By: Jeanne Waldowski
Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership
Imagine living in a beautifully, pristine wooded area. A place where animals ran free and creeks flowed free of pollution. A time when people lived off the land. This was what the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford watershed was like prior to industrialization and the growth of Philadelphia and its surrounding communities. The Tookany, Tacony, and Frankford Creeks are part of the same watershed, which includes 29 square miles of land in Philadelphia and Montgomery counties, and ultimately flow into the Delaware River. A watershed is the area of land that catches rain and snow and drains or seeps into a particular marsh, stream, river, lake, or groundwater. Many of you have grown up and raised your own families in this area and you may not be aware of the interesting history of your own neighborhood.
Native Americans lived in the Tookany, Tacony, and Frankford Creeks area well over 10,000 years before William Penn’s agents first made contact with them in the late 1600s. The largest tribal union was called the Lenni Lenape American Indians, a name equivalent to “real people.” They were an established tribe that augmented their hunting by farming tobacco, corn, beans, and squashes, and greatly depended on the local waterways. The Tacony Creek’s name is derived from the Indian name, Towacawonick, which means “woods” or “uninhabited place”; the Frankford Creek’s Indian name is Quessionwonmink, which means “Eel Skin River,” The Tookany Creek’s name is a derivative of Tacony.
Swedish settlers were the first permanent settlers in the watershed. They arrived in April 1638. The commander, Peter Minuit, immediately dealt with Native Americans for the purchase of lands. The Swedes were primarily traders, farmers, and artisans. By 1643, agriculture was flourishing as well as the raising of sheep, cows, goats, and pigs. Johan Printz, then Govenor, began a variety of manufacturing trades as early as 1644. Brickyards, flour and gristmills, barrel tub and cask making were all a part of the early Swedish enterprises. Printz even built and operated a gristmill on Cobb’s Creek that was operated by waterpower. The Swedes’ great leadership in colonization ended around 1649, hampered by the neglect of its mother country and from Dutch pressure until the capture of the colony by the Dutch in 1655.
In the late 1670’s, William Penn, the leader of the English Colonization movement, purchased an operating gristmill in the Tacony-Frankford Creek from a Swede named Lasse Cock. There Penn created the “Manor of Frank.” In 1682 Penn signed a treaty with the Lenni Lenape tribe. Chief Tammanend sold Philadelphia to the English and the Lenni Lenape then moved west to the Upper Schuylkill, Brandywine, and Lehigh Valleys.
The English continued milling in the Tacony Creek area during the late 1600s and early 1700s, taking advantage of the creek’s waterpower. Mills were the areas early versions of today’s factories. Some types of mills in the early history of manufacturing were grist (when grain is ground into flour), cotton, powder, paint, hosiery, and later a sawmill.
By 1720, the new settlers had begun clearing the forest and replacing it with fields, crops, and orchards. Land that couldn’t be farmed was also cleared for lumber and fuel. As the City grew, outlying resources were depleted in order to grow more food and clear more land for the City’s markets. Marshes were drained and streams were rerouted, covered, or drained. In less than 100 years the landscape had been dramatically changed. The Delaware River area was also changing. By 1800, both banks of the River were cleared and docks were built enabling it to become an active center for transportation and commerce.
Starting at the mouth of the creek is the area known as Bridesburg, which was settled by Germans after 1750. The Village of Bridesburg was originally called Point No Point. The name was given in consequence of the changes in the appearance of the point by the approaches on the Delaware River. When first seen going northward it appeared to be a point, boldly jutting out into the stream and upon coming nearer, it lost its character and seemed to be an ordinary portion of the right bank; on further approach it seemed to again jut out into a point. Carol Sander-Roat, whose father grew up in Bridesburg, remembers his stories about being sent to the oyster boats coming into the mouth of the Creek to buy their wares.
The creek’s name changes from “Tacony Creek” to “Frankford Creek” beginning where the Wingahocking Creek entered the Tacony Creek, near Juniata Park. The Wingahocking, which flowed all the way from the Germantown/Mt. Airy area, was eventually buried underground. Similar to other tributary streams in Philadelphia, it was encased underground in brick and mortar so that the stream valley could be filled and streets and homes could be built.
Before 1800, what is now Port Richmond had a coastal landscape that included the marshy edges of the Delaware River with creeks feeding into it. Industrial uses of the River and creeks began as early as 1850, due to its becoming a major railroad terminal. The port of Richmond quickly became the most important shipping center in the region. Waves of immigrant workers and their families had poured into the area and created a bustling community that grew and prospered.
The Tacony/Frankford area was a pristine village used as a vacation spot by wealthy Philadelphians until 1872. The milling activities around the Tacony Creek caught the attention of Henry Disston, a saw manufacturer, who purchased 390 acres of land and built the neighborhood of Tacony on the Delaware River. In 1872, construction began on the plant and by 1876 construction of homes began.
