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Pennypack Creek Watershed History

The name “Pennypack” is derived from the Lenape, meaning “deep, dead water; water without much current.” The creek also was known as Dublin Creek in the late 17th century, based on the mapping of Thomas Holme (1624-1695), Pennsylvania’s first Surveyor General. Holme’s burial site is found within the Pennypack watershed, in Holme-Crispin Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Though the watershed remained mostly rural until the mid-20th century, small villages and industrial works began to locate along the creek from the late 17th century into the early 20th century. The creek was traversed by many early roads and bridges leading out of Philadelphia, including the Frankford Avenue Bridge, constructed in 1697 along the King’s Highway, the early main route between Philadelphia and New York.

Several of the early mills on the Pennypack were grist mills, serving the agricultural needs of both area farmers and the surrounding region in nearby Bucks and Montgomery counties as well as southern New Jersey. By the 18th century and into the 19th century, however, factories began producing other goods such as saws, lumber, barrels, linseed oil, gunpowder, axes, carpet, yarn and dyes. Small and medium-sized factory villages surrounded the creek, including the village of Verreeville, located near the present-day site of the Pennypack Environmental Center. Several of the area roads traversing the creek recall the region’s industrial past, including Axe Factory Road and Rowland Avenue, named for John Rowland, founder of Rowland’s Shovel Works, which produced a prize-winning shovel at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.

Development Pattern

Located far from the hustle and bustle of central Philadelphia, the Pennypack watershed remained mostly rural until after World War II, when housing needs for returning soldiers—the so-called “baby boomers”—led to the development of large swaths of housing on both sides of the creek. Fortunately, beginning in 1905, the city had begun acquiring land for Pennypack Park, with the initial purchase including land between Frankford Avenue and Pine Road. According to the ordinance authoring the acquisition, the park was supposed to be “of such widths, that by passing the boundary lines generally along the crests of the heights, which are on either side of the creek, the purity of the water of the creek may be protected and thus the beauty of the scenery preserved.”

A large majority of Philadelphia’s watershed parklands were purchased at about that same time. Although these good intentions were partially fulfilled, many sections of the park do not go from ridge to ridge, meaning that dense residential development (and resulting impervious surfaces) within the watershed cause high levels of stormwater runoff into small tributaries and ultimately Pennypack Creek itself. Much of the creek’s major tributary, Sandy Run, which has its source near Fox Chase, was converted into a combined sewer. Only a small section of this stream, near its confluence with the Pennypack, now remains on the surface. This was one of the last streams in the city to suffer such a fate.

Within the city, additional tracts were acquired for Pennypack Park in 1907, 1909, 1915, 1925 and 1928. In 1977, 205 acres of city-owned property at the mouth of the Pennypack was transferred to Fairmount Park. A portion of this property became the Pennypack on the Delaware site, a 65-acre recreational area opened in 1998. Outside the city, major parklands include 720 acres of the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, which was founded in 1970 Lorimer Park, covering 250 acres in Abington Township, was created in 1938.

These park areas provide a much needed green buffer and many recreational opportunities for residents of the surrounding residential neighborhoods. In Philadelphia, development in the watershed is mostly completed, but it continues in the Bucks and Montgomery County sections. In all of Montgomery County between 1970 and 2000, more than 91,000 acres of farmland and natural lands were developed, which equals 142 square miles, or 30 percent of the county’s total land area. This level of development has put tremendous pressure on the Pennypack and every other stream in the county.