The current that with gentle murmur glides,
Thou know’st, being stopp’d, impatiently doth rage;
But when his fair course is not hindered,
He makes sweet music with the enamell’ed stones,
Giving a gentle kiss to every sedge
He overtaketh in his pilgrimage,
And so by many winding nooks he strays
With willing sport to the wild ocean.
So explains Julia to her lady-in-waiting in Act II, Scene VII of Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of Shakespeare’s earliest works. The passage, etched in a stone tablet, sets a poetic scene some 20 feet above Devil’s Pool in Wissahickon Valley Park. Of course it’s covered in graffiti, but one could argue that its placement there, in 1934 by donor Charles Hart, defaces the native rock in its own way.
As the mercury approaches triple digits in these dog days of summer, so too does the number of revelers who seek to cool off at Devil’s Pool. The pool’s growing popularity was at the center of Claire Sasko’s Philadelphia magazine story from Sunday; so too, unfortunately, was the stoking of the flames of fear, with “dangerous” and “problematic” appearing in the subhead alone. To remediate the problem, the writer suggests city regulators believe it might be prudent to fill in the pool with rocks.
Devil’s Pool is no more dangerous now than it was when the first person of European origin saw it over 300 years ago, nor the millennia before that when Lenni-Lenapes possibly revered it for its spiritual magnitude. There may now be more people doing more foolish things, but don’t blame that on what is arguably Philadelphia’s finest natural landmark.
As I collected litter throughout the Wissahickon over the course of 2014, it came as no surprise to confirm what Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) has known for years: Devil’s Pool is, by far, the filthiest place in the park’s 1,800 acres. Small grills, styrofoam coolers, giant bags of potato chips, dirty diapers, beer cans, beer bottles, blunt wrappers, t-shirts, underwear… all of these and more are left behind by thoughtless people who otherwise love and value this place.
That’s an important point that Maura McCarthy, FOW’s executive director, stresses any time she speaks of Devil’s Pool. It’s paradoxical, to be sure, but even the people who leave the place littered find it so compelling as to come back again and again. After all, it’s an easily accessible, gorgeous geologic formation with a natural pool right in the middle of the fifth largest city in the country.
But swimming in that natural pool is technically illegal, despite the generations who’ve passed the tradition down to the next. Title 15, Section 202 of the City Code empowers the Fairmount Park Commission to “make such rules and regulations as are necessary to maintain, for the safety and quiet enjoyment of the general public.” Of course the Code could use an update, seeing as the Fairmount Park Commission was formally replaced by the Department of Parks and Recreation (PPR) six years ago this month. Regarding swimming, PPR’s Rules and Regulations thusly state, “No person shall bathe or swim except at authorized pools and only when a lifeguard is present.” And for good measure, FOW’s FAQ reminds users that swimming and wading in Devil’s Pool are forbidden “due to risks of drowning, injury from submerged objects, strong currents, and other hazards.” It goes on to warn that “swimmers at and near Devil’s Pool have drowned or have been seriously injured.”
It’s true, people have died at and near Devil’s Pool. The “at and near” is an important distinction that many journalists have conflated, particularly when vilifying Devil’s Pool. Two years ago, a father drowned trying to save his son, who also drowned. The heroic tragedy, reported nearly exclusively in the media as happening at Devil’s Pool, actually happened near Devil’s Pool. (NBC10’s news story still incorrectly says “Father, Son Drown in ‘Devil’s Pool’“.) Just downstream from the confluence of Cresheim Creek, the Wissahickon Creek spills over the 250-year-old Livezey Dam. Behind the dam, still waters run deep; in the undercurrent, the father and son lost their lives. They did not die in Devil’s Pool.
Moreover, in the most sensationalist stories about Devil’s Pool, including the Philly mag piece from Sunday, the writers make sure to mention the effluent discharged from the wastewater treatment plants upstream, with a nice round number, 90 percent, for the amount of sewage in the Wissahickon Creek. On one hand, this is true: where the lowest seven miles of Wissahickon Creek pass through Philadelphia’s relatively pristine parkland, the upper 16 miles in Montgomery County are host to four wastewater treatment plants (the Borough of Ambler and the Townships of Abington, Upper Dublin, and Upper Gwynedd; a fifth in North Wales closed last year). On the other, that has no bearing on Devil’s Pool.
