First, another meeting notice: There was originally supposed to be a Town Hall meeting with all of Council tonight. That was cancelled and will be rescheduled, probably in April. Instead, Linda Christian's holding a follow-up meeting to last week's Town Hall to let us know what Einstein and Elon decided about the concerns we expressed last week. Meeting is at the Library (Powell and Swede) at 6 pm in the Community Room. If you were a last week's meeting, you might want to come to this one.
On to today's topic--the 3rd in my series of "Stuff We Can Learn From Norristown's Past"--our river.
As a kid, I didn't think about the Schuylkill much. It isn't part of daily life here. You can't see or access it easily it from most of town. Growing up on the North End, I didn't even know Riverfront Park existed until a few years ago (I actually didn't know we had other parks besides Elmwood for a long time). I've traveled all around the country and I've been to lots of communities that could be called rivertowns, but never thought of Norristown that way, even though the riverbank comprises more than 25% of the entire border around the borough.
Historically, it wasn't always that way. William Penn was careful to make sure his son's land parcel touched the river. You couldn't have a plantation here in the 1690's without a way to ship your goods. The roads barely existed yet. The Schuylkill couldn't handle large ships, but it was just right for canoes, flatboats and small barges.
The river was named by the Dutch explorer who discovered the mouth of it as he sailed up the Delaware River. "Schuil" is the Dutch word for "hidden," so Schuylkill means "hidden river." I've heard it was called it that because the forests had been so dense on either bank, you couldn't tell there was a river there until you were practically on top of it.
But by the 1840s, the Reading Railroad had taken over that function. The railroad tracks effectively created a wall between the town and the river. Sure, we still had industry along the river for more than another century, and people still took pleasure boats out. People still swam in the river on summer days, but it was no longer the life blood of our town.
When I was in junior high, one of my classmates lived on along the river
in Port Indian. When I visited her, I was amazed to find a little
microcosm of "river people"--residents for whom the Schuylkill was an
intrinsic part of their lives. It was a hot day, so 4 of us put on
lifevests and floated down the river awhile, then swam back against the
current, which took us 3 times as long and was harder than I thought it
would be. The river wasn't in great shape in those days--the water was
greenish-brown and murky (the Clean Water Act helped that, thank
goodness). Even so, I kept thinking that the river was this great secret
that only the people in Port Indian knew about.
I've been going
to meetings of the Schuylkill River Action Team these last few months.
The team is comprised of people representing the Schuylkill River Trail,
the Dragon Boat Club, the Municipality, and anyone else interested. One
of the goals is to make improvements that would encourage bikers who
use the trail to come into town to visit our restaurants and other
attractions, to use the trail to access our festivals and other events,
perhaps have a side trail that goes through the West End to the Farm
Park. Not only are they planning signs and kiosks with information, but
physical improvements along the trail, to clear brush and scrubby trees
so the riders would be able to have views of the river and Riverfront
Park. Riverfront Park would have improvements as well--Septa has
promised to clean graffiti and the walls that mark the entrance from
Haws Avenue and the Dragon Boat Club is applying for a grant to build a
floating dock for community use in 2015.
As part of the Great
American Clean Up of 2014, a clean-up day is planned at Riverfront Park
on April 12 from noon to 4 pm. Volunteers needed--just show up. Wear
long sleeves and bring work gloves (unless you want poison ivy). Teams
will start at Haws Avenue and follow the bike trial in each direction.
Refreshments will be provided.
As for the rest of the year, the
Dragon Boat Club has all sorts of events planned, with an emphasis on
activities for kids, from science workshops to Riverfest to a Haunted
Woods for Halloween, and Santa again arriving by dragon boat. The club
wants residents to start enjoying our river again, and they intend to
encourage a variety of river sports as well as their usual community
doings. For information, check out their newly revamped website (which
looks great!) at http://www.dragonboatclub.org, or LIKE their Facebook page.
Looking to the
future, the Lafayette Street Corridor is supposed to be done in 2016.
After that our downtown riverfront can be developed. We've been promised
public access to the riverfront there--walking trails, benches, etc. It
would be lovely to have a 2-mile walking/jogging trail all along the
Schuylkill eventually. And a park-like, active riverfront will bring in
So maybe our Hidden River won't stay hidden
much longer. Come down to Riverfront Park this year and be part of our