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Bartram’s bringing boating back: Reviving Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River



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In 1683, the surveyor Thomas Holme drafted “A
Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia” for William
Penn (Fig 1). Marked by four green public spaces
near the corners and punctuated with land for its city
hall at the center, the city was laid out spanning the
breadth of a peninsula in Pennsylvania bounded by
the Delaware River to the east and the Schuylkill
River to the west (Fig 2). The Delaware River be-
came the city’s conduit to Europe with its large
ships for international trade and the Schuylkill River
became the locus for industrial production.
Figure 1. 1683 Thomas Holme, “A Portraiture of the City of
Philadelphia” (Historic Maps of Pennsylvania)
In 1728, the third-generation Pennsylvania Quak-
er John Bartram purchased 102 acres to the south of
the city alongside the Schuylkill River from Swedish
settlers. A man with a passion for scientific inquiry,
Bartram systematically began collecting seeds and
plant specimens resulting in the most varied collec-
tion of North American plants in the world. He es-
tablished a trans-Atlantic hub of plant exploration
through his exchanges with London merchant Peter
Collinson. By 1765, Bartram was so internationally
recognized that he was appointed the “Royal Bota-
nist” by King George III. Under the care of three
generations of Bartrams, his international plant trade
and nursery business survived him and continued to
thrive along the Schuylkill River until 1850.
A delicate ecosystem named “hidden river” by
the Dutch, the east bank of the Schuylkill River was
where the city began construction on the Fairmount
Water Works in 1812, the source of the city’s drink-
ing water until 1909. A beautiful, picturesque as-
semblage of buildings modeled after the temples of
ancient Greece, the water works pumped water from
the river up a hill to a 3 million gallon earthen reser-
voir that held the city’s water. By 1854, downstream
at Point Breeze two industries were thriving: the At-
lantic Refining Company which shipped nearly one-
half of the world's illuminating fluid and the Point
Breeze Gas Works which was then considered the
largest in the world. By 1891, 35% of all petroleum
exported from the U.S. was shipped from this loca-
tion in Philadelphia. This same year, the City of
Philadelphia took possession of the estate to pre-
serve Bartram’s Garden and by 1893 the John Bar-
tram Association was created by his descendants.
Bartram’s bringing boating back: reviving Philadelphia’s Schuylkill
E.V. Ellis
Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
ABSTRACT: Bartram’s Garden is the 45 acres of parkland, wildlife habitats, tidal wetlands, reclaimed mead-
ow, and urban farm that remain today from the original 102-acre estate America’s first botanist John Bartram
purchased from Swedish settlers in 1728. The garden is located to the southwest of Philadelphia along the
west bank of the Schuylkill River which was both the site of industrial production for the city and the source
of the city’s drinking water until 1909. The quality of the river’s water has been compromised by numerous
industries including oil refinery operations, sewage treatment facilities, scrap metal and waste recycling busi-
nesses, and refuse from slaughterhouses. Today, efforts to breathe life back into the river are underway. While
the water is not yet drinkable, Bartram’s Garden is restoring its freshwater tidal wetland area, cultivating mus-
sels to support the river ecosystem, and is the first to bring public boating recreation back to the river.
Today, the site is managed by the Association in co-
operation with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.
Once a source of water for the city, the water
quality of the Schuylkill River has been adversely
affected over time by numerous industries including
sewage treatment facilities near the mouth of the
Schuylkill River, scrap metal and waste recycling
businesses, and refuse from slaughterhouses.
By the end of the 20th century, the delicate eco-
system of this hidden river was severely compro-
mised. The 21st century has brought a new vision
for the renaturalization of the Schuylkill River re-
sulting in a number of strategies for creating a more
healthful water resource for the city, most notably
Philadelphia’s Greenworks program, the Green Cit-
ies, Clean Waters effort spearheaded by the Phila-
delphia Water Department, and The Tidal Schuylkill
River Master Plan.
