playing on rocks

The water falls were beautiful to watch, lovely to hear, and the rocks an adventure to walk around.

Pennypack Park
A Collection of Essays

Pennypack Park

Janet M. Gibson

Index of Essays

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IV.       Pennypack Park

           My neighborhood in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia was developed in the 1940s and 50s.  I lived in an area where most streets ran east-west and north-south, but many streets were developed at different times so blocks had their own "look".  Each block usually held about 20 homes, some with row homes, some with twins.  I lived on a street of twins, where we had hills that ended our front lawns, always a challenge for mowing but great for sledding in winter, with a sidewalk between the hill and the curb, 3 steps up the hill, pavement between the twins that ended in 3 steps up to the front, living room door and the back, kitchen door.  I've been told that our streets were farmland before the housing development, and I have older cousins who remember parking lots and flattened fields which were blocks of homes by the time of the early 60s when I was child.  But only 3-4 blocks away from my house the development ended, and there was the wild, natural growing Pennypack Park.  Because of this park I never felt I lived in a concrete jungle or in a treeless city.  I later came to learn that Pennypack is actually a huge system, with only the southern edge beginning in our neighborhood, but I did not know this growing up, and I considered the park to be an area blocked off by about 10 streets belonging to our neighborhood.  In this area were all kinds of trees—old and gnarly, young and spindly-- plants of all sizes and shapes, weeds, and undergrowth.  There was a sleepy creek that seemed to begin in a cul-de-sac canyon by Sandyford Ave nearby and ran the length of the park complete with a waterfall midway near a picnic area.  There were trails for walking and horseback riding, rocks from small to boulder size, loose and embedded in soil and walls, and hills on the trails and on both sides adding to depth and mystery.  The Pennypack I knew was bordered by Ryan Ave to the south, Lexington Ave. to the west, Rhawn St. to the north, and Rowland Ave. to the east, with only Lincoln High school cutting into the corner of this expansive square that could hold hundreds of homes.

            Unlike Hunting Park, which was a square plane, my Pennypack had typography.  The park seemed street level at the Ryan Avenue entrance but soon it was apparent that the street was above it, beyond the tree tops, and the park was down below, an enclosed secret world where no modern technology intruded.  The main creek flowed to the Delaware River eventually, but there was no hint of its journey or purpose in my neck of the woods; it slowly paralleled the trail at the center of the canyon.  There were bridle trails that joined or intersected the creek’s trail.  Park rangers now and then on horses or a small group who rented horses from a nearby stable passed me by as I walked along the main trail.  There were rocky walls, tree covered slopes, and the waterfall.  There were living and dead trees at all angles to add mystery to the effect of passing time.  There was underbrush and poison ivy, foot bridges over the creek and the large arch bridge for Rhawn St. that crossed the park above us, fishing holes, family picnic areas, and a parking lot at the Rhawn St.  Entrance, the only place I knew in the entire park I traveled that let cars enter inside.

            For my corner of the park, the south boundary was Ryan Avenue, which we crossed to get to Lincoln playground as well.   The closest park entrance was west of Lincoln high school’s fields (great for flying kites), and it had a pistol range there for the mounted police.  Sometimes there were archery activities there.  This entrance was at the foot of a hill which in winter was a wonderful sledding hill until they built a middle school there in the ‘70s.  Off the street, you walked on the dirt path--an innocent trail that did not show it was the beginning of an adventure and which stretched for miles through the park all the way to Frankford Ave, miles away.  Later, when I read the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, this path by the park ranger station became in my imagination the road leading from the shire (my neighborhood) that took me to the forests of Middle Earth.  I could see the Nine Riders in the dark places along this trail, and a gathering of elves in the cheery, open places.  "The road went ever, ever on," and it took me on adventures close by or deep into the woods. 

