Stonehouse Lane and the Neck
An essay from
Travels in Philadelphia
by Christopher Morley

Philadelphia: David McKay Company, Publishers, 1920.
NOTE: Searchable version of entire book online as of 12-14-2009 at this link)

Christoper Morley's Preface

These sketches were all written for the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, which has kindly given permission for their reissue. They were put down under necessary conditions of haste, and I fear that scrupulous and better informed lovers of the city may find much to censure. But they were not intended as a formal portrait, merely as snapshots of vivacious phases of the life of today. Philadelphia, most livable and lovable of large cities, makes a unique appeal to the meditative stroller. I am very grateful indeed to Mr. Frank H. Taylor for letting me include some of his delightful drawings, which preserve the outlines and graces of so many Philadelphia scenes.

PHILADELPHIA. December 29, 1919

The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers

Compiled by Adam Levine
Historical Consultant
Philadelphia Water Department
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Stonehouse Lane across the Swanson Canal ca. 1895
(Courtesy of City Archives of Philadelphia)

[PAGE 174]
It had been a very hot day. At seven o'clock the rich orange sunshine was still flooding straight down Chestnut street. The thought occurred to me that it would be a splendid evening to see the sunset over the level fens of The Neck, that curious canal-country of South Philadelphia which so few of us know.

You take the Fourth street car to Fifth and Ritner. The wide space of Mifflin Square is full of playing children. Here you halt to light a pipe. This is advisable, as you will see in a moment. A couple of blocks south brings you to one of the most noxious areas of dump heaps and waste litters in the world. An expanse of evil-smelling junk smokes with a thin haze of burning. Queer little wooden shacks, stables, pig-pens, sit comfortably in a desert of tin cans and sour rubbish. You will need your tobacco if you are squeamish. In the shadow of mountains of outcast scrap are tiny homes under dusty shade, where a patient old lady was sitting in a wheel-chair reading a book.

A winding track, inconceivably sordid, leads through fields of rank burdock, ashes, broken brick, rusty barrel hoops. Two ancient horses were grazing there, and there seemed a certain pathos in a white van I encountered at the crossing where Stonehouse lane goes over the freight [PAGE 175] tracks. The Brown Company, it said, Removers of Dead Animals.

But once across the railway you step into a new world, a country undreamed of by the uptown citizen. Green meadows lie under the pink sunset light. One-story white houses, very small, but with yards swept clean and neat whitewashed fences, stand under poplars and willows. It is almost an incredible experience to come upon that odd little village as one crosses a wooden bridge and sees boys fishing hopefully in a stagnant canal. At the bend in the lane is a trim white house with vivid flowers in the garden, beds patterned with whited shells, an old figurehead--or is it a cigarstore sign?--of a colored boy in a blue coat, freshly painted in the yard. It is like a country hamlet, full of dogs, hens, ducks and children. In the stable yards horses stand munching at the barn doors. Some of the little houses are painted red, brown and green. A girl in a faded blue pinafore comes up the road leading two white horses; a solitary cow trails along behind.

Like every country village, Stonehouse lane has its own grocery store, a fascinating little place where one can sit on the porch and drink a bottle of lemon soda. This tiny shop is stuffed with all manner of provisioning; it has one of the old-fashioned coffee grinders with two enormous flywheels. In the dusk, when the two oil lamps are lit and turned low on account of the heat, it shines with a fine tawny light that would speak to the eye [PAGE 176] of a painter. A lamplighter comes along kindling the gas burners, which twinkle down the long white lane. A rich essence of pig steeps in the air, but it is not unpalatable to one accustomed to the country. As one sits on the porch of the store friendly dogs nose about one, and the village children come with baskets to do the evening purchasing.

A map of the city gives one little help in exploring this odd region of The Neck. According to the map one might believe that it is all laid out and built up in rectilinear streets. As a matter of fact it is a spread of meadows, marshes and scummy canals, with winding lanes and paths stepping off among clumps of trees and quaint white cottages half hidden among rushes, lilies and honeysuckle matting. Off to the east rise the masts and wireless aerials of League Island. It is a strange land, with customs of its own, not to be discerned at sight. Like all small communities, sharply conscious of their own identity, it is proud and reserved. It is a native American settlement: the children are flaxen and sturdy, their skin gilded with that amazing richness and beauty of color that comes to small urchins who play all day long in the sun in scant garmenting.

Over another railway siding one passes into the fens proper, and away from the village of Stonehouse lane. (I wonder, by the way, what was the stone house which gave it the name? All the present cottages are plainly wood.) Now one is in a [PAGE 177] country almost Dutch in aspect. It is seamed with canals and was probably an island originally, for it is still spoken of as Greenwich Island. Along the canals are paths, white and dusty in the summer drought, very soft to walk upon. Great clumps of thick old willows stand up against the low horizon. The light grows less steep as the sun sinks in a powdery haze of rose and orange. In one of the canals, below a high embankment, half a dozen naked boys were bathing, attended by a joyous white dog. In that evening pinkness of light their bodies gleamed beautifully. Through masses of flowering sumac, past thick copses and masses of reeds, over broad fields of bird-song, narrow paths lead down to the river. In the warm savor of summer air it all seemed as deserted and refreshing as some Adirondack pasture. Then one stands at the top of a little sandy bank and sees the great bend of the Delaware. Opposite is the mouth of Timber Creek, Walt Whitman's favorite pleasure haunt. A little lower down is League Island.

One of the most fascinating dreams one could have is of all this broad fen-land as a great city playground. It is strange that Philadelphia has made so little use of the Delaware for purposes of public beauty. A landscape architect would go mad with joy if given the delightful task of planning The Neck as a park. It would take comparatively little effort to drain it properly and make it one of the noblest pleasure grounds in the [PAGE 178] world. Will this wonderful strip of river-bank be allowed to pass into slime and smoke as the lower Schuylkill has done?

The stream lap-laps against a narrow shelf of sandy beach, where there are a number of logs for comfortable sitting. A water rat ran quietly up the bank as I slid down it. A steamer passed up the river, her windows aflame with the last of the sunlight. Birds were merry in the scrub willows, and big dragon-flies flittering about. The light grew softer and grayer, while a concave moon swung high over the water. Motorboats chugged gently by, while a big dredge further upstream continued to clang and grind. By and by the river was empty. It had been a very hot day, and a great idea occurred to me. In the good old brownish water of the Delaware I had what my friend Mifflin McGill used to call a "surreptious" swim.


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