One of the more prominent projects to activate
the river is the Schuylkill River Trail, a multi-use
trail in Southeastern Pennsylvania with a projected
length of almost 130 miles when complete. This trail
will culminate (or begin) at Bartram’s Garden to the
south near the mouth of the river. Efforts to breathe
life back into the river are underway. While the wa-
ter is not yet drinkable, Bartram’s Garden is restor-
ing its wetland area, cultivating mussels to support
the river ecosystem, and is the first to bring public
boating recreation back to the river. This paper will
present the history of the Schuylkill River and Bar-
tram’s Garden to provide a context for discussing
the Public Boating Program at Bartram’s Garden
and the work of university, high school and voca-
tional students to help make this vision a reality.
When John Bartram (1699-1777) bought his garden
in 1728 in the rural township of Kingsessing, in
Philadelphia County, it was located on an idyllic 102
acres along the Schuylkill River. It was the perfect
location to establish a North American botanic col-
lection: it faced toward the southeast, was sheltered
by low hills to the north and south, and was fortu-
nate to have a great variety of soils (Fry 2004). Lo-
cated along the boundary between two geographic
regions, the coastal plain and piedmont, this was an
ideal location for Bartram’s botanical garden. The
mid-Atlantic climate of Philadelphia was moderate
and plants from both the north and the south could
survive outdoors (Fry 2008). Approximately four
miles from the heart of Philadelphia, Bartram’s gar-
den could be reached by crossing the Schuylkill
River at Gray’s Ferry and traveling through a peace-
ful countryside down Woodland Avenue and past
gracious estates on the way to Darby (Fig 2).
In September of the following year, John Bartram
married his second wife Ann Mendenhall (1703?-
1789) after his first wife had unfortunately died two
years earlier leaving him with one son. They had
nine children, eight surviving to adulthood. They
and three generations of their descendants lived in
the stone house they built in 1731, which still sur-
vives today at the garden (Fry 2004).
Although John Bartram’s garden began as a per-
sonal garden, it grew to a botanical inventory of na-
tive and exotic plants he collected throughout Amer-
ica’s eastern seaboard and exchanged with others
from abroad. Raised a Quaker in nearby Darby, he
was trained to view scientific inquiry as a means of
revealing the guiding principle of God in nature (Fry
2010). His trips into the wilds of America were bo-
tanical expeditions that in and of themselves served
as a school of botany. He and his family understood
North American plants and plant communities from
direct observation of the natural environment and by
cultivating plants in their garden (Fry 2004).
Figure 2. 1752 N. Scull and G. Heap, “A Map of Philadelphia
and Parts Adjacent” (Historic Maps of Pennsylvania)
By 1733, Bartram began corresponding with a
fellow Quaker in London, Peter Collinson (1694-
1768), a cloth merchant and novice botanist and
gardener. Collinson connected Bartram with a dis-
parate group of British gardeners, nurserymen, bota-
nists, scientific collectors, aristocrats, and the own-
ers of some of the most famous gardens of the
eighteenth century—Bartram then had new sources
for exotic plants to import to his garden and con-
versely had buyers for his North American plants
and seeds (Fry 2004, 2008). This was the beginning
of a lucrative business with Europeans who were
willing to pay significant sums for rare and valuable
North American plants (Fry 2010). By 1765, Collin-
son lobbied King George III to recognize Bartram
for his devotion to botany and natural science. He
was rewarded with a royal stipend of £50 per year
for the rest of his life and the unofficial title of
King’s Botanist for North America (Fry 2004).
By the middle of the eighteenth century, Bar-
tram’s Garden had the biggest variety of North
American plants in the world. Neither publicly fund-
ed nor officially recognized, it functioned as a na-
tional botanical garden during his lifetime and
through to the 1840’s. By the middle of the nine-
teenth century, though, North American plants had
become widely cultivated in Europe and America
and were no longer rare or interesting to the horti-
cultural world. Bartram’s plants and seeds were now
part of the gardening mainstream and could be culti-
vated in Europe without importing his seeds from
America. Ultimately, the Bartram family plant and
seed business was dependent upon an elite group of
customers who no longer needed their product.