            As a child I never walked the entire length of the trail--all the way to Frankford Ave.  But it was common to walk from the ranger's station to Rhawn Street just past the falls.  That it was endless--went beyond where I ever walked--was part of its mystique.  The east boundary of the park was Rowland Ave, the street where the playground entrance was; north of the high school’s football field, (north of the playground), the park came to the street—the sidewalk ended and grass began with the trees not too far back.  This was a popular place for dog walking.  The corner of the north boundary, Rhawn Street, was a landscaped area where brides often had receptions and photo opportunities, and where horses were allowed to enter the park.  For a number of years I did not know if the word for the entrance was bridal or bridle because both seemed to apply.  It had a steep hill for an entrance beyond the landscaped area, down deep to the woods below, leaving you out to the main trail by the falls.  I rarely entered the park from that entrance, but it was great to ride on bikes down that hill as it met the main trail by the waterfalls.  Actually, Rhawn St. was not the north boundary because it cut through the park and more park lay beyond, stretching to the north and east for miles, but I didn’t go north of this street very often when I was a child so it was the northern boundary of my park for many years.  When I was older, and I would walk further or drive around more, there was another road, Welsh road that cut through the park just like Rhawn, and the park curved and was bisected again by Frankford Avenue.  The creek that was at the Ryan Avenue entrance flowed past Rhawn St., Welsh Rd, and Frankford Ave.  The bridge that lets the Frankford Ave. cross over the park has been part of the city for centuries.  I saw an article in the Northeast Times that showed a copy of a deed about the Pennypack bridge at Frankford dating to the 1700s.  The spelling was different,  but it was called Pennypack bridge that early in our history.  The west boundary of my park was Lexington Ave and is notable for two reasons:  One, it was a curvy road whereas the other roads were rather straight, and two, it did not have a sidewalk along the park side, giving it a very rural, park look, with light car traffic, and for many years the space across the street was not developed but eventually the land was cleared and houses built all the way to Rhawn.  Nazareth Hospital, where I was born,  was nestled a few blocks beyond Rhawn and Lexington.

            If we walked from our house, as we sometimes did, especially when it was just sisters and no parents, we usually entered the park by the rangers' station.  There was a dirt path about 15 feet wide complete with hills, trees, and roots.  If a horse had been by, there was manure or hoof prints in the dirt.  Tree roots and rocks often stuck up on the trail.  The creek, about 20-30 feet wide perhaps, was to the left as you walked north into the park.  The tree cover was rather dense, and now and then it was dark when the sun couldn’t get in.  Green and brown were the colors of the place; the creek had a brownish look to it as the water was often muddy.  The water flowed north and east twisting and turning its way through the park.  The current was strong enough and its depth unknown so that you could never go into the creek because of fear of drowning or getting stuck in the mud below, although I have one memory of watching some teens swinging from a rope and swimming in the water.  It didn’t look sanitary and maybe that is what kept me from every going in to just see; it seems funny to me now that I wasn’t tempted to jump in.  Maybe the creek’s value was in watching it, looking for minnows at the shallow areas.  One winter I remember my sisters and I did ice skate on it.  There was not much to do or see along this path other than to walk it and soak up the atmosphere of a forest.  Eventually, after up and down a few hills and around a few bends, we came to the area around the Rhawn street entrance.  That is where the activity was.

            When we didn't walk, we drove in my dad’s station wagon when we went as a family to the park.  Turning in off the Rhawn Street entrance, we drove down a hill and under Rhawn Street by passing through a short cement tunnel arch that allowed Rhawn to pass over the creek and park canyon, and came to a parking lot.  Back then, the car drove on a dirt and gravel road, but today they have paved it very nicely and fixed up several picnic areas at the top near Rhawn Street, and they have a jogging path paved as well along the parking lot side of the creek.  I don’t know why but people didn’t jog in the 60s en masse like they do now.  The creek was right there to the east of the parking lot.  Just north of the lot, a low wooden bridge took you to the other side of the creek where it met up with the trail that came from the Ryan Avenue entrance.  Back then, this primitive looking bridge was a wooden structure that was fun to travel over, hang over the sides and watch for minnows and study the current from the shallow end of the falls, and fun to listen to the clop clops of horses that occasionally passed over when we did.  Usually as we ran across the bridge we had to watched where we walked because of the horse droppings.  Today it is a cement bridge but still fun to travel over. 

            On the other side of the creek there was an open area for picnics, with several barbecue pits and a large open-sided shelter with a huge stone fireplace for gatherings.  I  attended a 25th anniversary party there in my early teens (friends of my mother known since her high school days), and we held a number of girl scout activities at this picnic area because there was a wide expanse of treeless grass for sack races and games beyond the picnic area.  After my childhood they put a shell there for concerts in the park.  The shelter is no longer there, but the huge fireplace still is.  It stands like a castle ruin or a tombstone of times past.  When we went for trips to the park we rarely picnicked.  We went to walk to the falls, which required us to go south along the trail, go under the Rhawn Street bridge, and walk a short distance further.  Between this picnic area and the falls was a water fountain which never had adequate water pressure, looked rusty or worn out whether it worked or not, and was always a challenge to quench the thirst.  I can recall my dad holding me up so I could get a lap at the trickle that came out of the fountain.  With much anticipation, we would walk on the path and go under the Rhawn Street bridge, which as a large concrete arch would bounce off echoes of our shouts “echo, echo echo,” and walked another hundred yards or so to the waterfalls.  The falls was my favorite place in the entire park.

