On Earth Day, the LandHealth Founder, Scott Quitel, led a tour through the Wissahickon, discussing its patterned history in the region and the plethora of issues it currently faces. Before the colonization of the Americas occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Philadelphia area was home to the Lenni Lenape Tribe. They cultivated the land, hunted the native wildlife, and lived in the forests of the Delaware River Basin for centuries. The name for the Wissahickon actually comes from the Lenape word for catfish stream ‘Wissameckhan’. Like many other Native American tribes, interactions with the European settlers led the vast majority of the Lenape people to die. The remaining people were forced from their land into reservations to make way for an increasingly industrialized America. The Lenni Lenape people now inhabit reservations throughout Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
One of the many developments made in the region after the removal of the indigenous people from their land was the Fairmount Waterworks. The Fairmount Waterworks diverted water from the Schuylkill River before pumping it uphill with the use of coal engines and letting gravity feed the city with drinking water. As the city developed throughout the next few decades, so did the industrial sector. This led to mass source pollution and dumping into both the Schuylkill River, as well as its tributary waterways. Both the Fairmount and Wissahickon parks were completely unrecognizable from their current forms. The forests were clear-cut and developed for food and resource production. In an effort to combat this pollution, the city of Philadelphia bought the areas surrounding these waterways and began developing them into green spaces in the late 1800s. This resulted in the beautiful public parks the residents of Philadelphia enjoy today. Unfortunately, this move forced industrialization upstream where pollution was not as regulated and therefore allowed to continue. This pollution, coupled with outbreaks of typhoid and cholera, caused the Fairmount Waterworks to be decommissioned in 1909.
Mass amounts of funding were given towards the revitalization of the Wissahickon in an effort to restore it to a pre-industrialization era. The woods were closed to vehicular traffic, the park was replanted, and paths were forged. Over the next century, the Fairmount Park commission developed the park into what it is today. The Wisshickon boasts over 24 miles of trails, over 1800 acres of forests, as well thousands of different flora and fauna. But, once again much of this is threatened by human activity and our changing world.
Today the forests and streams of the Wissahickon are seeing traits of ecological decline. There has been a sharp decrease in biodiversity, overcrowding of non-native species, and mass erosion of stream banks. Many of these events have been dramatically exacerbated by climate change and will only worsen if not properly addressed. For the last few years, the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association has continually devoted more funding to protecting and enhancing native biodiversity in the park. Still, their conservation efforts may not be enough, as the forests and streams have become increasingly barren due to changing environmental conditions and increased human activity. Just as the Lenni Lenape cared for and protected this land, it is our responsibility to do the same. If we don’t, areas like the Wissahickon, and many others, won’t be around much longer to enjoy.