Changes in the Natural Landscape
A Report by Adam Levine
Copyright 2005. All Rights Reserved. JASTECH Development
Services and Adam Levine
NOTE ON SOURCES
An invaluable source for this research was the 1936 book, Overbrook Farms, by Tello J. d'Apery, which is now available online from this link at the Penn State University Digital Library Collections. I have also created a complete PDF (about 8 mb) from the Penn State version which can be downloaded here. Much information was also gleaned from examinations of old maps, and from the annual reports of the City of Philadelphia Department of Public Works/Bureau of Surveys.
The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers
Compiled by Adam Levine
Philadelphia Water Department
SCOPE of the PROJECT
How an urban neighborhood developed, and at what pace, depends
on a number of complex interrelated factors. Among the many factors that affected
the development of the Overbrook section of West Philadelphia was the taming
of the area's natural topography by an overlay of urban infrastructure. This
act of engineering will by 19th-century urban planners, coinciding as it did
with large tracts of available farmland and easy rail transportation into
the city, made the area attractive to real estate developers looking to create
a suburb of upscale homes.
Overbrook History: The Creeks
In the many millennia before European settlers arrived, Overbrook and the surrounding area had been considered a well-watered wooded area, reputed to be good hunting grounds for the local Native Americans. When the first whites began to make their way inland from the Delaware River shortly after Philadelphia was founded in 1682, they were attracted to the locality by these same features. The land, once cleared of trees, proved to be fertile farmland. The small streams, once dammed, provided power for numerous mills. Grist mills ground grains into flour and meal. Saw mills took the trees clread from the land and turned them into lumber, for local buildings and those in the nearby city. Paper mills and gunpowder mills were also in operation along the local creeks for a time. In the 19th century, with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, textile factories were built that employed hundreds of men, women, boys and girls. Even after these factories converted to steam power by the mid-19th century, they still used the creeks as sources of water for their bleaching and dyeing operations, and as receptacles for their wastes.
Mill Creek ran through the heart of present Overbrook, until it was buried underground and incorporated into Philadelphia's sewer system in the last decade of the 19th century. It was a small creek, especially in its upper reaches around Overbook. The section north of 63rd and Overbook, in Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County, still runs above ground, and in times of normal flow an energetic child could easily jump across the narrow stream. Once it entered the city, the main branch of the creek roughly followed the railroad until about 55th street, where it turned farther southeast, finally emptying into the Schuylkill River along the line of 43rd Street.
Like all natural stream systems, Mill Creek had many tributaries, the largest being George's Run, named for the George family, which owned large farms in Overbook and other sections of West Philadelphia. Smaller tributaries closer to Overbrook--such as one that entered the city near 59th and City Line and ran roughly on a diagonal before joining the main branch of the creek around 62nd and Lancaster--sometimes show up on old maps. But a number of 19th century mapmakers, as the examples in the accompanying materials show, often simply ignored the creeks. Instead of showing the city as it actually was at the time, they were eager to show the world what the city would eventually become. Even on those maps that do show the creeks, the grid of proposed streets is often laid right over them--and in most cases, this plan for the city became reality. Like Mill Creek, a vast majority of the smaller creeks in the city were either put underground in sewer pipes or otherwise rerouted or diverted or dried up--in one way or another, obliterated from the city map. Once the creeks were buried in pipes, their valleys were filled in (often with material cut down from surrounding hills) as the terrain was made more level, to accommodate the city streets and underlying infrastructure.
In traveling around the present-day city, a discerning eye may detect the low points in the city streets--the valleys--that often indicate the routes of one of the city's many underground streams. But most eyes are not so discerning; in most cases, the creeks that flow in pipes beneath the city (many of them carrying sewage along with their original fresh water flow) are forsaken and forgotten. It is not surprising that when a section of the Mill Creek sewer near 51st and Brown collapsed in 1961--swallowing up four houses and taking three lives--it was the first time many people in the Mill Creek area of West Philadelphia learned the origin of their neighborhood's name.
Benjamin Boggs, an area resident who was fascinated with Mill Creek, wrote about the creek in 1912: "Standing upon City Line bridge over the railroad one may see...the headwaters of Mill creek, a tiny stream sparkling in the sun shine beneath the line of old willows which border it for hundreds of feet. The creek is only a baby here, scarcely three feet wide, and runs in [a] carefully stoned bed. It disappears into a tunnel under the railroad tracks at Overbrook station (thanks be to the poetically inclined person who perpetuated its memory in the name of the depot) and then, for all the long miles to the Schuylkill at Woodlands, it burrows foul and unpleasing beneath the surface."
Only a short part of the West Branch, and the confluence of the two branches, is now buried underground, carried in a large culvert beneath part of Morris Park and Lansdowne and Haverford Avenues. The Philadelphia Water Department's Office of Watersheds is currently (Summer 2002) undertaking a survey of Indian Creek, which should provide a great deal of information for anyone with an interest in the health of the stream and the surrounding parkland.
Mill Creek and Indian Creek, 1886. The street plan, indicated by dotted lines, changed after Overbrook Farms Co. bought the land.