By 1850, Bartram’s descendants were forced to
sell the house and garden. A railroad industrialist,
Andrew M. Eastwick (1811-1879), bought the estate
and preserved the historic garden as a private park.
Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) tended the garden and
ultimately was responsible for leading the movement
in Philadelphia to preserve the site as a public park
(Fry 2010). In 1891, the City took possession of the
estate to preserve Bartram’s Garden and by 1893 the
John Bartram Association was created by his de-
scendants. In 1892, the editor of The Horticulturist
John Jay Smith reflected on its significance, “From
this garden dates horticulture in America. It should
be carefully preserved forever” (Fry 2008).
3.1 The Schuylkill Watershed Ecosystem
Bartram’s Garden is located within the Schuylkill
River watershed. A watershed is the area drained by
a river or a river system. A watershed functions as
an interconnected system, or watershed ecosystem,
which includes an intricate network of small head-
waters streams and the agriculture, forest, plant, and
aquatic communities it serves. The watershed is the
irreplaceable source of water for groundwater and
the water people drink (TCF 2002).
The largest tributary in the Delaware River Basin,
the Schuylkill watershed covers about 1,916 square
miles, or over 1.2million acres. The river originates
to the northwest at Tuscarora Springs in Schuylkill
County and travels approximately 130 miles toward
the southeast to its mouth at the Delaware River in
Philadelphia. The Schuylkill River drainage network
falls into four natural physiographic regions or
“provinces” with different geologic, topographic,
hydrologic, soil and climatic conditions, which in
turn has influenced land use and economic devel-
opment patterns within the watershed. Bartram’s
Garden is located within the Atlantic Coastal Plain
Province, which is at the southern tip in the City of
Philadelphia extending into New Jersey. One of the
region’s most important groundwater sources is con-
tained in this province (TCF 2002).
Critical elements of a watershed ecosystem are
streamside areas and wetlands. Healthy wetlands
prevent flooding, sedimentation, habitat degradation
and invasive non-native plant species. Almost like a
water sponge, the wetland stabilizes the shoreline
and prevents erosion. Other benefits are the special
habitats they provide for wildlife, some of which can
be globally endangered species (TCF 2002).
3.2 Schuylkill River Trail and Greening the River
Although only complete in sections, a multi-use rec-
reational trail follows portions of the entire 130-mile
length of the Schuylkill River. There are currently
over 60 miles of finished trail for significant lengths
along the east bank of the river. Starting at the
northern limits, there’s a scenic seven-mile stretch
from Auburn to Hamburg in Schuylkill County that
near Port Clinton intersects with the Appalachian
Trail, the national scenic trail that extends from
Maine to Georgia. While the Hamburg to Reading
section has not yet been built, cyclists can follow a
signed on-road route for about 20 miles between the
two cities. From Reading, the trail continues another
20 miles to Pottstown where the trail breaks off
again and is picked up in Parkerford to connect with
a 30-mile stretch to Philadelphia (SRT). At South
Street in Philadelphia, there are plans for the Trail to
cross the river to the west bank and continue on to
Bartram’s Garden, which will serve as the southern
gateway to the Schuylkill River Trail (MGA).
The Schuylkill River serves as the central spine
for Fairmount Park, the largest landscaped city park
in the United States. Its name derives from the
“Faire Mount” shown at the northwest corner of
William Penn’s plan of 1682 (Fig 1). In 1855, the
city council passed a resolution to open the land
formally to the public as Fairmount Park. In late
1858, the Committee on Public Property invited
“Plans for the Improvement of Fair Mount Park”.
