Excerpts from
Jones Wister's Reminiscences

Philadelphia: Printed for private circulation by
J. B. Lippincott company


Jones Wister grew up in Germantown in the 19th century. In the following excerpts from his 1920 memoir, he recalls playing in the Wingohocking Creek, and records his memories of some of the mills and mill owners on that former stream/current sewer. He also records a story about a tragic skating party on the Schuylkill.

Thanks to
Jim Butler
of LaSalle University
for providing the copy of the book from which these transcriptions were made.

The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers

Compiled by Adam Levine
Historical Consultant
Philadelphia Water Department
HomeCreek to sewerDown underarchivesmapsAdam LevineLinks


[PAGE 81] Water, in all its forms is the delight of boys; for bathing, swimming, and skating, it gives unending pleasure, and in later years, when one is old and unable to enjoy actual sport, it is a source of beauty which feeds the eye and imagination. No landscape is complete without it in the foreground. But this is digression.

We boys grew up at a time when steam engines were almost unknown, and water wheels furnished power for small and large mills. The creek from the Vernon spring ran through fields and woods, forming the eastern branch of the Wingohocking, until it reached Edward Mehl's place, where it was dammed and the power used to supply his buckskin pelt mill.

Lower down the valley the overflow supplied John and James Armstrong's mill dam, and drove the wheel for their cotton or woolen mill. Further down, my father's dam furnished power for his bleaching works. Still lower down the valley, in Fisher's Hollow, Thomas R. Fisher's woolen mill, fed by a long race, was driven by its power.

The western branch of the Wingohocking rises just above Stenton Avenue. There Spencer Roberts dammed it and called the pond "Sharp's Dam." It was one-third of a mile long and one of our favorite swimming and skating resorts. Many an exciting game of "Prisoner's Base" was fought upon this ice.

The grist mill was a picturesque structure with its water wheel in full sight of Mill Street. If I am not mistaken, Charles Jones Wister, Jr., painted an excellent picture of this old mill. This Wingohocking branch meandered [PAGE 82] through our meadow and fed the cottage dam. The race ran upon higher ground and fed my father's "new" dam, as it was called. It also fed his calico print works. Below the Fisher woolen mill these much-overworked eastern and western branches of the Wingohocking united, forming a larger stream, and passing through Stenton (owned by the Logan family), emptied into Frankford Creek.

But the glory of the stream has departed; where we fished and swam and skated, sewers have been constructed to carry off what is now waste water. Germantown lost its individuality in 1849 when it became part of Philadelphia. Old Germantown is now only a memory. It may interest some to learn that the Indian chief, Wingohocking, held my great-great-grandfather, James Logan, in such high esteem that he changed his name to Logan, while my ancestor gave the Indian's name to the stream running through his meadows. The happiness of our boyhood days was greatly enhanced by these bodies of water scattered through the neighboring valleys. Musk-rats flourished near the water, and their burrowing made great rents in the banks of the races, to the annoyance and loss of the owners. These magnates offered prizes for muskrat tails. We boys got busy and constructed traps with which to capture them. Happy was the youth if he could sell the tail to one buyer and the pelt to another, for each brought the magnificent price of twenty-five cents, which, at that period of the currency question, bought more than can now be purchased for a dollar.

In those days a goodly number of catfish, suckers, and sunfish inhabited the ponds and races. We speared suckers when we were quick and they not too rapid in their movements, and wet feet and pantaloons were too often the result of this fun. Many a time have I hid in my father's drying room to warm up and dry my pantaloons [PAGE 83] before going home, for my dear mother was not partial to wet clothes and muddy boots. If our drying and cleaning up was not successful, and we could sneak in the back way without discovery, we were lucky; for if seen some mild form of punishment certainly awaited the naughty boy.

The mill ponds also furnished other pleasure than hunting muskrats or killing innocent frogs. When spring came the boy who braved the cold and took the first bath was a temporary hero. Before I was old enough to swim in the big dam I learned the art in the shallow races. As we advanced in years, Thorp's Dam was frequented in summer time, both by day and night, to bathe in and to cool off.

