Part 1: Frankford Creek
Text and Images Copyright © 2005
The Frankford Creek watershed includes the tributary watersheds of Tacony Creek and Wingohocking Creek (now Wingohocking Sewer). Rock Run was a major tributary of the Tacony, and Little Tacony Creek (also called Tackawanna Run) flowed into the Frankford: these and other minor tributaries within Philadelphia have all either been piped into sewers or otherwise obliterated. Though these tributary streams no longer flow on the surface, their original watersheds are still extant--they could now be called "sewersheds"--and are the source of the a good part of the storm drainage that reaches the still-living streams. Where combined sewers are in place, the underground tributaries also contribute to the effects of combined sewer overflows.
In 1799, the Pennsylvania Legislature declared
Frankford Creek a navigable public highway from the mouth up to
Joseph L. Miller's land, opposite the race-bridge across the Bristol road,
on Main Street [now Frankford Avenue], in Frankford. This meant
that all bridges built across this navigable stretch of the creek had
to be moveable to allow the passage of boat traffic. Traffic was limited
to small barges and schooners and probably was carried under adverse conditions
because of the winding channel and shallow depths.
After 1884, the U.S. Government, though
requested, did nothing to help the City maintain a navigable channel
in Frankford Creek. It refused to help in 1910, 1934
and in 1938 (see below), several times citing the lack of prospective
here for an overview of previous investigations into the creek
from 1947 Knappen Report.)
1854: Consolidation --Under Act of Consolidation,
City of Philadelphia absorbed all the municipalities in Philadelphia County,
expanding from 2 square miles to more than 129 square miles. This area
included the 22 square miles of Tacony-Frankford watershed within Philadelphia
County. (About 15 square miles of the watershed are in Montgomery County).
Only 35 miles of sewers existed at the time in the entire city.
1889: Wingohocking Sewer --Petition for the extension of the Wingohocking Sewer, signed by notable citizens and medical professionals of Germantown, presented to the Mayor and City Councils. At that time, roughly a half-mile of the creek ran in an underground conduit northwest of Penn Street. Ten miles of branch sewers in Germantown drained into the creek, making the open section of creek southwest of Penn Street a dangerous open sewer that threatened both health and property. Unlike many other sewer projects, which took years to get the necessary funding from City Councils, this one (no doubt due to its influential supporters) was begun the following year, with 3,400 feet of main sewer built at a cost of $70,000. (Sources: Petition for the extension of the main sewer on Wingohocking Creek from Penn Street to Fisher's Lane, 22d Ward (Germantown); Bureau of Surveys Annual Report for 1890, p. 161.)
1895-1901: Little Tacony Creek Pollution
-- In 1895 City engineers advocated an interceptor system for Frankford
and Little Tacony Creeks. The goal at that time was to divert excessive storm
flow directly to the Delaware River, and build an interceptor to pick up the
sewage before it entered the creeks.Year after year, no money was appropriated
by City Councils for this work, and each year in his reports the City's Chief
Engineer and Surveyor grew more and more exasperated. A series of newspaper
articles in 1899 highlighted the increasing unsanitary condition of
Frankford and Little Tacony Creeks, by reason of the extension of branch sewers
in Frankford that emptied their sewage into these creeks; and while
the public was promised some solution, no work was yet undertaken. In 1901
the Chief Engineer wrote, The condition of Little Tacony Creek is growing
yearly more unbearable.... A great number of sewers have been built in the
past two years draining a densely populated section and discharging...into
[the creek].... A relief from these conditions is urgent, and it is undoubtedly
a better policy to carry on the work by making annual appropriations of moderate
amounts than to delay the beginning of the improvement for some time, when
the necessity will have become so great as to require an appropriation of
very large amounts in order to accomplish speedy relief from the unsanitary
conditions which exist. Work on the project finally began that year
when a small section of Little Tacony Creek was buried under a new street,
Pratt Street. (Sources: Bureau of Surveys Annual Report
for 1895, p. 82; 1899 Report, p. 73; 1901 Report, pages 74 and 80, and
accompanying plan of Pratt Street Sewer.