The goal was to combine newly acquired upriver es-
tates, along with other parcels, comprising about 130
acres all together, into a unified park based on New
York’s Central Park designed by Frederic Law
Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. In 1859, the firm of
James Clark Sidney (ca. 1819–81) and Andrew Ad-
ams (ca. 1800–60) won a public competition for the
design of Fairmount Park. Later in 1866, the city in-
vited Olmsted to make a study for the park, which
later became a formal proposal for the completion of
the park in January 1871. However, in the end the
project went to a young German architect, Hermann
J. Schwarzmann (1846–91), the park engineer on
staff who had been responsible for the ongoing work
of park maintenance (Lewis 2006).
Opening in 2000 to the south of Fairmount Park,
the Schuylkill Banks recreation area connects the
Fairmount Water Works with Locust Street (KSK
2012). That same year, the nonprofit Schuylkill Riv-
er Development Corporation (SRDC) began a mas-
ter plan to extend Fairmount Park south through the
City to create a new Schuylkill River Park to help
mitigate the predominately industrial corridor of the
lower Tidal Schuylkill River. The goal is to improve
public access, promote tourism on the river, reclaim
industrial sites for green public space, and acquire
land to create greenways that can connect to adja-
cent residential neighborhoods (TCF 2002).
3.3 Industrialization of the Tidal Schuylkill River
The Tidal Schuylkill River is the eight-mile portion
of the river and both its land banks located below the
Fairmount Dam going south to the confluence of the
Schuylkill River with the Delaware River. Construc-
tion on the Fairmount Water Works began in 1812.
The dam was constructed in 1822 to provide higher
levels of water for pumping at the water works. The
dam also stilled the waters, which encouraged wa-
terborne shipping to come up the river as far as the
dam, as well as use of the river for recreation. Sur-
prisingly, the tidal flux of the river is over eight feet
daily. Water was pumped from the Schuylkill up the
hill to a 3 million gallon earthen reservoir to hold the
city’s water. By 1909, the quality of the river’s wa-
ter was no longer suitable for drinking and the bath-
ing establishments along its eastern shore had been
driven out of business by the unabated pollution of
the river (EDAW 2003). This mound later became
the earthen platform for the Philadelphia Art Muse-
um, constructed 1919-1928 (Fig 3).
In looking at Holme’s “Portraiture” of Philadel-
phia (Fig 1), it would appear that the City spanned
from river to river. While this was William Penn’s
grand vision, actual settlement was predominately
along the western bank of the Delaware River. The
area west of Broad Street where the city hall was to
be located (constructed 1871-1901) was sparsely set-
tled well into the 19th century. The Delaware River
became the location for shipping, the river lined
with piers and wharves, many of which are still in
existence today and some of which have been repur-
posed for parks, recreation, housing, and retail. Lo-
cated at the western “back door” to the City, the
hidden Tidal Schuylkill River became the locus for
industrial production, especially oil refining.
Figure 3. General view from the water with the Philadelphia
Museum of Art in the background - Fairmount Waterworks,
Aquarium Drive, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA (Li-
brary of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washing-
ton, D.C. 20540 USA ).
Early in the 19th century, the Philadelphia Gas
Company was located on the east bank of the
Schuylkill at the foot of Market Street, several
blocks south of the dam. By1836, it was purchased
by the City and became consolidated as the Phila-
delphia Gas Works; its first significant commission
was to provide illuminating fuel for the forty-six
natural gas street lights along Second Street between
Vine and South Streets near the Delaware River
wharves. An even larger city-owned gas company
was to be located at Point Breeze mid-century, re-
maining active for a little over a century (Cotter
1992). Soon thereafter, the Atlantic Petroleum Stor-
age Company (now ARCO) established wharves at
Point Breeze in 1861 (Fig 4). Thirty years later,
nearly half of the world’s illuminating oil was ex-
ported from the Atlantic refinery at Point Breeze,
which was 35% of all petroleum exported from the
U.S. (Weigley 1982). Later in 1903, the Philadelphia
Electric Company (PECO) established Generating
Station A-1, the first large-scale, centralized power
plant in the Philadelphia region near Grays Ferry
along the eastern bank of the Schuylkill. Additional
generators were added over the years and the area
remained in operation by PECO in some capacity or
another to generate energy until the end of 2012.
