By Michael Schreiber
The proposal to restore a portion of land at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church in Philadelphia to help attract wildlife is very timely. Its status as a National Historical Park and location within a big city can help make Gloria Dei a prominent example of ecological land management others can copy.
The new project has been dubbed “Sven’s Woods,” after Swedish settlers Sven Gunnarsson and his son Sven Swanson, who both lived there in the 17th century. The new wooded area would extend efforts at nearby Washington Avenue Green to transform former industrial properties along the Delaware River into parkland, restoring them with native plants and trees.
On the whole, habitat for wildlife continues to erode in the Philadelphia area as woods and farmland are bulldozed for housing, highways and shopping centers. Moreover, contemporary architectural practices — taller buildings, increased lighting of buildings and the current style of using large areas of plate glass — are responsible for the deaths of a great number of birds. An estimated 40,000 birds a year collide with buildings while migrating in the skies over Philadelphia.
Increased flooding is another consequence of the steady process of covering our landscape in concrete. This coincides with climate changes during the last half-century, in which average annual precipitation from heavy storms has increased 70 percent in the Northeastern U.S. Rising temperatures in the future will melt snow earlier in spring and dry the soil during the summer — intensifying flooding during the cold season, while bringing drought in the hotter months of the year.
Some agencies estimate that because of climate change, and the fact that the Delaware Valley is sinking, the river could rise as much as four feet by 2040, inundating large areas of Philadelphia. (The EPA, more conservatively, estimates “by the end of the century.” But of course, the amount and rapidity of sea level rise will depend on the degree to which people are able to mitigate the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.) Large areas of Philadelphia close to the waterfront — such as the Navy Yard and the airport — could be submerged, and even the area adjacent to Gloria Dei Church could encounter heavy flooding.
There is a corresponding threat that the rise in salinity of Delaware River water will endanger our drinking supply and destroy much of the tree life along the river. This underlines the importance of conserving green areas on the riverbanks, and of protecting the habitat of wildlife that will be under increasing stress.
On the Atlantic flyway
Although the proposed woodland at Gloria Dei would be fairly small in area, it lies strategically along the Atlantic flyway and at the juncture with a branch flyway from the upper Midwest. Nearby areas like the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge are a magnet for migrating waterfowl and songbirds.
Nevertheless, the number of birds has declined markedly from when the region was still mainly rural. Two centuries ago, for example, the passenger pigeon was the dominant bird species in the area; flocks sometimes contained over a million birds. Now the species is extinct.
During their semi-annual migration to and from South America, bobolinks (known as “reed birds” in this region) regularly stopped to feed in the marshes and meadows that existed just south of Gloria Dei. In fact, their numbers probably multiplied in the 18th century as the forests were cut down for farm fields — but now they are much rarer. Mechanical threshers kill legions of young bobolinks each year in the Pennsylvania hayfields.
Yet all is not bleak. The Audubon Society’s 2016 Mid-Winter Bird Census points out that Philadelphia, despite the fact that it is heavily developed, has one of the most diverse bird populations of any county in Pennsylvania. Although a few species are declining in numbers in the city, mainly due to habitat loss, the census still recorded 107 species of birds last year, including a few rare ones.
Enhancing the habitat at Gloria Dei can help feed and protect the birds and keep their numbers up.
Looking backward through the centuries
To begin to restore the land, it is useful to understand what it looked like before it was built upon. To do that, we must look far back — over 350 years ago, when Swedish and Finnish farmers began to settle the area. The Swedes called the area “Wicaco,” their abbreviated version of the name given to it by the Lenni Lenape people, who had lived in the region for thousands of years.
Since that era, at least two generations of buildings were constructed in the area of the Gloria Dei property being ecologically restored. In the 18th and early 19th century, a number of houses were built there. Later, most of the houses were replaced by industrial buildings. A lye works and a soap manufacturer operated there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. About 40 years ago, the remaining buildings were cleared by the National Park Service, and trees and grass were planted.
Of course, it is not possible to restore the area to its appearance in the 17th century. Too many radical changes have taken place in the interim — the creeks covered over, wetlands drained, and forests cut down. The shores of the river have been moved much further east, and the land covered with buildings and parking lots. Gloria Dei is now surrounded on three sides by heavily trafficked streets and highways — including the elevated I-95 expressway. Noise from trucks is a constant factor, and we might expect to find a significant amount of pollution in the soil and air.
