Frankford Creek, Philadelphia

For many New Yorkers who find themselves priced out of their hometown, the search for a comparable urban area within driving distance of the big Apple leads to Philadelphia. Similar to New York, it is an early colonial city that eventually grew to encompass the entire county that shares its name.

In 1682, the city was laid out in a grid between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. Within the larger Philadelphia County were numerous other streams, most of which were gone by the turn of the 20th century.

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The photo above was taken by the Philadelphia Water Department, appearing on the blog Frankford Gazette showing the confluence of Tacony Creek (background right), and Wingohocking Creek (emerging from the tunnel). Together they form Frankford Creek, which flows for three miles through the city on its way to the Delaware River.

Where it Flows

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In the above 1818 map of the city by John Melish, Franford Creek and its tributaries are visible to the northeast of the city. A more detailed pair of maps by Adam Levine, historical consultant for the Philadelphia Water Department, show the extensive network of streams that flowed across the landscape, many of which have been re-purposed as sewers. If you’re not familiar with Adam Levine’s work, his sewer spelunking and historical research is comparable to Steven Duncan in New York.

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Taming the Creek

In the first half of the 19th century, textile and dyeing factories arrived at Frankford Creek, using its water to power equipment and then emptying the polluted water back into the stream. Often the water appeared in many colors as a result of the dye. Further upstream, the desire to develop land, expand the street grid, and end the flood threat led to the burial of the entire Wingohocking Creek by 1928. The slides below show the confluence of the creeks from our title photo as they were prior to being driven underground.

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Further downstream, oxbow bends were straightened and the jog to the east at Bridesburg was eliminated in in 1948 in favor of a new cutoff channel. The old jog became a collecting sewer and later had Interstate 95 interchange with Betsy Ross Bridge built on top of the fill.

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Above, the Philadelphia Bulletin from February 1, 1948 reports on the changes. A more detailed history of all the changes along Frankford Creek can be seen in this slide presentation by the Philadelphia Water Department, authored by Adam Levine.

It could have been much worse. Between 1947 and 1980, the stream was proposed as the route for the unbuilt Pulaski (Tacony) Expressway. Using stream shorelines as right-of-ways for highways is common in many cities. Here in New York examples include Bronx River Parkway, Hutchinson River Parkway, and Saw Mill River Parkway, among others. International examples include the former Cheonggyecheon highway in Seoul and a section of the Dotonbori in Osaka, Japan.

Philly’s Bronx River?

Continuing on the comparison with NYC, I see Frankford Creek as its Bronx River. Its headwaters are in the northern suburbs, most of the stream flowing through parkland, and its last three miles flowing across a post-industrial landscape. As with the Bronx River, the last three miles of Frankford Creek are difficult to follow by foot and there are plans underway to create a greenway along its banks, enabling the public to follow the stream to its mouth.

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Looking upstream from the Kensington Avenue and Frankford Avenue bridges, we see a narrow shoreline, in some places bulkheaded in the manner of a canal. To the south of Frankford Avenue, the creek is at sea level, just like the industrial section of the Bronx River south of Tremont Avenue.

The Future of Frankford Creek

Although it appears distant from the city center, Frankford Creek has its share of supportive agencies and advocates, such as the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership and the Philadelphia Office of Watersheds.

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As excited as I am about the Frankford Creek Greenway, I feel that more could be done to raise public awareness of Philadelphia’s hidden streams. The city could take a look at Sydney and offer public tours of Wingohocking Creek, after all if Philly lets visitors tour a former prison, then a sewer tunnel tour doesn’t sound so far-fetched. As I’ve learned, for every hidden stream, each has even lesser-known tributaries. That’s Wingohocking.

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In the News: 

Bay Journal of Maryland reports on the controversial restoration of Reedy Creek in Richmond, Virginia.

Richmond Times-Dispatch reports on the completion of the stream restoration project at Henrico Creek.

Star-Tribune of Minneapolis reports on the return of trout to the restored Kinnickinnic River across the Wisconsin border.

Jakarta Globe reports on the successful lawsuit filed by North Jakarta fishermen to stop a land reclamation project off Java in Indonesia.

The Hindu reports on delays in the restoration of the  Karimaramthode at Aranmula Puncha in Kerala, India.

 

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