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.
Edwin Jellett is nearing his valedictory, and in this penultimate installment of “A Flora of Germantown” he speed-walks us up the Wissahickon Creek, citing this landmark and that, along with the sites of many already gone in 1903.
Ornate of speech as always, he seems to be in a reverie and makes the somewhat obvious comment that, basically, you can’t imagine what is was like 50 years before (or in the future). Writing in 1903, he no doubt could not envision the changes that would be wrought by two soaring bridges over the Wissahickon – the 1908 Walnut Lane Bridge or the 1932 Henry Avenue Bridge. (Jellett died in 1931, but in all likelihood observed construction of the Henry Avenue Bridge.) As for Jody Pinto’s Fingerspan bridge on the east-side hiking trail, this gent of Victorian rearing simply could not have imagined it.
With winter coming soon, he declares his “Flora,” the season-long cataloguing of all in leaf and flower, to be complete, and he launches into the joys of winter botanizing. How different the continuing arrival of exotic species and the effects of climate change would render such botanizing today. For instance, that wicked Eurasian lesser celandine has already been spotted emerging from the ground for the spring of 2017. Something else Jellett might have had difficulty imagining.
Edwin C. Jellett – November 20, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
Those familiar with the present unsurpassable Wissahickon Drive and accustomed to the countless numbers which habitually frequent it, are no more able to compare it with the trade road it displaced than those of 50 years ago were able to compare the creature of their creation with the lack of it in the days when the Hessians and General Armstrong cannonaded one another from the heights of bordering hills. In “early days” the natural wealth of the Wissahickon was appropriated by the Indians who frequented its banks, the strenuousness required of the settlers in the development of the new country preventing them opening a “sealed book,” and but a favored minority, partly composed by the “Hermits of the Ridge,” was enabled to know it and enjoy its beauties.
In the days of Thomas Mifflin, and until the year 1822, the Wissahickon stream discharged its waters over a natural dam, and where the present broad drive enters the ravine there stood until the year 1826 an elevation of rock, which from the hill above extended to the water’s edge, completely shutting in the valley behind.
On the authority of Charles S. Keyser, one of the founders and historians of Fairmount Park, the Wissahickon at this time “was inaccessible except by roads and lanes,” the region outside the vicinity of mills was little frequented, and except to sportsmen and naturalists was practically unknown. When Fanny Kemble, following a favorite equestrian route, stopped at Laurel Hill, and from thence proceeded to Flat Rock crossing at Manayunk, the Wissahickon she saw and described was neither the one familiar to Godfrey Schronk and his fellow fishermen, nor the one so well known to every present day visitor. In 1830 the entrance to the Wissahickon Valley was narrow, there was no railroad bridge spanning the ravine, Robeson’s busy flour mill stood prominently in the foreground, and duplicating the eastern line of the stream was a convenient carriage road, which “for a mile or two” had been chiseled from “the sides of the stony hill” extending only to Red Bridge, its outlets being by way of Rittenhouse Mill road to Germantown, and by Shur’s or Schurz lane to Roxborough.
Ten years later conditions had little changed, for in the year 1836 B. Matthias, in an article for “Philadelphia Book,” wrote: “It is probable there are but individuals residing in the vicinity of Philadelphia who have not heard, during some interval of business engagements, of Wissahickon creek, a beautiful and romantic stream that falls into the no less romantic Schuylkill, about five miles above the city. The stream is visited, statedly, by but a small number of persons, but as it is neither found on any map nor marked in any gazetteer that I have ever examined, there may be some apology offered for the indifference to its magnificent scenery, manifested by hundreds and thousands of our citizens, who, though domiciled in its immediate vicinity, have never deemed it worthy of a visit.”
In the fullness of time, however, progression came, causes conspired, and, as ever, trade with its demand and supply, its opportunity of gain, forced the issue. A through road became a necessity, and in 1851 “The Wissahickon Turnpike Road Company” was organized, with Joseph Middleton as president and J. Cooke Longstreth as treasurer. A few years later this pike, under the direction of Alan W. Corson, an enthusiastic naturalist as well as an engineer, was constructed from “Old Red Bridge” northward to County Line road, and a new era dawned.
Leaving Red Bridge and the neighborhood of Rittenhouse, Scatchard and Houlgate’s mills, we advance forward against the stream. To the left is Schur’s lane, which, in connection with the hill path to Wissahickon School, is the short cut to Roxborough. Soon we pass a projecting embankment blanked by an abutting gulf, the “dead end” of a cut, which until recently was visible in Vernon Park, and yet observable west of St. Peter’s Church, extending clearly defined from this point to the Wissahickon, once intended for a railway to connect Germantown with Norristown and parts beyond.
