Jim S. McKay

The Schuylkill River was always the jewel of the City of Brotherly Love.  Early account stated the water was colder and cleaner than the Delaware and as such it become the early source of water for the city.  The City of Philadelphia in the late 1700s and early 1800s, was the largest city in North American and following several serious epidemics of water born diseases, getting clean drinking water would becoming a major project.  The Fairmount water works was built in 1820s, and was an engineering marvel for the time [64].  It used a process of pumping water, first by steam and then later by a gravity driven water wheel to a high reservoir where it was filtered and permitted to flow in wooden pipes to the rest of he city.  Not only did it start a crude process of purifying and transporting water through the city, it purchased massive tracks of land along the Schuylkill River to halt development along its banks.  In order to insure safe drinking water, the city bought 1,480 acres of property south of  Manyunk [Lenape Indian translation “ Place to Drink”, and still true today] to the tidal limits along with the Wissahickon Creek Gorge.  The Schuylkill was also the home of the colonies’ first appointed Royal Botanist, John Bartrum. and early naturist John Audubon.  Many of his Audubon’s  bird and animal paintings came from this waterway.  By the early 1900’s the tidal section became a cesspool and South Philadelphia, sandwich between the two rivers, was not a desirable place to live.


The Schuylkill River history parallels that of the Lehigh.  It comes from the hard coal country in the West.  I can attest to its source, for as far south as Norristown my sneakers became filled with the black coal sand of the river bottom. The Schuylkill River was a more direct and shorter route to Philadelphia than the Lehigh.  In 1815, the Schuylkill Navigation Company (SNC) was chartered to build a canal system to reach the coalfields of Schuylkill County.  This was a fast track system designed and engineered by Thomas Oakes to construct a 108-mile waterway from Port Carbon to Philadelphia.  Instead of a single canal channel cut along the bank of the river, this used a series of lakes, locks and channels to move boats up and down the river [92].  The River still has the 12 low-canal built dams on the river between Philadelphia and Port Clinton.  The canal had one tunnel with no incline planes to haul boats over dry land, thus making it a very efficient operation.  It was completed in 1827 [87] making it the winner in the race to the black gold.  The system continued to operate until early 1900’s, with its peak hauling rate of 1,700,000 tons of coal in 1859.  It competed with the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, which could haul twice the amount in a quarter of the time.  Both parties, in order to maximize profits, learned to fix prices.  In 1870, the Philadelphia and Reading “Reading” bought the system on a 979 year lease.  The Pennsylvania RR, which owned the Delaware and Raritan Canal, later refused to take shipments from the SNC for that reason.  The SNC carried so much coal that in its upper limits, boats would become grounded in the black slurry.  The amount of coal sludge in the upper sections of the canal would lead to problems that we are still dealing with today [88] [87] [92].  The Reading Railroad released its 979 year lease with the SNC [72], forcing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to clean up the mess. Today the mining companies pay a per ton tax on coal for clean up.


The Schuylkill River is 125 miles long and flows through a variety of different landscapes of mountain coal country, rich agriculture land and urban industrial sites.  It didn’t take long for this combination of coal, industry and agriculture to transform the river into a major polluted waterway.  It lacked the faster flowing current and flowed through more agriculture land than the Lehigh, so the Schuylkill collected more pollutants in its sandy bottom than the Lehigh.  The east branch starts in the middle of the old coalfields between the towns of Tamaqua and Pottsville.  This valley is a wasteland of cliff and hills of blue grey slate from the mines that operated there.  At Schuylkill Haven, it meets the West Branch, which shares the same mining landscape as its sister.  The East and West branch is still

under the affect of Acid Mine Drainage and runoff.  The Little Schuylkill starts from the same origin but moves out of the coal fields and as a fast moving cleaner mountain stream. This streams starts near Tamaqua and flows through steep mountain gaps before it merges its flow with the Schuylkill at Port Clinton.  This should be the most scenic portion of the Schuylkill tributaries system for it avoids the scarring of the coal regions.  At the town of Port Clinton, the Schuylkill enters the piedmont agricultural plain and farmland of Berks County.  It is also in a limestone geological region for much of its length from Port Clinton to Norristown.  Once out of the mountains, it takes a gentle southeastward journey through small industrial cities line Reading, Pottstown, Norristown and Conshocken before entering Philadelphia.  In each of these towns, like a border around a picture, its bank are surrounded by railroad yards, old industrial factories, inactive smoke stacks towers and collections of old row homes.  Each of these towns has plans to improve the site by adding walking trails on the abandoned rail and canal beds under the shadows of new or plan office building, and condos along the water front.  As it enters the City of Philadelphia the river squeezes through the last steep gorge at Manayunk before entering Fairmount Park.  Here, the Schuylkill is known for skulking, hundred year old boathouses, the Philadelphia Art museum, and countless miles of walking trails under the watchful eyes of numerous bronze statues in the largest city park in the Untied States.  Recreational power boating is discouraged in the Fairmount section of the river.  After the dam at Fairmount, the river starts to see a new industry living along its banks; the petrochemical refineries of South Philadelphia.