Bull frogs abounded in the many races, creeks and dams near our house. Many a mess of bull-frog legs we brought home-shot by us sportsmen-all nicely skinned and ready for cooking, which our kind-hearted mother would order cooked for our supper, and see that there was plenty of other food besides to satisfy our bottomless appetites.

I do not know whether all boys are as much given to bantering as our crowd. My uncle, Thomas R. Fisher, employed a German boy, named Simon Ash, who loved to do stunts as an example for us boys to follow. He would cross any creek or race, no matter how cold or deep the water, and would aver that unless he got wet at least once a week his health suffered. One day he tried it to his sorrow, hoping that our party would follow. A bitter cold winter morning, with all his clothes on, he dashed into the water as though in mid-summer, but this time, for a wonder, we showed better sense and Ellicott and Harvey Fisher, Frank and I stood and laughed at him as he came out, soaking wet, with teeth chattering.

It was our delight to cast nets, and sweep the waters. To drag them we were obliged to strip to the skin and [PAGE 84] wade upon fearfully muddy bottoms. This usually yielded fair results, and we victoriously carried home our spoils.

Never will I forget the advent of a dugout canoe, extremely unseaworthy, about 14 feet long, upon Thorp's Dam. It was an event in our lives when we learned that it was for sale and could be bought for $1. We called a meeting: four of us contributed twenty-five cents each, and became proud owners of the craft. Every Saturday found us boating. The two first on the spot took possession of the boat, and pushed out into deep water. Although carrying only two safely, which we all knew, the other two owners would run along the banks and beg to be taken on board. We were always too generous; a third boy would promise strictly that there would be no rocking, but generally managed to wreck the canoe, and all three then struggled in the water and swam, pushing the dugout before us to the shore.

The dam owners gave us permission to keep our boat under the outlet planks of the pond. These were a convenient height above the water for sitting upon. With our feet in the canoe, we rocked it to our hearts' content. Sam Betton, though younger than the rest of us, was apt to be one of our party. He was leisurely rocking the boat one afternoon, when from accident or design, I never knew which, Sam's feet rocked into the water instead of into the boat. His whole person went under, while his hat floated above him. The water there was deep, he could not swim, we realized the danger. As it happened, I was the first to reach him and pulled him out, thoroughly wet and frightened, but none the worse for his ducking. Sam's mother, however, gave me credit for saving Sam's life, and embarrassed me more than once by grateful thanks.
Mrs. Betton was Lizzie Logan before she married Doctor Samuel Forrest Betton, She was a beautiful woman [PAGE 85] and second cousin to my mother. It was the custom of our young men who went to school in Philadelphia to sit together on the train. One afternoon while returning from school and sitting with a dozen boys or more, this beautiful woman walked into the car, singled me out, bent over, and gave me a loving kiss with some endearing words. I had not reached the age when kissing was a pleasure, so my mortification was complete. Had I been at her house, or at my own, with no teasing companions, this kiss of love would not only have been agreeable, but most welcome. But before a dozen boys, some of whom no doubt envied my ordeal, I would rather have had a whipping. There is no end to the things a boy wants, but a kiss from a well-dressed, beautiful woman, in a crowded car, is decidedly one of the things he does not want.

We boys were not good boys, such as the makers of Sunday school books delight in, nor were we bad enough to tie up a cat and skin it while alive, or roast a poor dog to death. We lived on a farm in a happy home. My father taught us to think about everything when we did it; in school to think only of our lessons and recite them well, after school to think of our games and try to excel in them. He also taught us to be polite to everybody; that there are two kinds of people in this world, the polite and the gruff. No one wants to do a favor for a rough-spoken man, but almost every one can be won by a kind word and a smile. My father would tell us that education was the greatest asset of a man. He might own a gold watch, be rich in money and houses, own many farms, be a politician, but he could not be great without education, for knowledge is the power that secures these and all other advantages. He wanted us to have all the fun possible on holidays, but to do our duty and study hard our five school days of each week.