1896: Wingohocking Sewer to Mt. Airy -- Extension of the Wingohocking Sewer to Mt. Airy is deemed urgent, owing to the fact that the whole of Mt. Airy, comprising hundreds of suburban homes, with many miles of paved streets, has no sewerage and must be deprived of any efficient drainage until the sewer is extended to reach this section. (Source: Bureau of Surveys Annual Report for 1896, p. 79)
1904: Rock Run/Wingohocking/Little Tacony sewers -- Construction began on Rock Run Sewer system. (Xerox copies of several construction drawings of this sewer from before 1910 are included in the accompanying graphic material.) Work on this sewer continued into the 1920s until the creek was finally obliterated from the city maps..... Construction continued on Wingohocking Sewer system, as it had almost yearly since 1890.... Construction continued on the Little Tacony Creek system. The project is to practically abolish Little Tacony Creek by intercepting the whole flow to the northward of town and carry[ing] it through the divide into Frankford Creek near its mouth. Torresdale Avenue was one of the streets that were eventually built over the creek bed. (Sources: Bureau of Surveys Annual Report for 1904, pages 85, 76-78, and 80)
1905: Wingohocking Sewer -- Work continues on Wingohocking Sewer system. This system is so large, comprising in addition to the main stem, three main branches, each of the dimensions of the larger main sewers, that scarcely a year passes that something is not done upon the extension of one of the other of them. Extensions are required to meet the demands of building improvements. One stem recently completed through Mt. Airy has served to open for developing a tract of more than 300 acres. (Source: Bureau of Surveys Annual Report for 1905, p. 58)
1905: Clean Streams Law -- On April 22, the Pennsylvania legislature passed Public Law 260, To preserve the purity of waters of the State for the protection of the public health. Among many other provisions, this law required the City to get the approval of the state Department of Health (and in years to come, the Sanitary Water Board) for all new sewers and sewer extensions. The goal of the law was to rid the state's waters of sewage pollution, but accomplishing that goal took more than half a century.
1906: Typhoid Fever and Water Treatment --The annual typhoid fever epidemic killed 1,063 Philadelphia residents. The disease is mainly caused by the consumption of drinking water contaminated with raw sewage. Typhoid deaths finally began to diminish once water filtration plants were in place for the entire City. After chlorine was added to the filtered water, beginning in 1913, typhoid cases quickly fell to negligible levels. As most large cities at the time, Philadelphia saw that it was a simpler and less costly public health measure to treat the drinking water supplies than it would have been to collect and decontaminate the City's sewage. That step took another 60 years to accomplish.
1907: Frankford Creek Culvert Proposed -- A State Department of Health permit for extension of sewers in Frankford Creek drainage district included this note: In connection with the plan for the Frankford Creek Intercepting Sewer, the creek is to be improved and possibly arched over and a broad avenue constructed over it. The improvement of completely covering the creek, of course, was never done, except in one small section. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1908-1909: Frankford Creek/Wingohocking Sewer -- 1908: The purification of Frankford Creek is one of the most important public projects that can be undertaken, affecting as it does a population of 30,000 people resident in the Frankford section of the City. Contributing to the pollution of the creek was the Wingohocking system, by which the sewage of 60,000 people was carried into the creek. The following year, the report noted that the millions of gallons of sewage pouring into Frankford Creek from Germantown via Wingohocking Creek may make it essential that one of the first projects in the purification of sewage be carried out in the Wingohocking territory. The Northeast Sewage Treatment Works, completed in 1923, was designed to serve exactly that need. (Sources: Bureau of Surveys Annual Report for 1908, p. 61; Report for 1909, p. 59)
1913: Water Filtration/Chlorination -- Water filtration, combined with chlorination of drinking water supplies beginning in 1913, greatly reduces typhoid cases, and lessens the immediate need for sewage treatment. (See also note under 1906.)
1914: Sewage Disposal And Collection Report Published -- Report on the Collection and Treatment of the Sewage of the City of Philadelphia, a 188-page hardcover volume, was published and submitted to the State Department of Health for approval, as called for under the 1905 Clean Streams Law (see note above). The plan called for the expenditure of $5 million annually for the next five years for the construction of the necessary works. It outlined a series of collector/interceptor sewers that would keep waste out of City water streams and carry it to three sewage treatment works along the Delaware, for purification. The state approved the plan in 1915. (Click here to view excerpts from the report.)
1915-1916: Sewage Disposal Project -- Bureau of Surveys annual report recommends, among other appropriations, $1 million for the completion of the Frankford Creek system of collectors and the beginning of the Northeast Sewage Treatment Works. The following year, plans were approved and contracts were awarded for various portions of the Frankford Creek Collecting Sewer, including the Grit Chamber. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1918: Intercepting Sewer -- Surveys made for proposed Frankford Creek High Level Intercepting Sewer from Wingohocking Street and Adams Avenue to Richmond and Luzerne streets, and the Tacony Creek Intercepting Sewer from I and Ramona streets to the City line at Cheltenham Avenue.
