The Country in the City: Natural History in Northwest Philadelphia
In 1903, regular newspaper readers in Germantown enjoyed a weekly series of articles titled, “A Flora of Germantown.” Written by Edwin Jellett, they ran every Friday for almost 40 weeks and covered Jellet’s wanderings throughout Northwest Philadelphia as he recorded plants in bloom, noted changes in the flora from previous decades, and referenced local history. To celebrate its centennial year in 2016, Awbury Arboretum republished Jellett’s articles in sequence, re-creating for the 21st century electronic reader what the newspaper consumer of 1903 enjoyed – a vicarious Friday jaunt through Germantown.
Click here to visit the blog’s home page and navigate to other articles in the series.
By Denis Lucey
The geography of thisinstallment of Edwin Jellett’s “A Flora of Germantown” is complex – covering aspects of the Wissahickon, Paper Mill Run and/or the Monoshone. To the familiar native American names, Jellett adds the names of European-American worthies (Rittenhouse) – names given to streets, squares and buildings.
In the mid-20th century, many Philadelphia brides wore gowns from Dewees on Chestnut Street, kin of the paper-making, flour-milling Dewees. Up country, the Antes House has been restored along Swamp Creek and the building become more familiar to the many attendees of the annual Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.
Christopher Sauer is remembered outside the graveyard at a worn-looking Trinity Lutheran Church on Germantown Avenue. Henry Howard Houston is remembered in Northwest Philadelphia, as well he should be, through institutions, buildings and monuments (St. Peter’s Church, now Waldorf School; Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields; and the Wissahickon Hotel, now SCH Academy) and into the Whitemarsh Valley (St. Thomas Churchyard, where he rests.) All this is in addition to that statue on Lincoln Drive.
I write this introduction a month before the 2016 presidential election. What would Jellett make of the campaign, the parties and the sordid circus atmosphere? The author’s contrast between Houston’s “stewardship” and the “tin gods on wheels” suggests he has been reading the prophets Amos and Habakuk – which are little read today but timely.
Jellett, remembering Whitman, might redirect our thoughts toward finding “the sweetest, strongest, lovingest, happiness, knowledge, not in another place but this place, not for another hour but this hour.” Look down this autumn day and every day at the good green things of this earth by our feet.
Edwin C. Jellett – November 13, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
One who visits the elevation commanded by “Wissahickon School” is furnished with an outlook which in many respects resembles the “headlands” view from the heights of Convent Hill. Instead of Barren Hill or Spring Mill sinus to the right, and Whitemarsh broad depression to the left, we have here to the right, rounding Roxborough’s rock-ribbed hills, the Wissahickon lower valley, to the left Crab creek or Paper Mill run with its attendant valley, and in the immediate foreground, corresponding to “Sugar Loaf,” the circular promontory supporting School House lane fields and the region beyond.
In the restricted bowl or basin skirting below, through which its sparkling stream now unrestricted flows, is what remains of Rittenhousetown, once an active, if not a thriving, settlement, and now existing only sufficiently to remind one of struggling days of yore.
In front of us, with its mouth wide open, is McKinney’s quarry, where, “plugged and feathered,” its ledges dropped to support sidewalks and buildings in many a near and distant town. “Wissahickon Hose” has vanished, and its familiar engine, long its only occupant, has been moved to where I know not.
Behind is the district school in ruins, where teacher and scholars together wrestled, where active youth, harmonizing with nature, neglected lessons to roam surrounding fields and woods, play “hide and seek” in “the Devil’s Cave” beyond, or skate on Rittenhouse’s enticing dam below. Here Charles. M. Colladay wrought and taught, and here Mary Fowler, John Morrisey, Jesse Fowler, William Nunneviler and others many studied, and with them others not a few, who now sleep with the just made perfect.
Paper Mill run rises in a “cattail” swamp near Chestnut Hill, flows southwestwardly, passing near Carpenter Station, the site of the onetime well known Glen Echo Mills, continues onward through Franklin wood, forming at “Waterworks” a dam, which gave name to a surrounding wood, and at an not obscure date was of sufficient flow to supply the water needs of Germantown; a stream nowhere great nor strong, but one of the most noted of our historic waters; for on it, in sight of where we stand, is the remains of the first paper mill in America, built and operated by William Rittenhausen, also the first Mennonlte Bishop in America. Here also labored his son-in-law, William Dewees, who later built on the Wissahickon stream, near the “Great Road” or Perkiomen turn-pike, the second distinct paper mill in America, where he afterwards associated with him Henry Antes, whereat they made paper, ground flour and prospered.
