An exhibition and conversation series about our changing relationship with the river as it was, as it is, and as it could be


The River as it Was

An investigation of historical perspectives, building upon John Lewis' The Redemption of the Lower Schuykill (1924)

Fields of Knowledge
  • Artistic legacies
  • Design
  • Health / Sustainability
  • Memory
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions

Slought, City Parks Association

Contributing Institutions

Philadelphia Water Department, Penn Program in Environmental Humanities


Deenah Loeb, Aaron Levy, Alma Siualgi, Nick Yu

Process initiated


Opens to public



4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Along the Schuylkill River Pennsylvania


0% Formal - 100% Informal

Slought and City Parks Association are pleased to announce "The River as it Was," the first part of an exhibition and public programming series from May 19th through August 2015 investigating our changing relationships with the Schuylkill River. Building upon historical materials from City Parks Association, the Philadelphia Water Department, and other archives, we seek to recover acts of environmental stewardship and an incipient understanding of the importance of urban ecologies. In so doing, we also seek to explore the complex boundaries and relations among the river, its banks, and the city more generally.

The Schuylkill river's history parallels many urban rivers in this country, especially those considered within the country' 'rust belt.' In the 18th and 19th centuries, Philadelphia's two rivers were the region's lifeblood. They connected the area with the rest of the world for commerce and trade, provided food and well-documented inspiration. Over time, as the city expanded and new infrastructure built to accommodate the rapidly growing population, the river's ecologies were degraded. Philadelphia's riverfronts, as with so many urban centers, shifted from transporting goods to making goods. The riverbanks that were once accessible by foot were now populated by industries that limited access. New highways constructed right along the water's edge further separated the individual from the water. Individual access to the waters became more and more difficult, and, as it collected greater amounts of industrial and human waste, less appealing. Yet the river, even at its most lifeless or polluted, continued to flow, its waters reflecting the human experience over time.

In the 20th century, Philadelphia's Progressive movement was the first to draw attention to the Schuylkill's condition: the river, long home to the city's industry, was dangerously polluted. In 1924, City Parks Association published a volume entitled The Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill, that brought critical attention to the deteriorating health of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River. Through photographs and historic drawings, author and civic leader John Frederick Lewis sought to illustrate the severe impact to the river of growing industrial activity and the rapid construction of storm water and sewer infrastructure. Though built to accommodate the burgeoning urban population, this construction had in fact filled the river with pollution and "filth floating on the waters." Lewis' publication (featured in the exhibition and available for download on this site) was an important work at its time and continues to be a catalyst for important environmental activities undertaken by city agencies and non-profits alike to address issues of urban water quality and industrial waste.

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See the filth floating on the waters

Please join us for a public conversation at Slought on May 18, 2015 from 4:30-6:00pm, the first event in the public programming series associated with "The Redemption of the Lower Schuykill."

This event will feature a distinguished panel of curators, scholars and artists and will bring the story of the river's legacy into focus. The conversation will explore the ways in which artists such as Thomas Eakins and others developed a complex visual language of realism and romanticism to represent the Schuylkill River.

Conversants include:

Joel Fry, Curator, John Bartram Association

Elizabeth Milroy, The Zoë and Dean Pappas Curator of Education for Public Programs, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Michael Kolster, Photographer and Associate Professor, Bowdoin College

Etienne Benson, Assistant Professor, History & Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

"Have I overdrawn the picture or used too dirty a brush in painting its colors? I think not... Comparatively few Philadelphians ever see the lower Schuylkill, except form the window of a railroad train, as they are leaving or entering the City from the south...

Of the total area of the City--130 square miles--about forty per cent., drains directly into the Schuylkill... The water of the river for its entire length is grossly polluted... the putrefaction of the sewage matter deposited on the bed of the river causes an almost constant ebullition of gas, and that at low tide, when the sloping banks are exposed, they show the putrefying black mud of sewage origin... The Lower Schuykill has been made... unfit for human habitation, and undesirable even for industrial purposes."

-- John Lewis' The Redemption of the Lower Schuykill (1924)

Download the book