[PAGE 93] When winter covered the water with hard, green ice, we flocked to the dams to skate. Thorp's was the largest and our favorite darn. Every Saturday, weather favorable, thirty to fifty boys were found skimming' over the smooth surface. Our favorite amusements were "Shinny" and "Prisoner's Base." Leaders were selected for each side, and battles waged fast and furious until lunch hour. Later, after a hurried meal, we again gathered upon the ice to renew our contest until, tired out, we went slowly home, hungry for supper and sleepy for bed.

When ice was thin we indulged in "Tickly Benders," which generally ended by our daring each other to cross the most dangerous spot. One afternoon the wind blew furiously from the north after an unusually warm day in winter. A crowd of us went to Kelly's Dam for skating. Kelly's Dam did not cover as much ground as some of the others, but it made up in depth for what it lacked in size, for in the centre it was forty feet deep.

The ice was thin, the heat of the day before had made it rotten. About twenty boys were congregated there. Bantering and " you dare not do it," were too much for me, and I recklessly ventured out. I had not gone ten feet from the shore over deep water, when catastrophe came and the ice gave way. The more I tried to raise myself on it, the more it broke around me, until I was numb and tired, and had it not been for my cousin, Ellicott Fisher, always true and loyal, who remained with me, I might not now be relating the incident. All the boys [PAGE 94] who had dared me, when they saw me fall in, afraid of consequences, ran away. Ellicott alone was cool-headed, had presence of mind, and knew what would happen if I disregarded his advice and was foolhardy enough to risk my life. He had quietly secured my shinny and venturing as near as possible over the uncertain ice, shoved it out to me.

I was nearly at the end of my strength, my heavy winter clothes were saturated, and prevented free use of my limbs; then, too, my shoes had filled with water and this, added to the weight of my skates, made my feet feel like lead. I was glad to see the shinny and tried to grasp it, but always the treacherous ice broke away, and I fell back into the freezing water.

However, after repeated desperate efforts which resulted in breaking away the thinnest ice and leaving an edge safer and stronger and better able to bear me, I managed to grasp the slippery shinny with what was almost a drowning clutch, and was pulled to where I could help myself out. For a while I lay there exhausted, but Ellicott's thoughtful kindness forced me to get up and run home with his help. This was not easy, for I was very tired.

My clothes were stiffening on me, and I was numb with cold. The incident was too serious to be kept quiet, and with teeth chattering, I told my mother, who, strange to say, did not scold or punish me, but, wet as I was, hugged and kissed me and seemed very thankful to have me safe at home. She stood me in front of the glowing fire, while she stripped off my wet clothes and put on a woolen gown; then made me drink a bowl of hot milk, and tucked me into a warm bed. Next morning I was none the worse for the accident.

[PAGE 95]
Ellicott was praised and thanked for saving my life. He became quite a hero, but thought more of the cakes my mother allowed him to stuff in his pockets than of all the thanks.


FOUR of us were ambitious to go to the great Delaware River to fish. We had been taken there in installments by our father, but had never ventured alone. We took the wagon and drove to where we knew we could hire a boat. Before we realized just what we were doing, we found ourselves floating in the middle of the mile-wide river, borne along by a swiftly flowing tide. We were not afraid; our efforts on the Wissahickon had made us at home in a boat, and though the oldest of us was but fifteen, we felt like men.

We were returning with ten or twelve dozen fish when the wind changed, gently at first, but soon white caps decorated every wave. We almost lost heart. Water was breaking over the side and we were very wet. As we drifted along we seemed to have lost control of the boat. Long afterwards we acknowledged to each other that we were afraid. However, we rowed with all our might, kept our fears to ourselves, and in half an hour landed at the wharf as happy and thankful a crew as ever set foot on dry land after a perilous sea voyage.


OUR Hallowe'en parties were events to be remembered, and great were preparations therefor. It took early rising to be the first at a chestnut tree, and a strong arm to throw a club and bring down a shower from the first [PAGE 96] opened burs, and sharp eyes were required to find the chestnuts under the brown leaves.

Roasting chestnuts and popping corn and plenty of cake and big apples for us and our friends were pleasures presided over by our good mother.

ONE day while crossing a huge grass field, not a likely place to find treasure, I spied something glistening, and picking it up, discovered a gold pin set with rubies. It was very valuable. My father advertised it and told me " That no gentleman would accept a reward"; consequently, when the owner appeared, I politely but firmly refused compensation, thereby acquiring merit in the eyes of my father, and felt very proud of myself.


