents in the backcountry, particularly predominantly English Chester County, vehemently opposed the war, which caused considerable difficulties in obtaining supplies and moving troops.
Industrialism took hold along the Schuylkill River and its tributaries very early in the nation's history. The abundant natural resources and the fast moving waters of the river and its tributaries fueled the nation\'s economic engine for centuries. Mines, factories, mills and forges sprung up across the region and helped make Southeastern Pennsylvania an industrial powerhouse and worldwide leader in the Industrial Revolution.
Dozens of factories, forges, mills, and mines dotted the landscape and gave rise to technological innovations that would change the course of human history. Transportation networks traversed the landscape to deliver the goods these industrial giants produced to markets. Drawn by the abundant employment opportunities and the promise of a new life, immigrants from around the globe came to the Schuylkill River Heritage Area to find work and establish communities. These groups wove a rich tapestry of languages, foods, music, and arts up and down the river that made the Schuylkill a vibrant, diverse, and culturally significant region.
A wealth of resources
The unique geography and geology of the Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont meant that Southeastern Pennsylvania was blessed with a number of fast moving water courses, abundant forests, and a variety of underground minerals. These resources attracted entrepreneurs and innovators who sought to harness the earth for economic and societal gain to the Schuylkill River Heritage Area. The rugged limestone and granite peaks of the Kittatiny Ridge of the Appalachians cross the river in Schuylkill County and contained the nation\'s largest supply of anthracite coal within their folds. As the mountains flattened into a series of rolling hills and valleys on their way eastward, the limestone flattened into a thick slab that extended westward toward the Susquehanna. The limestone served to make the soil in Berks, Montgomery, and Chester Counties among the most fertile lands east of the Mississippi. The stone also provided settlers with a durable and abundant building material for their homes and barns. Iron ore, jasper, ochre, and other minerals were also found in abundance beneath the surface.
The waters that coursed out of the mountains and through the valleys powered the mills and factories that made these resources ready for consumption and then transported them to market in Philadelphia. The lush valleys of the Piedmont gradually turned into coastline and marshlands along the Delaware River in Philadelphia where wharves, docks, and other facilities waited to transport goods to markets around the world.
The diversity of the landscape and the variety of natural resources made the Schuylkill River Heritage Area ripe for the development of several important industries. The presence of iron ore helped make the region the most productive iron producer of all of the colonies. At the time of the American Revolution there were more ironworks in Pennsylvania than in all of the other colonies combined, and nearly 2/3 of them were in Berks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties.
The discovery of anthracite coal in Schuylkill County in 1790 led to the development of one of the world\'s greatest industries and changed the way individuals heated their homes and factories powered their facilities. The iron and coal industries found a happy marriage with the development of steel technology and led to the large factory complexes in places like Reading, Birdsboro, Phoenixville, Conshohocken, and Philadelphia. At the turn of the 20th century Philadelphia was known as the "Workshop of the World" and was home to the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Stetson Hats, and a variety of knitting mills, breweries, and steel mills. Textile mills, tanneries, ship yards, and refineries and numerous other industries all used the river and its tributaries as a source of power.
Getting the goods to market
The success of industry depended almost entirely upon the ability of manufacturers to transport the products to market. The Schuylkill River served as the spine of a complex transportation network that extended from Philadelphia to Schuylkill County and that helped to usher in industrial innovation and growth of global significance. The discovery of coal prompted a number of Philadelphia merchants to establish the Schuylkill Navigation Company in 1815 to undertake construction of one of the earliest canal and river navigation systems in the country. The Schuylkill Canal transported coal downstream and finished goods to upstream communities. The Canal was surpassed in the mid 1800s by railroads that could move goods and people over land faster and cheaper than by water. The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was established in 1834 to haul coal from Schuylkill County via Reading and onto Philadelphia. In the 1870s, the P & R was the largest corporation in the world. By 1924 the railroad was composed of 24 separate lines and was renamed the Reading Company. The Reading went bankrupt in 1971, but today the Blue Mountain, Reading & Northern Railroad operates on a part of the original alignment in Berks and Schuylkill Counties, making it one of the oldest operating railroad alignments in the world. The Pennsylvania Railroad, also based in Philadelphia operated an extensive network along the Schuylkill, and sections of the Schuylkill Valley Branch became the 140-mile long Schuylkill River Trail that runs from Philadelphia to Pottsville.
It's the people that matter
The real success of the Industrial Revolution in the Schuylkill River Heritage Area should be attributed to the men and women who labored in its factories and mines. Immigrants from around the globe flooded the docks in Philadelphia and New York during the 19th and 20th centuries hoping to find work in the region\'s burgeoning mills and coal fields. In the anthracite region, German and Welsh miners helped to open the earliest mines and were quickly followed by Scots-Irish, Italians, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Greeks and others in record numbers. Each group spoke a different language, ate different foods, worshipped a different god, and yet coexisted in the same communities and shared similar experiences. This diversity was mirrored in communities up and down the river and today millions of Americans can trace their ancestral roots to the Schuylkill River Heritage Area.