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.
By Mark Sellers
In the first week of November 1903 Edwin Jellett takes his readers on a tour through the Wissahickon. He starts where the Wissahickon empties into the Schuylkill and proceeds up what we now call the Lincoln Drive, naming the old damns and mills, many of which were long gone even as he was writing. The expedition is another opportunity for Jellett to trot out locations of Revolutionary War camps and skirmishes. On the way he points out a cluster of scrub pines, which he opines are far from their native New Jersey. He passes Wissahickon Hall, most recently known to Germantown residents as a police station, and recalls the smell of “waffles, catfish and coffee.”
Along the way Jellett weaves stories of Johannes Kelpius, the mystical separatist who lived in a cave in the Wissahickon, with speculation about why leaves change color in the fall. But we may count on Jellett to turn a rhetorical corner and wow us with an unexpected surprise. After noting that the changing colors of fall foliage are not a response to the frost, Jellett pauses to consider the wild carrot, a weed still found in Germantown, and informs us that Charles Darwin, the great English naturalist, corresponded on that very subject with Thomas Meehan. Apparently, Meehan, a good friend of Jellett and a widely known 19th-century Germantown nurseryman, pondered the occasional appearance of small groups of purple florets in the otherwise white flower of the wild carrot, and felt moved to call this to the attention of Darwin. Jellett quotes Darwin’s October 9, 1874, note in response in full, and this reader is comforted to know that even the giants of modern science may occasionally write exceedingly brief, but gracious, responses to the oddest of requests.
Edwin C. Jellett – November 6, 1903 – from “A Flora of Germantown”
As originally published in the Germantown Independent Gazette
With the disappearance of Fort St. David’s from its site near present “Falls” stone bridge, and its union with “State in Schuylkill,” the oldest club in America, an organization of social and political prominence which flourished upon the banks of the lower Scuhylkill river, the Falls lost a brilliant coterie and retinue, which only in part reappeared when Fairmount Park Commission granted to the combined clubs the right to use the “old foundry” located at the mouth of the Wissahickon creek, a building which since the Centennial year it has occupied, and where old-time conviviality was revived, fraternal intercourse strengthened, and potations renewed, for we full well know that fish out of water are exceedingly dry, and it was never ordained that man with meat should do without drink.
Leaving our classic hill and congenial board, the elevated slopes of Merion’s hills and Pencoyd’s thundering roar, the ancient shades of Goose Island’s harbor safe, now no more, and the towering wonders of balanced “Pulpit Rock” eastward upon the shore, we set out upon our closing ramble.
At once and immediately to the right is the one-time camping ground of the roving, destructive Hessians, marshalled under General Knyphausen, who sacked “Fall in Schuylkill,” dismantling at the same time the club house of Fort St. David’s, and beyond it is Ridge or Manatawny road, a public highway ordered to be “laid out from Philadelphia to Wissahickon Mills, July 4, 1718, by five commissioners,” one of whom was Andrew Robeson, a road which became an artery of trade, and a most important “post road.” Beyond this road is Robeson’s mansion, in form as noble as ever, but like many a back-slider of appearance fair, though through no fault of its own, lives to warn us to what “base uses” we may come. Vandeering or Robeson’s mill has disappeared, but its old-time dam breast, altered to suit the dominant taste, displays to all admirers the final observable plunge of Wissahickon’s retiring waters.
In this neighborhood our sociable old friend, Jacob Hiltzheimer, was a frequent visitor, as indeed he was to many another place where good company was to be found. In June, 1766, we find he, “being the King’s birthday, dined on the banks of the Schuylkill in company of about 380 persons. Several healths were drunk, among them Dr. Franklin’s, which gave great satisfaction to the company.” Later he “went with Joseph Rakestraw five miles up the Schuylkill to John Vandever’s who is observed by his friends a little out of his mind,” and on the same day he further notes, “viewed the new projected road over Roxborough hill in compliance with the order of the Court of General Quarter Sessions, being date of 20th September last.”
