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Delaware Direct Watershed History

An 1840 bird's eye view of the Delaware River and Philadelphia, looking downstream from present-day Center City. Market Street is the large street lined with market sheds down the center. Philadelphia had one of the busiest ports in the U.S. in the 19th century. Philadelphia Water Department Historical Collection

The parts of the city draining directly into the Delaware River (the "Delaware Direct" watershed) include a number of smaller historic watersheds whose hydrology has been greatly altered over the past 200 years. Almost all the serpentine streams in this large area have been converted to combined sewers, built in their former channels to carry their flow along with inputs of industrial and household wastes. In many cases, those sewers proved inadequate to drain the neighborhoods around them, resulting in flooding of low-lying areas during storms. To provide additional capacity, relief sewers were built to capture flow from above the flood-prone areas and carry it directly to the Delaware River. Examples of relief sewers in the Delaware Direct Watershed include those running under Wakeling and Van Kirk streets, Fairmount Avenue, Shackamaxon Street, Walnut Street, McKean Street, Snyder Avenue, and others. These combined sewers and relief sewers altered the hydrology of this area to the point that it is often referred to as a “sewershed,” since most drainage is accomplished through these underground pipes.

The Laurel Street Sewer outfall at the Delaware River. This was one of many large sewers that emptied millions of gallons of raw sewage a year into the Delaware River at that time. Philadelphia Water Department Historical Collection

A discussion of the various sections of this large drainage area follows:

South Philadelphia Marshland

The entire "Neck" (as South Philadelphia was once known) historically encompassed thousands of acres of tidal marsh, and was therefore a single drainage area. This area included the lowest land in the city, some of it barely above water and much of it marshy ground inundated with every high tide. Meandering through the marshland were a number of changeable streams, the largest of which were Hollander’s and Shackaminsing (sometimes called Shackhanson or Chickhausing) creeks. Earthen dikes were built around much of South Philadelphia in the 18th century to keep out the high tide, and drainage canals were cut through the low-lying land, making it more inhabitable and suitable for agriculture. Small farms were common in this section, with vegetables and hay and meat from piggeries and other livestock sold in the markets of the city. Much of the area remained marshy until the 20th century; one major filling project was undertaken to make land for the Sesquicentennial Exposition, held at League Island Park in 1926.

Historic Streams Converted to Sewers

North of the tidal marshes of South Philadelphia, a series of streams once drained directly to the Delaware. Most of these streams provided sites for industry, which dumped wastes into the streams. Such pollution was the major reason for encapsulating creeks in sewers in the years before the Civil War. The major creeks are listed below, from north to south, with their approximate date of sewer encapsulation. Note that these stream systems, even the smallest of which were several miles long, could take many decades to completely obliterate.

Dock Creek (1765-1810) had its mouth at Spruce Street, and with several tributaries drained much of the eastern half of the original Philadelphia (the two square miles from the Delaware to the Schuylkill, and between Vine and South streets). Dock Street winds over part of the original course of this stream.

Pegg’s Run (about 1830) entered the Delaware at about Willow Street, and this winding street still marks the course of this small stream.

Cohocksink Creek (1840s to about 1920s) drained a large watershed that reached almost to 33rd and Diamond streets, with its mouth at Poplar Street. The lower reaches of the creek were converted into a canal before the sewer encapsulation began. A series of winding streets, including Laurel Street and Canal Street, still trace the stream’s meandering course through the Northern Liberties neighborhood.

Gunner’s Run (1900-1930s), had several tributaries that ran through North Philadelphia. The lower stretch became the Aramingo Canal in the 1840s, which became polluted with industrial waste and sewage and was covered over beginning in 1900.

The original lower reach of Frankford Creek (at Bridge Street) is part of the Delaware Direct. As part of a flood control project, a new, straightened channel was constructed in 1956. The old meandering channel ran through the heart of the Bridesburg neighborhood, emptying into the Delaware just south of the Frankford Arsenal. A small leg of this channel is still open, up to Bridge Street, where it serves as an outlet for a storm sewer that was built in the upper section of the original stream bed.

Much of the watershed of the Little Tacony Creek (1900-1930s), which once entered Frankford Creek at about Torresdale Avenue, is also included in the Delaware Direct. This is because the Wakefield Street Relief Sewer captures much of the flow that once ran through the Little Tacony, carrying it directly into the Delaware.

Wissinoming Creek (1920s to 1930s) drained an area between Frankford and Holmesburg, with a system that included the main stream and Little Wissinoming Creek.

Spewter’s Run (likely 1930s) drained a small area adjacent to the Delaware River, between the Pennypack and Poquessing creeks.

An 1884 engraving of the Disston Saw Works, located in the city's Tacony neighborhood, was one of many industries that lined the Delaware River in the 19th and 20th centuries and polluted the river with their wastes. Philadelphia Water Department Historical Collection

Development Pattern

The Delaware Direct is still in a state of flux and transformation today, as it has been for more than 350 years. Development in the Delaware Direct took place over several centuries, and Swedish settlements in the area from the mid-1650s predated William Penn’s founding of Philadelphia in 1682. In the original city, the area around Dock Creek was settled first, but almost simultaneously German immigrants were settling in Frankford and Germantown. By the 19th century, shipping and industrial sites spread the length of the waterfront, evidenced today by the large number of abandoned wharves and factory buildings now found along the river. The areas north and south of the original city settled early, and included the neighborhoods of Southwark, Northern Liberties, and Kensington. Residential development in South Philadelphia, and in some areas of Northeast Philadelphia, did not occur until after World War II.