Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The rural Wissahickon Valley, near center-city Philadelphia, typifies the rugged landscape which greeted the first white settlers. Today, its huge hem­locks and towering sycamores contrast markedly with the busy factories and row houses only a mile away. But this valley of contrasts has always been different from the sur­rounding region. A century ago, when most of America was rural or wild, the Wissa­hickon region buzzed with industrial development and commerce. However, when the rest of America followed suit, the valley, ironically, returned to a state of near wilderness, although located within the limits of America’s fourth largest city!

“The Wissahickon,” as the region is known, embraces the steep hills along Wissahickon Creek, which empties into the Schuylkill River six miles from center-city. From Montgomery County the creek flows through northwest Philadel­phia, where it divides Roxbo­rough and Manayunk on the west, from Chestnut Hill and Germantown un the east. The Indian name for the creek is a combination of two words meaning “yellow stream,” as it is often muddy, or “catfish stream.” Steep and thickly wooded slopes line the creek, becoming rocky cliffs in places. Immense trees weave great canopies of cool shadow on even the brightest days.

During the first phase of the Wissahickon’s history it was home to the Lenni Lenape Indians. Longstanding tradi­tion holds that the large rock commonly known as Indian Rock, in the upper part of the valley, served as the site for their councils.

Pennsylvania founder Wil­liam Penn inaugurated the region’s next period of history when he ceremoniously pur­chased the land from the Indi­ans, even though he was granted ownership by Eng­land’s King Charles II in 1681. But except al its mouth, the creek did not attract white settlement; for the most part the Wissahickon was lined with steep rock cliffs which prevented roads from being built. Farther upstream occa­sional passes permitted access to the valley, but they were few and far between. The land adjacent to Penn’s original Philadelphia was much easier to develop, so the Wissahickon remained inaccessible – and ignored – for several decades.

Because of its isolation, the valley became home to several unusual religious leaders, who sought to separate themselves from the world’s ways. Jo­hannes Kelpius was he first. Born in 1673, Kelpius – a mys­tic with Eastern and occult leanings – gathered about himself a community of ardent followers in Europe and, at the age of twenty-one, crossed the Atlantic to William Penn’s fledgling colony. Landing in Philadelphia in June 1694, the community soon made its way to the isolated Wissahickon region. There Kelpius and his followers, some of whom were members of the Rosicrucian order, built a log house for worship and dug a cave for quiet meditation.

The Kelpius colony styled itself as “The Society of the Woman in the Wilderness” and, with an eye to the sym­bolism of the Book of Revela­tion, awaited the outward coming of Christ the Bride­groom. Lest our Lord should come at night – and catch the Little community unawares – watch was kept in an observa­tory atop the worship house. Despite their selective Chris­tian beliefs and traditions, the society also cast horoscopes and practiced magic.

The followers remained loyal for more than twenty years, but when the Millenium still had not arrived and Kelp1us himself had died in 1708, the colony gradually declined. Celibacy had been enjoined, but some members “married out”; others drifted away. A few joined the religious colony which flowered in the 1730s under Conrad Beissel in Ephrata, Lancaster County, even though no connection existed bet ween the two com­munities.

Even after the departure of Kelpius’ group. the Wissa­hickon remained a religious center. About 1720 Johannes Gumre, a prominent German Baptist, purchased lands along the creek. In 1722 he united with Peter Becker. another leader of his sect, in a search for their followers who had been dispersed throughout southeastern Pennsylvania since arriving in America in 1719. The search was success­ful. Twenty people gathered at Becker’s house in German­town on Christmas Day in 1723 to form plans for church government. Six converts presented themselves, and the group adjourned to the Wissa­hickon Creek for the trine baptism (that is, three times, by immersion). Later, the group went to Johannes Gumre’s house, where in the evening they observed the traditional love-feast and the ritual of foot washing. That day they established the first congregation of the Church of the Brethren – often called Dunkards in years past – in America.

Gumre’s lands later passed into the hands of John Gorgas. associated with Conrad Beis­sel’s religious colony at Ephrata. John’s brother, Joseph Gorgas, built a stone house on the land about 1747, which was used for religious retreats. The structure, still standing today, is known as The Monastery, a mute witness to the Wissahickon’s days as an iso­lated religious refuge.

The same steep and craggy bluffs which kept the valley isolated also meant that its water could be harnessed efficiently by dams to power mills. Despite the difficult access, the visionary entrepre­neurs of colonial Philadelphia began to develop ways in which to tap this power. By the end of the 1680s, a miller named Tittery had constructed a dam near the creek’s mouth, and had built a sawmill, grist­mill and house on the narrow shelf of land between the Schuylkill River and the Wissa­hickon’s cliffs. Other small ventures soon followed.

