The Wissahickon: An interview with David Contosta

Featured Post, News January 6, 2011 0 Comments

by Pete Mazzaccaro

Last month, two great local minds — historian David Contosta and landscape architect Carol Franklin — collaborated on a four-volume history of the Wissahickon titled “Metropolitan Paradise: The Struggle for Nature in the City, Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley 1620-2020” (St Joseph’s University Press).

As that title and the number of volumes suggests, Metropolitan Paradise is a comprehensive history that begins in the 400 year history of the valley from its time as the untouched wilderness home of the Lenni Lenape to a bustling mill corridor and from its protection as a post-Civil War park to its current place as an everyday destination for joggers and mountain bikers.

The book is the 18th by Contosta, who has been a professor of history at Chestnut Hill College for 37 years. Among those books, he is the author of the authoritative history of Chestnut Hill, “Suburb in the City.” Carol Franklin is a founder of the world-renowned firm Andropogon Associates, a landscape and environmental design firm.

I had a chance to meet with David Contosta just before Christmas to talk about his book the book and about the Wissahickon, its history, its place in the fabric of life in Northwest Philadelphia and challenges facing the valley’s preservation now and in the foreseeable future.

How did the idea for this book evolve?

The Friends of the Wissahickon approached me about doing something in the mid 1990s. And then I was working with Carol Franklin’s firm on a landscape plan for Villanova University. I had done a book on Villanova. They (the school) called me because I knew how the landscape had evolved over the last 150 years.

I had met Carol before, I had heard her talk, but I didn’t know her all that well. When we were working together, we talked about the Wissahickon. So we half-jokingly started talking about writing the book together. We started talking about it in1998. Merging our backgrounds is something that worked out very well. I’m a social and cultural historian, she’s a landscape architect. We complimented each other.

What was the research like? How long did it take?

We did the research as we went along. I was able to draw on research I had already done on Northwest Philadelphia. Carol was able to draw on some things that she knew from her profession. I’d say the research and writing occurred over a 12-year period of time. We also interviewed people who were experts in their field.

What do you think the Wissahickon’s place is in identity of Northwest Philadelphia?

Let me first say is that we don’t see this as a local book. We see it as a microcosm of urban stream values throughout the United States and throughout the world. This struggle for nature in the city.

The first volume of the book is called Wilderness. We try to give a sense of what the valley was like before Europeans came. It’s based on conjecture, because the Lenni Lenape didn’t have a written language, but we based it on what some of the early travelers here and early settlers had to say about the area. We drew from what
Penn said and Pastorius, the founder of Germantown.

This was a perfect lace for an industrial revolution. The Wissahickon falls a little more than 300 feet from its source in Montgomeryville, so they could build dams and create mills.

In the last chapter we talk about the Romantics who went crazy for the valley. This paved the way for a park, because even when there were mills here, people were coming up here to paint and hike and picnic.

When did people get the impulse to say ‘We need to hang on to this?’

Actually there was an international park movement. England established the first major public parks. It’s again part of this romantic impulse that cities were crushing people. Cities are breeding violence and sickness. People are stultifying in offices and factories. They see it as a safety valve so people can get out of the pressure cooker of the urban area.

In the 1850s, Philadelphia is one the most important manufacturing centers in the United States. It’s a major industrial hub. So the park is seen as a very important aspect of urban reform. They brought Frederick Law Olmstead down who designed Central Park — some people think Olmstead designed Fairmount Park, but he didn’t –  and he advocated that they take the Wissahickon. Olmstead thought that the park would have a democratizing effect. The park could be a country estate for everyone regardless of their socio-economic background.

The second impulse in Philadelphia had to do with the water supply. There was the water works where the Art Museum is now and the reservoir is where the museum is now. Warehouses and factories were being built on the Schuylkill above the waterworks and polluting the water. So part of the impulse was to buy the land and tear down the warehouses and factories on both sides of the Schuylkill to safeguard the water supply.

Because the Wissahickon was a major tributary to the Schuylkill, they wanted to take the Wissahickon partly for that reason, too. The Fairmount Park Commission was created in 1867 but they started to buy property in the Wissahickon in 1868. They wanted to buy the mills and tear them down.

I saw a piece you wrote recently about the difference between the way Roxborough and Chestnut Hill developed different relationships with the park.

The Wissahickon really divides the old German Township from the old Roxborough Township.

There’s a great old aerial photograph in the book in which you can see on the Chestnut Hill and Mt Airy side, the forest is imperceptibly filtered into the community. You can’t tell where the parks stops and the neighborhood begins. On the Roxborough side they clear cut right to the edge of the park. This partly has to do with when development took place. Upper Roxborough was isolated and relatively hard to get to until Henry Avenue was completed.

When the Houston estate was divided, Sam Houston got control of Roxborough side. Sam Houston had a really hard time developing upper Roxborough because, (A) it was inaccessible and (B) because it already had a reputation as a blue-collar neighborhood. He tried to get Temple University to move there and he even thought the U.N. was going to take Andorra. The U.N. was considering building its headquarters at the Belmont Plateau, but housing was going to be in Andorra. Nothing developed, and in the 1950s, they developed Andorra homes and the shopping center.