On the same side of the stream beyond the railroad embankment is “Mom Rinker’s Rock,” a bold promontory, conspicuously displaying a monument to those on the bridle path or drive below. This elevation takes its name from one credited with unusual powers, who here accidentally lost her life, and although long known as described, I much prefer “Mollie Rinker’s Rock,” the name given and used by Dr. Naaman H. Keyser, to whose ancient and honorable family she belonged. “Toleration Monument” is a comparatively recent addition, and was presented to Fairmount Park by John Welsh, one of its original commissioners, who also gave to the people the ground, on which it stands, as well as 12 acres of ground adjacent.
The view from this rock is superb, and those not acquainted with it should lose no time to visit and enjoy. From its summit the Monastery on the bill, where the Brethren assembled and prayed; to which pilgrims directed reverential steps; where Lippard loved to roam, and where he located the scenes of one of his best known books; where Joseph Pennell and numerous others delighted to sketch, is plainly in view. Between it and “Mollie Rinker’s Rock” is Trullinger’s or Kitchen’s lane, now sometimes known as Germantown lane, an old-time road leading from Main street and Carpenter lane by which the Brethren reached their Baptistry on the Wissahickon, a route fully described and illustrated by Julius F. Sachse in “The German Sectarians of Pennsylvania.”
The stone house on the hill, the covered well, the quaint spring-house continue but little altered, and the lusty stream flowing through the “haunted glen,” forcing its way over resisting boulders, forms as pretty a cascade as ever, but the mills and the buildings waiting upon them have gone. Garsed’s flax mill, to which one following the old-time footpath on the western side of the stream crossed by way of a “rude log chained to an adjacent stone,” like Gorgas mill before, and as Kitchen’s mill later, have gone the way of the earth; so also have the dwellings which grew in the glen; so has “Happy Kelly,” its best known citizen, who, after the flight of textile prosperity, made a living by here collecting wood and selling it in Germantown.
All these the place knows no more, and the few surviving houses eastward on the lane have been taken possession of by bats and chimney swallows. The covered Red Bridge here, over which, like its neighbor down the stream, I loved to play, and listen to rain patter on its fragrant shingled roof, while I watched the foaming, rushing stream below, waiting for a storm to pass, has changed. Other and perhaps better structures have taken their place, but “my heart is with the dead.”
Leaving “Toleration Rock,” its neighbors’ sacred precincts, its wild flowers and its birds, we onward press, for neither time nor space will permit us to tarry long. On the east side of the stream beyond the Monastery is a stretch of beautiful hemlock wood, surpassing beyond compare “The Cypress Grove” of recent note, which for years I have dubbed “The Gloaming,” a weird sort of a place I loved to frequent at night, where the only sound is that of flowing water, where the loneliness is something which may be felt, a haunt for gnomes, where darkness lurks and causes the long, heavy, trailing, suspended grape vines to appear grotesquely canny, filling the wood with the glamour of an imaginative world.
Opposite, on a side road beyond the Park, is new Indian Rock Hotel, a resort which has appropriated the name of “Rube” Sands’ well and favorably known stopping place, once nestling amid Wissahickon’s highest hills. Passing “Sneaking Indian,” we come upon what was once Allen’s lane bridge, a structure which, like many another Wissahickon bridge, “has left for parts unknown.” I do not know how this part of Allen’s lane became known as “Deadman’s lane,” nor have I a desire to learn. The name is ominous enough, and unpleasant things being sufficiently assertive, we dire events and murders foul may well afford to pass.
Leading westward from the bridge is Leverington avenue, which followed brings one to Peter Keiffer’s nursery, where many rare plants I did not enumerate are located. Passing the site of Livezey’s lower mills, and proceeding northward along the drive, the first road to the left turns in to Gorgas and R. Hailey’s mills, and southward on the hill are the grounds of an old vineyard which I well remember. At one time there were several vineyards on the Wissahickon, those which come readily to mind being the Gorgas vineyard noted, Livezey’s, and Bischoff’s vineyards, while farther to the west, at Spring Mills, were several famous ones.
It is surprising how few Wissahickon frequenters know “the caves,” and more surprising the fewer yet who visit them. These caves are situated on the west side of a hill, directly opposite Gorgas mill, and are well worth a visit. One cave is wholly artificial, the other is a natural one, which has been deepened, and extends horizontally many feet into the earth. At this station the eastern bank of the Wissahickon creek is wholly wooded, and rises with a gradual ascent until it summits at a projecting ledge now well known, but which before bridle path days was seldom visited, for it was an extremely dangerous point, which only the most venturesome would attempt to pass. Now the rock is cut away, a bridge spans the chasm, and a series of steps leads to the hollow below.