During the late eighteenth century, while most of Amer­ica was still wilderness, the Wissahickon Valley boomed as an industrial center. By 1730 eight mills had been con­structed on the creek. By 1793, the number had increased to twenty-four, and by the mid­dle of the nineteenth century there were more than fifty, both on the creek itself and on its small tributaries.

The mills lined the length of the creek, but the thickly for­ested region still retained its wilderness character. Access roads led out of the valley at infrequent intervals to markets and to civilization, but there was no road along the valley floor. During military opera­tions near Germantown, Gen. John Armstrong of the Ameri­can side was forced to aban­don a cannon in the valley because it became mired in rough terrain. His contempt for the “horrendous hills of the Wissahickon” was understand­able. However, legends tell of patriot spies who took advan­tage of the thick woods and shadowy glens to slip in unnoticed and receive information from the spy Mom Rinker, who perched atop a rock over­looking the valley. According to legend, she dropped balls of yarn containing messages about British troop movements during the occupation of Phila­delphia, which were retrieved by fellow Americans.

It was not until 1826 that the cliffs near the creek’s mouth were blasted away to give access to a cluster of mills at Rittenhousetown, about a mile and a half up the creek on a tributary. Gradually, the mill access roads were connected, and m 1856 a private toll road, the Wissahickon Turnpike, linked the entire valley for the first lime in history.

The Wissahickon Turnpike was primitive, but at long last the valley was completely opened to the outside world. Long gone were the religious mystics who thrived on the wilderness isolation. Instead of inspiring meditation, the Wissahickon’s water now sawed lumber, milled wheat and com, pressed oil from flax, made paper, produced cloth, and made gunpowder. A sizable population lived in the valley to work the mills, in hamlets such as Rittenhouse­town and Pumpkinville. The entire nation was becoming industrialized, and the Wissa­hickon had been a pioneer.

By the mid-nineteenth cen­tury, it seemed that the Wissa­hickon Valley would continue to develop much like nearby industrial sections of Philadel­phia. Yet there were certain indications that this might not be so. In the eighteenth cen­tury, Benjamin Franklin had already noted the quality of Wissahickon water, and had proposed that it be dammed for Philadelphia’s water sup­ply. His plan did not come to pass, but pressing concern for pure water would drastically alter the Wissahickon’s history in the course of time.

In the 1790s, Philadelphia experienced several terrible yellow fever epidemics. The mortality was appalling: in the first major epidemic in 1793, one-twelfth of the city’s nearly fifty thousand citizens died. Popular opinion blamed the disease at least in part on tainted water, for the city still drew its water from wells, and these were inevitably polluted by the close proximity of cess­pools.

America’s first professional architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe installed a waterworks in 1799-1800 at Centre Square (where City Hall stands now). Water was pumped to center­-city by steam engines from a holding basin on the Schuyl­kill River. In spite of careful planning, the system never worked properly. City Council approved a plan in 1812 to move the intake mechanism upstream and construct a new reservoir atop the hill known as Fairmount (where the Phila­delphia Art Museum stands today). The original buildings of the famous Fairmount Wa­terworks were built over sev­eral years commencing in 1812, and the plant was in operation in 1815. Because the steam engines were unreliable, the city switched to water power, which required damming the Schuylkill River in 1821.

Philadelphia finally had a dependable water supply. As Philadelphia spread further westward, the city fathers purchased in 1844 a large es­tate near the waterworks to prevent commercial develop­ment which could pollute the water supply. A decade later the land was officially dedi­cated as a park, forming the cornerstone of today’s Fair­mount Park.

Meanwhile, the industrialized Wissahickon Creek still poured into the Schuylkill, only five miles from the Fair­mount dam. During the next several years the city acquired more land, ever seeking to preserve the purity of the Schuylkill’s water. In 1867, the Pennsylvania Assembly cre­ated the Fairmount Park Com­mission to oversee development of the park lands, and the following year it empowered the commission to add a huge tract of land to the park – including almost the entire Wissahickon valley region within the city! The Commission was to negotiate with land owners for a fair price, but it had power of eminent domain if no agree­ment could be reached. Its authority superseded even that of the omnipotent trans­portation interests. An 1870 Act of the Assembly forbade­ construction of railroads in the park, and only lines existing before the bill’s passage could remain.

While most of America was becoming industrialized as never before, the Wissahickon valley began regressing to a remote wilderness. The Fair­mount Park Commission ag­gressively took title to much of the land in 1869-1870 and vari­ous parcels were acquired during the next several dec­ades. As the mills were pur­chased they were immediately razed. The last active mill in the broad valley was demol­ished in 1884, completing the wholesale conversion ironi­cally, it was only several decades later that the Schuylkill River became seriously pol­luted by sources far upstream and beyond Philadelphia’s control. Nevertheless. Wissa­hickon Valley’s natural beauty had been preserved.