Another difference is in the main roadways to access each side of the valley. Lincoln drive was designed and planned in 1890s before automobiles appeared on the horizon. They started building it in 1900. It was built between 1900and 1907. Even then, the automobile was not that important. Lincoln drive follows the contours of the Wissahickon and the Monoshone Creek and brings the park into the community. They designed Henry Avenue to look like an interstate highway. It cuts Roxborough off from the park.

How important has Friends of the Wissahickon been to the Wissahickon?

Extremely important. There is a long tradition of voluntary organizations in Northwest Philadelphia going way back into the 19th century. It’s partly because Chestnut Hill was far removed from the city. Even after the county consolidation, folks downtown didn’t pay a lot of attention to things here.

People up here started their own voluntary organizations. They even paved Germantown Avenue at one point. You also had people up here who had the resources. They had the money and the know how. They weren’t going to roll over and play dead. Later on they put a lot of pressure on the city to provide services.

The FOW was established in 1924 mainly as a reaction to the Chestnut blight. Between 1/4 to 1/3 of all the trees on the heights of the Wissahickon were chestnut trees. The blight started in New York and got here in 1914.  By 1924 the chestnuts had all died. So the friends came together as a reforestation group. Dr. George Woodward was one of them. They began to clear away the dead trees and to replant trees.

They got into a big fight with the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the 1930s because the WPA gave the Fairmount Park Commission a big grant to put in ball fields and pavilions. People like George Woodward were purists. They said it was going to wreck the park and the purity of the wilderness.

Part of it was political because people in Chestnut Hill were Republicans and FDR was “That Man.” Philadelphia tried to keep New Deal money out of Philadelphia because Republicans were afraid it would give patronage to the Democratic party — which was a joke because Republicans actually paid the rent for Democratic headquarters to pretend like there was opposition.

They finally cut a deal in 1938. They had a meeting at the Valley Green Inn and the park commission agreed to construct all these buildings out of local natural building materials: Wissahickon schist and local wood to fit in with the valley. They were designed to look like log cabins. It’s an irony now that after the Friends of the Wissahickon fought them tooth and nail, they now have been responsible for restoring these structures.

They saved the Valley Green Inn in the 1930s. It had been saved from demolition by the colonial dames in the 1890s and the FOW took it over, and now lease it out to the Inn’s restaurant business. Without the FOW, though, to raise money and organize work in the park, the Wissahickon Valley would be a real mess.

What do you think are threats to the valley in the future?

One of the threats would be invasive exotic vegetations. Plants not native to this area that are smothering out and crowding out native vegetation. A lot of these plants were brought in by nurseries in the late 19th, early 20th century.

The Andorra Nursery was the largest tree nursery in the Eastern half of the United States. They had 1,400 acres and extended all the way out the Ridge Avenue corridor to Ridge and Butler Pike. They advertised Norway Maples as perfect shade trees. Well they got out of people’s backyards and they’re terrible because they smother out everything beneath. Believe it our not Japanese maples are also a problem.

Deer, of course, are a real problem, too. Whitetail deer disappeared entirely from the Wissahickon and had actually disappeared from South Eastern Pennsylvania by the mid 1800s because they had been hunted to extinction. They gradually filtered back into the area. in the 1970s. Because there aren’t any predators, they just reproduce massively and they eat everything on the forest floor. When seedlings come up, they get eaten. They were literally destroying the forest.

What people didn’t understand is that deer had come back relatively recently. And they’re a good example of how when a species is out of balance with nothing to balance its growth you can have a catastrophic situation. I think another threat to the valley is development along the edges of the valley. The city actually created a special zoning ordinance for the valley, but the runoff is still a threat. This is particularly true on the Roxborough side where there are large parking lots. The lots were put in before DEP regulations.

Is that more a problem outside the city?

Yes, in the last section, we talk about the corridor. A real threat is a lack of coordination around that corridor. Outside the city the Wissahickon goes through 12 different municipalities. In Pennsylvania, development issues are turned over to the smallest possible governmental unit. When you’re dealing with a watershed it could be dangerous. We have situations where municipalities create problems for other townships to deal with. We have not only runoff, but also sewage and other pollution.

All the way back in the 1890s there was the desire to extend Fairmount park into Ft. Washington. The leader of this was John Morris, owner of what became the Morris Arboretum. They got the state to agree to buy up and land along the Wissahickon in Montgomery County. But it was not properly funded. What they were able to do in the ‘20s was to buy Fort Hill and Militia Hill, which became Ft. Washington State Park.

In the years since, through county park land, municipal parkland, Ft. Washington State Park and private land, there’s a swath of over 3,000 acres of open space between the end of Fairmount Park in Chestnut Hill and Ft. Washington. So in a crazy patchwork, the dream of extending the park to Ft. Washington has been fulfilled, but not as it should.

Is the biggest point here that the Wissahickon was saved and restored by people who lived here?

Yes by people who lived here who rolled up their sleeves and did it. The original FOW members weren’t the kind of people to do the work and get their hands dirty, but that all changed by the 1980s. So they have saved it either through putting pressure on government or raising their own money. The FOW has raised millions
of dollars because people really care about the Wissahickon.

We talked about trying to create a regional governing system not unlike SEPTA. Some authority to look after it and that would be super-imposed over local government to take fend off the threats of invasive species, deer and development.

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