Time and again we find Hiltzheimer dining at General Mifflin’s, a good liver who did not believe in “dry whistles,” a lover of good horses as well as of general sports, and in his day considered one of the best skaters on the Schuylkill. But whether it was at Mifflin’s dining with Cornplanter, Half Town, Great Tun and their companion Seneca Indians, or across the river calling upon Judge Peters at Belmont, we find him ever active, and, unlike many of like temperament who “hugely” enjoy a good time to themselves, he appears to have been quite active in promoting a like time for his own, a quality as rare to this type of character as it is admirable. Again, briefly, we find Hiltzheimer, August 12, 1768, writing, “Went up Wissahickon Road to set up milestones. Dined at Leberon’s with Hugh Roberts, Pearson Smith, Edward Milnor and John Lukens, Sr., and afterwards, a little beyond his house, we placed the XIII mile stone.’’ The old “redoubts” stood upon the hill to the rear of Vandeering’s mill, and I doubt not that General Armstrong, following his order to advance by way of Manatawny road and protect the army’s right upon the battle of Germantown, here first located, and from the heights cannonaded the enemy on the eastern bank of the stream, “whilst the riflemen on opposite sides acted on the lower grounds.” Here also I doubt not that he was compelled to leave part of his battery, for this as he reported from his retreat camp near Trappe, he was obliged to do “in the horrendous hills of the Wissahickon.”
Leaving the spot where our spring flowers earliest bloom, we enter the Wissahickon ravine. To the right, now hidden by trees of larger growth, is a group of scrub or Jersey pine, a tree appearing sparingly throughout our territory, the largest and most typical of local groups of which being located in the upper Wissahickon near Spruce Mill road. In Franklin wood, and on the grounds of James S. Mason, near Upsal Station, is pitch pine, with us an exceedingly rare native plant, and near the Bethesda Home at Chestnut Hill is a unique group, agreeing in variety with our Wissahickon pines. One accustomed to traveling through the Schuylkill Valley, may there have noticed the pine trees common enough in “localities.” Near Limerick these are especially noticeable, but from Phoenixville to Reading they in many places are conspicuous, and comprise the scrub and pitch pine varieties, while on the mountains near Reading one comes into the white pine district.
Immediately beyond the pines on the Wissahickon ridge is Nuttall’s rock, and much to my surprise and delight the removal of “dead man’s curve” has left it unharmed, but the rare ferns once there, with the foxes, raccoons and bears which John F. Watson records, have, like the Hessians before Armstrong’s guns, been boomed to where I know not.
Leaving the site of the well remembered high wooden bridge, which gave way to a more substantial and beautiful one of stone, we pass Wissahickon Hall, now the only hotel in the lower Wissahickon, and soon reach the shades of Maple Spring Hotel, where Joseph Smith once reigned, a place celebrated for its rustic decorations, the handiwork of its accomplished proprietor, and from whence in the not uncertain past the odor of “waffles, catfish and coffee” truant played to whet the appetite of many an urchin like myself, whose pockets were as empty as his stomach. Passing its once familiar stand, we come to the more interesting one-time “Log Cabin grounds,” where the children of past generations were entertained and instructed, and where on the rock to the rear before its time, it is said, Washington the great was accustomed to visit and happily beguile an hour, though this I doubt. Many with us remember Old Log Cabin and its show of animals, but I regret that it was before my time. I, however, remember the bears surviving it, and which chained to a pole, for years served as an attraction to the hotel nearby. And I also remember the excitement one morning in Rittenhouse School, when every reader of “Jack Harkaway” wished to abandon lessons to become hunters in the Wissahickon hills, for an escaped bruin, thinking it an opportunity of a life-time to gather glory, a chance which proved irresistible to doughty John Morrisey, who could not be restrained, and who, minus fame, returned to “sit in sackcloth and ashes.” But we may not venture too far, nor stop too long.
Westward now is the “Hermitage,” a modern building which commemorates the ancient and famous settlement of Pietists on the Wissahickon. It is needless here to enlarge upon who or what these Pietists were, this most entertainingly, and perhaps too graphically, has been done by Julius F. Sachse in “German Pietists of Provincial Pennsylvania.”
In this part of the Wissahickon lived John Kelpius and his wonderful band of followers. Here was, if not the first, certainly among the very first of botanical gardens in America. Here was the cave of Kelpius, and although an existing cave pictured and asserted to be his, is not, it is of little less interest to us, as it undoubtedly is near the site of the original dwelling. Kelpius’ spring, also a mere appellation, is here, and is so named from its nearness to the grounds, and not because it has any direct connection with the Pietists themselves.
