Thursday, March 27, 2014

Rivertown? Us?

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.

The Schuylkill was the reason a small village sprung up here, the reason industry, in the form of a brickyard and mills, opened right on our riverbanks. In 1820, a canal was built along the Schuylkill, with Norristown as a main stop, making it even easier for businesses, along with travelers, to use the river for transportation.

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, 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 outside visitors.

So maybe our Hidden River won't stay hidden much longer. Come down to Riverfront Park this year and be part of our river renaissance.

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