            The waterfall looked to be like a man-made dam with some help from nature.  I don't know its history.  When the current was strong or the water level high, a decent amount of water flowed over the falls and made enough noise to satisfy with some mist.  In my mind is was Niagara.  At slow levels, water only went over some of the wall.  Inevitably there was a fallen dead tree somewhere—on the lip or at the bottom of the falls or both.  The path was level with the top of the falls, and there was a hill leading to the bottom of the falls that was completely filled in with rocks.  These were boulders of all shapes and sizes--typical hard Pennsylvania rock--some looking rather precariously placed, others looking settled since creation, and I often imagined an earthquake or avalanche had brought these rocks to this place.  That seemed so much more exciting than to think a construction vehicle dropped them there for shoring up the creek’s wall.  I felt like I was playing in an area which was here since the beginning of creation.  It was peaceful…quiet sounds of woods, music of the falls, and giggles and laughter from sisters and other people who were there.  The raggedness of danger to spice up the serenity was energizing.

            The rocks were an occasion for adventure.  Some were precariously placed and stepping down from one rock to another sometimes required balance and delicate footwork, sometimes they required jumping, and sometimes they required hands and care.  Many were big enough to sit on once you claimed a space for your own, warding off sisters who might steal your spot.  The goal when we arrived was to climb as far down and as close to the falls as possible.  When I was very young, I couldn’t make it down very far and had to sit near the top and watch my sisters have all the fun.  My parents, usually my dad, would sit at the top and watch to be sure we didn’t get into mischief.  He would call us back if it looked like we were going too far out towards the water.  When I was a kid it was not fun to sit up there and watch; the fun was in the climbing, exploration, and movement.

            Sometimes it was possible to walk across the falls, depending on the water flow.  I never was able to do it; once I made it halfway before I got scared (old enough to be there without relatives to yell at me).  It was a 6-10 foot drop, and I was not about to risk being pushed over by the water.  However, I did see other kids make successful attempts, and I don't think I ever saw anyone fall over the falls.  I was present, though, when my sister, Patsy, slipped off a rock and landed in the water at the foot of the falls, where it was shallow so she did not float away or get hurt, but she got wet and dirty nonetheless.  My dad said he had a rule that no wet people were allowed in the car--his way of making sure we didn't misbehave and get filthy dirty on our adventures--and when we got to the parking lot to go home, he said she would have to walk home.  He drove the car 1 mph out of the parking lot, with Patsy crying and walking behind, under the Rhawn Street overpass, and up the long hill to the park entrance.  We watched from the back seat unbelieving that she would have to walk all the way home while we sat dry and comfortable inside watching.  Then, before getting to the top of the hill, he stopped and let her get in and drove us home.  He called it discipline or a joke, but we were not amused.  This episode became a family story we reminisced about many times when we left the park (remember when Patsy fell in and Daddy didn't let her in....).  The story had been retold so many times, that for all I know she only got a sneaker wet and had to walk only 3 steps until she was allowed in, but I can imagine her crying intensely, my dad angry, the car slowly leaving the parking area, my sister walking behind, and it is easy to believe it could be true.

            In my early childhood, the walk to the falls seemed to take forever, and I recall many trips riding on my father’s shoulders.  It was the number one way to travel.  I rued the day when I was too big for being carried.  Alas, that day probably occurred before I was 7, but the good part was that meant I was old enough to climb down the rocks and enjoy the rock climbing that I longed to do when I was smaller and had to stay up top and watch my sisters explore the falls.

            At the foot bridge by the parking lot, if you didn't cross the bridge, there was a trail that went north and stayed on the west side of the creek.  It was bounded on both sides by plants and trees and sometimes wandered far enough from the creek that you didn’t even know it was there.  This trail had an atmosphere of its own.  It was hillier than the other trail that went by the falls, and to the left up a distance there was a huge wall of rocks--the border for the housing development up above, Westminster Park.  The creek and trails were down below the city level of houses above.  Now and then my dad would suggest we walk on this trail instead of or after going to the falls.  Here on this trail, enclosed by the foliage on both sides, he would tell stories, and when we got to the rocky wall he pointed out a hole and told us about the bear who lived there, who came out once and a while to eat kids on the trail.  We all knew he was making up the stories but they gave the place the aura it needed for mystery and imagination.  Every time we passed it we had to say “there is the bear cave” and we would all look in silent hopes for the ferocious bear to come out.  Soon after passing the cave we would get bored with the closed in underbrush and unchanging scenery, and we would turn around and make our way back to the parking lot.  Sometimes, we had to run over the bridge a few more times before heading for  the car in the lot.  Once again “time to go home” was met with moans and groans.  At least driving out and most of the way home we had the park in view.  For a cherry on the top, we might even stop at the playground if we took Rhawn to Rowland instead of Rhawn to Lexington, but usually the two trips were not piggybacked, as each trip on its own could wear out even us kids with our unbounded energy.

