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Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed History

On the modern stream map of Philadelphia, no aspect is more confusing than the truncated creek that change names “in the middle of the stream,” for what seems to be no good reason. The stream begins as Tookany Creek in Montgomery County and is known by its spelling variant, Tacony, in Philadelphia. But suddenly, near the intersection of I and Ramona streets in the city’s Juniata Park neighborhood, it becomes Frankford Creek.

That change may seem arbitrary, but it makes perfect sense to anyone with knowledge of the city’s historic streams. The name changes because the Wingohocking Creek once joined the Tacony at that point. Together they formed Frankford Creek, which flows to the Delaware River. The truncated nature of the stream is the result of a half-century of sewer building in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in which all the tributaries to the Frankford and the Tacony within the city limits were encapsulated in combined sewers to provide drainage for the watershed’s expanding neighborhoods.

Two views of Frankford Creek on July 11, 1934. Left: Looking downstream from Wingohocking Street bridge. Right: View of Frankford Creek looking southeast (downstream) from site of Powder Mill Dam showing Wingohocking Street bridge. Philadelphia Water Department Historical Collection

Major Philadelphia Tributaries

Wingohocking Creek, with two branches and numerous smaller tributaries that totaled 21 miles of surface streams, was encapsulated in sewers in a long-running project that began in the late 1870s and was finally completed in 1928. As had its namesake stream, whose stream channels it follows, the Wingohocking Sewer system drains nine square miles in the Germantown, Mount Airy, Logan, and Juniata Park neighborhoods. The outfall of the sewer (at roughly the same location as the mouth of the creek it replaced) is the largest in the city, 21 feet high and 24 feet wide.

Rock Run, a Tacony Creek tributary that drained much of the Olney, Fern Rock, and Oak Lane neighborhoods, was encapsulated in a combined sewer in the 1920s. The outfall on Tacony Creek is more than 12 feet across.

Little Tacony Creek (sometimes called Tackawanna Run on old maps) once joined Frankford Creek at Torresdale Avenue. Several factories were located along this stream and its various tributaries (with names such as Tan Run and Dye Run), among them large textile and dye works. Sewers replaced the stream beginning in the 1890s. Today, much of the flow of these pipes is cut off by upstream relief sewers that run directly to the Delaware River and avoid the stream’s historic channel. For this reason much of the creek’s historic drainage area is designated, on modern watershed maps, as part of the Delaware Direct Watershed.

Development Pattern

Frankford and Germantown were among the earliest European settlements in Pennsylvania. Frankford was first settled by Swedes in the 1660s and then by Quakers at the same time as William Penn’s founding of Philadelphia in 1682. Germantown was also settled at that time. In the 19th century, the watershed became a booming industrial corridor. Textile manufacturing was the primary industry, but many other goods were also produced. The factories were concentrated in Germantown (along Wingohocking Creek) and Frankford (along Frankford and Little Tacony creeks), as well as at other locations along the streams that provided a fall of water for power purposes. The creeks were altered at this time with many dams and mill races to provide water power and, later, source water for steam engines and industrial processes. Industries also used the streams to carry away their wastes.

Beyond the larger settlements in Frankford and Germantown, the watershed was mainly agricultural land with scattered villages until the late 19th century. At that time, the city’s grid of development began to spread across the area, encapsulating the streams in combined sewers, leveling out the valleys with fill, and replacing the open land with streets and rows of houses. Development continued for decades, moving into Montgomery County in the early 20th century and in some suburban areas of the watershed.

Three views looking downstream from Castor Avenue Bridge, as a new concrete channel for Frankford Creek was constructed. The same mill smokestack appears in the 1934 view. Philadelphia City Archives

Flood Relief for Philadelphia

Beginning in the 1920s, with much of the upstream area being developed, flooding became a regular problem in the densely-built Frankford neighborhood, where many factories were constructed right in the creek channel. In a decade-long flood control project for Frankford Creek, undertaken between 1947 and 1956, much of the stream below Castor Avenue was placed in a concrete channel. In addition, the lower reach of the stream, which once wound through Bridesburg, was abandoned, and a straightened, shortened channel was constructed. The original outlet of the creek, located between the Arsenal Business Center and the Rohm & Haas chemical plant, still exists, as well a small portion of the creek, up to Bridge Street. The remainder of the old channel was filled in after a sewer was built in it.

In low-lying areas of Logan, where the existing Wingohocking sewer could not carry away water fast enough, flooding was also a problem. A relief sewer in Wingohocking Street, planned in the 1930s but not built until the early 1950s, helped reduce flooding problems in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, much of Logan was built on unstable fill — a layer of coal ash up to 45 feet deep, dumped there in the early 20th century. Subsequent settling of this fill, likely made worse by the repeated flooding of the neighborhood before the relief sewer was built, led to the undermining and demolition of about 1,000 buildings beginning in the 1980s. Plans for the redevelopment of the land have been discussed from time to time, and the site’s current “blank slate” makes it a popular project location for design and engineering students from area colleges.