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Schuylkill River Trail & Schuylkill Banks

Posted on Thursday, February 19, 2015

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A favorite Philadelphia treasure just got even better.

The History

The Schuylkill River Trail has been an ongoing project that been decades in the making and will eventually run 130 miles along the Schuylkill River once completed.  Today roughly 60 miles of the trail is complete, including 10 miles that run through the city of Philadelphia, most of which runs through historic Fairmount Park. The newest addition is the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, pictured below!
View from the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk From the South Street Bridge  - Photo Credit: Jonathan Bari
Building the trail has been an enormous undertaking, with each section of the trail presenting unique circumstances relating to the history of each area the trail runs through.  The first section of the trail to run through Philadelphia actually proved to be a relatively easy process due to the presence of Fairmount Park.  What would become Fairmount Park was first established in 1844 when the city of Philadelphia purchased the rural 43 acre Lemon Hill Estate.  With industry spreading all across Philadelphia there were concerns that industry could contaminate the Schuylkill River.  Lemon Hill Estate was located just up river from the Fairmount Water Works which provided drinking water to all Philadelphians at the time.  By turning this river front land into park land Philadelphia not only provided a beautiful resource to its citizens, but also insured that the land would not be used to build factories that could contaminate Philadelphia’s drinking water.
When the time came to begin constructing the Schuylkill River Trail, the existence of Fairmount Park provided a perfect space to build a trail right next to the Schuylkill River.  The trail traveled along the Schuylkill River as it entered Philadelphia and all the way south to Walnut Street in Center City.  At that point however there was a problem.  While the stretch of the Schuylkill River located north of the Fairmount Water Works had been preserved as parkland, the stretch of river located south of the waterworks was allowed to be developed.  Industries and factories set up all along the south Schuylkill River.  In 1867 the banks of the Schuylkill River were actually called “the best site in America for large manufactories.”  Many apparently agreed, numerous factories such as the Knickerbocker Ice & Coal Company, Tracy Worsted Mills, and John Baird’s Marble Works all set up operations along the Schuylkill River.
John Baird Marble Works ca. 1848
While those industries are long gone today, their existence established a very different environment along the Schuylkill River where they once stood.  Whereas north of the Fairmount Water Works, Fairmount Park created a buffer between the city and the river, south of the waterworks the city grid of Philadelphia often runs right up against the Schuylkill River.  This has presented a problem with continuing the Schuylkill River Trail as there is not enough physical room for a trail along the river.  To solve this problem Philadelphia just constructed a new section of the trail which consists of a 2,000 foot long boardwalk that carries the trail directly above the Schuylkill River. This new stretch of trail allows you to go as far south as South Street and lays the groundwork for continuing the trail even further south in the future.

What to See

There are many attractions that line the Schuylkill River Trail. For example, both the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Mutter Museum are located just off the trail. Those looking for a bite to eat while exploring the trail will find many nearby restaurants as the trail weaves next to Center City Philadelphia as well as the Water Works Restaurant and Lounge directly on the trail itself. The Water Works Restaurant and Lounge is located in a building that used to be a part of the actual Fairmount Water Works that once provided drinking water to Philadelphia.  Today the Water Works houses one of Philadelphia’s finest restaurants.  Although be warned, dining at the Water Works is not recommended for those who are enjoying the trail as a place to get in their exercise. (Business casual attire is required at the Water Works and guests cannot wear sneakers.)
Those looking to get in some exercise should know that the Schuylkill River Trail accommodates a lot more than just joggers and cyclists.  The trail runs adjacent to Boathouse Row in Philadelphia, a section of the Schuylkill that is well known for its many rowing events including the Dad Vail Regatta, the largest intercollegiate rowing event in the United States.  Also along the trail is Paine’s Park, a large skate park situated on the banks of the Schuylkill River.
View of Center City Skyline from Schuylkill River Trail
Aside from the many attractions, the trail itself is a beautiful sight.  Combining the beautiful views of nature along the river with excellent views of the Philadelphia skyline, the Schuylkill is truly unique way to see Philadelphia. This is especially true along the Schuylkill River Boardwalk, the newest addition to the trail.  Walking across the boardwalk directly above the Schuylkill River provides for some truly beautiful sights.  The newly constructed Schuylkill River Boardwalk accommodates both pedestrians and cyclists and also contains a number of areas where the path widens.  These areas allow you to have a seat on a bench and enjoy the tranquility of the Schuylkill River.

Insider Tips

While mostly used for exercise and recreation, the Schuylkill River Trail can also be utilized as legitimate piece of transportation infrastructure for cyclists.  For most of its length the Schuylkill River Trail runs entirely independent of motor vehicle traffic providing a safe space for cyclists to travel through Philadelphia.  Most interesting to tourists visiting Philadelphia is the fact that the Schuylkill River Trail will take you directly to Valley Forge, another popular destination for history tourists to Philadelphia. While the 20 mile trek to Valley Forge won’t be for everyone, for those who love cycling the trail provides a great alternative to driving.

How to Get There

The Schuylkill River Trail stretches along the Schuylkill River for miles, including much of the river’s path through Philadelphia. Therefore there are many different ways to access the trail at different locations.  For guests of The Constitutional Walking Tour, the most convenient access point will likely be the entrance just west of 23rd street on Market Street.  This access point is the shortest walk from the National Constitution Center, where all of our tours both begin and end. Guests can walk just one block south to Market Street, from there make a left onto Market St and walk all the way to the Schuylkill River, roughly 1.5 miles away.  The Market Street entrance to the Schuylkill River Trail is also convenient to those looking to take public transit as it is located just a block away from 30th Street Station, which has service from the Market-Frankford Subway Line, all Green Line Subway-Surface Lines, as well as regional rail.
Many of the roads that pass over the Schuylkill River and even a few that do not have access to the trail.  Other useful accesses points depending are where you are located are South Street, Walnut Street, and Race Street.  You can also access the trail from Fairmount Park next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Schuylkill River Park.


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