Schuylkill River Watershed History

Since 1801, when Philadelphia first tapped the Schuylkill River as its water supply, maintaining the quality of the river's water has been an active concern of city officials. As industry began to encroach on the riverfront upstream from the Water Works at Fairmount, laws were passed at various times aimed at preventing pollution of the water. An 1828 Pennsylvania law, in its quaint legalese, mandated a fine of $5 to $50 for pollution “from any dye house, still house, brew house, or tan yard, or from any manufactory whatever, into that part of the river Schuylkill which is between the dam at Flat Rock [above Manayunk] and the dam at Fair Mount.” The act further forbade the dumping of dead animals, or swimming by people or dogs, in the river near the intakes of the Fairmount Water Works.

Schuylkill Navigation Company

Chartered in 1815, the Schuylkill Navigation Company aimed to create a system of dams, pools, locks and canals to make the Schuylkill River navigable from Philadelphia to the coal regions more than 100 miles upriver. The navigation system used canals and locks in a simple “staircase” to bypass rocky or shallow areas in the river. Dams were built to create slackwater pools, along which barges loaded with freight and passengers were pulled by horses or mules along a towpath on the shore. In the decades following the completion of the navigation system in 1825, canal boats brought millions of tons of anthracite coal downriver, fueling the industrial revolution in every town along the way. Return trips upriver carried manufactured goods, clothing and building materials. By the mid-19th century, railroads surpassed water transportation, as they provided freight service unaffected by water level or cold weather. The last known fee-paying canal boat traveled through in 1918, with pleasure boats. Of the original 23 hand-dug canals, only a section in Manayunk and one in Mont Clare, near Phoenixville, remain today. A massive 1940s-1950s desilting project removed more than 100 years of accumulated coal silt from the river. Numerous dams remain from this system, including the Fairmount and Flat Rock dams in Philadelphia.

Fairmount Park Created to Protect Water Supply

The creation of Fairmount Park, a few years after the end of the Civil War, was intended to protect the quality of the river water being drawn at the Fairmount Water Works, and was a direct response to the impact of industrial development along the Schuylkill. Around that time another law made its way to the legislature, which extended the stretch of the river to be kept free of pollution upstream to Norristown and increased the fines from $100 to $1,000. The following amended list of pollution sources reflected the tremendous expansion in industry along the river by this time: “Any carrion or carcass of any dead horse or animal, or any excrement or filth from any slaughterhouse, vault, well, sink, culvert, privy or necessary, any offal or putrid or noxious matter from any dye house, still house, tan yard, or manufactory or mill; any refuse from any coal oil refinery, gas works; or any other noxious matter or liquid whatever calculated to render the water of said river impure.”

Business interests opposed this 1868 law, asking in a petition that the state legislature “protect us in the pursuit of our avocations and forbid any interference therewith, on any doubtful experiments to purify the Schuylkill River.” Their petition included statistics on the number of factories, the families who derived income from working therein, and the total value of goods manufactured:

“We have ascertained and shown from actual statistics that the vast sum of 36 millions of dollars, is directly invested in Manufacturing, in the first sixteen miles of the Schuylkill valley, and that a population of Forty thousand depend for their means of livelihood, upon its pursuit. We leave you [the legislators] to judge of the vast extent of collateral interests, both in the country and city, which are to be affected most fatally by the proposed legislation.” The petition considered the pollution of the Schuylkill an unavoidable cost of doing business that manufacturers thought the larger society should be willing to absorb, considering the economic benefits their factories provided.

In his annual report for 1884, William Ludlow, the Chief Engineer of the Philadelphia Water Department, said this about the river: “The history of the Schuylkill is both interesting and instructive. In earlier days a noble river with a bountiful and healthful drainage area of woodland, mountain and meadow, pouring a powerful and fairly equable current of pure water through its channel, the occupancy of its valley and the growth and development of population and industries from source to mouth have greatly modified its characteristics. Generation after generation have made fresh inroads upon its resources and added its quota of varied pollution, until at length the river, whose pure volume for a long period was able to eliminate the evidence of man's careless work and presence, and which even yet might have continued to do so were it not, Samson-like, shorn of its power of conservation by the ruthless cutting away of the forests and clearing of the land upon which it depended to equalize its flow, has become a sewage and trade-polluted stream whose failing volume in seasons of drought is unequal to the nauseous task of digesting and disposing of the extraneous and dangerous matters with which it is surcharged.”

River Pollution Continues

As a response to river pollution, Philadelphia undertook a series of surveys in search of a new water supply between 1866 and 1946. Most of these surveys recommended that the increasingly polluted Schuylkill and Delaware rivers be abandoned as water sources, and that upstate streams be dammed and this cleaner water brought to the city by aqueduct. None of these recommendations were ever followed, for various economic and political reasons, and tens of thousands of citizens died of typhoid fever between the 1870s and the first part of the 20th century. Finally, water filtration plants, combined with chlorination of the supply, virtually eliminated disease-carrying bacteria from the water supply. This technology made the water safe to drink, but it would be decades before technology was employed to remove sewage and other wastes from the rivers.

The 1905 Purity of Waters Act had mandated the end to sewage pollution of the Pennsylvania's streams. Under this mandate, Philadelphia published its “Plan for the Collection and Treatment of Sewage” in 1914. Unfortunately, implementation of that plan took more than 50 years, during which time sewage pollution of the City's rivers continued. An intercepting sewer was built along the Schuylkill within Philadelphia beginning in the 1880s to capture the sewage being dumped above Fairmount, but the river continued to be fouled by wastes from upstream sources. This interceptor emptied just below the Fairmount Dam, and by the 1920s it was disgorging the sewage from a population of 500,000 into the tidal portion of the river, prompting one city engineer to call this section of the river “an immense septic tank.”

In the 1950s, after delays caused by political intransigence, the lean years of the Depression, and the diversion of public works funds into two World War efforts, the City finally finished the three sewage treatment plants outlined in the 1914 plan. The system of giant interceptor sewers (the largest measures more than 20 feet across), which “intercept” the raw sewage before it reaches the rivers and carries it to the plants, took another 10 years to complete.

More recently, environmental legislation spearheaded by the federal Clean Water Act has resulted in laws governing the discharge of industrial and municipal sewage from point sources and is now focusing on reducing pollution from non-point sources including acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines and nitrogen-laden runoff from agricultural lands. Present problems notwithstanding, the improvements over the past 50 years have been tremendous, as evidenced by the greatly increased use of all parts of the river and its banks for a wide variety of recreational activities. The Schuylkill became the state’s first Scenic River in 1978, and in 2000 was designated as a National Heritage Area.