[PAGE 103] We had now become too old to be satisfied with mill ponds on which to show our fancy skating. All the Wister men were good skaters. The two William Wynne Wisters, Senior and Junior, were among the best; young Bill was extremely graceful upon the ice, as he slowly rolled his backward "High Dutch." Charles J. Wister was skilful, while I could do more figures, but not with the ease and grace of Bill Wynne, Jr. Bill, Jr., despised "Shinny" and "Prisoner's Base," while I excelled in strong and wild skating.

In the years gone by the winters were far colder than at present. Skating was a popular amusement. All the men and boys skated, and many girls were expert fancy skaters. The ice on the Schuylkill was a favorite objective point, as it froze over solid, and the ice was good for miles above Philadelphia.

John Thayer and I often went together on Saturdays, our only day off duty at school. I was a boy of sixteen and he about the same age. He was the hero of Belfield sledding incident related a few pages further on, and was afterward the father of John Thayer, Jr., drowned on the Titanic. We both belonged to the Philadelphia Skating Club and carried reels, as each member was required to be ready for rescue in case of accident.

It was customary for young men to make up skating parties and invite girls to accompany them. Those who could not skate well, were pushed on chairs, fitted with runners, by their escorts. Thayer and I each wore one of [PAGE 104] the pretty little silver skate pins, badge of the club, when we went out with our reels.

Mr. Samuel Earl Shinn, in partnership with Thomas H. Montgomery, was in the drug business at the southwest corner of Broad and Spruce Streets. He was engaged to be married to Miss Eliza Russell, who, with her sister, was visiting a friend, Mrs. Smith, on Broad Street. The engagement was not generally known, but they had agreed to have it made public during her visit to our city.

Wishing to show the sisters some attention, Mr. Shinn arranged with Mr. Nalis, connected with the stone quarry business, to invite the Misses Russell to go on a skating party the first favorable day, and fixed on Saturday, February 3, 1855, for their frolic. The day proved auspiciously clear and brilliantly cold. The ice seemed in perfect condition. They left Mrs. Smith's at a little after ten in the morning, intending to return by one o'clock in time for lunch.

Mr. Shinn had secured one of the sled chairs and skated while pushing his fiancée over the ice. Her sister and Mr. Nalis skated together nearby. All were in fine spirits and enjoyed the bracing air. Suddenly a cry arose for " Help, help! " Thayer and I were near and were among the first to witness the accident. On west bank of the river, opposite " Sweet Briar Mansion," residence of Mr. William S. Torr, a coating of thin ice had joined over a hole from which blocks of ice had been cut, and dust had been blown over this, effectively concealing the dangerous spot, hence the error and fatal catastrophe.

Mr. Shinn's party were going at a rapid rate; he was an excellent skater and a man of great strength and presence of mind, though on this occasion, while gayly chatting [PAGE 105] with his charge, he must have been blind to the absence of skate marks on the ice. The impetus of the chair carried him, with Miss Russell, through the thin ice into the water. Both soon rose to the surface. He could easily have saved himself, but was too honorable to desert his helpless companion. It was thought that she must, in falling, have struck her head against the ice. She seemed to be in a fainting condition and a dead weight in his arms. Both were clad in heavy winter clothes; he swam and held her up for several minutes in the freezing water. Many reels were thrown to him, mine among the rest. When we ventured near in vain effort at assistance, the surrounding ice broke beneath our weight. A spring rising near the hole made the water warm and the ice thin.

Miss Russell's sister was frantic and called us all to help. Mr. John A. Neff, making strenuous efforts at rescue, slipped into the hole, where for a while his life was in jeopardy, but was finally saved by means of a reel. Meanwhile, Shinn and Miss Russell had gone under a second time. The former came up again, but alone. With a drowning hand, he grasped at the reel thrown by John Thayer, and was, by heroic efforts, hauled upon solid ice. There he lay exhausted, and unconscious. When he recovered sufficiently to realize that his fiancée had been swept by the current down the river and was drowned under the ice, in despair, and before any of us guessed his intention or could stop him, he rolled back into the river and was drowned.