The oil refining business continued to expand in
the Tidal Schuylkill River. Just south of Point
Breeze at Girard Point, Gulf Oil built its first termi-
nal in 1920. Together, both refineries were pro-
cessing 69,000 barrels of oil per day by World War
II. Sunoco purchased both the Point Breeze and
Girard Point refineries, which the company consoli-
dated into one refinery in 1994. Today, Philadelphia
Energy Solutions (PES) owns the refining complex,
which it operates as two separate domestic refineries
with a combined processing rate of 335,000 barrels
per day (14 million U.S. gallons) of crude oil. It is
the largest oil refining complex on the U.S. Eastern
seaboard (PES 2016).
Figure 4. Bartram’s Garden location with respect to the oil re-
fineries in Philadelphia (map by google earth with locations
identified by author).
Although the Schuylkill River is still the source
of drinking water for 1.5 million people, 56% of
people surveyed believe that their local stream or
river is not safe to swim in and 82% never or rarely
use the Schuylkill River and its tributaries for rec-
reational purposes (TCF 2002).
4.1 Philadelphia’s Efforts to Green the Rivers
It is not surprising that by 1909 the Fairmount Water
Works had ceased to supply the City with its drink-
ing water. The water was so well known to be haz-
ardous that in 1892 the New York Times reported
three Philadelphia boaters who set off a fire with the
“thoughtless act” of tossing a match into the
Schuylkill, which ignited the “thin scum of oil from
the adjacent oil works.” In 1896, a negligence suit
had been brought against the Atlantic Petroleum
Storage Company by an exporter whose ship caught
fire at Point Breeze. A gas works engineer testified
that floating oil “would be all over the river, and
sometimes it would be close in along the wharf, ac-
cording to which way the wind was blowing.” An-
other gas works employee testified that the ground
was mostly “clinker and debris” and that “oil will
come through it just like a sponge” (Dougherty
2013). Industry blocked attempts to clean up the riv-
er until the 1940s when the Schuylkill River Project,
a joint state-federal clean-up effort, was created. The
river’s water quality was improved with EPA’s in-
troduction of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s.
While much had transpired since then, the EPA
levied a $1.25 million fine against the Sun Oil Com-
pany in 1994 for its violation of the Clean Water Act
at its Schuylkill refinery. Sun Oil’s fines allegedly
resulted from discharging ammonia, nitrogen, chro-
mium and other chemicals into the Schuylkill River.
Unified under the name “South/Southwest Philadel-
phia Environmental Endowment,” sixteen groups
from neighboring communities discovered that the
law allowed for a portion of the fine to go to a com-
munity-based Supplemental Environmental Project
(SEP). The “Endowment” met with representatives
from the Academy of Natural Sciences and Bar-
tram’s Garden to devise a SEP remediation plan
(Pontarelli 1995). Their solution was to create a 1.5
acre freshwater tidal wetland on the river at the
southwest corner of Bartram’s Garden, which histor-
ically had been the location of a pond near the shore-
line (Mueller 1996). It took 18 months for the legal
issues to be resolved and another year to get the pro-
ject going due to the proposed wetlands proximity to
a local ball field, Native American archaeological
artifacts discovered at the site, and the requirement
to test for soil contamination (Howard 1996).
The Philadelphia Airport is located near the
mouth of the Schuylkill River where it meets the
Delaware River. In 2012, the airport proposed to ex-
tend one taxiway to connect with another, which
would include the filling and loss of 1.49 acres of
emergent non-tidal wetland habitat. As compensa-
tion for the wetland loss the airport proposed a wet-
land enhancement project to expand the tidal wet-
lands at Bartram’s Garden. The proposed plan would
include re-grading and excavation to develop a 2.33
acre tidal wetland complex with 1.54 acres of open
water and emergent tidal wetland, 0.24 acres of
scrub/shrub wetland habitat, 0.23 acres of forest-
ed/shrub wetland habitat, and 0.33 acres of upland
buffer habitat (US Army Corps of Engineers 2012).