Through his generous contributions, Henry Disston created a culturally thriving community. He helped develop a Hall and Library, the Tacony Music Hall in 1885, many houses of worship, a school, and a scientific society. Perhaps most important to the theme of a cleaner watershed, he developed a community park just west of the railroad along Keystone Street through all of old Tacony. He designed this park as a scenic barrier between the community and the mills.
As early as the 1690’s, in the Montgomery County area, industrialization was beginning. It started with the discovery of a great limestone belt and later marble, copper, and lead mines were prevalent. The county was the scene of the first canal construction in the United States when work was started at Norristown in 1792 on the building of a canal to connect the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers. Several miles of canal were constructed but it was never completed. Near the Tookany Creek, Cheltenham and Abington Townships were established as small communities and evolved into centers of commerce and industry.
Jenkintown Borough’s name came from William Jenkins, who owned a very large farm along Old York Road and Sarah Jenkins who owned a tavern that was used as a main stagecoach stop. The population of Jenkintown started to grow in 1865 because of two wealthy men, Misters Widner and Elkins. They wanted to have more people use their trolley line, so they funded and developed trolley parks. People would take a trolley from the City and enjoy a day in the park bike riding, picnicking, or walking. In the late 1890’s W.T. Roberts started to develop mini mansions and row homes in the area. He campaigned to convince people that in order to remain safe they should move out of the City because the drinking water from the Schuylkill would cause disease. This misconception worked and the population grew.
With the growth of industrialization also came improvements in transportation. The Swedes’ main form of travel was by boat, but after the development of roads, settlers started to use stagecoaches. By 1840 three lines of stages were running between Frankford and Philadelphia for a fare of 25 cents. Railroad tracks were laid as early as 1834 and cars drawn by horses operated from Frankford to Third and Willow Streets. Trolley cars were introduced to the area and the Reading Railroad arrived in Frankford.
In 1922 the first elevated train from Philadelphia to Frankford was built. Longtime resident, Myrtle C. MacIntosh remembers the dedication ceremony, “…when the Frankford ‘L’ was dedicated there was a big baby parade. The Frankford Trust Co. gave every child in the parade a $1.00 bill to start a bank account.”
Transportation improvements in 1894 brought new industry to Tacony/Frankford, seeking to take advantage of the growing riverfront industrial community adjacent to Henry Disston and Sons. Due to the rapid industrial growth of the area and Henry Disston’s vision, the area became a thriving blue-collar working community. Streets were laid and roads, houses, churches, and stores were built.
World War I was a powerful and uniting factor. Philadelphians and surrounding areas volunteered for the army, put money into Government bonds, and funneled workers into factories. Wartime shortages were aggravated in January 1918 when twenty-eight inches of snow fell. The coal shortage was greatly felt and plants and businesses were shut down for five days. Mondays were forced holidays for nine weeks. The price of coal doubled and bread was so scarce there were scattered bread riots. Times were tough, but many felt the sacrifices necessary. Many sons of Tacony fought in this war. Eighteen died in action and the war memorial in Disston Park is dedicated to them. On May 24, 1919 the residents welcomed home the 110th Ambulance Unit, manned entirely by Taconians, with a parade on Torresdale Ave.
There was significant industrial development in the region around World War II. By this time, Philadelphia along the Delaware River had more mills and factories than any other city in the world. There were 736 mills that wove, spun, or knitted, 100 establishments where goods were dyed and finished, 131 wool dealers, and 80 firms dealing with chemicals and dyestuffs. Myrtle C. MacIntosh also contributed two stories about the dye chemicals being dumped into the creek, “Along the Frankford Creek on Kensington Ave. side there were houses that backed up to the creek. The outhouses were built on stilts over the creek. Most of the people that lived in these houses worked for the owners of the dye houses along the creek. Sometimes the dye and chemicals were spilt into the creek. In time the pilings rotted and the poor soul using the facility at that time fell into the creek.” Her other account is about swimming in the creek, “…the dye houses emptied the dye vats into the creek. Our legs were dyed whatever the color of the day was, red-black-green, and it didn’t wash off. We had dyed legs for a couple of days even with daily scrubbing.” The majority of these companies as well as many others were devoted to turning out supplies to the Government and creating a center of all war-producing municipalities.
The evidence of urban/suburban development and industrialization in the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed is everywhere. Where rain once fell on forested soil and seeped into small streams, much of it now hits rooftops or pavement and flows through storm drains into the creek. Fortunately, significant decisions were made over time to preserve some park areas along the creek system. Urbanization has taken a major toll on the watershed and it is up to us, as a community, to make improvements and to preserve what is still remaining.
Look for next month’s article in this ongoing series to learn about the recent history of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford watershed.
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