From here, looking towards Livezey’s lane bridge, is one of the most beautiful of Wissahickon views. Over this ravine at one time extended “Pipe Bridge,” and in the future I doubt not inquiring historians will have their curiosity whetted by the discovery of its stone abutments, now secreted upon opposing hills. Rounding the turn, and mounting the succeeding hill, “Glen Fern” and its treasures rest beyond, basking in the light. The shingled covered bridge, over which those who now pass are instructed to “breathe lightly,” is unaltered, no doubt because it stands safely high above the reach of grasping floods, but “Glen Fern” or Livezey’s mills, with several companion buildings, have gone, and much of the charm which once lured artist and student has departed forever. Livezey mansion, remarkably preserved, is before us, and here in colonial days Benjamin Franklin visited, where also I doubt not he was impressed by the importance of Wissahickon’s waters for the Philadelphia supply. At this place also was buried wine made from grapes which grew on the shadowing hill, a sample of which, rescued from hidden depths of the stream, is now owned by Ellwood Johnson, a patent proof, if proof be needed, that other than the Hessians loved more than water. And here on “neutral ground” Henry Peterson, a resident of many parts of Germantown, who passed his declining years and died in the brick house No. 6354 Main street, built in “Pemberton” one of his most important chapters.
Halting not, we pass fern-covered banks, haunts where fragrant arbutus luxuriantly grows, and soon reach “Devil’s Pool,” one time an artist’s dream, a spot which in spite of every effort to degrade it continues a “joyful and pleasant” thing to the many who seek its refreshing shade and enchanting waters. Cresheim creek, which delivers to the Wissahickon at “Devil’s Pool,” is formed by two small branches, one rising near County Line road, flowing westward north of Ivy Hill Cemetery, and the other rising in Megargee’s swamp, near Mermaid Station. These unite below “Gowan’s Dam,” the resultant stream forming the division line between Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, and crossing Main street near Mermaid Hotel. West of this point it passes through the meadows to David Hey’s carpet yarn and picker mill, at one time known as France’s mill. Farther west, near Cresheim road, stood Hinkle’s grist mill, a building partly removed to make way for the railway above.
Here also is “Lake Surprise,” at one time known as France’s mill dam, a spot more generally known as Carr’s Dam, and below is Hill’s shoddy mill, a place exceedingly familiar to our local firemen. Farther westward are the famous ruins and water-wheel, which with numerous houses once in the valley, and from which odors of garlic, saurkraut and smoked flitch waylaid the senses, was known to every boy explorer of the district as “Little Germany.”
Across the meadow, where our sun-loving plants earliest bloom, is Township Line road, where is the “remains” of a small mill which belonged to the Livezeys, and beyond is a grove, through which the Cresheim rushes to its conflux with the Wissahickon.
Leaving “Devil’s Pool,” and active blooming belated plants of the season, which from henceforth shall be considered behind, let us advance to present a few plants which brighten and charm our winter woods. In a paper read before our Horticultural Society a few years ago, I endeavoured to direct attention to our “winter flora,” and this abbreviated will be sufficient. When flowers have vanished, the trees bare and cold winds have cleared “for good” those tantalizing days which trespass upon its neighbor’s territory, and winter rising into its strength has covered the ponds with ice and the fields with snow, but few stop to think of the vegetation lying at rest beneath and waiting only for an opportunity to expand into life. Wherever one goes in fields and woods, myriads of sleepers lie beneath, and to me one of the most wonderful things in the world of nature is the spontaneous resurrection of these inanimate forms we see, which develop before us, and yet whose secrets of growth and color, whose mysteries manifold, in spite of the advance of science, continue to elude. Though the myriads make no sign and are everywhere, there are among them heralds who early rise to welcome a season new, and there are sentinels who stand guard throughout the year. It is these heralds and these sentinels we shall briefly note. To know the fields and woods and keep in touch with nature, one must frequent them at all seasons of the year, and especially should they be visited in December, January and February.
In winter “nature is quiet,” but never dead, and I doubt if one who wades “knee deep in June” finds ever more genuine pleasure than that which waits upon one in February snows. It is difficult to imagine a keener pleasure than that of finding a rare plant in an unexpected place, or a more complete one than that which comes to us when we meet an early flower blooming alone. Without friends the world is meaningless, and to me, in an inferior way, flowers are friends whose faces ever delight, whose early blooms in a measure are old friends yearned for, whose unexpected meeting thrills one with pleasure.
