Taking note of the trails of the Wissahickon

by Alex Bartlett, Chrissy Clawson and Krista Gebbia of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy
Posted 6/6/24

With the arrival of National Trails Day on June 1, it is fitting to reflect on the rich history of the Wissahickon Valley's trails.

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Taking note of the trails of the Wissahickon


With the arrival of National Trails Day on June 1, it is fitting to reflect on the rich history of the Wissahickon Valley's trails. Traversing the Wissahickon Valley, many of its trails echo a history dating back over 200 years. These paths served as vital arteries, providing access to the numerous mills that once lined the banks of the Wissahickon Creek and its tributaries, connecting them with farms, businesses, and residences. The Lenni Lenape may have even established some of these paths. Today, these trails serve a different purpose – recreation and contemplation of the beauty of the Wissahickon.

The paths began transitioning to the trails we know today as efforts were made to safeguard the city's water supply. Beginning in the 1870s, in response to urbanization pressures, the city of Philadelphia initiated a program to acquire and demolish mills. This initiative, coupled with subsequent donations of land from families like the Houstons and Woodwards beginning around the turn of the 20th century, led to the creation of Wissahickon Valley Park.

As a result of these donations, the park's boundaries expanded significantly. Farmers abandoned farms, and roads fell into disuse, eventually becoming overgrown and obsolete. As the 20th century progressed, many of these roads were repurposed into trails, integrating them into the park's trail system, and now Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) maintains them. FOW also donated and continues to support the Wissahickon collection in the Chestnut Hill Conservancy archives. The collection includes historical information and photographs of the trails; use the link below to learn more.

One of those roads, later transformed into a trail, is Thomas Mill Road/Spruce Mill Road. It once linked Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill with Township Line Road (now Old Line Road) in Andorra. Originating before 1808, it persisted in use until the early 20th century. A segment of the road served as access to a farmhouse until around 1950 when developers cleared the area to build houses along Manatawna Avenue, Caledonia Street, and Clyde Lane. The FOW's Yellow Trail now partially follows its path in Andorra, while the White Trail in Chestnut Hill runs along the right-of-way between Chestnut Hill Avenue and Forbidden Drive.

The conversion of these roads into trails mirrors the dynamic evolution of the Wissahickon landscape. From its agricultural origins to its current status as a recreational sanctuary, the Wissahickon continuously adapts to shifting societal needs and ecological considerations. As the seasons turn and usage patterns shift, the Wissahickon continues to be a hub for athletic pursuits, artistic inspiration, and moments of tranquility. Efforts to preserve this area for everyone must also address the evolving ecology.

In its centennial year, FOW remains dedicated to stewarding these trails. Reflecting on the trails' transformation as National Trails Day approaches, it is essential to recognize that stewardship demands significant time, effort, and funding. FOW, the city of Philadelphia, Wissahickon Trails, and other organizations play a crucial role in preserving these trails. However, all users share the responsibility to ensure their preservation for future generations.