Friday, December 21, 2012

Lecture Uncovers the Schuylkill's Dirty Secrets

Author Chari Towne
There was a time when coal silt from mining operations flowed freely into the Schuylkill River. By the 1940s, coal waste, known as culm, laid 26 feet deep in some parts of the river bed.

Recently, author Chari Towne, spoke about the dire state of the Schuylkill at that time, and the extensive cleanup that saved the river in the mid-20th century. Towne, the author of A River Again, addressed a crowd of about 50 people at a book signing at the Schuylkill River Heritage Area offices on Dec. 19.

A River Again documents the environmental atrocities committed during the Industrial Revolution that left the river so polluted it was seriously threatened as a source of drinking water. During her lecture, Towne explained that the river was originally chosen as a public water source for Philadelphia because of its "waters of uncommon purity." Those waters were later sullied by the routine dumping of residential and industrial waste. Towne painted a grim picture of slaughterhouses, dye plants and coal mines--among many other industries--all pouring refuse into a river that over a million people relied on for drinking water.
Heritage Area Exec. Dir. Kurt Zwikl introduces Towne

But it was the coal culm that all but choked the river. Towne displayed several photos of the river clogged with culm, so full at one point that it actually flowed above its flood plain. Other photos showed mountains of culm piled near the river, all of which would wash into the waters. By 1945 an estimated 38 million tons of culm had accumulated in its channel.

But getting the river cleaned up was no easy task. It took government leaders with a strong will and a love of the environment to pass laws that led to the Schuylkill River Project. The first major government funded environmental cleanup of its kind, the Schuylkill River Project was a massive undertaking that dredged millions of tons of culm from the river bed. Towne's book delves into the politics and the laws that brought that about, and gives a close look at the fascinating process of dredging the river. The book sold out at the book signing but will be available in early January  from the Schuylkill River Heritage Area for $21.95. Call 484-945-0200 to reserve a copy. It also can be purchased or downloaded for free from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

New Book Sheds Light On the Schuylkill River Cleanup of the Mid-20th Century

Author will speak at a book signing on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 6:30- 8:30 p.m. at the Schuylkill River Heritage Area offices, located at 140 College Drive, in Pottstown, PA 19464

In the mid-20th century, the Schuylkill River was one of the nation's dirtiest rivers. For over a century, it had been fouled by the routine dumping of industrial waste and raw sewage. But perhaps most damaging of all, was the coal waste, known as culm, that washed into the river as a result of coal processing operations. By 1945 an estimated 38 million tons of culm had accumulated in its channel. 

Chari Towne's thoughtfully researched new book, A River Again, tells the story of the cleanup that saved the river from the brink of disaster, the Schuylkill River Project. Undertaken by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 1945-51, it dredged millions of tons of coal culm from the river. It was also the first major, government-funded environmental cleanup of its kind. 

 The book includes photos of the dredging project and the sediment-filled river that help illustrate the enormity of the problem and the vast effort required to remove the coal culm. 

Towne is a former Olympic rower who trained on the Schuylkill, and today works as the Schuylkill Watershed Specialist for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a Master of Science degree in Natural Resource Planning. The book was funded in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources administered through the Schuylkill River Heritage Area. Other funders include The Jerlyn Foundation and The William Penn Foundation.

Researching and writing A River Again took her about four years, but her interest in penning a book about the river’s cleanup goes back much farther.

“For more than 10 years I wanted to write this story, because it was something I realized most people didn’t know a lot about, or had misconceptions about,” said Towne.

Dredge Boat lever operator, courtesy Spring-Ford Area Historical Society
Nevertheless, researching the book proved difficult. Many of the project records had been destroyed, and first person narratives from project workers were not easy to come by. Despite that, Towne managed to unearth enough documentation and former Schuylkill River Project workers to craft her 200-plus page book. 

A River Again tells the story of how a series of environmentally harmful practices throughout the Industrial Revolution so defiled the river that its value as a source of drinking water was severely threatened. It introduces the politicians and environmental leaders who pushed for legislation to eliminate pollution and fought for funding to clean it.

Towne hopes readers come away with a greater respect for the Schuylkill and a thirst to learn more about its fascinating environmental history.

“People think the Schuylkill is so polluted today. It’s hard for them to put in context just how far the river has come. I’d like to see them regain that perspective,” Towne said.