Typha latifolia (cattail)
“Waterworks Dam” was a favorite resort for the young, and for those of riper years who had not forgotten their youth, in summer a much frequented bathing place, and in winter a “carnival” for skaters. Here below the dam a one-time subterranean duct, wherein boys hid their clothes when swimming against the law, has disappeared, and a beautiful garden occupies the place of a soggy marsh, where one time skunk cabbage flourished, and painted-cup grew, but these, like yellow gerardia and native arbutus on surrounding hills, have gone.
Overhead now a handsome light bridge of iron replaces a heavy one of wood, and at a spot where I first collected yellow grass and analyzed it my first flower, stands a monument, which to me is always a pleasure to look upon, for it commemorates one who was a familiar figure in this valley, and a trusted frequent companion, now as of old, most fittingly stands beside him.
Henry H. Houston was one of the most charming of men, generous, active, influential, inspiring, one who was known to, and reverently remembered by, a benefited multitude, and a perfect example of the rich and powerful who neither abuse privileges nor prove unjust to responsibilities which wealth and its blessings place upon them. No rational development underrates the value of wealth nor the worth of the possessor of it. Both have standards of measure, and so long as natural relative positions are maintained, remembering that the acquisition of gain is the simplest and most ordinary of pursuits; that neither character, learning nor ability is necessary for its accumulation; and that it is much easier to “make money” than to refuse to make it, so long as these are confused, let us honor a righteous “steward” faithful to his trust, and not neglect to properly place those “tin gods on wheels” who clatter through the world ignoring human rights, impervious to common decency, ignorant of opportunities and possibilities, whose fleeting bombast and vulgarity is doomed to richly deserved oblivion.
I never pass Waterworks Dam without thinking of its pleasures and sorrows. Here Warren Booz, who rests in Leverington Cemetery, Roxborough, one of my classmates and closest companions at Rittenhouse School, was drowned, and where with Charles F. Butler, who was lost in the Johnstown flood, I spent many happy days — where’er we go this pathos of life is.
Following in mind the stream from our position upon the hill, we find surviving the rows of dingy houses, and dark, repelling church, which always reminded me of Charles Dickens’ “small dissenting chapel built with no lack of illustration to show the miseries of earth,” the birthplace of David Rittenhouse, a relic of the “town” to which it gave name, and a monument to one of the most illustrious men of Revolutionary days. I am aware that scholars of the present generation rank both Logan and Rittenhouse much below that accorded them by admirers of their time, but it is sufficient for our purpose we take them at their contemporaries’ worth.
Here in the fields about David Rittenhouse roamed and first gave evidence of that precocity which afterwards made him famous. We may not stop to enlarge upon Rittenhouse, nor is it necessary, for William Barton in “Memoirs of David Rittenhouse” gives with sufficient fullness and clearness his activities and accomplishments. From the Wissahickon Rittenhouse at an early age was removed to Fairview, a village near Norristown, where later Christopher Saur, second, another noted resident of Germantown, settled; became clock maker and mathematician; built an astronomical observatory, by which he in the Western World was the first to observe the transit of Venus; in science and politics became famous, and now rests in North Laurel Hill, overlooking Wissahickon’s gentle stream, which carries Paper Mill run waters to the river flowing past his grave.
The hermits of the lower Wissahickon were astronomers as well as astrologers, and as the great comet of 1743-44, which like comets of recent memory have disturbed uncertain minds with visions of calamity dire, so the comet of the period noted worried more than the credulous German inhabitants with fear of misfortunes which never came. Christopher Witt, with whom we are now acquainted, after leaving his “community” home, settled, as we have learned, in Germantown, and among other pursuits “followed the stars,” he possessing a telescope, which was thought of sufficient importance to be named in his will, and who described for his own pleasure the comet indicated. Julius F. Sachse, in “The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania,” quotes Dr. Witt’s account of this the Klinkenberg comet, which for so long a time disturbed the peace of wondering minds. Dr. Witt wrote of this comet: “His atmosphere or tail is not long, but directing itself to S.E., this motion but slow, making to the N.W. He rises about three-quarters past ten in the morning in the E.N.E., and passes our meridian three-quarters after five P.M., in latitude 15.30 N., and sets three-quarters after midnight in the W.N.W. His latitude with respect to the ecliptic is 21 deg. 30 min. His longitude from Aries is 14 deg. 30 min.”