The proposal was well-received by Bartram’s be-
cause the 1997 wetlands were never dedicated as a
permanent wetland nor did the wetland include the
proper plants to prevent invasive species from over-
taking the grounds. Additionally, no funds were set
aside for long term monitoring or to purchase and
install the plant species needed to anchor the wet-
land. The rebuilt wetlands were designed to be fully
tidal and to accommodate the 8-foot tidal differ-
ences, which could make the wetland an ideal
spawning ground for larger fish like bass (Hahn
2013). The wetlands underwent a number of design
alterations to add the nearly one-acre addition due to
the discovery of the 17,233 artifacts that spanned the
time periods of Late Archaic through Late Wood-
land (as long ago as 3000 BCE), and the late seven-
teenth-century to modern times (Harris 2013).
The freshwater tidal wetlands restoration project
at Bartram’s Garden is a tangible example of the ef-
forts the City of Philadelphia has expended to make
the city a more sustainable urban environment. In-
augurated in 2009 and updated annually since then,
Greenworks Philadelphia has fourteen targets di-
rected at reducing energy consumption, reducing
greenhouse gases, improving air quality, diverting
solid waste from landfills, and managing storm-
water, among others. A companion document is the
Green City, Clean Waters program developed by the
Philadelphia Water Department. PWD’s strategy is
to utilize green stormwater infrastructure to help
mitigate the effects of Philadelphia’s combined sew-
er overflows that drain to the Delaware and Schuylk-
ill Rivers. Philadelphia’s strategy to green its water-
ways is supported by groups such as the Partnership
for the Delaware Estuary, which is a nonprofit or-
ganization dedicated to protecting and enhancing the
Delaware Estuary, where fresh water from the Del-
aware River mixes with salt water from the Atlantic
Ocean. They and Drexel University’s Academy of
Natural Sciences have been actively involved with
the Bartram’s Garden wetland restoration. Their
programs support and provide guidelines for fresh-
water tidal wetlands and freshwater mussel recov-
ery, among others.
4.2 Freshwater Tidal Wetlands
Freshwater tidal wetlands are critically important for
both the urban ecosystem and human health. The
Delaware Estuary has the largest freshwater tidal
prism of any estuary in the world. Because of the
broad salinity gradient from the Atlantic Ocean to
the upper reaches of the Delaware and Schuylkill
Rivers, it allows for nationally rare freshwater tidal
wetlands in the upper estuary. The ecological and
economic benefits of a freshwater tidal wetland are
multiple: flood protection; nursery, forage and nest-
ing habitats for fish and wildlife; water quality im-
provement; and carbon and nutrient sequestration
(Kreeger 2011). The wetland at Bartram’s is signifi-
cant as an urban ecosystem because in addition to its
ability to improve water quality, it could potentially
provide habitat for diverse animal species unable to
live elsewhere in the city.
4.3 Mussels Restoration
Mussels are bivalves, which are the best taxonomic
group to target for integrating an ecosystem-based
approach to conserving, managing, and restoring
aquatic resources. In order for mussels to survive,
they require a healthy population of suitable fish
hosts as well as decent water and habitat quality.
Freshwater mussels can live to be 80- to 100-years
old and most species do not begin reproducing until
8- to 10-years old. In contrast to other bivalve spe-
cies, freshwater mussels need a fish host to complete
their reproductive cycle: a female with developed
larvae propels her baby mussels, or glochidia, into a
fish’s mouth where they attach to the gills or some-
times the fins. This enables the mussel population to
disperse upstream where the larvae could not go on
their own. The glochidia remain attached to the fish
for approximately 2-3 weeks until they release in a
new upstream location. Therefore the life and health
of a mussel species is directly dependent on their
fish hosts, who can be adversely affected by dams,
water quality and habitat degradation (PDE 2012).