            One memory I do have of a specific adventure in the park is with my three sisters.  I was maybe 5 or 6 years old.  We planned to climb up the hill on one side of the Rhawn Street archway, cross the street, and climb down the other side back down to the path.  There was no trail and the hill was steep and filled with trees and underbrush.  It took us a long time (so it seemed to me) to do this, and to do it they had to help me along the way.  But I was thrilled to be included with them; being youngest, I was a burden to them.  Nancy gave me a walking stick she found on the hill for me to keep my balance, and we pretended we were hiking up a mountain.  It was thrilling to get to the top, to be in the real world again for 30 seconds as we dashed across traffic to get to the other side, and back down again for the challenge of the descent.  It might as well have been Everest we climbed.  The memory is one of accomplishment and group work.  It ended with us yelling "echo" under the arch as we headed back to meet the parents.

            In the late '70s, my mother got a job at Holy Redeemer hospital up in Huntington Valley.  I learned by driving north Rhawn Street or Welsh Road to get there that Pennypack is a large woods.  There is a commission that oversees its health and care.  I'm glad it is more than the area of my childhood, more glad that my large area is still there, and delighted that all these woods are preserved for future generations.  It doesn't seem to have changed much in forty years that I have known it.

            As an aunt, I had the delight of taking my niece and nephew to the falls.   The first time I did this, my nephew was 7 and my niece 4.  I watched with some anxiety as they climbed on the rocks, which now seemed like a booby trap for accidents.  They explored, and I watched from up above, just like my dad did so many years before.  This trip was when I first realized the nostalgic feelings the park held for me.  Memories of my dad and my sisters soaked my feelings with thick sentimentality.  I empathized with my dad and realized how he brought us there to the falls for himself as much as for us.  How strong he was to stay up top and let us on our own explore below.  How patient he had been with our antics and nonsense chatter.  How he knew how to sit and watch, to enjoy the whole experience, and not rush us. 

            In the mid nineties when I started bringing my dog on trips home for vacations, I brought another niece in her young teens to walk the path to the falls.  Here I learned that my dog liked to climb.  She was not interested in the rocks as much as the hill on the other side of the trail that I had paid little attention in my childhood trips.  We walked up and down small trails I had not explored in a long time (most childhood trips stayed on the main trail).  My only regret with bringing the dog on my trips is that I like to pause on the bridge that cross the creek, to remember the fascination it held for me as a kid, but my dog likes to cross quickly, or the foot traffic is enough to keep me moving so she doesn't get wrapped up with bicycles, joggers, or other dogs.

            In my thirties, I started going to Pennypack Park on visits home, usually over the Christmas holidays.  Even though I remember going once on Christmas Eve in 1972 in 70 degree weather with a girlfriend, Debbie Dudak, I rarely went to Pennypack Park in winter.  The place is very pretty covered in snow, and there is enough traffic to keep paths flattened and walkable.  It was during these winter excursions that I began to think about writing about my childhood impressions and memories, for Pennypack and the other places described in this collection of essays.  And this seems right, a creative place should inspire creative writing. I'm glad Pennypack remained very much like it did when I was child despite the growth of the city around it.  There is life there even though every snapshot in memory and in live view has a gnarly dead tree lying askew somewhere.  There is age and new life coexisting.

            The beauty of the park is both the visible and the invisible.  It is the calmness of the growth, the serenity of a creek that flows slowly to the river, the way the sky above is almost hidden by tall leafy tree tops, the smells of the soil, plants, and water, and the subtle inclusion of the modern world that keeps the place wild and care-free.  It is the occasional sounds of others passing by on the trail or me passing a group off the path who are involved in their own activities.  And it what you don't see--the homes forgotten, the busyness of streets and people don't exist here.  It is the invitation to enjoy nature, to touch bark, to sit on boulders, to blend in with the stillness.  It is the timelessness of the place--trees that die but never go away, the memories of my childhood that replay the wonder of the bear caves and create Niagara from the little falls.  As a child, the pace was freedom and adventure.  As an adult, it is a place to think, to remember, but still a place to enjoy and be grateful that I'm there.

Addendum....A few years ago, they took down the dam that created my waterfalls. The creek still ripples over some rocks that remain in the creek with just enough force to cause sound when you stand right there.But it is like a glaring wound on a mighty leg. A hole in the fabric of memory. No more generations will get to enjoy those falls, small as they were, my Pennypack Niagra. The area around the place where the waterfountain and shelter were has been allowed to grow wild and gangly. No right turn now is possible when you cross the bridge. But perhaps this is how things have to be...manmade things come and go, but the nature that is Pennypack remains.

flood

The flood destoyed the east/north path between the falls and the foot bridge.

chimney

All that is left of the shelter is the chimney.

The Park in December, before the flood, around 2000.