Cobbs Creek/Darby Creek Watershed

Too late to ice fish, too early to trout fish, and no baseball on TV, so a car adventure would have to be sufficient to quench my outdoor cravings on this chilly and dreary mid-February day. The wife and I spent a good portion of the afternoon discovering the watershed of Cobbs Creek. We started at the southern end of the waterway at its confluence with Darby Creek. We followed the land north and up hill, next stopping at an interesting junction on Cobbs Creek Parkway. Finally, we found ourselves exploring where Cobbs Creek, and two branches of a tributary, enter the city along the northwest boundary of Philadelphia County.

John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, which contains Darby Creek before it empties into the Delaware River and thus terminates the Darby Creek/Cobbs Creek watershed, is a favorite local fishing spot of mine. I much prefer that southern stretch of Darby Creek in the summer, so we skipped it today.

We started at the confluence with Darby Creek today. I parked my car in a development at the extreme southwest end of the city and walked through snow and mud for about 1/3 of a mile before finding this location where the two creeks met.

 

Next we drove north and discovered a place called Blue Bell Inn at the corner of Cobbs Creek Pkwy and Woodland Ave. (Oddly enough, this inn is not in Blue Bell. There is a town outside of Philadelphia called Blue Bell, which also has a Blue Bell Inn, but its not this one.) Built in 1766 and successfully operated until 1909 when the City of Philadelphia purchased the property, the Inn is most famous for a Revolutionary War altercation in 1777 between a patrol of American soldiers and a large contingent of British troops.

I was very curious as to how this spot become the site of a mill originally, and later a junction for a stage coach path west. I wondered about the practicalities of it — how did they get men and supplies here? Was the environment different and thus the creek much deeper — and did they utilize shallow-draft boats to navigate here? Why this far inland when there was plenty of similar water and geography closer to the Delaware? Did they just hike up the stream until they found a spot they liked? Turns out they followed an Indian trail here: the Great Minquas Path. It was a matter of expedience: someone else had already done the work to make this a crossroads.

The Great Minquas Path is now presently approximated by Route 30 from Philadelphia to Lancaster. The trading route was a 17th-century path that ran through southeastern Pennsylvania from the Susquehanna River, near Conestoga, to the Schuylkill River, where the trail terminated with a trading post on the Delaware River. The 75+ mile east-west trail was the primary route for fur trading between the Lenni Lenape, of present day Philadelphia and surrounding regions, with the Minquas (or Susquehannock) people, centered along the Susquahanna River. Dutch, Swedish and English settlers fought one another for control of this trade route throughout the 1620s.

The Dutch called the trail “Beversreede” or “Beaver Road.”  Sometime after 1633, they built Fort Beversreede at the trail’s eastern end-point, the confluence of the Schuylkill River and the Delaware River. In 1644, a few years after a Swedish colony was founded in Delaware, Governor Johan Björnsson Printz built Fort Nya Vasa where the Great Minquas Path crossed Cobbs Creek. As I’ve found out from some reasearch, this location is approximately where the Blue Bell Inn is located. This fort represented a trade center and at times a military tension between members of the Susquahannock, the Lenni Lenappe, Dutch, Swede, English, and German traders and continued to be in dispute until the British gained control of the region with Penn’s land grant in 1682.

Most likely, aside from some frogs or eels, there’s probably not a whole lot of aquatic life from the county line, south to about where Darby Creek is joined. I’d say nearly 9/10 of Cobbs Creek is almost certainly not worth fishing. The water is, at most, a few inches deep in most places I observed today. I’m not totally ruling out some bluegills or an odd pumpkinseed in some random pool somewhere but I wouldn’t put much time into looking.

Yeah, the water is polluted and I’d very strongly suggest not eating anything you might catch in Darby Creek or Cobbs Creek. But in reality, its probably as clean as it has been in ceturies. At least no one is intentionally dumping human waste, coal dust, or miscellaneous chemicals en masse today. When examining the history if this area, it is pretty fascinating to see how this natural part of the landscape has been treated by succesive cultures/generations. Despite all of the ugly looking plastic bags, this waterway could be in much worse shape. Hopefully the trend towards respecting this natural resource will continue.

We followed the aptly named Cobbs Creek Parkway north, along Cobbs Creek and Cobbs Creek Park, and watched the stream ramble along the side of the road, marking the western border of Philadelphia. We stopped and checked out a sad, poorly maintained cemetary called Mt. Moriah Cemetary.

We made our way all the way to City Line Avenue (aka County Line Avenue, aka Route 1) and snapped some photos of where Cobbs Creek enters into the city. This creek actually marks its start several miles away in Chester County.

Nearby is a major tributary, known as Indian Creek, with two branches that also pass under Route 1 before entering the city and later joining Cobbs Creek within the city limits. This, the eastern branch of Indian Creek, makes its way into Philadelphia and immediately enters the 147-acre Morris Park.

A few hundred yards down the road from the eastern branch of Indian Creek, and we were in a neighborhood just a few blocks within Montgomery County. There we found the western branch of Indian Creek, before it disappeared under the suburban development and re-appeared on private property within in Philadelphia. Both branches meet up before joining Cobbs Creek.

 

Part of my interest in the watersheds of Philadelphia is the independence and the always/never changing relationship with man. Lenni Lenape, to Susquehannock, to Swedish, to Dutch, to English, to Pennsylvanian, to American — the land has changed ownership many times. Water power has given way to coal and oil and nuclear. Ethnic groups settle, advance, and are replaced. Lutherans, and Calvinists, and Quakers, and Methodists, and Catholics come and go. The lines and colors and maybe even slight contours on the map change. But water does what water wants to do in its own time with consideration for little, aside from its need to find the ocean.

A great percentage of tributaries to the Delaware have been turned into sewers, burried, and ignored. It seems nearly as many have become civil shrines known as parks. Whatever the case may be, the land and its inevitable slope towards the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean begin with a trickle somewhere beyond swamp, over hill, through field and marsh, in places we now call Montgomery County or Chester County, before passing through Philadelphia. Learn the history from the beginning, or as close to it as you can get. You’ll find, no doubt, this land has changed and this land has not changed. Very substantially. And not at all, it seems. If you can spare an afternoon, get in your car, take to your feet, or ride a bike — and witness it. 

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One Response to Cobbs Creek/Darby Creek Watershed

  1. Wayne says:

    Very nice, Ed. I enjoyed reading this. When I was a young teen (pre-driver’s license), I explored a number of smaller creeks in Hatfield and Hilltown townships in much the same manner. Lots of walking and wading, with occasional swims thrown in for good measure. As you say, most of them today have become sewers and/or storm drain paths. What a shame. I remember finding skinks and salamanders and big fat bullfrogs along them, but they’re all gone now.

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