1918-1928: Cheltenham Sewage -- Negotiations with the Commissioners of Cheltenham Township regarding the City's conveying and treatment of sewage from Cheltenham to the Northeast Sewage Treatment Works. This agreement was finalized in 1923, but not until the Tacony Creek interceptor was completed in 1928 (see below) was the hookup made. (See also note under 1888, which anticipated this agreement.)
1918: World War I/Effect on Public Works -- Owing to the war the nation practically concentrated all its efforts on production of goods for the use of the allied countries engaged in the effort to end this most terrible of all conflicts, so that a lasting peace might be obtained. To obtain this object the National Government placed such embargoes on all classes of building materials that it became almost impossible to secure them for any but war purposes. The war industries also absorbed the greater part of the man-power of the nation not actually engaged in the fighting. These conditions caused such a scarcity and increased the cost of both material and labor to such an extent that it became practically prohibitive to attempt to carry on any work of municipal development and improvement. The same influences also conspired to suspend most public works during World War II, 1941-45. (Source: Bureau of Surveys Annual Report for 1918, p.6)
1920: Wingohocking Flow Diverted -- Beginning May 1, flow of Wingohocking Creek diverted through Frankford Creek High Level Collector and discharged into Frankford Creek at Leiper Street. Due to this diversion, the Philadelphia Felt Company, operating a mill partly by water power from a dam in Frankford Creek near Powder Mill Lane, claimed a loss in water power, the damages from which the City estimated at $42,065. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1920-1928: Industrial Wastes/Intercepting Sewer -- State Department of Health approved a permit for an extension of the Bingham Street Main Sewer from Adams Avenue to Tacony Creek, as well as for the temporary discharge into Tacony Creek of industrial wastes from the factory of the Electric Storage Battery Company, but one of the conditions of this permit was that the Frankford Creek High Level Intercepting Sewer be expeditiously extended north from I and Ramona streets so the Bingham Street sewer could be connected with it. This did not happen until April 26, 1928, when the Bingham Street sewer, carrying waste from Electric Battery Co., among many other sources, was finally connected with Tacony Creek Intercepting Sewer for treatment at the Northeast Sewage Treatment Works. This is just one small example of the ramifications of not doing this work: the battery wastes can be multiplied many times, when one takes into account all the industries along the creek. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1922: Frankford El -- Opening of Frankford Elevated proves a boon to shops and stores in Frankford, and helps spur residential development in Northeast Philadelphia.
1923: Northeast Sewage Treatment Works
-- On October 29, the Northeast Sewage Treatment Works and Frankford
Grit Chamber placed in operation by Mayor J. Hampton Moore. The initial
flow to the plant consisted of 25 million gallons per day (mgd) from Wingohocking
Creek. It would be almost thirty years before the other two treatment plants
called for by the 1914 comprehensive plan are brought on line.
1925: State Pressures City to Finish Tacony Creek Interceptor -- The State Sanitary Water board issued a permit for the construction, but not the use of, proposed sewers in the Tacony Creek Watershed. It will be the policy of the Sanitary Water Board to withhold approval of the use of new sewers in the Tacony Creek Watershed until construction work is started on the Tacony Creek Intercepting Sewer. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1925: Industrial Wastes -- In its permit approving construction of the Tacony Creek Intercepting Sewer, the Sanitary Water Board also advised the City to cause a survey to be made of all industrial wastes now being admitted to the Public Sewers in order to determine which are harmful as aforesaid so that corrective measures may be adopted & also in order that proper means may be taken to prevent the admission of harmful industrial wastes to the public sewers from establishments thereafter erected or operated. Since most sewers simply entered into the City's rivers or streams, industrial waste--whether emptied into City sewers or dumped directly into streams--was an important source of pollution. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1928: Tacony Interceptor Completed; Wingohocking Obliterated -- The year 1928 saw the completion of the Tacony Creek Intercepting Sewer to the County Line, and the connection with the sewer system of Cheltenham Township. A meter has been installed for measuring the sewage entering the City of Philadelphia from Cheltenham Township, as provided for in the agreement entered into in 1923, by which the City of Philadelphia conveys and treats the sewage of Cheltenham township at the cost provided for in the agreement. The completion of this intercepting sewer made possible the diversion of sewage from Tacony Creek, which was formerly delivered from the sewer systems at Ashdale Street, Bingham Street and Champlost Avenue....The completion of the main Wingohocking sewer removed the last section of Wingohocking Creek, formerly a landmark in that section of Philadelphia, which was the main drainage channel from the heart of Germantown over to Frankford Creek. A report from the Bureau of Surveys in 1926 noted, with some pride, that once completed, the sewer will permit the filling in of the creek valley and provide ground for building development over many acres. (Source (unless noted otherwise): Bureau of Engineering and Surveys report, in First Annual Message of [Mayor] Harry A. Mackey...for the year ending December 31, 1928, page 152)
