The Schuylkill Survey: October 1st and Other Impetuous Floods

Sandy Sorlien, New Urban Network
This Schuylkill Survey series has been interrupted by a flood. Before we get to Pottstown and the Trail Towns conference report I’ve promised, first let’s look at the riparian-urban interface along the Philadelphia portion of the river on Friday October 1. According to the USGS Streamflow and Height graphs, which are addicting for weather geeks and boaters, the crest was 13 feet at mid-afternoon on Friday. The river is “normal” and safe for rowers when it is around 7 feet, streamflow and wind permitting. Just before the flood it had been very low, around 6 feet; herons and egrets had been walking around in shallow water where they are not usually seen. So this was a 7-foot surge at the widest portion of the river, caused by heavy rains all up and down the watershed.

However, this account of a tragic loss of Dragon Boats (no joke) cites 13 feet over normal flow. The Dragon Boats and their dock were lost from Manayunk, a neighborhood about 7 miles upriver where the river is much narrower and flow is forced higher.

A flood is like snow cover; suddenly, it transforms a familiar environment. It smooths out the chaotic details of daily urbanism, changing the boundaries of forms, minimizing the distraction of too much color, until the world becomes very basic. There’s just snow and not snow; water and not water. Visually, these conditions are entrancing, just as desolate places like Detroit or the post-Katrina Gulf Coast attract photographers and their viewers. Disaster porn? Perhaps, but compelling images may draw attention were none was drawn before. But Friday’s flood was nothing, historically speaking. From The Schuylkill by J. Bennett Nolan, 1951 (thanks to Joe Ferrier for finding it):

” The Schuylkill had always been subject to impetuous floods. There had been the early freshet of 1757, the “Pumpkin Freshet” of 1786, so called because of the great number of pumpkins swept down from the farms adjoining the river, and the disastrous freshets of 1822 and 1839, in the last of which the Schuylkill rose 27 ft from its low water mark in the space of a few hours.

“These overflows, however, were trifling compared with the cataclysm of September 2, 1850, which almost sealed the doom of the Schuylkill Navigation Company. It swept away bridges, dams, mills, and workshops. The anxious watchers at Port Clinton had run a train loaded with coal out upon their bridge in an effort to give it solidity. Down the swirling stream came a coal barge with the ill-omened name “Here I Come”. It carried away not only the Port Clinton bridge but Kerns bridge farther downstream. This was only the beginning of the devastation. By nightfall every one of the many graceful structures which had spanned the stream between Pottsville and Royersford was born away by the raging water. Conshohocken bridge was taken off its piers and swept downstream, a gigantic battering ram, to demolish Flat Rock bridge (Manayunk).

“In the general catastrophe only one upper river bridge survived, the magnificent stone arch by which the Reading Railway tracks were carried over the Schuylkill above Tuckerton. The Schuylkill had almost returned to the bridgeless condition of the days when Lenape squaws forded out into the river to dry their fish on the rocks.”

A lost bridge, a lost battle

If the Flat Rock Bridge had survived to this day, it would be a commuter connection, and the rural character of the settlement on the Philadelphia side of the river would have changed long ago. No doubt it would have been built up as far as the capricious Zoning Board of Adjustment would allow. There would be medium-rise condo projects on parking piers in the floodplain, just as there are now on aptly named Venice Island between the Manayunk Canal and the Schuylkill, where development was strenuously opposed for many years. (We lost.) On October 1st, the buildings had to be evacuated, cars floated in the floodwaters, and two people had to be taken off by boat. “I don’t know how they got the permit to build these buildings,” said a local resident, John Mooney, 54, who has lived in Manayunk almost all his life. “This is unbelievable.”

And that was just a trifling freshet.