Baist's Atlas of West Philadelphia
Free Libray of Phila. Map Collection
Mill ponds and Mill Races
Maps of both Indian Creek and Mill Creek from the 19th and early 20th centuries show a series of mill ponds (formed by dams in the creeks) and mill races (man-made channels dug alongside the natural creek beds, which carried water from the mill ponds to the mills)--features that never seem quite the same from map to map. Some of these changes may be attributable to the inaccuracies of the mapmakers; but might also be due to the waxing and waning fortunes of the mills themselves, which would either increase or lessen the need for water the ponds and races supplied. Another factor may be that, like any infrastructure, the ponds and races needed regular maintenance, and without it the dams may have broken and the ponds drained, or the races filled with silt or their banks caved in. Since both creeks were relatively small, with little "power" to offer in their normally low flow of water, some of the changes may also reflect attempts at re-engineering the system to provide more water to the mill at a greater height (the greater the "fall" of water at the mill, the higher the amount of power that could be derived from it). Whatever the reasons, the changing maps could be said to reflect the never-constant situation of both the natural creek systems and the businesses that altered them to suit their ever-changing purposes and needs.
From Farmland to Residential Development
These scattered manufacturing interests notwithstanding, much of West Philadelphia west of 40th Street retained its rural farming character well into the 19th century--even into the 20th century in the areas farthest removed from easy access into the city, transportation being one of the factors influencing the "how and when" of an area's development. In Overbrook the main access into the City of Philadelphia from the late 18th and into the 19th century was the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike (now Lancaster Avenue). Opened in 1795 as the country's first toll road, it was the first important public improvement in the state. Nine tollgates were set up along the 62-mile road--including one at the City line, and another near where 56th Street now crosses the road. Eventually 67 taverns set up shop along the roadside as well, providing abundant refreshment opportunities for passing drovers, carters and travelers. Lancaster Pike remained a toll road until 1917, when it was purchased by the state. Except for a meandering section between 56th and 62nd Street, this road more or less followed the route of the present-day Lancaster Avenue. Construction of the new, straightened section west of 56th Street involved cutting through a steep hill, and was completed in 1922. Most of the old section of roadway is now covered by SEPTA's rail maintenance yard.
1912, local resident Benjamin Boggs took a walk along this section of Lancaster
Pike, in search of remaining evidence of the route of Mill Creek, which he reported
"West of 63rd Street Lancaster Pike is a fine Boulevard for many blocks; east of 56th Street it is a poor squalid city thoroughfare. Between the two, and the distance is greater than would appear for the old road winds and twists, it is the ancient highway of our grandfathers unimproved and unspoiled--just a good old country road. Less than a thousand feet east of 63rd Street all houses have disappeared. One walks over an ancient road in the haunts of ancient peace, the passing trains alone disturbing the quiet. Is that the jingle of an old-time Conestoga? Oddly enough the bells draw nearer, and one almost expects to see a Lancaster county farmer come around the bend, but it proves to be a dump coal wagon with bells on the horses, an unusual thing nowadays. There are quarries on the south side of the road east of 62nd Street. On the upper or north side between the road and the railroad, leading down to a narrow point where the latter crosses the pike overhead, is an enclosed marshy meadow which I recollect very well indeed as a mill pond in the early 80s. It was a goodly size dam with water flowing over its breast, this being the Mill Creek. What mill it supplied I never knew, but now all is changed, and the old dam is buried deep, stone breast and all, beneath the filling which has converted a water course into a building site. (The property belonged to John and Joseph George in 1875.)
"Following the pike beneath the railroad arch, the bed of the Mill
Creek is yet visible skirting the hillside, albeit much filled in with
rubbish and dirt. The abutments of some old-time lane bridge can yet be
seen close to the arch on the upper side. For a thousand feet or more,
the pike is upon a causeway across the swamps (yet moist although little
water is apparent) and a milestone announces that is it "4M to P".
Old buttonwoods edge the road.
Besides Lancaster Pike, the Pennsylvania Railroad, with its stop at Overbrook
(named for the small brook--Mill Creek--which was carried under the station
in a culvert), provided another, quicker route into the city, and was
one of the necessary components that led to the area's ultimate development.
But not until after the Civil War, by which time Center City was mostly
built up from river to river, was there any real pressure to develop the
farmlands to the west of the Schuylkill. And even then, the deep valley
of Mill Creek-- meandering for five miles from 43rd Street on the southeast
to 63rd and Overbook in the northwest--acted as a physical barrier to
development of the area. Not until the creek was diverted into a sewer
pipe beginning in 1869, its valley was filled (in some places as much
as 30 feet above the creek bed), and the infrastructure of streets, gas
mains, water lines and sewer pipes laid over this leveled landscape, did
real estate development then follow.
The map to the left shows the extent of the original development, bounded by 58th Street on the North, 66th Street on the south, City Line Avenue on the west and Woodbine Avenue on the east. The firm of Wendell & Smith was in charge of the development, and the first building they erected was a stone office near the railroad station. Construction began in early spring 1893. From 300 to 400 men worked on the project during the first two years. Finished houses were heated with steam provided from the development's own steam plant, electricity from its generating station. According to a promotional brochure, "Overbrook Farms: The Suburb de Luxe," 77 trains a day stopped at the Overbrook Station, making the six-mile trip to Broad Street Station in 12 minutes. As the investors had hoped, many of the heads of household rode the trains every weekday to their work in the city.
The brochure also noted that "in addition to the city comforts Overbrook
Farms offers many advantages exclusively its own. Because of its country surroundings
and lofty, open situation--from 200 to 250 feet above the level of the city--the
air is naturally much purer and infinitely more healthful than that of the
congested city. Coolness in summer and good drainage are other benefits of
this high location. Proximity to a rich farming district enables Overbrook
residents to enjoy daily deliveries of fresh country produce, or, at the same
time, to market in Philadelphia quite as easily as their neighbors in the