The most promising season for botanizing is mid-winter, when deciduous trees are bare, when rank growing vegetation is low, and conditions generally are favorable to study. Especially is this true of dry winters, when the ground is open, for then many rare plants, which in growing weather are hidden, become prominent. So, though we may not be especially interested in winter plants, and may find no blooms to reward us, we may in winter study do much for future work.
By “winter flora” is not meant the entire number of plants which appear during winter months, but only those plants which continue nearly constant throughout the year, and those other plants which, after a period of rest, either start again or bloom again during the period named. As we have already noted, there are several autumn blooming plants which sometimes carry their bloom into December, but these are simply belated plants maintained under unusual conditions, and clearly belong to a season they have survived. The plants to be noted are those which keep their form throughout the year, and which, after a natural rest, start again upon a career of development. These plants are few in number and are not as brilliant as those of later appearance.
To search for plants in winter one naturally will go to sheltered places, and these will always be found near protected ravines, or under shelving banks of streams, or in deep woods. A wood hedged by hills and having gully streams, will prove a fertile “field.” For this and other reasons, the part of the Wissahickon we are now considering is the best place I know for winter botanizing.
Looking upon our flora as complete, and the plants yet in bloom as relics, let us consider a few plants which start anew, some of which under favorable conditions early bloom, and which occasionally hold their flowers until the appearance of spring. Already the early garden flowers noted are in bloom, and one who examines denuded trees will find the leaf bud formed for next year’s development, and one who will go into December fields will find wooly mullein, lance leaved plantain, sour grass, buttercup and ox-eye daisy each pushing a new growth, and in woods, among other plants, beefsteak plant, moccasin flower, and other plants previously noted, vigorously endeavouring to begin work.
Nearly always on Christmas Day winter cress, spring cress, water cress and ground ivy may be collected in leaf. The first three plants named may be searched for in shallow pools, and the other upon nearby banks. Also, about this time meadow rue, sweet cicely, false mermaid, golden saxifrage, wild leek and garlic display a new growth. On December 29 I have collected spring beauty in full leaf, showing flower buds, and in sunny positions at the same time I picked golden saxifrage with flower buds almost open. This, of course, was unusual, but these, with the rock cresses, in open seasons very early bloom.
In February many early spring flowering plants, and a few of the later plants, begin to move. By February 15 spider-wort is usually far above ground, and robin’s plantain may be discovered forcing its way through the surface soil, though more than likely it will have cracked the shell long before. Greek valerian and celandine will usually be in full leaf, and closed gentian will be found making a vigorous effort to lead the season. Other plants which start and sometimes early bloom are chickweed, common violet, shepherd’s purse, Quaker lady, star of Bethlehem, columbine, blue-bell and common horse-tail.
As previously noted, our most constant blooming native plant, which always leads snow-drop and other favorite spring blooming flowers, is skunk cabbage, the unfailing harbinger of spring. Other plants to quickly “follow their leader” in a natural succession are whitlow grass, eye-bright, hen bit, kenilworth ivy, liver-wort, blood-root, lung-wort, obolaria, arbutus and others needless to name, for sufficient have been given, I think, to direct attention to the subject which is the purpose.
With the passing of our favored flowers, pass also to a negative position the inferior flowers of our summer skies, and forward out of space emerges a mighty host, which in regal splendor moves upon our world of vision. To me it is extremely interesting to follow “the stars in their courses,” and note their progress through the year. Now the dim constellations which tenant vernal southern heavens circulate below the horizon, or else so faintly shine above that they attract no particular attention. The brighter summer stars, Vega in “Lyra,” the “great square of Pegasus,” with the “Great Cross,” late luminaries of conspicuous brilliancy, are now retreating down the west and nightly decrease in importance, while their reappearing pursuers, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter, steadily and irresistibly advance with increasing strength. Already “the Pleiades” high have climbed the eastern arc, as of old, and never tiring the “Great Bear” gambols about the “pole” in ever varying positions, and before all Cassiopeia, the guardian of the north, sits in judgment.
The curtain is lifting upon another stage, and the shifting scene opens upon a universe of which our little world is but an atom, and we are but as grains of sand peopling the shore of a boundless sea. Trees are bare, the first flurry of snow has fallen, ice covers the ponds in the early morn. The march has ended, last season’s flowers stand frozen in their tracks, the year, with its glories and triumphs, is complete. Before us winter invites us to its pleasures and rewards, the natal day of another floral year is at our doors, the sun, which never fails, shines brightly, and already a new procession has started on its way.