The bodies were recovered within an hour. Miss Russell was picked up, floating face downwards, and carried to Mr. Torr's house, where every effort was made to resuscitate her, but life was extinct. Mr. Shinn's body was picked from the bottom of the river by a boathook [PAGE 106] about fifteen feet from the west bank, and also carried to Sweet Briar farm. Mr. Torr and his family showed every kindness and attention to the bereaved sister, who was almost crazed by the terrible tragedy. The bodies were taken to their respective homes-that of the lady to her hostess, Mrs. Smith's house, and Mr. Shinn to his father's, Mr. Earl J. Shinn, 136 Pine Street.

Mr. Samuel E. Shinn enjoyed an unsullied character, and was remarkably unselfish, cordial and warm-hearted as a friend, conscientious and upright in his dealings, and all that could be desired as a son and brother.

I have seen many break through the ice, and assisted at their rescue, but this was the first fatal drowning accident I had ever the misfortune to witness.

This tragedy destroyed all pleasure for the day, and with one accord we all seemed to agree that our sport for the day was over, and sadly went home.

All this happened nearly sixty-three years ago, when Philadelphia was younger, and not well prepared for emergencies. Now we have a park and park guards. Air holes on the ice are marked with red flags. In case of a drowning accident such as this, guards would rush a boat over the ice to rescue, or push a ladder to those immersed.

This was the cold winter of 1855, when an ox was roasted on the Delaware River ice, and when a sleighing party, driven by a drunken driver, fell into an air hole on the Delaware, while hundreds of people skating could see the victims floating down the strong current of the river under the ice. A more harrowing, hopeless situation cannot be imagined. To see people swept along to certain death, and yet be powerless to render assistance!


[PAGE 111]
A most worthy English gentleman, named James Thorp, lived near Belfield. He was a close friend of my father's. He and his brother Isichar built Thorp's Dam across the Wingohocking for power to drive their mill for printing cloths. The factory did not pay and when they failed in business my father invited James to come and live with us until he could adjust his affairs. Isichar, I believe, returned to England. Two lanes in Germantown are named for them, Thorp, leading from Wister Street to York Road, and the other at the lower end of Germantown. Mr. Thorp had been a cavalryman in the British army, and thoroughly understood the use, as well as the abuse, of firearms. He drilled us in the art of carrying a gun, so that there could be no danger to the user of the weapon, or to those around him, provided he carried out Mr. Thorp's instructions. He loved to tell us of a hunting club which existed in Germantown in his younger days, before I was born. Partridges, quail, and snipe abounded, and its members hunted every week. I have [PAGE 112] no doubt that this was one of the clubs to which my grandfather belonged in his youth.
The Chancellor brothers, William (or Uncle Billy, as we called him) and Henry Chancellor, Mr. Thompson, and my uncles John and Charles, owned their hunting dogs and enjoyed the sport. One stringent rule of the club Mr. Thorp delighted to instill into us, was that if the muzzle of the gun of any member was inadvertently, or otherwise, pointed at another member, he forfeited a bottle of wine for the first offense. For the second offense he lost his membership, as it was considered culpable carelessness and placed the lives of his fellow-members in jeopardy.

He told us a funny story of a member, shooting at a covey of partridges, who was astonished by hearing a yell and the sudden appearance of a burly negro who had been in the bushes and been hit by the pellets of shot. He swore vengeance at the gunman, but was quieted by a present of fifty cents, which he thankfully pocketed, being more frightened than hurt, and promptly offered to be shot again for a similar amount.

Mr. Thorp was fond of reading the news, and as Philadelphia papers were only for sale at the old General Wayne Hotel, corner of Germantown Avenue and Main Street, then known as Cox's Tavern, we boys would take turns in walking there and buying a newspaper for him.

When Mr. Thorp left us he went to the home of a nephew at Green Bay, Michigan, but before going he presented my father with a gold-lined silver cup, won in a race in England by his horse "Bobbin Winder." He was always gentle and obliging and never out of humor. We all loved him, but, alas, never saw the dear old gentleman again....



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