Success Stories - Cultural Landscapes

Cultural Landscapes Mark New Opportunities for Outdoor Recreation and Active Transportation

Cultural landscapes are all around us. A cultural landscape reveals aspects of a region's origins and development. It may include the land around a building, structure, district, or archeological site that is significant or representative of the history, architecture, or culture of an area. Preserving cultural landscapes is of high importance, as so often historic sites and their heritage are threatened by demolition, neglect, insensitive design, and encroaching sprawl.

Communities in Greater Philadelphia are adapting cultural landscapes from their obsolete industrial-era uses to active destinations for outdoor recreation and active transportation. These locations serve as amenities to local residents as well as attractions that draw visitors from a larger area. By designating a new use for the landscape, visitors are provided both an outlet for healthy activity and an opportunity to learn about the location's rich history–a history that may otherwise be forgotten. Adapted sites also serve as the tools for economic development, alternative modes of transportation, and the building blocks for community identity.

Manayunk Canal, Philadelphia, PA

Manayunk Canal

Manayunk, a neighborhood located in northwest Philadelphia, developed as an industrial hub producing textiles and paper. As in most industrial cities and neighborhoods, the mid-20th century marked a decline in Manayunk's industrial activity, which resulted in high rates of vacancy.

The 1990s were the start of a new chapter for the neighborhood as it began to reinvent itself as a destination for shopping, dining, and nightlife. And as new uses were developed for Manayunk's industrial and commercial buildings along Main Street, the waterways surrounding the neighborhood that were teeming with industrial activity have experienced a rebirth as places for outdoor recreation, educational opportunities, and community events.

The Schuylkill River, once Philadelphia's industrial thoroughfare, is now host to recreational boaters and Manayunk Canal and Towpath, which runs 1.5 miles behind Main Street, and connects to the larger Schuylkill Canal. Opened in 1818, the Manayunk Canal transported anthracite coal into the city and upriver to Phoenixville, Pottstown, and Reading. Commercial use of the canal ceased in 1917 after which pleasure boats used the canal until the 1940s.

In the latter half of the 20th century the canal and its adjacent towpath were reconstructed. Today, the towpath that was once traveled by teams of mules pulling canal barges has been preserved for use as a bicycle and pedestrian path. The trail is part of the extensive Schuylkill River Trail that, when fully completed, will run roughly 130 miles from Pottstown, PA to Center City Philadelphia. Visible from the towpath are locks 68, 69, and 70, and ruins of a locktender's house, Flat Rock Dam, and a sluice house, which held the machinery that once controlled water flow into the canal.

A myriad of local entities are involved in improving the Schuylkill River as well as restoring the canal and planning for its future. Over $8 million of state and city funding has been spent thus far to restore the canal and convert its towpath into a bike/pedestrian path. Funding has supported the stabilization of the canal banks, the construction of the Cotton Street Bridge, reinforcement of Lock Street Bridge, pedestrian lighting and amenities, and landscaping. Additional funding and restoration projects such as renovation of the locks and trail is pending. Currently the canal is maintained by the City of Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the Manayunk Development Corporation.

In early 2011, the City of Philadelphia was awarded a Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative grant of $1.3 million to rehabilitate the Manayunk Bridge, which will provide an important bike/ped connection between Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County and Manayunk, Philadelphia County.

Manayunk's success at readapting its waterfronts for recreational uses has had significant impacts on the neighborhood, as well as the City of Philadelphia and the larger region. As the area continues to change and develop, community development partners seek to enhance this asset.


Delaware Canal State Park, Bristol to Easton, PA

Delaware Canal State Park

Hand-dug and completed in 1832, the Delaware River Canal was a solution to growing transportation demands in Greater Philadelphia, much like today's interstate highways. Today, the canal is preserved as the Delaware Canal State Park and is an example of a successful historic preservation and conservation effort that positively impacts the numerous communities it connects along the river.

The park, which encompasses the historic Delaware Canal and adjacent Towpath, runs 60 miles parallel to the Delaware River from Easton to Bristol, Pennsylvania. Canals emerged as a means of moving goods and resources, namely anthracite coal, from the western portions of Pennsylvania to the Eastern seaboard. The canal was used until 1931, and then was transferred from the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, a private operator, to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and set aside as parkland. From the very beginning of its disuse, the canal had preservation advocates. The Delaware Valley Protective Association was formed in 1933 to encourage the Commonwealth to maintain the canal, and, today, the Friends of the Delaware Canal is actively involved in its continued restoration and preservation.

