Nothing is more prosaic than road repair. Maybe there are just a few workers patching potholes. Maybe the paving is scraped off down to that rough gravelly base and then replaced with fresh blacktop, bright new stripes, bike lanes, and crosswalks. Then there are really big jobs like Lincoln Drive. This fall, I watched as the water was pumped out of the trickling creek, as backhoes and tractors came in to reconstruct the retaining wall that keeps the aging roadway from falling into the Monoshone Creek.
Lincoln Drive, the famously unsafe, curving artery linking Mt. Airy with the Schuylkill Expressway is a pedestrian ghost town these days. Hardly anyone walks along it anymore. Successfully crossing the busy thoroughfare requires guts and determination. Cars whiz by and the remnants of sidewalks have become reclaimed by nature or reduced to rubble. Saylors Grove, a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of a Lincoln Drive traffic island, is barely visited, but the current road improvement project might just change that.
With Lincoln Drive still under construction, and a brand new sidewalk being installed by Saylors Grove, I decided to experiment with being a pedestrian in this uninviting zone. I began at my home near Upsal Street. Wissahickon Avenue crosses a little bridge right before Lincoln Drive, which is hidden behind stone walls. Were it not for the sign that says “Monoshone Creek,” a driver would have no idea that water was gurgling beneath the road. Right at the corner just a few feet further I was surprised to find stone stairs leading down to the creek below. The steps had long become obscured from disuse, but the bluestone is mostly intact. I walked down the stairs as far as I could, pushing back branches and kicking away discarded soda cans and litter. They led only to a flat area near the water that is now completely overgrown.
The forlorn stairway posed many questions. Why was it there? In what era had people descended by foot to this orphaned sliver of Fairmount Park? I began searching for answers, looking back to a time before the creek was polluted and hidden, to when someone might have strolled down by the Monoshone Creek for an afternoon respite.
The Lincoln Drive, which follows the Monoshone Creek until it empties into the Wissahickon Creek and then follows the Wissahickon Creek to the Schuylkill River, was once a country road traversed only by foot, horse, and bicycle. In the 19th century the section below the confluence of the creeks was called Wissahickon Turnpike. Until 1983 it was called Wissahickon Drive. The section of roadway from that confluence north to the mystery stairway was once Rittenhouse Lane, named after the Rittenhouse family that built a paper mill there in 1690. Present-day Wissahickon Avenue–not to be confused with Wissahickon Drive–was, in the early 19th century, Township Line Drive, separating Germantown and Roxborough Townships before they both became part of Philadelphia.
In the 1880s, the lands of Fairmount Park followed the Wissahickon Creek from the Falls of Schuylkill toward Valley Green. Philadelphians made the journey to the creek to fish, stroll, play, and stop at one of the inns along the water’s edge to dine on catfish and waffles. As the city grew out toward Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, so grew Fairmount Park. And with people, and progress, came the inexorable transformation of Wissahickon Drive.
The Fairmount Park Commission vehemently resisted allowing cars into Fairmount Park. After years of being lampooned as anti-progress by the The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Commission relented in 1900, but kept Wissahickon Drive car-free. James Elverson, then publisher of The Inquirer and a park commissioner, received the first permit issued for automobile access to Fairmont Park to celebrate his victory. In 1913, the annual report of the Fairmount Park Commission announced that the number of cars in the rest of the park had increased from 696 in 1899 to over 900,000 by 1912.
Indeed, the bucolic Wissahickon Valley would eventually to yield to progress. Wissahickon Drive was repaved in 1911 for cars, leaving a 10-foot-wide macadam path for horses. The portion of the drive that turns northwest where the Monoshone meets the Wissahickon was declared car-free in 1921 and became Forbidden Drive.
Automobiles would eventually replace horses on Wissahickon Drive. Accidents began to happen even at the then-daring speed of 30 miles per hour. Cars went over the banks into the creek. A 1927 Inquirer story on one accident noted that “several other motor cars have crashed through the flimsy fence and hurtled over the high embankment on Wissahickon Drive at precisely the spot from which the Bickley car plunged yesterday.”
Even The Inquirer, once the champion of allowing cars into the park, saw fit to lament the irreversible change to the Wissahickon in a 1919 editorial: “If you would like to think you are 20 younger—in other words, still living at the end of the 19th century—you should spend a pleasant afternoon in walking over the Wissahickon Drive. Then you will realize how radically the coming of the motor car has changed the face of the country. Whether the motor car is responsible for the decline of walking is possibly a moot point. It is in the sense that many persons who might walk usually ride. Perhaps the people who whirl along at 30 or 40 miles per hour do not enjoy the scenery as they did when horses carried them at a quarter of the speed. But that is their loss. The ravine through which the Wissahickon Creek finds its way to the Schuylkill River is as wildly impressive as any place found high among the mountains.”
Still, in the early years of the 20th century, perilous traffic didn’t keep people from still treating a drive along the Wissahickon as an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. A grainy photo from the 1930s shows a car parked near the rocky outcrop, while a family leans over the fence along the creek—a dalliance that would be impossible today.
By the 1950s, any remnant of a more sylvan time was gone. The City blasted the rocky ravine, widening Wissahickon Drive to four lanes. The quaint speed limits were routinely ignored. Accident-prone Wissahickon Drive even formed the eerie backdrop to film director Brian DePalma’s 1981 neo-noir thriller, “Blowout.”
But what of the mystery stairway to the Monoshone Creek? After sifting through old maps and plans filed away in the archives of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation I never did find a plan for its construction or even a note that it existed. But I did find some clues.
The Rittenhouse family owned the land at the corner when Wissahickon Avenue was made a public road in 1831. Two structures stood on the edge of Monoshone Creek right where the stairway takes you. No doubt the buildings were part of Rittenhouse Town and generations of the family walked from this spot to the mill a few hundred yards away. By 1910, the structures here were gone, and the land had passed from the estate of Peter Rittenhouse through William Umstead to Fairmount Park.
On October 21, 1919, Philadelphia City Council passed an ordinance acquiring the land across from the stairway, the present-day Saylors Grove, for Fairmount Park.
In the 1950s, the City proposed a grand entrance to the park at this site. Perhaps someone imagined that this elegant new entrance would lead visitors over to the hidden stairway to explore the creek and the woods, but the plan never came to be. By then, Wissahickon Drive had already become what Lincoln Drive is today—a commuter arterial that only the intrepid would cross on foot.
Before the City finishes up the reconstruction of Lincoln Drive and the retaining wall along the Monoshone Creek perhaps workers will cut the brush away from the hidden stairway and clear the landing at its base. With new sidewalks, Lincoln Drive may once again encourage pedestrians to stroll along the scenic waterway and maybe even cross the street with peace of mind.