Compass is an archive of Library news from 2005 - 2008. For the latest Library news check the Library Blogs.
Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume IV, Issue 5
May 2008   

Discover the Wissahickon in the Digital Library

The Wissahickon Valley, 1250 acres of thick woods along the Wissahickon Creek in northwest Philadelphia, is a civic treasure and possibly Philadelphia’s greatest asset. The sights and spaces of this vast and beautiful wilderness, crisscrossed by numerous trails and dotted with the stone ruins of a previous era, hint at a rich and fascinating history of which I was only dimly aware until, while recently perusing the Pennsylvaniana Collection in the Villanova University Digital Library, I discovered The Wissahickon.

This 81-page volume, published in 1922 by the Garden Club of Philadelphia and freely available on the Digital Library web site, has equipped me with an intimate knowledge of the valley and greatly enriched my subsequent Wissahickon experiences.

Several descriptions of peculiar things I had seen in the valley highlighted for me the Wissahickon’s place in the history of the Philadelphia region. I had once marveled at a man-made stone hovel in a hollow above Lincoln Drive; it turns out that this was the hermitage of the 18th century mystic John Kelpius, whose story is told in the pages of this book.

The many decaying stone dams, walls and other structures throughout the valley are the remnants of a 19th century boomtown driven by numerous mills, including the now famous Rittenhouse Mill, the first paper mill in America. After the Fairmount Park Commission acquired it in the 1870s, the valley was allowed to revert to wilderness.

Also described in detail in The Wissahickon are several episodes of national historical interest, such as the Wissahickon’s role in the Battle of Germantown, as related by Revolutionary War General John Armstrong of the Pennsylvania Militia. This book brings the valley alive with countless anecdotes, from Washington once dining at what became the Valley Green Inn, to Franklin allegedly burying a quantity of French wine at the Livezey House during the British occupation of Philadelphia.

Most of the walking routes, bridges, statues and other sites mentioned still stand today as they did in 1922, and the included maps, covering the entire run of the Wissahickon Creek from the northern edge of Philadelphia to its mouth at the Schuylkill River by East Falls, provide excellent guidance for exploration in the present.

Once, after looking over these maps and noticing a crossing called the “Rex Bridge,” I ventured toward the indicated area and was delighted to find the dirt path transform into an ornate old stone bridge and then continue under a stone arch and up a twisting flight of stone steps to the Indian Rock, one of the many monuments erected over the centuries on hilltops and in hollows throughout the valley.

From the detailed descriptions of trees and other flora to the revelatory mentions of outdated public transit routes, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad (now the SEPTA R8) and the Reading Railroad (now the R6), this is a trip to the Digital Library worth taking. Visit the Pennsylvaniana Collection, and then visit the Wissahickon Valley, “a possession unique within city limits in the world.”

Contributed by Stephen Spatz; images from The Wissahickon in the Digital Library