But more interesting to me is the purpose which animated this strange community of which many know so little, strangely contrasting with “Brook Farm” of which we know so much. Quoting Prof. Oswald Seidensticker, a member of the Wissahickon community writing from Germantown, August 17, 1694, stated: “A gentleman of Philadelphia gave us the other day 115 acres of land, 3 miles from Germantown. Other have promised to give us still more. We are now beginning to build a house there, and the people lend us all possible help. We place this to the credit of the public good and expect not a foot’s breadth on our own account. For we are resolved, besides giving public instruction to the little children of this country, to take many of them to ourselves and have them day and night with us, so as to lay in them the foundation of a stable permanent character. With them the beginning is to be made, otherwise there will be only mending and patching of the old people.”
A diary left by Kelpius while living in the Wissahickon is possessed by Charles J. Wister, and was among the most interesting articles shown at the late Site and Relic Exhibition. In his retreat in the lower Wissahickon hills Kelpius waited the coming of the “Lady of the Wilderness,” the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars,” spoken of in Revelations as having “fled into the wilderness where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and three score days.” Also of great interest to me is the fact that on this same ground, near the site of the Pietists’ Botanic Garden, lived D. Rodney King, one time president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the founder of the Gardeners’ Monthly, a periodical which of its kind never before its day, nor since, has had an equal in this country, and whose editor throughout its long life was Thomas Meehan.
Descending from the Hermit’s hill and glen, and now the home of some of our choicest wild flowers, we soon reach the miniature plateau where once stood Edward Benson’s house, its builder a one-time competitor with Log Cabin attractions on the opposite side of the stream, and two of whose sons, Horatio J. and Charles, came to, and became prominently identified with, Germantown. Also here was Greenwood’s mill and dam, and along the Wissahickon pike, which in those days extended only as far as “old red bridge,” near Rittenhouse street, was Greenwood’s house, whose inmates, like their neighbors the Bensons, left these sequestered parts to settle in a more frequented remunerative territory.
This local lore of the Wissahickon I am unable to credit, for it is composed of miscellaneous fragments assembled by myself. If I am indebted to one more than another, that one is Robert Cartlege, who was a companion of both the Benson and Greenwood boys while living in the lower Wissahickon. Extending along the stream, from Log Cabin bridge towards the toll gate, was once a row of houses, which, like the buildings fringing Edinburgh’s noted Cannongate, possessed the usual number of stories to the front, and as many to the rear as the angle of the declivity required.
On the western side of the stream immediately across from where this row of houses once stood, is “Lover’s Leap,” one of the most romantic spots in the Wissahickon, where ’tis said George Lippard at break of day was married, influenced no doubt by the same legend which Colin and Samuel Cooper in “Coaquanock, a Song of Many Summers,” at a later day clothed in verse:
“On the cliff a sun beam wavered;
Overhead the wild bird cried
Hark! she called me, breathed Wulapan.
Quick then, o’er the rock’s steep side,
Down he plunged, nor made no murmur,
For the brave had won his bride.”
Lippard was a most peculiar character, who is yet well remembered in Germantown. One of his frequent companions and friends was Charles Haupt, who gave me an interesting account of a trip they together made to the ground we are now considering. The best of Lippard’s literary work known to me is an account of “The Graveyard of Germantown,” a spot known as the Upper or Concord Burying Ground. This brings us to an interesting question which has puzzled not a few of our local historians, and one which may be readily, if not satisfactorily, answered. When Paul Wulff, who gave this ground to the borough, refused to permit his name to be attached to it, it was named Concord Burying Ground because “persons of every denomination, and those of no denomination,” might here “in sweet concord” together lie, and the adjoining school, of later date, from the burying ground received its name.
For this and many other items of local history, I am indebted to that most lovable and charming of men, Abraham H. Cassel, who, though “gray in service” and now nearly blind, continues to distribute without stint from his immense reserves of authoritative information.
With this digression let us return to our field, and present a selection which more directly identifies Lippard with our subject, and one which exhibits his appreciation of nature, showing at the same time his best style. To one familiar with the Wissahickon there is no mistaking the spot in its writer’s mind:
“On this rock of Wissahikon I pause in my pilgrimage, and write these words to my reader. This rock of Wissahikon which rises on the side of a steep hill, amid thick woods — a craggy altar on whose summit worshiped long ago the priests of a forgotten faith. Around me branch the trees — glorious monuments of three hundred years — fresh from the verdure of June. Between their leaves the sky smiles upon me, dimpled only by a floating cloud. Far below the stream flashes and sings between its mountain banks. Looking down a vista of trees and moss and flowers, I behold a vision of forest homes grouped by the waters. You that love to lap yourself in June, and drink in its odors, and feel its blessed air upon your brows, and recline on its rocks covered with vines, musical with birds and bees, should come hither. It is an altar for the soul.”