Continuing, we pass near the “birthplace,” the site of the original, and its successor, Paper Mill, and on the sunny bank above it the one-time residence of Myles Warren, a botanist and flower lover, long gardener to Moses Brown, of West School House lane.
Rittenhouse paper mill is of interest in many ways, but its history is so well known that we shall at present pass it. It was its rolls which supplied the presses of William Bradford, Christopher Saur and other early colonial printers. In Thomas’ “History of Printing” it is recorded that “there was neither dam nor race for this mill,” but Horatio Gates Jones, quoted by Rev. S. Hotchkin, wrote that “my neighbor Mr. Nicholas Rittenhouse informs me this must be an error,” his father telling him that here was a dam, and that it was located on property adjoining Township Line road to the east, the water being conducted to the mill by a race. Later the mill became know as Markle’s, its last use being for the manufacture of cotton. We now rapidly pass the site of Edward H. Ammidown’s blanket and shoddy mill, and below where it stood, near the stream’s discharge, the spot where one time stood Rittenhouse grist mill, and near it the site of Matthew Houlgate’s fulling mill, on ground adjoining that of William Rittenhausen.
In front of us to the west is Righter’s point, a wooded elevation, where at one time the rarest wild flowers nestled, where maiden-hair fern flourished undisturbed, where out retiring “wild birds” dwelt in security. Over its crags, where the trees are dying of old age and lack of sufficient nourishment, clambered many an enthusiastic amateur naturalist, and not a few of expert experience, among this number being Henry Carvill Lewis, a lover of the Wissahickon.
Looking westward we almost at once note the sites of the dwelling and mill of Nicholas Rittenhouse, one being on the “Drive,” near the present inviting watering place, and the other in the hollow opposite, on the stream. Beyond is “Washington Rock,” an exposed projecting elevation, upon which those keen-eyed and imaginative may see clearly defined the contour of our national defender and first President.
In the Wissahickon there are several artificial and natural curiosities of this nature, a few of which it may be of interest to name.
On a tree growing along the bridle path and nearly opposite Wissahickon Hall is a carved image of Andrew Jackson, no doubt cut there in the stormy days of 1832 by those who in 1840 believed in “Log Cabin and hard cider,” as well as in the brew of “Tippecanoe, and Tyler, too.” On beech trees in the upper Wissahickon are names of many who in the lightness of youth carved names and symbols, who now are silent or unknown. Near “Indian Rock” is “Crusaders’ Tree,” a tree prominent on account of its position, and displaying conspicuously “the sign of the cross.” Among curious or grotesque formations are: “Washington Rock” referred to; the “Sofa,” a group of stones wonderfully resembling the article it represents, and situated in the wood bordering the drive to the north of Red Bridge, where also near same is an exposure of rocks representing “Three Indians;” on the same drive, and opposite the “Monastery” the “Three Frogs,” a mossed, lichen-covered projecting rock, which lately has “come to grief;” and the “Artful Dodger” or “Sneaking Indian,” a delusive, disappearing figure which frequents the drive south of Allen’s lane bridge. There are several others, and those interested are referred to Guards Shingle, Nailsmith, “Bob” Free, and the genial Steve Boisburn, gentlemen who are ever present, ready and willing to answer questions, to whom I am indebted for many scraps of information concerning the Wissahickon region.
Beyond Washington Rock is the site of Scatchard’s mill, which has wholly disappeared, and north of it is Scatchard’s dam and Red Bridge, where we shall stop to note a few signs of the season.
Tradescantia virginica (spiderwort), illustration by Alois Lunzer, from Thomas Meehan’s The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States, first published in 1878. Plates from this book were clipped and included in Jellett’s scrapbook/manuscript “The Flora of Germantown.”