Freshwater mussels are critical bioindicators that
directly reflect the health of an aquatic system and
are one of the best tools for bioassessment of both
specific contaminants in the water as well as the
overall ecology of a waterway. Since they are large
filter feeders, they must process large amounts of
water and particles across their soft tissues, which
results in greater exposure to contaminants. Because
mussels filter copious amounts of water and they do
not swim around, their presence in a waterway indi-
cates healthy water. Healthy and abundant freshwa-
ter mussel beds provide a multitude of ecological
services and are a dominant functional component in
aquatic food webs: they stabilize bottom habitats
and enrich sediments for other fauna, add habitat
complexity and increase water quality (PDE 2012).
A few mussels have been found near Bartram’s
Garden, which indicates the water quality is likely to
be sufficient. One of the goals of the John Bartram
Association (JBA) Strategic Plan is to “serve as a
model for environmentally responsible practices,
work in partnership for revitalization of the Schuylk-
ill Riverfront, and work with the City to … make
Philadelphia a vibrant urban green city.” One strate-
gy to achieve this goal is to “develop restoration and
maintenance plans for Bartram’s tidal wetlands”
(JBA 2013). JBA has expressed interest to PDE in
hosting a mussels production hatchery. Juvenile
mussels would be propagated at the hatchery and
would be used to reseed streams and rivers in the
Delaware watershed where there were once diverse
and abundant mussels, but no longer. A mussels
hatchery would also contribute to the habitat restora-
tion and water filtering capability of Bartram’s new-
ly restored wetland.
5.1 Bartram’s Urban Garden
Once reached via a country road from Philadelphia
on the way to Darby, today Historic Bartram’s Gar-
den is hidden from the public, reached circuitously
via paved concrete roads marked by trolley rails that
snake through a bleak post-industrial complex of
buildings that often are in disrepair. On the other
hand, Bartram’s beautiful garden can also be
reached directly via the recently completed Bar-
tram’s Mile which connects this historic landscape
to the verdant recreational Schuylkill River Trail and
the south Philadelphia community.
Cognizant of the unfortunate public perception of
the river as a polluted waterway, Bartram’s Garden
has taken on the challenge of transforming this nega-
tive view to a vision of a vibrant urban oasis for rec-
reation for the whole community. In addition to the
Bartram’s Mile gateway project, their Action Plan
includes safeguarding and improving the Garden’s
environment, enhancing recreational activities, es-
tablishing the on-site working farm and orchard as a
destination for the urban farming community, devel-
oping restoration and maintenance plans for the tidal
wetlands—essentially establishing Bartram’s as a
world-class cultural, heritage and urban green space
destination with nutrition and environmental educa-
tion programs that emphasize awareness and stew-
ardship (JBA 2013). Part of this vision includes ac-
tivating the waterway—really activating the
waterway by putting people on it in boats.
5.2 NYC Boathouses
Inspiration for recreational boating at Bartram’s has
come from the numerous successful boathouses the
staff has visited in the vicinity of New York City.
Apparent from the boathouse mission and activity
descriptions to follow is a concern for the environ-
ment as an integral part of recreational boating. The
Yonkers Paddling & Rowing Club, Inc. is a not-for-
profit membership organization whose purposes are
to encourage rowing and paddling sports as well as
to educate and inform the public about the environ-
ment of the Hudson River and the importance of its
protection for present and future generations.
Two of the goals for the Village Community
Boathouse at Pier 40 are: 1) to improve the park’s
Estuarine Sanctuary through public education, re-
search and habitat enhancement and 2) to provide
free or low-cost recreational opportunities for New
York City residents.
The North Brooklyn Boat Club (NBBC) offers
environmental education workshops on site in their
“container classroom”, regular water testing, as well
as small workshops on wooden boat building, resto-
ration and repair. NBBC has two main educational
programs, an on-land component and an on water
version to better involve citizens with a number of
ecological issues facing urban waterways.