Passing the flowing waters whereof he who partakes “shall thirst again,” we reach Rittenhouse street and the site of the toll-gate where John Sharpless long held sway. Both keeper and gate have vanished, so has Ammidown’s lumbering dirty mill once above it, so has the settlement on stilts in the hollow below, an area now occupied by Lincoln drive. Time changes, and we change with it, but some of the changes we regret, it must be confessed, are for the better. Since the day when Washington by a circuitous route approached and enjoyed the Wissahickon; since the time when Barton, Nuttall, Rafinesque and numerous others came for wild flowers; since the days when John F. Watson and a multitude not so well known as he came here to skate, and men and women of national and international distinction, with other visitors in number without number, “high and low, rich and poor, one with another,” came to enjoy, I doubt if the Wissahickon ever appeared more beautiful, or served a more beneficent purpose, than now.
Fields begin to look cold, rippling familiar waves set in motion by sunbaked surfaces have vanished, and short days with cool relentless nights are most surely drying up the life blood of a helpless host. Already “the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,” and on many a checkered field great heaps of golden grain lay waiting upon the “team.” Brown ploughed or lime-covered fields of a month ago are now green, and give promise of a fruitful yield for future needs. The world is wide enough, and big enough, and bounteous enough for all, and the Creator provides for every creature’s needs. “The sparrow builds her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young;” man groping “darkly,” plants seed in faith, and, though he deny the fact, trusts God to give the increase, who is “the light of his countenance,” though he know it not.
Common violet in sheltered spots is in bloom, and one who examines the plants closely may discover the seed-pods mature of their cleisogamous flowers, a peculiarity of development common to violets and other classes of plants. Christmas rose, a low leathery white lily-like flower, which usually appears early in December, is now in bloom in old-fashioned gardens, and this with hazelnut, which sometimes blooms at Christmas, accompanied or followed by chimonanthus, a shrub bearing white or yellow flowers at the axils of its leaves, and winter aconite, whose yellow blooms sometimes thrust their heads through melting snow, comprise under a strict classification our winter blooming plants. There are, of course, other plants which bloom in favorable weather, and these, with our attractive winter plants, we hope to later note. The vitality and persistence of some of our common plants is wonderful. In gardens lantanas, which have been long in bloom, continue as vigorous as ever, and nasturtiums, hanging from many a garden wall, appear to revel in the light. Datura or “Jimson weed,” with white drooping tubular flowers, shows the effects of recent frosts, but in full bloom, apparently untouched, and certainly undaunted, is yarrow, small and large yellow primrose, white and blue-flowering chickory, pepper grass, snap dragon, red, white and yellow flowering clover, dandelion, blue curls, tansy, and several varieties of asters and golden-rods, as well as other plants in various stages of decline too numerous to mention.
It is noticeable that plants which have been cut down or otherwise injured, causing a late second growth, are unusually vigorous, and produce late hardy flowers. A fitting illustration of this is burdock, which sometimes stands erect after frost, covered with its well-known bright purple-tipped flowering heads.
For several years I have kept notes of plants, and last year, a notable open one, tansy, wild radish, dandelion, nasturtium, sweet allysum, burdock, cheeses, campanula, violets, snap-dragon, yarrow, pepper grass, red, white and yellow clover, scarlet sage, honeysuckle, cosmos, zinnina, petunias, geraniums, chrysanthemums in variety, and the like, continued vigorous in bloom until November 16, although the trees were almost void of leaves, and with few exceptions these plants continued to hold their flowers until November 29, when a heavy frost retired a majority, but burdock, the survivor soldier of the aggregation, kept to his colors until December 4.
It is a prevalent belief that autumnal defoliation in vegetation is due to frost or to a withdrawal of nature’s forces. But that this is not wholly the case is proven by the habits of plants in favored sections of our country, where trees are never bare, and where a maturing crop of foliage is displaced by a younger stronger one so gradually that the change is not apparent. Leaves mature and fall whether the plants which bear them reside in the tropics or in the temperate zones. This may be observed among “evergreen” trees with us, which are always clothed, and which sometimes annually, but usually biennially, change their leaves, and often without our knowledge, as the “needles” under a pine tree or a hemlock tree, or under many another apparently changeless tree, may convince us.
