top of page
  • Writer's pictureOur Shared Waters

Philadelphia Inquirer: The Delaware River: The river that made Philadelphia

This article was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Check out the original article for photos and graphics.

The river was born before words, flowing nameless through an unmapped world without factories or fishermen, to a sea no ship ever sailed upon.

For millennia, the river carved through mountains, sovereign and unseen by any human eye. Ancient, bony fish swam in its deep. Wolves and mastodons roamed along its muddy banks. Then early man arrived. Suddenly, and for the rest of time, the river no longer belonged solely to itself.

The Delaware is a founding river, the reason why Philadelphia, Trenton, Wilmington, and most places in between exist. Its watershed is vast, 13,539 square miles of smaller rivers, like the Schuylkill and Lehigh, and tributaries that slip by unnoticed beneath our highways. The Delaware flows undammed for 330 miles from New York’s Catskills to the Atlantic Ocean. The East Branch begins in an unremarkable pool, just up the road from a tire shop; the West Branch begins at a former family farm, 1,886 feet above sea level and down a dead-end road in Schoharie County, N.Y.

To the Leni-Lenape, the Delaware was known as Poutaxat, Mochijirickhickon, and Lenapewihittuck. In the summer of 1609, Henry Hudson sailed the Half Moon into its wide mouth at the bay, and more white men — including William Penn — arrived to name and claim the water. The Dutch called it South River. It was the Swedish River to the Swedes. In 1610, an English captain was blown off course and named the river in honor of Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr and governor of Virginia, a man who may have never even seen it.

The Delaware was far from pristine when Gen. George Washington crossed it on an icy Christmas night in 1776 to surprise the Hessians in Trenton. One of its tributaries, known as Cooconocon by the Lenape, ran directly through Old City in Philadelphia, where tanneries and slaughterhouses contaminated what came to be known as Dock Creek. Benjamin Franklin, in his last will and testament, left money for the city to address storm-water runoff and the fouling of drinking water. Dock Creek was eventually subverted into a sewer and paved over.

“Forenoon, crossing the Delaware, I noticed unusual numbers of swallows in flight, circling, darting, graceful beyond description, close to the water,” the poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1879. "Thick, around the bows of the ferry-boat as she lay tied in her slip, they flew; and as we went out I watch’d beyond the pier-heads, and across the broad stream, their swift-winding loop-ribands of motion, down close to it, cutting and intersecting.” Whitman came to know the river well, traveling between Camden and Philadelphia on that ferryboat.

The watershed is a source of income, drinking water, and recreation for tens of millions of people. Yet in Philadelphia, where the Delaware River runs deep and wide, it hasn’t always been a source of pride. Mostly, the river’s been a busy commercial highway here, with steel leviathans ferrying products from crude oil to cocoa beans into its ports. For many the river is simply an obstacle to cross, and worse, both a toilet and a dumping ground, at times for human bodies.

The Laurel Street Sewer in Northern Liberties, seen here in 1914, was one of many large sewers that emptied millions of gallons of raw sewage a year into the Delaware River.

The Delaware was long a killing field for aquatic life, including the prehistoric sturgeon that grew thick as logs and the once-ubiquitous shad, a fish said to have played a critical role in the Revolutionary War by saving Washington’s troops from starvation.

But a 1934 article in The Inquirer complained that the few remaining shad that made it up the river tasted like “petroleum.”

The river is cleaner than it has been in centuries thanks to the environmental movement, better federal regulations, and growing public access to and appreciation for the Delaware. Long cut off from the river by concrete and highways, people are returning, some to do yoga on reclaimed piers, others to sip craft beers on riverside hammocks. The river still belongs to us, yes, but we now understand what that responsibility means, and ideally, it’s not too late to give back as much as we’ve taken. The river can never return to what it once was, pristine, because we are here alongside it for the foreseeable future.

Plastic bottles bobbed in the river at low tide one recent weekday beside the old Municipal Pier No. 9 on Delaware Avenue, the latest to be refurbished and opened to the people as the Cherry Street Pier. A condom clung to a branch in the brown water. Inside, an orchestra was rehearsing in the light of a large glass window that overlooked the river. The piece was Liquid Interface by the composer Mason Bates.

“It’s about water,” explained Adam Lesnick, the orchestra’s executive director. “It’s about rivers and global warming. It’s about all of this.”


bottom of page