Long Island City Community Boathouse is play-
ing a critical part in revitalizing Long Island City by
reconnecting residents and local business people
with their estuary through its paddling programs and
raising awareness about estuary ecology.
In addition to its continuing public boating and
youth programs, the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boat-
house supports appropriate local advocacy initiatives
aimed at improving public access and water quality
in the harbors and rivers of New York City. They
advocate for the reclassification of “designated use”
waterways to ”primary contact”, because human-
powered boating exposes people to the same risks of
unclean water as swimming. They test the water
every Thursday at the popular launch sites for hu-
man-powered boaters and publish the results on the
Water Trail Association website on Friday. The goal
is to provide a reliable database that harbor boaters
can use to predict water quality at their preferred
launch site.
Figure 5. Bartram’s Garden Community Boathouse with city
skyline in the background (photo by author).
5.3 Bartram’s Bringing Boating Back
Inspired by the boating programs in New York City,
Bartram’s inaugurated their River Program to bring
water-based activities to Southwest Philadelphia.
Their Community Boathouse opened on June 14,
2015 to the fifth annual RiverFest and second annual
Tidal Schuylkill River Boat Parade, a community
event that included a floating ice cream parlor, a
floating brass band, and a choreographed dance per-
formance on paddle boards. Featuring the garden’s
history, a Rhododendron Flotilla reenacted Bar-
tram’s trip home from Berks County with the first
example of the Rhododendron arborescens, discov-
ered near the headwaters of the Schuylkill River.
The Community Boathouse (Fig 5) was the prod-
uct of a year-long collaboration with Drexel Univer-
sity through their Engineering Partnerships In
Community Service (EPICS) program. Staff at Bar-
tram’s Garden worked directly with a team of archi-
tectural engineering students for their Senior Design
project, which included designs for a boardwalk and
overlook for the newly restored wetlands, a living
shoreline, pier and promenade along the riverfront,
the community boathouse, and a floating dock that
could accommodate the 8-foot daily tidal flux. These
college students worked on site with high school
students from a Philadelphia Charter School, The
Workshop School, to build the Floating Dock they
had designed. The Community Boathouse was de-
signed by the team who detailed a roof truss system
over a 20-foot span between two shipping containers
and a green roof with rainwater collection system.
The shipping containers were donated by a Drexel
alum and the roof system was built by the Challenge
Program, a vocational school located in Delaware.
The shipping containers are used for boat storage
and the 20-foot span provides shaded outdoor space
for Philadelphia Waterborne, an experiential, pro-
ject-based educational program for middle- and
high-school students that utilizes boat building, mar-
itime history, and environmental education as a way
to engage students and enhance student educational
outcomes. In total, the Community Boathouse and
Floating Dock were the products of educational pro-
gramming at all levels that used project-based learn-
ing as the key educational principle.
North American settlers were unaware of the gift
they had been given when they stumbled upon the
pristine, hidden Schuylkill River. Characteristic of
human settlement, the river and adjacent land were
used to accommodate growth and expansion of the
city named after its founder, William Penn. In retro-
spect, post-industrial societies are recognizing the
value that will be lost due to the growth and expan-
sion of cities without consideration of the natural
environment. Philadelphia is renaturalizing its city
through a number of strategies including wetlands
and mussels restoration, green stormwater infra-
structure, and bringing recreation back to the river.
The author would like to thank Danielle Redden,
Bartram’s Garden River Programs Manager, for col-
laborating with me, my students and Drexel Univer-
sity on the floating dock and boathouse projects, Jo-
el T. Fry, Curator at the John Bartram Association,
for his help with Bartram’s Garden research, and
Danielle Kreeger, Drexel University colleague and
science director at the Partnership for the Delaware
Estuary for assistance with information on the
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Harris, M.D. 2013. Phase II Archaeological Excavation at 36PH14 South Meadow Area of Historic Bartram's Garden Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Burlington, New Jersey: URS Corporation.
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