The hardcover books will be available for $21.95 at the book signing, and can also be purchased directly from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network at It is also available as a free publication on that website, and can be downloaded here.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Short-Form Documentary About Schuylkill River Heritage Area to Air on National TV

Last June, a film crew arrived at the Schuylkill River Heritage Area headquarters in Pottstown and got their cameras rolling. They spent over eight hours shooting video. First, director of photography Chris Mendes (seen with camera on left and below) climbed into a canoe and captured some great footage of the nearly 100 paddlers in the Schuylkill River Sojourn as they launched into their 5th day on the river. After that, the crew jumped in their cars and headed to Royersford where they set up cameras on a bridge and caught the Sojourners passing through. Later, they filmed cyclists making their along the Schuylkill River Trail. They ended their visit at  historic Lock 60 of the Schuylkill Canal, as the Sojourners "locked through." In between, they taped interviews and took video of wildlife and river scenery.
  The crew was hired by American Milestones, a production company that specializes in educational short-form documentaries. The film they shot that day was edited into a short (1-minute) video "commercial" about the heritage area that will air on Fox Business Network on November 24 and 25. It was also made into a six-minute documentary that has been distributed to public TV stations nationwide and, beginning November 19, will be broadcast at the beginning and end of regularly scheduled programming.
  The film provided an opportunity for us to tell a bit of the fascinating history of the Schuylkill River region to a national audience. It also enabled us to publicize two of the region's impressive recreational opportunities: the Schuylkill River Trail and the Schuylkill River Sojourn. What's more, the film has an important environmental message, encouraging protection of the river, which is a source of drinking water for over 1.5 million people.
  We think this film gives a great overview of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area. So, look out for the short "commercial" on Fox Business Network on November 24 and 25, and for a longer version on public television stations. You can also watch the full video on our website at:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Grand Opening of The River of Revolutions Interpretive Center

On Monday we held the grand opening for our River of Revolutions Interpretive Center. Since the center was completed over the summer, several groups have gone through it before, but we've never had such a large number of people visiting it at one time. So we put everything to the test. The result? All good. The food, the speakers and, most importantly, the reactions to the displays were great. Below are some photos from the event which took place at our headquarters located at 140 College Drive, Pottstown, PA.

Congressman Jim Gerlach shakes hands with Heritage Area Exec. Dir. Kurt Zwikl

Pottstown Mayor Bonnie Heath checks out the "Recreation" display

A Heritage Area Board Member reads about the Environmental Revolution.
A visitor learns about the Schuylkill River's impact on the American Revolution.

The project was led by Steel City Displays, of Malvern, and the center was designed by Miller Designworks of Phoenixville. On the left, designer Scott Sharadin signs in.  On the right, designer Lee Fitler looks through an eyepiece that allows visitors to see like a hawk.

 PA Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources Deputy Secretary John Giordano spoke at the event. Looking on is National Park Service Liaison to the Heritage Area board, Barbara Pollarine.

People spent a lot of time enjoying the displays...

...and the food!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Walking and Driving Tours in the Schuylkill River Heritage Area

There's a lot to see and do in the Schuylkill River region. History here is as rich as the soil that once made  Southeastern Pennsylvania the "Breadbasket of the Colonies." Or maybe you didn't even know that up until the 1840s this was considered a breadbasket. That's understandable. The heritage of the five county (Schuylkill, Berks, Montgomery, Chester and Philadelphia) Schuylkill River region is not only rich, but also multidimensional encompassing the American, Industrial and Environmental Revolutions.

There are many ways to explore the history and culture of the region. This time of year, when the air is crisp and the leaves are changing, one great option is to take a driving or walking tour. On our website, we've put together a sampling of driving and walking tours that can take you to some of the most scenic and interesting places in this area. Here are a few to consider:

1. The Berks County Hex  Barn Art Tour: This 28-mile self-guided driving tour brings you deep into the scenic heart of Berks County, where you'll view 22 barns bearing this art form that is unique to Pennsylvania German culture in Berks County. The Hex tour was developed by the Greater Reading Convention and Visitors Bureau, along with its companion piece, the Berks County Covered Bridge Tour.