Autumnal coloration is not produced by maturity, but by a shock to the life forces, and may at any part of the year after the leaves have formed be accelerated by a local injury to trunk or branch, which shortly after will dress in vivid colors. I refer to this because many assume that color in leaves is due to frost, but to the contrary, frost not only does not produce it, but on its first appearance the gorgeous colors, which on hills and mountains delight, flee before it as mists flee before the morning sun.
One of our most persistent weeds is wild carrot, and it is yet blooming as though the dying season depended upon its efforts. It is a common plant with a curious bloom, and I again refer to it on account of an odd group of small purple flowerets which are usually, though not always, present in the centre of the broad flat heads composed of small white flowers, with which we are familiar, and to which I have heretofore referred. Without a careful examination, one is likely to mistake these purple centered group or groups, and it is of interest to know that others have been attracted by them. In “Some More Letters” of Charles Darwin there is this addressed to Prof. Thomas Meehan:
“Down, October 9, 1874. — I am glad you are attending to the colours of dioecious flowers; but it is well to remember that their colours may be as unimportant to them as those of a gall, or indeed, as the colours of an amethyst or ruby is to these gems. Some thirty years ago I began to investigate the little purple flowers in the centre of the umbels of the carrot. I suppose my memory is wrong, but it tells me that these flowers are female, and I think that I once got a seed from one of them; but my memory may be quite wrong. I hope that you will continue your interesting researches. C. Darwin.”
So flowers become of more than present interest, for the “grass withereth, the flower fadeth,” their ephemeral transient glory vanisheth, but human interest garnered never fades nor fails, and succeeding generations of flowers serve as reminders of “days long dead, which live again.”
Last year’s divided hulls; empty nests, which deserting leaves expose; vacant resorts, which the “cronies” visit no more, point to a completed past. If these recall a pleasant day; bring back a happy gathering; resurrect for a time a loved one whose place is forever reserved in our hearts, another, a higher and a purer element is introduced. “Nature” touched by man, the greatest and most sublime of visible creations, is dignified and sanctified, its study is lifted to a plane transcendent, for without dignity and sanctity all study is objectless and void.
Scrub pine. Pinus Inops.
Jersey pine. Pinus Inops.
Pitch pine. Pinus Rlgida.
Wissahickon pine. Pinus Inops.
White pine. Pinus Strobus.
Violet. Viola Palmata, var. Cucullata.
Christmas rose. Helleborus Niger.
Hazelnut. Corylus Americana.
Chimonanthus. Chimonanthus Fragrans.
Winter aconite. Eranthis Hyemale.
Lantana. Lantana Campara.
Nasturtium. Tropaeolum Majus.
Datura. Datura Arborea.
Jamestown weed. Datura Arborea.
Yarrow. Achillea Millefolium.
Small yellow primrose. Oenothera Sinuata.
Large yellow primrose. Oenothera Biennis.
White flowering chickory. Chichorium Intybus.
Blue flowering chickory. Chichorium Intybus.
Pepper-grass. Lepidium Virginicum.
Snap-dragon. Linaria Vulgaris.
Red clover. Trifolium Pratense.
White clover. Trifolium Repens.
Yellow clover. Trifolium Agrarium.
Dandelion. Taraxacum Dens-Leonis.
Blue curls. Trichostema Dichostomum.
Tansy. Tanaceum Vuigare.
Burdock. Lappa Arctium.
Wild radish. Raphanus Raphanistrum.
Sweet alyssum. Alyssum Maritimum.
Cheeses. Malva Sylvestris.
Campanula. Campanula Medium.
Violet. Viola Palmata, var. Cucullata.
Yarrow. Achillea Millefolium.
Pepper grass. Lepidium Virginicum.
Scarlet sage. Salvia Splendens.
Honeysuckle. Lonicera Japonica.
Cosmos. Cosmos Bipinnatus.
Zinnia. Zinnia Elegans.
Petunia. Petunia Violacea.
Geranium. Pelargonium Zonale.
Chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemum Indicum.
White pine. Pinus Strobus.
Hemlock. Tsuga Canadensis.
Wild carrot. Daucus Carota.