Schuylkill River History
Canoe and Kayak into the History of
Scenic Schuylkill River.
Origin of the Schuylkill River
The Schuylkill is the largest and probably the most important tributary of the Delaware River.
The headwaters of the Schuylkill River are located in the Anthracite Coal Region valleys of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. An area rich in scenic beauty and coal mining histor. The Little Schuylkill and Upper Schuylkill Rivers are designated coldwater fisheries and the Schuylkill main stem is a State Scenic River at the confluence of these two tributary waterways.
The Schuylkill River flows for 135 miles to Philadelphia where it joins the Delaware River as one of its largest tributaries. In 1995, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania announced the entire Schuylkill River watershed of two thousand square miles comprising the counties of Schuylkill, Berks, Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia as a Pennsylvania Heritage Area.
Long before Henry Hudson sailed into the Delaware Bay in the 1600’s, banks of the estuary and the river were occupied by American Indians who called themselves Lenape, which means “original people” or “Grandfather,” a term referring to their antiquity. Their “Lenapehoking” (land of the Lenape) encompassed southern Connecticut, New York, all of New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
The Leni Lenape (called Delaware Indians by European settlers) were the original inhabitants of the area around this river, which they called Tool-pay Hanna (Turtle River) or Tool-pay Hok Ing (Turtle Place).
The Schuylkill river was eventually discovered by European explorers from the Netherlands, Sweden, and England. It was through historical documents called various names, including Manayunk, Manajungh, Manaiunk, and Lenni Bikbi.
killThe river was later given the Dutch name Schuylkill. As means "creek" and schuylen means "to hide, skulk" or "to take refuge, shelter”. One explanation given for this name is that it translates to "hidden river", "skulking river" or "sheltered creek"] and refers to the river's confluence with the Delaware River at League Island, which was nearly hidden by dense vegetation. Another explanation is that the name properly translates to "hideout creek" in one of the Algonquian Languages spoken by a Leni Lenape in their confederation.
The Schuylkill then figured prominently in giving rise to booming industries along its banks. Before colonial settlement Pennsylvania was nearly ninety-eight percent forested. Most of the earliest settlers were farmers who utilized the river to transport crops to burgeoning markets downstream. Iron ore, hardwood, and river power, in addition to other natural resources of the watershed, soon led to its growth.
In 1682 William Penn chose the left bank of the confluence (Delaware River) upon which he founded the planned city of Philadelphia on lands purchased from the native Delaware nation. It is a designated Pennsylvania Scenic River, and its whole length was once part of the Delaware (Lenape) people’s southern territories.
With the discovery of anthracite coal in the northern headwaters, the river became a mode of transportation via the Schuylkill Navigation System, a network of interconnecting locks and dams opened in 1824.
The anthracite and local production of anthracite pig iron made Philadelphia the unquestioned queen of manufacturing for many early decades of the The American Industrial Revolution because of the barge loads of freight traveling the Schuylkill and Lehigh Canals.
In the 1830s railway technology and new railroads grew in leaps and bounds, and the Schuylkill Valley was at the heart of these developments, as well as the new Anthracite iron and mining industries. From 1820 to the 1860s Iron works, foundries, manufacturing mills, blast furnaces, rolling mills, rail yards, rail roads, warehouses and train stations sprang up throughout the valley. Tiny farm villages grew into vibrant company towns then transitioned into small cities as a major industry and supporting businesses transformed local economics and populations swelled.
Northeastern Pennsylvania's booming anthracite industry built the river's canal system but also destroyed its water quality. The processing of hard coal yielded a waste byproduct that was carried by water to the nearest tributary and ultimately to the main stem of the Schuylkill. Channels were choked with the black sediment, called culm or silt, which built up behind dams and eventually clogged the canals. Maintaining sufficient water levels for navigation became costly because of the deposits.
The river is known to have been on fire more than once throughout history as a result of oil spillage from nearby oil works.
By the mid-1930s the canals inflexibility and a geographically limited pool of customers steadily shifting energy usage away from anthracite in addition to improved transportion of industrial products doomed most eastern canals, so too the Lehigh, Delaware and Schuylkill Canals all ceased operations during the Great Depression years.
Although the railroad took a lot of the canal business, the real reason for the demise of the system was the washing of the coal with water before it was loaded, causing large deposits of silt to form in the river. A unique solution was to construct a series of dams on the river to act as silt traps.
By 1872 the dredges that maintained the canal could hardly keep the channel free of silt deposits. But most of the dredges are dormant now and the dams are just that many more obstales for the canoeist and kayak paddlers.
Schuylkill River Today
In 1948 a massive cleanup effort began. Twenty three impounding basins were excavated along the river, to receive dredged silt. The quality of the river has improved much over the past decades. A fish ladder to support shad migration have been constructed at the dams. Mayfly hatches (signifying good water quality) now occur yearly along the Montgomery sections of the river.
For a river flowing through some very large and densely populated areas, this river has a wilderness feel unlike anything else we have on the eastern side of the state.
The Schuylkill canal stretched from Philadelphia 108 miles to the rich anthracite coal ields near Pottsville.
Slowly, this river is making a comeback from a history of mine acid drainage and discharges of poorly treated and untreated sewage. Despite its history and present pollution problems certain stretches of good habitat harbor fish populations that can and do provide attractive fishing for the few who presently take advantage of the opportunities.
The river is home to channel catfish, brown bullhead, flathead and other varieties of catfish. Additionally, you can find yellow and white perch; American, hickory and gizzard shad; largemouth, rock, smallmouth and striped bass; and many varieties of sunfish, trout, pickerel, walleye, muskellunge and more.
For those who once said that the "Schuylkill River was the sewer of the City", it's pretty encouraging to imagine that 50 different types of fish can actually live in this river.