by Len Lear

Every time my wife and I stroll down Forbidden Drive in Wissahickon Park, I think of F. Markoe (“Koey”) Rivinus. If you Google his name, you will discover that Rivinus would have been 100 this year. (He died Nov. 29, 2006, at his home in Chestnut Hill at age 91.) His wife of 68 years, Anne Hutchins Rivinus, would be 99 this year. (She died Sept. 28, 2010, at age 94.) It is hard for me to imagine any Chestnut Hill couple who lived longer lives and did more to beautify their community than Koey and Anne, so I thought that they deserved this remembrance on the 100th anniversary of Koey’s birth.

According to his obituary, Koey, a former president of Smith, Kline & French Laboratories (now GlaxoSmithKline Corp.) and longtime head of its international division, could often be seen after his retirement in 1967 in old clothes, picking up litter, removing graffiti or planting trees in and around Chestnut Hill and the Wissahickon Valley.

He blazed trails in the Wissahickon, made maps of the area and conducted a class on park conservation. Judging by his appearance, those who encountered Mr. Rivinus in these efforts would never have guessed that he was a retired high-level corporate executive or that he had come from such a privileged background.

Passionate about the environment and how he felt it should be preserved, he was a president of Friends of the Wissahickon and of the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center. Koey was born in Philadelphia to Lillian Megary and Francis Markoe Rivinus Sr. He attended Episcopal Academy and the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass. He also attended Heidelberg College in Heidelberg, Germany, and graduated in 1938 from Harvard University, where he ran on the track team, managed the football team and was a member of the Naval ROTC. He spoke three languages.

Shortly after graduating from college, Koey married Anne Lowndes Hutchins of Boston, and the couple had seven children. Although he was a member of the prestigious First City Troop of Philadelphia, Rivinus was called to active duty as a Naval officer during World War II. He rose to the rank of Commander and for his service was awarded the Decoration of the Legion of Merit, the Order of the British Empire and the U.S. Naval Unit Citation.

In 1995 my wife and I took a “class” with the Mt. Airy Learning Tree called “Walking the Wissahickon with a Friend.” The “Friend” was Koey, who probably knew more about the Wissahickon Valley than any other living soul. “This was once a beautiful, smooth road,” Koey told our group of 25 residents of Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, “and horse-drawn carriages would enter the park here. However, the city failed to put in storm drains, and the road has eroded very badly, as you can see.”

After a couple hundred yards, we came upon huge overhead steel pipes. “This is an aqueduct that was built in 1894 by hundreds of Irish workers,” said Koey. “It drains the sewers, tubs and sinks of Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill up to Rex Avenue. All the waste products end up in sewage settlement beds under the Schuylkill River near the airport.”

About 100 yards after the aqueduct is the Allens Lane Bridge, which was built in 1907 to connect the east bank of the Wissahickon to Forbidden Drive, which was formerly a toll road called Wissahickon Turnpike.

“The first mill was built here in 1746,” said Koey. “There was no steam or electric power, so the power was the water flowing down here over a waterfall. There were mills here for grain, wood, cotton, dye and gunpowder, and they were constantly burning down.

“The Wissahickon was actually much dirtier then than it is now because the mills dumped all their effluent into it. It was an environmental disaster for 150 years. The mills were finally torn down after the introduction of steam power made the water power obsolete. Fairmount Park bought the entire area in 1868.”

And I would be remiss if I did not add a few things about Mrs. Rivinus, who was just as passionate about preserving the beauty of our area as her husband. When her youngest child was 12 and she was 50, Anne enrolled in the Chestnut Hill Hospital School of Nursing. After graduating, she was head nurse for the Chestnut Hill Pediatric Group for 25 years.

As her obituary pointed out, as a young mother she pushed baby carriages and walked children and dogs through Chestnut Hill and later commuted to work by bicycle. The family home on Rex Avenue was a playground for neighborhood kids, and Mrs. Rivinus planted extensive flower and berry gardens there.

She was a member of the Weeders Garden Club and helped assemble the club’s entries for the Philadelphia Flower Show. As members of the Friends of the Wissahickon, Mr. and Mrs. Rivinus planted rhododendrons and mountain laurels, picked up trash and removed graffiti in Fairmount Park along the creek. In 2004, the couple received the Wissahickon Achievement Award, and the water garden in front of Valley Green Inn was dedicated in their names.

After she and her husband moved to an apartment in Chestnut Hill with no land to cultivate, Mrs. Rivinus planted a perennial garden on a patch of ground adjacent to the SEPTA train station.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Rivinus left an incomparable legacy of preserving the remarkable beauty of this urban treasure that is Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy.

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