In preserving this cultural landscape, the site has emerged as both a location for outdoor recreation and historic tourism. Canoeing, kayaking, and fishing are popular in the canal and especially on the Delaware River. The historic towpath is frequented by cyclists, hikers, horseback riders, bird watchers and, in the winter, cross-country skiers. The 60-mile trail connects with Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park across the river in New Jersey.

In conjunction with its recreational uses, the canal boasts a variety of historic and cultural assets. One such destination is the restored Locktender's House Museum and Lock #11 in downtown New Hope, PA, which also serves as the current home of Friends of the Delaware Canal. Most of Delaware Canal State Park's educational programming takes place there including mule-drawn canal boat rides. Visitors learn about the function of the historic locks and what life was like along the canal in the mid-1800s.

The Delaware Canal terminates in Bristol, PA, where the last mile of the original canal including the five-acre tide basin and tide locks, have been lost to development. To preserve the history of this missing portion of the waterway, park educators host a number of events, including The Mystery of the Vanishing Canal a hike that highlights the location of historical points along the last portion of the canal and discusses the role of historic preservation.

Flooding in 2004, 2005, and 2006 did significant damage to parts of the canal and towpath, requiring substantial repairs over the course of several years. The continued maintenance of the Delaware Canal and Towpath are a testament to its importance as a cultural landscape and recreational destination for both local communities and the larger region.


Schuylkill Canal, Phoenixville, PA

Each June, the Schuylkill Canal Association (SCA) hosts Schuylkill Canal Day. This event, which typically attracts over 3,000 people, is a family-oriented day of fun along the Schuylkill Canal at Lock 60, just across the Schuylkill River from downtown Phoenixville, PA. Canal Day is an opportunity to increase awareness of and appreciation for the historic 19th century canal and the variety of recreational opportunities it provides today.

A large group of local businesses, community organizations, artists, and other vendors attend Canal Day. The SCA in conjunction with the Phoenix Village Arts Center hosts an Art Show featuring local artists. Their work is displayed at the restored Locktender's house at Lock 60. The proceeds from Canal Day go towards SCA's efforts to maintain and restore the canal as a historic and recreation amenity.

The Schuylkill Canal was completed between 1816 and 1825 by the Schuylkill Navigation Company to allow barges carrying anthracite coal and other products from the coal region to the East Coast. This particular system covered a distance of 108 miles from Port Carbon, PA in Schuylkill County to Philadelphia. Like many canals in Pennsylvania and the Northeast, the canal was heavily used until railroads made it obsolete in the 1920s. In 1949, the bankrupt Schuylkill River Navigation Company deeded the canal and its property to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

In the early 1950s, Pennsylvania began a massive de-silting project for the Schuylkill River. Over the years, waste from industrial operations had washed silt into the river, threatening the local drinking water source. To address this issue, the river was dredged and the spoils were placed in basins and the canal. While the river improved, this project, along with dismantling and general neglect, destroyed much of the canal and its locks. Today only 28 miles of the original canal remain; 2.5 miles of the waterway around Lock 60 is navigable for recreation, and a five-mile water trail loop takes boaters through the river and canal via a maintained portage.

Since then, local citizens' concerns and actions have led to considerable restoration of the canal and its towpath. When Upper Providence Township leased a portion of the canal from the state in the early 1980s, it convened a Schuylkill Canal Advisory Committee to explore how the canal could be preserved. The committee garnered considerable community and volunteer support, and in 1985 the Schuylkill Canal Association (SCA) was incorporated as a separate non-profit organization.

Over the years, the SCA has successfully maintained the canal and towpath as a popular historic site and a safe recreation area. Early volunteer efforts in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in clearing the towpath, building canoe launches, creating picnic areas, and restoring the abandoned locktender's house. In 1996, the larger Schuylkill River was declared a state Heritage Corridor and the SCA was awarded a Heritage Corridor Implementation Grant with matching funds from the Arcadia Foundation. This designation, along with funds from the William Penn Foundation, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and a federal Transportation Equity Act (TEA-21) grant resulted in the restoration of the lock to working order.

Today, during special events, boaters can lock through the canal just like barges did over a century before. Thanks to the efforts of the SCA and other government and local entities, the Schuylkill Canal serves as a popular outdoor recreational destination for biking, hiking, boating, fishing, and observing nature as well as a strong example of historic preservation.