Another example of modern landscape adaptations is the presence of a large ginko tree on the Gloria Dei grounds. The tree was probably planted with good intentions by the National Park Service, but ginkos are native to China, not Pennsylvania.
Nevertheless, it would be useful to try to recreate in the selection of plants a representation, a small glimpse, of what used to be. For a National Historical Park, education in history is obviously a key part of the mission. Identifying labels might indicate, for example, which plants were used by the Lenape people or early European colonists for food, medicines, basket weaving, etc.
A narrow ridge along the river
Gloria Dei Church was built towards the northern end of a low ridge paralleling the Delaware River, just south of the outlet of Wicaco Creek (the creek ran close to what is now Christian Street). The current church building, begun in 1698 and consecrated in 1700, is at the highest point of the ridge, sitting perhaps 15 feet above the high tide of the river. In his “Annals of Philadelphia in the Olden Times” (first published in 1830), John Fanning Watson said that the hill where the present church sits was lowered about eight feet from its original height, while the ground surrounding the hill was raised in height. He pointed out that the stone foundations of the church, which are now exposed on the Swanson Street side, used to be completely underground.
Nevertheless, most of the ridge probably remains fairly close to its original height, since graves in the churchyard that predate the church building remain buried. The oldest date that is still readily visible on tombstones close to the church is 1708, but the first burials probably took place on the property over three decades earlier. (A fortified wooden church was established there in 1677, and it is thought that Sven Gunnarsson, who died around 1680, was one of the first to be buried in the churchyard.)
The Wicaco ridge extended south almost half a mile to about where Wharton Street is today. At that point, the land dropped into a valley, through which a small creek ran into the Delaware (just south of what became Reed Street in 1829). Continuing along the river to the south, the land was relatively flat and open (this was called Wicacoa Meadows in the second half of the 18th century), and it became marshy further south in the vicinity of Hay Creek (also called Moyamensing Creek, around present- day Oregon Avenue).
In 1654, the Dutch governor granted the 1125-acre tract of Wicaco—all the land above Hay Creek, extending two and a half miles to the north— to Sven Gunnarsson and his sons, the “Swanson” family. That was one of the governor’s last acts, since the English conquered the Dutch at New Amsterdam during the same year, and the Delaware Valley was put under English rule.
What remains of Wicaco Creek now runs in a large sewer under Christian Street. In earlier times, the little creek and its valley afforded a relatively clear route through the forests for the Lenape people to travel from the west. And the Swedish settlers followed the same route to attend their church at Wicaco.
Families living near the small village and trading post at Kingsessing, on the west bank of the Schuylkill, or in the vicinity of the Lutheran parsonage (glebe house) on the east bank, took the paths that later became the Passyunk Road and the Moyamensing Road. They then met another path following Wicaco Creek, which they followed to the banks of the Delaware.
The historic creek valley was lower and steeper as it descended to the river than Christian Street is today. John Fanning Watson pointed out in his mid-19th-century “Annals of Philadelphia” that some older houses along Christian Street, just north of Gloria Dei, showed definite signs that the land around them had been raised. It could be seen, said Watson, that their current underground cellars were once used as ground-floor parlors, and people were now obliged to enter the houses through what used to be their second floors.
Watson indicates, from conversations with elderly residents of the district, that there once was a wide inlet where Wicaco Creek flowed into the Delaware — deep enough so boats could float in it. But that “fact,” based on people’s childhood memories, is difficult to verify. Maps of the 18th century show neither an inlet nor the creek itself — suggesting that the creek had been both shallow and narrow, and that whatever inlet might have existed was soon covered over by the Swanson Street causeway and wharves in the Delaware. However, a pond at Second and Queen Streets, which probably was linked to the creek, does appear on maps even at the end of the 18th century.
The valley of Wicaco Creek was connected to the small stream valley in the south (near Reed Street) by a gully or ravine, just to the west of Gloria Dei, where Water Street is now located. This ravine appears on maps even at the end of the 18th century (see John Hill’s 1796 map, for example). Watson, writing in the early 19th century, pointed out that the “remarkably low ground” to the west of Gloria Dei still existed and that it had a pebbly surface, suggesting that it once communicated with the Delaware River.
Thus, it appears that the land on which Gloria Dei sits might once have been a small island, surrounded by water. It is doubtful, however, that this condition still existed by the time the Swedish settlers, now under English governance, built their fortified church there. Yet the fact that the high ground at Wicaco not only commanded the river, but was surrounded on three sides by a gully, must have had distinct advantages for defense against invaders. In the next century, Benjamin Franklin and others built a battery on the ridge to protect the city of Philadelphia.
