Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

Related Topics

Philadelphia's River Region
A concentration of articles around the rivers and wetland in and around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia Fish and Fishing
Less than a century ago, Delaware Bay, Delaware River, Schuylkill River, Pennypack Creek, Wissahickon Creek, and dozens of other creeks in this swampy region were teeming with edible fish, oysters and crabs. They may be coming back, cautiously.

City of Rivers and Rivulets
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Nature Preservation
Nature preservation and nature destruction are different parts of an eternal process.

The Swamps of Philadelphia

{Fort Mifflin}
Fort Mifflin

Fort Mifflin has been restored, somewhat, and gets a surprising number of visitors at Hallowe'en. The explanation offered is that it seems somewhat spooky. A far greater number of people go to Philadelphia International Airport, or the several sports stadia constructed nearby in a project whose financing is described as "borrowing to expand the tax base". In so doing, visitors travel at some height above the edge of the now-closed Philadelphia Naval Base, with a large number of very large naval vessels in storage, the so-called Mothball Fleet. All visitors are naturally impressed with a view of the wide expanse of the deep and impressive Delaware River. How could such a mighty river be the site of mud islands and narrow channels so shallow that British sailboats couldn't navigate past the Friesian Horses sunk on the bottom?

Well, as water spreads out, it gets shallower. Conversely, as water is compressed into narrower channels, the channel gets deeper, eventually deep enough for nuclear aircraft carriers. So, think back to the days when the Dutch sailed around here, finding the first solid land along the Schuylkill at Gray's Landing, opposite where the University of Pennsylvania now has a row of medical skyscrapers on the West Bank. Everything South of that point was once swamp, so there were miles and miles of shallow water before you got to the Delaware; you could sort of say that the Delaware River was five miles wide at that point. Lots of fish, and ducks, muskrats and beaver.

The main highway to the South, the one that Washington and Jefferson traveled regularly, ran near Gray's Landing, along the edge of the great Philadelphia swamp. Later on, the railroads were built along the same path, and the industrial devastation of that area was accelerated immediately. It was a natural place for "landfill", which is to say it was a good place to dump garbage. By 1940, you had to drive for miles through garbage dumps to reach the Municipal Stadium, where the Army-Navy football game, attended by 105,000 spectators, was played in the freezing winds. The Naval Yard had been moved from the foot of Federal Street to a filled-in island near Fort Mifflin and provided a railroad spur on which the President of the United States regularly parked his private railroad car as he attended The Game. Some enormous liquor distilleries were built near the garbage dumps, and it was difficult to prove which was responsible for the greater odor. World War II caused a great proliferation of war industries on the banks of the river to the South, and the gasoline refineries in the area added to the aroma and river pollution.

In time, the garbage dumps were covered with dirt, and thousands of houses were built where the mosquitoes used to swarm. When the wartime river traffic declined, unemployment set in, and housing got cheaper, even abandoned. With abandoned housing comes slums, and there, in a nutshell, you have South Philadelphia, waiting for an industrial revival. Meanwhile, the swamps are mostly gone, and the river is a lot deeper.

Originally published: Monday, June 26, 2006; most-recently modified: Friday, May 24, 2019

While doing a search of my husband's family in early Pennsylvania, I saw a reference to 'the swamp.' My curiosity made me want to know more. Is there more info on the subject?
Posted by: Dillon   |   May 3, 2017 7:20 PM
Great article, I always wondered what Philadelphia was like before houses were built. Was South Philly or I should ask was most of Philly just swamps at one point? And at what year about did they start building on the swamps?
Posted by: Robert Moss   |   Jan 28, 2013 7:07 PM