181 Sandy Sorlien



I bought the 3″ plastic Channel Catfish – actually twenty of them – along with several each of 3″ largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, pumpkinseed, bluegill, tiger muskellunge, and brook trout. They’re from the Replica Toy Fish Company (motto: “Nobody made them… Until we did”). I’m putting them in small Nalgene water bottles and, for the great GPS-based game of geocaching, hiding the bottles at various Schuylkill River dam sites. These are some of the fishes of the Schuylkill, which I grew up near in the 1960s, but didn’t appreciate.

Decades later at the age of fifty-five, I learned rowing at Bachelor’s Barge Club, and fell in love with the river. This led to a job at the Fairmount Water Works, Philadelphia’s renowned pumping station. Now it’s a National Historic Landmark and watershed education center. I design upriver tours around the remains of the 19th century Schuylkill Navigation System, whose dams, canals, and slackwater pools once tamed the river to bring coal down from the mountains. I also lead hikes in the Wissahickon, which means “Catfish Creek” in the Lenni Lenape Wisameckhan. When the steep valley was industrialized with mills, the roadhouses along the Wissahickon Turnpike served a popular local meal: catfish & waffles.

The Wissahickon flows into the Schuylkill just above one of Philadelphia’s three drinking water intakes, from where river water is pumped uphill to the reservoir at Queen Lane. Nearly 25% of the city’s taps are supplied from Queen Lane, including mine. Back in 1868, the Wissahickon Gorge was added to Fairmount Park to protect the city’s water supply. Most Wissahickon mills and dams were demolished by the 1920s, and a five-mile stretch of the Wissahickon Turnpike was closed to cars, becoming our beloved Forbidden Drive. Even so, the Schuylkill was horribly polluted by numerous factory towns like Manayunk, Conshohocken, and Bridgeport, and from tons of coal silt piling up behind the thirty-two dams of the Schuylkill Navigation. It wasn’t until 1947 that our state and federal governments teamed up to remove the dams and dredge out the silt. At the time, the river was a nasty black sludge; there were no fish at all. It’s been said of the Schuylkill: “Too thick to drink, and too thin to plow.” No wonder I didn’t spend much time around it as a child.

But the de-silting project helped, as did new regulations and sewage treatment plants. The river could clean itself again, and fish returned. Now in 2016, according to Leo Sheng of Extreme Philly Fishing, there are fifty-one species of fishes in the river, thirty-five just in our fifteen-mile Philadelphia portion. Our four remaining navigation dams all have fish ladders to help anadromous fishes swim upstream. The fish eaters have returned too: herons, cormorants, ospreys, eagles, humans.

I like the catfish because of its whiskers, and in East Falls I photographed the black metal cutout Channel Catfish sign, which has the whiskers (actually barbels). The sign overlooks the site of the natural Falls of the Schuylkill, completely inundated two hundred years ago by the Fairmount Dam’s slackwater pool, where now we row and paddle and host huge international regattas. The river carries many secrets and wonders, and I wish I had discovered it sooner in life.