Devil’s Pool is the culling of Cresheim Creek’s gentle murmur over a 15-foot drop; Wissahickon Creek is another 10-12 feet lower in elevation. The Cresheim Creek watershed contains zero wastewater treatment plants; even storm runoff is relatively minor in the Cresheim, as the valley is sparsely populated and the closest roads are over a mile upstream. Only in the rarest floods do the waters of the Wissahickon backflow into Devil’s Pool. And even then, the current and gravity push it out relatively quickly as the waters recede.
Still, PPR’s rules clearly state you’re not supposed to be in unsupervised waterways. Chris Palmer, the agency’s Deputy Commissioner for Operations, puts it this way: “Imagine you dive in [at Devil’s Pool] and hit your head. If you’re lucky enough to get a cell signal to summon help, 45 minutes pass because it’s so remote, and by the time help arrives, a minor injury has become a major injury.”
At three miles in length, Cresheim Creek is the longest tributary of the Wissahickon Creek in the City of Philadelphia. With headwaters on the grounds of the US Department of Agriculture’s Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, the Cresheim descends 250 feet in elevation in a southwestward course, forging a deep and dramatic valley that serves as the border of the Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods. Where it reaches Devil’s Pool, the Cresheim puts on a permanent geology exhibition.
In 1964, the Wissahickon Valley became Pennsylvania’s first National Natural Landmark, a designation by the U.S. Department of the Interior that “recognizes and encourages the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources.” Its geologic significance is such that it lends its name—the Wissahickon Formation—to the most prominent bedrock in Southeastern Pennsylvania, reaching into New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
The Wissahickon Formation is comprised of four types of rock: pegmatite, quartzite, gneiss, and most prominently, mica schist. As a metamorphic rock, schist is soft and easily quarried. Its handsome brownish-gray base and sparkling flecks of mica have made Wissahickon schist a popular material for Philadelphia houses, especially in the Northwest section of the city. The soft quality of schist also subjects it to the forces of nature on grand display at Devil’s Pool.
Over the millions of years, Cresheim Creek has carved out a basin some 15 feet deep and 20 feet wide through a steep ridge of schist, a testament to the power of water. And Devil’s Pool’s geologic significance is rivaled only by its cultural significance.
Whether or not they used it for ritual, it’s believed the name “Devil’s Pool” originated with the native people of the region. Even in the days of mills and industry in the Wissahickon, Devil’s Pool was a relatively undisturbed natural spot. The painter Thomas Moran depicted a scene here in 1864 while a young professional in Philadelphia. Seven years later, his paintings with the federally commissioned Hayden Geological Survey played a critical role in convincing the U.S. Congress to establish Yellowstone as America’s first National Park.
In the romantic nascent days of Fairmount Park, including during the Centennial Exposition in 1876, Devil’s Pool was a favorite attraction, with a wooden footbridge across the creek and a gazebo overlooking the pool. The site appeared in many a penny postcard at the turn of the century, and in 1934, the Shakespeare tablet was laid into the schist above it.
In 1892, as the City Beautiful movement swept cities in a wave of civic pride and infrastructure improvement, the Philadelphia Water Department constructed a sewer line to intercept Chestnut Hill’s sewage before it entered the Wissahickon Creek. In order to cross the Cresheim Valley without interruption, the interceptor sewer required an aqueduct. The result, a single-arch stone bridge some 60 feet above the pool finished in Wissahickon schist, commingles with its surroundings and provides a gracious human touch to the popular natural scene.
Of course people being people, the aqueduct also presents an extreme dare to those for whom dangerous adrenaline is appealing. People have leapt and survived; people have also leapt to death and paralysis. Philadelphia magazine’s Sasko profiles a young man who had to relearn how to walk after breaking his back in a jump from the aqueduct.