2. The Molly Maguire Auto Tour: This tour consists of four cassette tapes (or CDs) and a 24-page guide which can be purchased from our website by clicking the link above. It takes visitors on a journey of discovery through Schuylkill and Carbon Counties to 24 sites that tell the story of the Molly Maguires,
a group of Irish immigrant miners accused of using violence in retaliation for dangerous and repressive conditions in the anthracite coal mines and patch towns. Historians still do not agree on whether the group were victims or villains. This tour offers a great way to learn more about the history of this mysterious group, and about the hard lives of immigrants who toiled in the anthracite coal mines.

3. Pottsville Walking Tours: What's in Pottsville, you may wonder? There are two walking tours of this Schuylkill County borough that can easily answer that question. One, the Mural Tour, takes you to 16 different sites where murals literally paint a picture of the city from days gone by. The other, the Points of Interest Tour, maps out 20 different sites including America's oldest brewery, the prison where the Molly Maguires were hanged, Pottsville's oldest church, and more.Tiffany stained-glass windows, historic monuments, antique cars and even an art deco diner are all featured.

4. Philadelphia Walking Tours: What do you want to see in Philly? What would you like to learn more about? Chances are there's a walking tour that will help you explore it. lists eight different walking tours with such varying themes as: architecture, Colonial history, food, Early American drinks and more.

5.  Historic Sites: Many historic sites offer guided and self-guided walking tours of their homes and grounds. One example is the Daniel Boone Homestead, pictured left, which offers a self-guided tour map to eight different 18th and 19th century structures including a smokehouse, saw mill and blacksmith shop. In addition to these buildings, the tour incorporates other sites, such as Daniel Boone Lake, a historic cemetery and an 18th century rifle range.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

River of Revolutions Interpretive Center

Even if you live near the Schuylkill River, even if you cross its bridges every day, you might not realize that the river itself, and the region surrounding it, has a pretty impressive history.
Barge on Schuylkill Canal
For example, did you know that George Washington and his army forded the river multiple times during the Revolutionary War in an effort to keep the British out of Philadelphia?
Or that the Schuylkill Canal served as a major transportation route during the Industrial Revolution, with barges carrying anthracite coal from Schuylkill County to Philadelphia, where it helped fuel factories across the nation?
 Or that the river was the site of the first major environmental cleanup of its kind in the 1950s?

At the Schuylkill River Heritage Area we think a lot of people probably don't fully realize how crucial the Schuylkill River has been to the history of our nation. That's one of the reasons we developed the brand new River of Revolutions Interpretive Center. The center features interactive exhibits, maps, video monitors, informative wall panels, and family-friendly displays that tell about the role the Schuylkill River region played in the American, Industrial and Environmental Revolutions. Since it is a visitor center, there is also information about the many recreational opportunities and visitor sites that are located in the five counties that make up the Schuylkill River Heritage Area (Schuylkill, Berks, Montgomery, Chester, and Philadelphia).

A Grand Opening ceremony will be held later this month, but the center is already open to the public. All are invited to visit and learn about the many ways in which this river was central to America's history. It is located in the Schuylkill River Heritage Area offices, at 140 College Dr., Pottstown, PA Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. It can also be conveniently accessed from the Schuylkill River Trail, since it is adjacent to the Pottstown Riverfront Park Trailhead.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Our Rails & River Towns Ride Proves to be a Pleasant Mix of Biking and History

About 110 cyclists participated in the Schuylkill River Heritage Area's first organized bike event on September 22, and by all accounts it was a fun and interesting day. The Rails and River Towns Ride took place on a beautiful fall morning along the Schuylkill River Trail's Pottstown to Birdsboro section (also known as the Thun Trail).

Cyclists learn about a historic building in Birdsboro

The majority of riders—about 60—cycled 18 miles round trip to Birdsboro and back, and took a guided walking tour through some of Birdsboro's oldest streets, learning about its impressive iron making history. 

George Douglass Mansion
 Many riders also visited Morlatton Village in Douglassville, where another guided tour was offered of the village’s four 18th century homes. At right, participants view the George Douglass Mansion, currently undergoing renovations.

The event was the first in the Schuylkill River Trail BikeTour Series, which will feature three organized rides over three years, each incorporating visits to historic sites and rides along the trail.