1932: Interceptors and Great Depression -- Minor work still needed to complete Frankford Intercepting System, but the continued slowdown due to the Great Depression put off that and most other public works projects. A letter from one disgruntled businessman to Mayor J. Hampton Moore in 1932 referred to the creek as the 'Frankford Sewage Canal." (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1935: Expenditures -- From 1915 to January 1, 1935, Sewage Disposal Project expenditures totaled nearly $24.5 million, far less than the $3 million a year the City had promised the state Health Department that it would allocate for the work. The expenditures included the cost of 57 miles of interceptor sewers. It was estimated at the time that completing the project for the entire city would cost an additional $39.8 million. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1937: Northeast Works At Capacity -- In a permit from the Department of Health for, among other work, intercepting chambers in the Upper and Lower Level Frankford Interceptors, one of the conditions placed upon completion of the work was the following: When the intercepting devices along Frankford Creek are completed they shall be placed in operation to such an extent that they will diminish pollution of Frankford Creek but not overload the exiting Northeast Works....The work of increasing the capacity of the Northeast Works shall be given priority status. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1937: Clean Streams Legislation -- June 22: State Legislature passed Public Law 394, to preserve the purity of the waters of the Commonwealth for the protection of public health, animal and aquatic life, and for industrial consumption and recreation.... (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1938: Interceptors -- Intercepting chambers built at 15 points along the Upper and Lower Frankford Creek Low Level Collectors. (1943 Chronology has list). It is unclear whether this completed the work of connecting sewers to these interceptors, and ended the sewage pollution of Frankford Creek. In any case, the industrial pollution of the creek continued with direct discharges from various factories. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1938-1942: Financing/Government Loan and grant applications -- Loan and grant applications were made by the City as follows: to Federal Emergency Administration in 1938, for $37.9 million to carry on the sewage disposal program, and to provide flood relief along the Wingohocking Sewer system; in 1941, to the U.S. Defense Public Works Administration, for $42.7 million grant for sewage treatment works, pumping stations, grit chambers, intercepting and collecting sewers, and the restoration of Frankford Creek; and in 1942, to the U.S. Public Works Reserve Administration for $57 million to complete sewage disposal and treatment system and restore Frankford Creek. All applications were denied, and the sewage disposal system remained unbuilt. (Source: 1943 Chronology)
1941: Sewage Pollution -- On October 17, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered an investigation investigate to determine if water and sewerage facilities in Philadelphia were a menace to the health of defense workers. On October 25, the Interstate Commission on the Delaware River (Incodel) petitioned the Sanitary Water Board to bring action against Philadelphia to stop its discharge of 350 million gallons a day discharge of raw sewage into the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers. Incodel declared the ending of Philadelphia sewage pollution is by far the most important project in the entire Delaware River Basin. (Source: 1943 Chronology and newspaper articles)
1940-45: Financing/Sewer rents -- The City, under pressure from the State, passes an ordinance to impose fees for sewer use, called a sewer rent, in order to generate income to back a bond issue of $42 million to complete the sewerage system. The State Supreme Court declared the rent illegal, and it did the same in 1941. The City's persistence finally paid off when an April 30, 1944 sewer rent ordinance was upheld by the State Supreme Court on October 30, 1945. This made it possible for the city to borrow $81.6 million more for public improvements than would have been the case if the sewer rents not been imposed, and allowed the sewage disposal project finally to be completed in the early 1950s. (Sources: 1943 Chronology and various newspaper articles)
The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers
Compiled by Adam Levine
Philadelphia Water Department
"The upper portion of the Wingohocking Valley. The lower portion has been sewered. A drive similar to Lincoln Drive has been planned to follow the windings of this stream, more or less paralleling the upper portion of Stenton Avenue. It needs no argument to show the advisability of securing such spots as shown in the above photograph for the use of the people forever. It makes its own appeal."
City Parks Association