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.


No comments:

Post a Comment