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  • A Walk Through Nature & History: The Wissahickon Valley’s Secret Past Wissahickon-valley-park Full view

    A Walk Through Nature & History: The Wissahickon Valley’s Secret Past

    Did you know that Philadelphia has over 10,000 acres of parks?

    The Wissahickon Valley Park is a solid 1,800 chunk of all that green space and draws about 1.1 million visits each year. No other area of Philadelphia has gone through the extreme changes that the Wissahickon has. Walking along Forbidden Drive today, it’s hard to imagine the area filled with mills and factories, but at one point it was.

    We decided to dig a little more history about that park that everyone from Philly loves to visit. (And if you don’t, add it to your list STAT.)

    Early Wissahickon

    Wissahickon Valley park devils pool philadelphia

    In the early days long before industrialization, the area looked much like it does today. The name Wissahickon comes from the local Native American Lenape tribes word ‘Wissameckhan’ that translates to ‘catfish stream’.

    You won’t find many catfish in the waters today but may catch a glimpse of fish in Devil’s Pool or when crossing one of the many bridges in the valley.

    Surprise Twist of a Doomsday Cult in the Park

    Not long after European settlers moved into the area, a doomsday cult seeking salvation from the end of days resided there. A group of German hermits who went by the name The Society of Women in the Wilderness’  lived in seclusion. When the end of the world didn’t come in 1694, they continued to do what they had been doing – sitting and meditating, until their founder Johannes Kelpius passed in 1708 and the group began to scatter. Although a few joined a like-minded religious group in Ephrata, Lancaster, others stayed and lived out their lives in the valley.

    Following the doomsday preppers, industry took notice of the Wissahickon Creek. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, about 50 watermills could be found manufacturing textiles, paper, lumber and pretty much everything else that you could imagine from those days. The rise of transcendentalism could have quite possibly saved the Wissahickon Creek.

    The 19th century brought changes to societies perception of the environment. Conquering nature was what had to be done, industry was good and the environment was placed there for exploitation, but not anymore. Instead, nature was becoming a refuge for people to reconnect with the world and seek guidance through higher powers.

    Connections to famous Philadelphians

    ‘Now the Wissahickon is of so remarkable a loveliness that, were it flowing in England, it would be the theme of every bard.’

    Edgar Allen Poe wrote of the Wissahickon in his 1844 poem ‘Morning on the Wissahiccon’ where he elegantly stated ‘Now the Wissahiccon is so remarkable a loveliness that, were it flowing in England, it would be the theme of every bard.’

    Being the theme of every bard with all of those factories around? Just imagine what Poe would have to say about the park today.

    Although Benjamin Franklin did a lot of good for the City of Philadelphia and country, not all of his ideas were great. He wanted to dam the valley to create a reservoir, which would have been the city’s water supply. (Thankfully this didn’t happen.)

    The Fairmount Park Commission came into the picture around in the late 1860’s purchasing the current 1800 hundred acres, though more is being added. The Wissahickon Valley Park continues to grow today with Philly Cricket Club and the Chestnut Hill Academy recently preserving 37 additional acres.

    Where to Visit in the Wissahickon

    Forbidden Drive is the main drag through the park offering a great space for walking, running or biking. You may even see a horse or two. If you were to time-hop back to the mid-1850’s, you’d find yourself along the Wissahickon Turnpike with horse-drawn carriages instead of cars.

    Every April, there is an annual horse parade to commemorate the forbidden nature of cars driving down the road to commemorate the stance equestrian enthusiasts took against the car owners at the time. They claimed the increased vehicular traffic would increase pollution and take away one of the finest and fewest pristine areas of the city. Imagine that, eh…? 

    The Wissahickon is a great juxtaposition of Philadelphia: You can feel a million miles away while being so close to the city.

    How to get to the WissahickonWissahickon Valley Park Philadelphia 8 miles to Philly The Wissahickon Transportation Center sits at the mouth the park and offers access to 11 different bus routes. The Chestnut Hill West Regional Rail Line also has several stops; Queen Lane, Chelten Ave, Tulpehocken, Allen Lane and more within a few blocks of the park. The Friends of Wissahickon has a complete visitors guide.

    The next time you visit, take some time to walk through the woods, breathe some fresh air and take in all that history.

    Julie Hancher

    About Julie Hancher

    Julie Hancher is Editor-in-Chief of Green Philly, sharing her expertise of all things sustainable in the city of brotherly love. She enjoys long walks in the park with local beer and greening her travels, cooking & cat, Sir Floofus Drake.

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