I wonder how many of us realize what a wonderful year this is. Here we are upon the verge of November with constant bright weather, and at noonday the thermometer at 70 degrees. The struggling, straggly plants of many another year have their children with us as though they did not know the “times nor the seasons,” spider-wort, scarlet pimpernel, speed-well in fields; and morning-glory, honeysuckle and roses in gardens, blooming as bright and vigorous as dandelion, which will be downed by no one but itself. With euonymus, privet, hawthorne, Indian bean, and the class of shrubs and trees they represent, green and in full leaf, and with vines, such as Virginia creeper, akebia, and honeysuckle undisturbed, it may seem strange to look upon these plants as belonging to a past season, but it is well to remember that it is annual plants alone which perfect themselves within the bounds of one year, and that “perennials” usually, if not always, perfect their flower buds during a period preceding the one in which they bloom.
Parthenocissus quinquifolia (Virginia creeper)
Parthenocissus quinquifolia (Virginia creeper) fall foliage, photo: Jonathan Billinger
Several of our deciduous plants are almost “evergreen,” examples being honeysuckle and weeping willow, both of which leaf very early, and sometimes hold their leaves throughout the winter, and other plants which bloom early in spring are sometimes encouraged to bloom late in fall. Already many of our early booming plants have started upon their accustomed round, which is to continue to the warm days of the coming summer. In our Wissahickon territory, “Adam and Eve,” a bulbous plant with a long oval shaped, ribbed green leaf, reddish beneath, is now above ground, but its flowering stalk, which will bloom next June, is yet beneath the surface.
In wild gardens at home tipularia, or fly orchis, a plant much resembling aplectrum or putty root, except that its leaves are shorter, and consequently more round, is in the same stage of progression. Everywhere in their favored retreats closed gentian and its closely allied soap-wort gentian are making new growths. In almost every swamp skunk cabbage has started upon its way, and the first warm day after Christmas one enthusiastic enough may gather its flowers. Botanical text books of necessity are lax in regards to periods of bloom, for seasons vary, local conditions make differences, and it is much easier, more convenient and quite as accurate to record in general terms. With us skunk cabbage is always in bloom in January whate’er the weather, and to those interested my unfailing “locality” for it is the wet ground on the first stream above Allen’s or “Deadman’s” lane, crossing the bridle path east side of Wissahickon creek.
Akebia quinata (chocolate akebia, five-fingered akebia)
Gentiana andrewsii (closed gentian)
But the thought is to direct attention to this subject and not to extend it, for many interested in wild flowers wait until the blue-bird and the oriole appear in the spring, or until arbutus and painted cup from New Jersey reserves offered for sale upon our streets, give notice with pussy willow that another year is waiting upon us.
Woods are now bare, though shrubs and trees in deep soil, in spite of age and “white frosts,” continue to hold their own. Defoliation and coloration yet continue of interest, and I am often surprised by the interest as well as the knowledge displayed by early natural history writers. Unillumined we are apt to attach too much importance to ourselves and our work, forgetting the generations of strugglers, the benefit of whose labors and knowledge we reap. I am reminded of this by Sir Francis Bacon’s “Sylva Sylvarum,” wherein he notes “the general colour of plants is greene; which is a colour that no flower is of. There is a greenish prime-rose, but it is pale and scarce a greene; the leaves of some trees turn a little murry, or reddish; and they bee commonly young leaves that doe so; as it is oakes, and vines, and haste leaves rot into a yellow; and some hollies have part of their leaves yellow, that are (to all seeming) as fresh and shining as the greene. I suppose also that yellow is a lesse succulent colour than greene; and a degree nearer white. For it hath beene noted that those yellow leaves of holly stand ever towards the north, or northeast. Some roots are yellow, as carrets; and some plants bloud red, stalke and leafe, and all; as amaranthus. Some herbes incline to purple, and red; as a kinde of sage doth, and a kinde of mint, and rosa solis, etc. And some have white leaves, as another kinde of sage, and another kinde of mint; but azure and a faire purple, are never found in leaves. This sheweth that flowers are made of a refined juyce, of the earth; and so are fruits; but leaves of a more course and common.”