On the western side of the Water Street depression, the land rose again, with a hilltop around present-day Fifth and Federal Streets, where the mansion of the Wharton family, Walnut Grove, was built in the early 18th century. That hill was a continuation of a ridge that extended northeast, with its highest point at Society Hill (now Front and Lombard Streets).
According to J. Thomas Scharf’s and Thompson Wescott’s “History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884,” the city’s bluffs and ridges along the Delaware were formed partly by movement of glaciers. That does not seem correct to me, since the glaciers did not penetrate this far south in the Delaware Valley (stopping on a line more or less directly west of New York City). It was likely the action of the river itself, as it cut its way along the western edge of the sandy and gravelly soil of the Atlantic coastal plain, that was largely responsible for the series of parallel ridges characteristic of southeastern Philadelphia.
What trees were at Wicaco?
It is not unlikely that the Wicaco ridge was forested, since we know that deep forest covered the high ground just to the north, where William Penn purchased land from Sven Gunnarsson’s sons to build his city of Philadelphia. Early settlers reported that the land was covered by vast stands of tall and ancient trees — perhaps over a million trees just in the area within the boundaries of Penn’s city. There was a relatively small amount of younger undergrowth, permitting people to often walk unobstructed through the forest. Although diverse species of hardwood (deciduous) trees predominated, coniferous trees were also there in abundance. The Lenape name for the area was “Coaquannock,” the “place of pines” or “grove of tall pines,” which we might assume was a notable feature of at least one portion of what became Penn’s land.
Penn wrote: “The soil is good — air serene and sweet from the cedar, pine, and sassafras.” And Penn referred to other trees on the land: Black walnut, chestnut, poplar, gumwood, hickory, ash, beech, oak (white, black, and red), white and red mulberry, etc. Some of these trees gave their names to east-west streets in the new city.
Deeds for land to the south of the city, where meadow predominated, mentioned some of the same trees as landmarks. Thus, a 1684 patent that Penn gave to Lasse Andrews and other farmers maps out the boundaries by stating: “Begin at an oak by the side of Hollander’s Creek … SW to an oak by Hay Creek, NW to an ash by swampside parcel of meadow … poplar by Hay Creek … to oak by Rosemond Creek.” The same species of large trees probably appeared on Wicaco ridge.
The map of the Delaware River Valley produced by Swedish engineer Peter Lindstrom in 1654-1655 notes a place called “Wichqua Coing” in the Lenni Lenape language. Thomas Campanius Holm, in his “Description of the Province of New Sweden” (1642, translated 1834), uses a similar name, “Wiquakonich.” That is sometimes translated as being derived from “wikquek” (“head of creek”) and “kuwe” (“pine tree”), or “the grove of pine trees next to the head of a creek.” And many believe that Europeans shortened “Wiquakonich” into “Wicaco,” in a reference to the land around what is now Gloria Dei.
But this is merely speculation. For our purposes, it is not possible to definitely conclude from Lindstrom’s map or Camapanius’s manuscript that a specific grove of pines stood next to Wicaco Creek, although pines and other conifers, such as Atlantic white cedars, were numerous in the area.
The only definite reference I could find concerning the trees at Gloria Dei appeared in Watson’s “Annals.” Watson states from his conversations with people who could remember how the area appeared in the mid-18th century that “an old stand of large water-beech or buttonwood trees” stood near Sven Gunnarsson’s house and also by “the Swedes Church.” He said that one was still standing in his own time (around the 1830s).
Watson’s tree identification is confusing, however. Buttonwood trees are a popular name for sycamores, not water beeches. And water beeches are a species common in the American South, not in Pennsylvania. So were these ancient trees sycamores, water beeches, or perhaps a native species of beech tree? In another confusing example, Penn refers to “a wild myrtle of great fragrance” that he found in Philadelphia. However, no true myrtles are native to the Americas.
It will take quite a few more years until the new Sven’s Woods is planted, and many years after that until the trees are mature. Before any planting takes place, we can expect that arborists will carefully review what species of trees might be best for the area. They will naturally take into account the fact that this is no longer a pristine portion of “Penn’s Woods,” but a neighborhood within a large, noisy, and polluted city. Also, trees will have to be chosen to withstand the effects of climate change. And finally, the new woodland will have to be designed to encourage the visits of people — and their four-footed companions (on a leash, of course) — along with wild creatures such as birds, butterflies, chipmunks, salamanders, and bats.
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of QVNA Magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.