“We could not have asked for a better day for our first event,” said Kurt Zwikl, executive director of the Schuylkill River Heritage Area, which organized the event. “People enjoyed the ride and the tours, and they learned some interesting facts about local history.”
Before the ride began, cyclists gathered for a short presentation (photo on left) on the Pennsylvania Railroad, upon whose right of way a portion of the trail is now built. "I'm sure as we cycle here today we will all hear the whistles of trains from days gone by," said presenter Bob Thomas, who spoke of a time when trains, not bikes, would have made the trip from Pottstown to Birdsboro along the very route the cyclists would take.
Volunteers stand before a ride banner
Following the presentation,  participants made their way to Douglassville, for a tour of Morlatton Village, or to Birdsboro. Ride options ranged from 9 to 20 miles. More than two dozen volunteers helped the ride go smoothly, assisting with everything from doling out snacks to assisting at road crossings. Tri County Bicycles owner John DiRenzo provided free bike safety checks at the start and ride support throughout the day.
Riders get their bikes checked before the ride begins.

 During the ride, four new benches along the trail were dedicated. Those benches were donated by Richard and Peggy Whittaker (seen holding the sign at left). The Whittaker's are avid cyclists who ride the trail regularly. They gathered donations for the benches last year, when Richard turned 70, asking for funds in lieu of gifts. The sign lists the donors who generously provided money for the benches.

  Next fall, the Schuylkill River Heritage Area plans to hold the second ride in the Schuylkill River Trail Bike Tour Series. That ride, called Cycles and Cemeteries, will take place along the Norristown to Philadelphia section of the trail, and will incorporate visits to two historic cemeteries where Civil War generals are buried.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Come See Our Scenes of the Schuylkill Art Show

This is the ninth year the Schuylkill River Heritage Area has held it's Scenes of the Schuylkill art show  to celebrate the beauty of the river region. You can view the show at Montgomery County Community College West Campus Gallery, in Pottstown, until October 19. In case you think all you'll find there are a bunch of pictures of the river, think again. The artists who submit their work are drawing from a diverse set of subjects, seeking to capture the spirit and beauty of the five-county region. This year's 76 pieces include rural landscapes, Philadelphia scenes, woodlands, historic sites, stone barns, gardens and waterways. The mediums and styles are equally wide-ranging, so that one can visit the exhibit multiple times and always discover something that hadn't been noticed before.

This year's show was judged by Ross Mitchell, executive director of The Violette De Mazia Foundation. Selected as Best of Show was artist Cathy Grygiel's pastel, Dawn at Valley Forge, shown above left. Second place went to Jonathan Bond, for his oil on wood panel, Carousel (right). Additional images from the exhibit can be viewed here. But the best way to experience this show is to visit the MCCC West Campus Gallery, located at 16 W. High St. in Pottstown.

Gallery hours are: Mon-Th. 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (No weekend hours).  There is a public reception featuring refreshments and music on September 19 from 5-7 p.m.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Schuylkill River Trail Bike Tour: Rails and River Towns Ride

We have an exciting event coming up in a little over a week: the Rails and River Towns Bike Ride. While we have long been active in building and promoting the Schuylkill River Trail, this is our first organized bike ride along the trail. It won't be the last. We have a series of rides planned over three years that will incorporate different parts of the trail and incorporate different historic sites.

The Rails and River Towns Ride will take place on Saturday Sept. 22. You can read about the details here.  The day will start with a presentation on the Pennsylvania Railroad, upon whose right of way the trail is partly built. Cyclists will travel 9 miles (18 miles round trip) from Pottstown's Riverfront Park to the town of Birdsboro, home to the largest producer of iron during the Revolutionary War. In Birdsboro, they can opt to take a guided walking tour to learn about the history of this former iron and steel town.. The tour features 10 historic sites, including the 1853 former St. Micheal's Episcopal Church (pictured below) that was renovated in 1854 under the supervision of noted Philadelphia architect Frank Furness.

Former St. Micheal's Episcopal Church

Mouns Jones House Photo by Walt Hug

Those wishing for a shorter ride can travel along the trail 4.5 miles to Historic Morlatton Village, in Douglassville. There, tour guides will offer information about the site's four 18th C. buildings, including the Mouns Jones House--Berks County's oldest home (pictured right). Participants who just want to ride can opt out of the walking tours and take a loop trail through Union Township's Recreation Area.

This is a unique event that combines lessons in local history with a bike ride along a beautiful section of the Schuylkill River Trail. There's still time to register! Click here for online registration.