Sandwich between the refineries of South Philadelphia, rail yards, urban row-homes of West Philadelphia and the Schuylkill lies the John Bratram’s botanic garden. In 1728, he began collecting trees from all over North American. The dissidences of what he collected and his home can still be seen today. What can’t be seen today is Rambo’s rock.   In the Schuylkill River a large rock called Rambo’s rock was said to exist [154].  Before the construction of the Fairmount Dam this was a major shad collection point caused at the rock and a narrow channel.  These rocks or rock near Grey Ferry may have been the first port on the Schuylkill. The rocks, I’m speculating was removed to widen the channel for navigation reason.


The East and West branch are still suffering from the damage of coal mining but downstream the river has made a major comeback.  The river has also been overlooked by fishing articles and many anglers.  This lack of strong fishing pressure will greatly improve your odds of small mouth bass that have not been fooled by countless lures.  With the amount of money that has been spent on cleaning this river the last few decades, the Schuylkill has evolved into an excellent small mouth bass fishery.  The river bottom is full of hellgrammites and except for Valley Forge Park you do not have to worry about restriction on taking them for bait, as in other sections of the Delaware.  It also has an increase population of freshwater clams and insect hatches that are being noticed by fisherman.  The shallow consistent depth and flow of the river through its middle section makes it an ideal river to wade for small mouth bass.  Professional guide services that advertise float trips to catch bass and trout are now operating on the Little Schuylkill.  The river has many low dams that can provide an excellent spot to fish downstream.  I’m not a musky fisherman but I have heard of more musky sightings and catches in the Schuylkill River than any other water body in the lower watershed.  Many of the retention ponds used for coal reclamation are open to the public for all types of recreation including duck hunting.


Once in the piedmont section of the watershed, the limestone tributaries provide many good trout streams.  Berks County has the largest section of limestone trout streams in the region.  Many of these are class one wild trout streams and are hidden on private property through out the county. Fortunately, several of these streams are located in French Creek State Park.  Hot pockets of wild trout streams can be found in the northeastern section of Berks County, near Hamburg.  Other noted trout streams that get stocked in Berks County is the Antietam, Manatawny, Tulpehocken and Kaercher Creek.


In Philadelphia, below the Fairmount Dam, the water is tidal, and with its strong current, and rocky channel it has become a popular and productive spot for large cats including reports of flatheads, and migratory fish like stripers.  A fish ladder was built here and shad and other migratory fish have been spotted getting through the ladder. In fact, there is a web site where you can view the fish going through it.


The river system also has its share of large reservoirs, which are used for flood control and water source.  They all share a very common feature, as they were all flooded in narrow meandering valleys.  Although few are wide, they meander for great distances that provide excellent fishing were one can troll the shorelines or follow the deeper original stream channel.  The first of these reservoirs is Blue Marsh Lake, which has 35 miles of shoreline, is 8 miles long, and covers 1,150 acres of water during normal level and is 53 feet deep.  In the middle of the lake is a 60 acre island called Quarry Island[9].  A total of five streams feed the lake: Tulehocken, Spring, Powder Mill, Northkill, and Licking Creek   The Tulehocken Creek is stocked with trout and is also designated as a fly fishing or lure fishing trout stream.  Beside stock trout and the normal bass and pan fish populations, the lake also has walleyes and tiger muskellunge.  The lake has a boat marina for launching and boat rentals. Lake Ontelaunee is owned by the city of Reading for water consumption and is situated just north of the City.  This 5.5 miles long, 1,080 acre lake is wider than the other two major reservoirs in the region.  Its source is the Maiden Creek which flows from rural farm land and growing housing developments.  Lake Ontelaunee, as the property of the City of Reading does not get the same notoriety as state owned reservoirs.  In a state sponsored fish inventory of the lake in 2003, it was discovered to have a higher than average inventory of catfish.  The Pennsylvania Fish and Game commission advertises that it has the usual mixed bag of fish including some members of the pike family.  Because Lake Ontelaunee does not get the same attention as other lakes of its size, I believe it could be more productive than most people think.  The five-mile long Green Lane Reservoir is another popular lake that is heavily visited.  This reservoir appears to be deep and has many good shelters to explore by boat along with rentals and ramps for access.  Green Lane Park actually has three lakes with a total of 870 acres of water [19].  It’s also surrounded by parkland and is very scenic across its entire lengths.  The Lake is fed by the west branch of the Perkiomenville Creek, which is also a nice creek for small mouth bass below the dam. Because of the fear of intrusive vegetation Green Lane quarantines boats in the upper lake.  One must be prepared to use rentals or leave the boat in the quarantine lot.   Marsh Creek Lake, which is not in the Schuylkill watershed but within easy driving distance of the river and local area.  It is a 550 acre lake with a good selection of coves to fish in.  It has been well stock with muskellunge and walleyes over the years and can be an exciting lake to fish without spending a lot of gasoline.


Because its mouth was hidden in tall marsh grass, the first early Dutch explorers missed the Schuylkill River and later named it the “hidden river”.  I think of the river as a hidden fishing treasure today. 


Map of Schuylkill River with damsFishing big d logoFishing big d logo