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The Schuylkill River: A Resurgence of a River and a (True) Fish Story

If you are of a certain age, you may cringe at the idea of fishing, swimming, or playing in the Schuylkill River, but the river has an extraordinary comeback story to tell. This river has risen from the dead and become a place where bald eagles nest, dragon boats race, and a 40-pound muskie can found!

Philadelphia’s famous history of breweries – more than 700 breweries were once operating in the city – is mostly due to the “uncommon purity” of the water from the Schuylkill River. But at the same time, slaughterhouses, dye works and sewers were dumping into the river. By the mid-19th century, the river had become an inky black mess from these sources and from the coal that powered the Industrial Revolution. But it got worse, much worse, by the turn of the 20th century. The river had caught fire on more than one occasion and was described in the New York Times as “dark green in color and appeared soapy” for a distance of over 60 miles.

Millions of tons of coal dust were spilled or washed into the river, and industries and local sewer authorities used the river as a dumping ground (or river in this case), poisoning the water for fish, fowl, and all wildlife (think otters, turtles, deer, possum, squirrels) that depended on the river for water; farms and their livestock couldn’t survive either. During our recent work with Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) on the Schuylkill River Town Program, one resident recalled disposing of old batteries by tossing them in the Schuylkill River!

The river was essentially lifeless, but that is just the start of this comeback story. Starting in the 1940s, thanks to leadership from Pennsylvania Attorney General (and later Governor and US Senator) James Duff, and a ground-breaking collaboration between the state and the federal government, the river began its long journey back from the dead. Massive dredging to remove the coal silt and state laws that limited river dumping, followed by the federal Clean Streams Act, allowed the river to regenerate itself slowly, from micro organisms to water plants to fish to birds to larger animals. Today there are more than 50 different species of fish, turtles, wildlife and waterfowl on the river. The Schuylkill River once declared dead evolved into the 2014 PA River of the Year. The 40-pound muskie that Kevin is shown holding may be unusual but congratulations to Kevin for reminding us that although the river faces challenges, it is making a comeback.

Kevin Rodenbaugh who caught a 40lb muskie in the Schuylkill River in July 2018

Our Schuylkill River Town Program work allowed us to tell this incredible story over the last 4 years in the rivertowns of Phoenixville, Norristown, Bridgeport, Conshohocken, West Conshohocken and Manayunk. We conducted programs on and about the Schuylkill River to educate and engage people with the Schuylkill River.

During that time, we had the opportunity to engage people through programs and workshops, kayak trips and foraging hikes, yoga and bike rides. We met experts and locals, government and artists, all with a curiosity or passion about the Schuylkill River. The Schuylkill River is back, get out and enjoy it soon!

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