June is National Rivers Month, including our own Pennsylvania Rivers Month. I love rivers! Who wouldn’t? They’re a critical natural resource, an important part of our history and the life blood of who we are. Since humans inhabited this planet, we have migrated toward the water, especially rivers. Entire civilizations were created near rivers, and many of our world’s largest cities were built along them. Today, these same cities rely on them for drinking water, commerce, energy, food and recreation. Unfortunately, unless you make a living directly from a local river, you may be disconnected from these precious natural waterways. That’s part of the goal of this month long celebration. A time to discover (or rediscover) the significance, value, beauty and just pure fun, the role that rivers play in our daily lives, and just as important, how vital they are in our ecosystem.
Many of us cross rivers every day, to and from work or school, but only glance at them from above. But, in reality, they’re more than just something we drive over; they are life! What affects them, positive or negative, affects us. Their health and wealth, is our health and wealth. Their beauty is our beauty. Their sustainability is our sustainability! They connect us to our communities and different cultures, they link us to our past and hopefully our future, and of course, rivers connect people to the natural environment.
Pennsylvania is blessed with some of the most beautiful and historic rivers in the U.S., including the Ohio, Allegheny, Susquehanna, Delaware, Lehigh and in own backyard, the Schuylkill.
The name “Schuylkill” comes from early Dutch settlers and means “hidden river.” It starts (headwaters) in the coal region of Schuylkill County and continues southeast where it meets the Delaware River in Philadelphia, a total distance of about 135 miles. The Schuylkill River watershed drains portions of 11 counties and covers an area of approximately 1,900 square miles. The watershed is home to more than 3 million people and serves as a major source of drinking water.
For more than 200 years, the river and its adjacent valley has been a major transportation corridor. Along with the river, the Schuylkill Canal and the Reading and Pennsylvania Railroads all played important roles in the settlement of SE PA, and the industrial revolution. The river’s journey from Schuylkill County to Philadelphia is marked with some of the most famous pieces of our country’s past. From the anthracite coal regions of the north, to the steel mills dotted along its banks. From the rolling hills of Valley Forge National Historical Park where General George Washington and his Continental Army camped during the winter of 1777-1778, to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The course of the Schuylkill River is a living voyage through America’s history, and a key resource to our future.
Today, the Schuylkill River serves in many different ways than it did centuries ago. After decades of industrial pollution choked its waters, the “Schuylkill” has made a fantastic environmental comeback thanks to new laws, stronger regulations and the efforts of many people who live and work here every day! Now, residents and visitors alike can enjoy its meandering currents to fish for bass, canoe or kayak or simply enjoy catching a glimpse of a Great-blue Heron quietly wading in the shallows. In addition, many miles of the historic Pennsylvania Railroad have been converted to the Schuylkill River Trail, which hosts thousands of bikers, walkers, joggers, equestrians and cross-country skiers every year.
Like thousands of other rivers around the world, the Schuylkill is an important natural resource worth protecting. We have an obligation to continue to conserve it for the heritage of those of our past, to the many generations yet to come! June is Rivers Month in Pennsylvania, and a great time to get out and enjoy our treasured waters!
Rich Wood is Region Manager with the Montgomery County Division of Parks, Trails, and Historic Sites. He has a B.S. in Environmental Education/Interpretation from Penn State and enjoys all things outdoors.