So in his charming, quaint style this wonderful man continues his observations and reflections, which I with great regret leave, and have introduced to direct attention to. But with the birds and the flowers, and salubrious weather present, the fall is here. From our promontory of Rittenhouse hill the Wissahickon never appeared more lovely. Behind Roxborough the sun is setting, its fiery streamers gilding distant spires with brightness and bathing the hills in beauty. Rock crowned Righter’s point, which has never lowered its noble head, stands out proudly, its tree-capped ridge illumined and intensified by the splendor of the conflagration and spiritualized by the blessing of its unspeakable benediction.
It is “Indian Summer,” and the dying October with its magnificent resplendence resembled the day, for the day like the season is mature, and both are ebbing to their rest. About us the earth has yielded her increase. Generous orchards, which a few weeks ago stood bowed with ruddy fruit, now are scant or bare; crops then loitering in the fields have been safely housed; and capacious barns, gorged to their fullest measure, contentedly rest upon the landscape. Now the pigeons circle about the outbuildings, for the fields have been gleaned, and the last stray kernel biding among the stubble has been discovered and devoured. Chickens and turkeys partial to trees have taken to cover, and the wind whistling through dried shocks of corn reminds one of approaching night and of wintry blasts to come. Now kinglets and snowbirds have made their appearance, and heavy comfortable flickers and meadow larks dart from thickets upon the merest suspicion of a footfall. Chimney swallows and night hawks fly overhead in silence. A flock of crows stealthily emerges from Levering’s wood and hugs protecting shades as though preparing to pounce upon the season. A solitary hawk, high and secure from earthly molestation, as calm and as noiseless as a balloon, floats before day, outstripping approaching darkness.
Night is hard upon us, and dead dried leaves rustling upon a tree above grate harshly. The sun has departed, and a chill atmosphere follows, clothing the grass with dew. Sweating webs, heavy with crystal spheres, cling to the bushes. Tree frogs are silent, grasshopper and katydid hosts have departed, and their pleasing symphony is no more. Man in solitude basks in day, but in “the shadows of the evening hours” he yearns for company. Now the very air is charged with change, and life enervated seems weighted with a depressing gloom. The fall indeed, with its strength and its weakness, its hopes and its fears, its deficiencies and its rewards, is with us, and night is around.
As a flickering candle revives and strives to rise to its full strength before it expires, so this belated summer day with its peculiar transient charm rose to new strength and beauty before “going hence to be no more seen.” The stars ever above us are leaving their retreats, and the Pleiades are twinkling in the east. A surging phosphorescence is diffused over “Germanopolis,” and a warm welcome steady light streams from the windows of Blue Bell Hill. Upward, not alone, but with Jupiter by her side, the queen of night slowly climbs the heavens, and, like the queen of many a home of earth, fills a world with brightness — so guided by a beneficent Creator, with underneath “the everlasting arms,” the world eternally, in “light and love,” rolls on.
Cattail. Typha Latifolia.
Skunk cabbage. Symplocarpus Foetidus.
Painted cup. Castilleia Coccinea.
Yellow gerardia Gerardia Pedicularia.
Wild arbutus. Epigaea Repens.
Yellow grass. Hypoxis Erecta.
Spiderwort. Tradescantia Virginica.
Scarlet pimpernel. Anagallis Arvensis.
Speedwell. Veronica Officinalis.
Morning glory. Ipomoea Purpurea.
Honeysuckle. Lonicera Japonica.
Dandelion. Taraxacum Dens-Leonis.
Eunoymus. Euonymus Japonicus.
Privet Ligustrum Vulgare.
Hawthorn. Crataegus Oxyacantha.
Indian bean. Catalpa Bignonoides.
Virginia creeper. Ampelopsis Quinquefolia.
Akebia. Akebia Quinata.
Weeping willow. Salix Babylonica.
Adam and Eve. Aplectrum Hiemale.
Tipularia. Tipularia Discolor.
Crane fly orchis. Tipularia Discolor.
Aplectrum. Aplectrum Hiemale.
Putty root. Aplectrum Hiemale.
Closed gentian. Gentiana Andrewsii.
Soap-wort gentian. Gentiana Saponaria.
Skunk cabbage. Symplocarpus Foetidus.
Arbutus. Epigaea Repens.
Painted cup. Castilleia Coccinea.
Pussywillow. Salix Caprea.
Primrose. Primula Officinalis.