There’s no debating the danger of jumping from a 60-foot bridge into a small pool that’s 15 feet deep on its deepest day. And plenty of signs are posted forbidding swimming—above the pool, below the pool, on the trailheads from both Valley Green Road and Livezey Lane, and in two languages (English and Spanish). It’s well marked that you’re not supposed to be swimming there.
“Devil’s Pool is dangerous on three counts,” says PPR’s Palmer, “swimming, diving, and water quality.” With regard to the latter, he points to the city’s aging infrastructure in lieu of hard data to indicate contaminants in the Cresheim on par with those in the Wissahickon and Monoshone Creeks. Nevertheless, PPR is hamstrung to enforce it, and FOW has no jurisdiction.
In 2010, FOW removed two tagged-up metal footbridges and a wooden staircase along the perimeter of Devil’s Pool. But this did not prevent people from coming back, it only made their climb across the rugged cliffs more precarious, more so considering the volume of alcohol consumed there.
Since then, FOW has also allocated money for police overtime to patrol Devil’s Pool in the summertime, a good idea that produced little change. This year, they’ve changed their strategy to less authoritarian outreach using a young, bilingual seasonal staff. In addition to chatting with the scores of people populating the pool and its banks, the team also cleans up the area, and their visible presence largely dissuades folks from littering. While it’s still dirtier than it should be, I can say with confidence that it’s much cleaner than it was just last year. And it’s exponentially cleaner than it was, say, 20-30 years ago.
While litter has plagued Philadelphia since time immemorial, it really became a problem in the park system after Mayor Frank Rizzo dissolved the Fairmount Park Guard in 1972. The subsequent shuffling of police districts and decades of budget cuts have left the parks without adequate protection and enforcement. From this, rampant litter and short dumping are the most visible results, especially in Tacony Creek and Cobbs Creek Parks. Last week at a meeting of the city’s waste management stakeholders, PPR First Deputy Commissioner Mark Focht lamented, “we spend over 80 percent of our time and resources cleaning up after people.”
The Wissahickon, meanwhile, is blessed to have the FOW, now in its 91st year of park stewardship. Prior to this year’s seasonal staff, FOW has carried out summer after summer of volunteer cleanups across the park, but mostly at Devil’s Pool. In addition to regular outings by FOW members, the Student Conservation Association has pitched in weekly cleanups for several years. From 2009–14, FOW and SCA volunteers produced 1,879 bags of trash with at least 313 separated out for recycling. And that doesn’t count the work of those who bag up trash on their own time, folks like the Unofficial Custodian of Devil’s Pool.
In spite of its popularity—on Youtube, on Instagram, on the front page above the fold in the New York Times—Devil’s Pool is under no threat of disappearing. While it’s true that people are not supposed to be swimming there and jumping off of rocks into the water, and that PPR, FOW, and the police department are seeking measures to prevent that, Devil’s Pool will not be filled with rocks.
For one, it would be ludicrous to “correct” millions of years of nature’s work with one knee-jerk human reaction driven by the fear of ourselves (and lawsuits). And it would be a bureaucratic nightmare. Such an act would require the collaboration and approval of several governmental agencies, including Philadelphia Water, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers and others, in addition to PPR and FOW.
“We have no plans [for filling it in with rocks],” says Palmer. “[But] we’re in the business of providing healthy recreation and good, clean fun. The behavior at Devil’s Pool goes against that.”
Until a successful solution is found perhaps a more sensible solution is increased enforcement. A return of the Fairmount Park Guard? Ticketed turnstiles?
In any case, as today’s punishingly high temperature will prove, masses of people will continue to flee our sweltering urban heat island for the refuge of shaded canopy and the cool waters of Devil’s Pool. As FOW’s seasonal staff becomes more of a fixture at Devil’s Pool, hopefully the masses will learn, at very least, to pack out their trash.
About the author
Bradley Maule is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland OR, Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.
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