Still, another motive contin­ued the preservation of the Wissahickon Valley, even though it was no longer crucial to the city’s water supply. Philadelphians by the 1830s had begun to appreciate the serenity and beauty of the region for its own sake, in­stead of merely as an adjunct to industrial progress. The English-speaking world fell under the spell of Romanti­cism and Philadelphians were captivated too.

Before the nineteenth cen­tury, nature had seemed an ambivalent force: sometimes bountiful, sometimes an utter destroyer. Things natural, which to modern eyes seem so desirable, were not always seen that way. To people of earlier centuries, accustomed to viewing the world as having fallen with Adam, nature had fallen too. In time, the Renais­sance had brought about a new view of mankind as es­sentially good, and from this developed a corresponding view of nature as good in its own right.

This new view of nature developed over time and even­tually resulted in a literary and artistic movement in the nine­teenth century known as Ro­manticism. Glorifying chivalry and heroism, the Romantics also heralded wild nature as the model of real beauty. And Philadelphians found that they had at home a source of wild natural beauty to enjoy: their Wissahickon valley. Even with the mills in full operation, there were still many remote stretches of wild bluffs and overarching trees. The older mills had themselves become picturesque, their mossy stone walls suggesting medieval ruins. In 1832, the well-known actress Fanny Kemble visited the region and praised its virtues:

The thick, bright, rich-tufted cedars, basking in the warm amber glow, the picturesque mill, the smooth open field, along whose side the river waters, after receiving this child of the mountains into their bosom, wound deep, and bright, and still, the whole radiant with the softest light I ever beheld, formed a most enchanting and serene subject of contemplation.

Not long after Kemble’s tribute. other well-known people began espousing the Wissahickon’s glory. Perhaps the most famous was Edgar Allan Poe, who lived nearby from 1838 to 1844, and who published a descriptive Little piece entitled Morning on the Wissahickon.

The Wissahickon’s appeal was not limited to the writers and artists of the day. Long before the Wissahickon Turn­pike linked the various access roads in 1856, crowds had entered the region to ride, stroll and fish. Pleasant road­houses stood throughout the valley, catering to virtually every social class. Their names were as enchanting as the surrounding region: Wissa­hickon Hall, Maple Springs Hotel, Lotus Inn, Valley Green, Indian Rock Hotel. Catfish and waffles soon be­came a favorite regional dinner specialty, as described by Cor­nelius Weygandt, a University of Pennsylvania English pro­fessor who grew up in nearby Germantown:

“Catfish and waffles” was a rather modest title for a good deal of a dinner. It began with catfish and it ended with coffee, so it was sometimes known as “catfish and coffee,” as a certain kind of “full course” dinner today is known as “soup and pie.”

The regional speciality began with fried catfish and a relish, followed by steak of beet with fried potatoes, stewed chicken, waffles and coffee. Dessert at many roadhouses was op­tional.

When the Fairmount Park Commission acquired the region, it enforced a rigid but appropriate view of a wilder­ness park. Along with the mills, it purchased and razed most of the roadhouses. The Commission believed that, with less opportunity for di­version, there could be greater appreciation of the wilderness.

Wissahickon Valley. Its steep walls protected its isolation, giving rise to eccentricities both in religious and industrial enterprises, all in the midst of the burgeoning growth of Philadelphia. While rural America seemingly slumbered through much of the late eighteenth century, the remote valley – geographically as well as culturally removed from the rest of the world – served as a verdant stage on which millers and carpenters toiled unceasingly – for a time at least. And history, or, more precisely, the course of time and nature, has been able in many cases to unravel what man has wrought . And in the Wissahickon Valley, it hap­pened. From an industrialized center, teeming with daily activity while surrounded by a slowly. almost haphazardly, emerging city, the Wissahickon Valley returned – almost miraculously – to a remote wilderness within the limits of the fourth largest city in the United States.

Wissahickon Valley. It has returned to the land of the muddy waters and catfish.


For Further Reading

Brandt, Francis Burke. The Wissahickon Valley. Philadelphia: Com Exchange National Bank, 1927.

Johnson, Gerald White. Pattern for Liberty. New York: McGraw-­Hill, 1952.

Rivinus, Marion W. Lights Along the Schuylkill. Privately printed, 1967.

Weygandt, Cornelius. The Wissahickon Hills. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1930.


Joseph D. Conwill is a freelance writer and photographer currently living in Foxboro, Massachusetts. He received his bachelor of arts degree in American Culture from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. His interest in “back-to-the-land” movements prompted intensive research, the result of which appeared as an article in the summer 1984 edition of this magazine, “Back to the Land! Pennsylvania’s New Deal Era Communities.” His interests include Canadian history, and an article dealing with the caloniza­tion of Quebec appeared in a recent issue of History Today.