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Trip Report Fall hiking in the largest urban park*: Philadelphia's Fairmount Park

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Today was a little piece of autumn heaven here, and it happened to be the day for our bi-annual park trip with all of the students in grades 7-12. We like to get them out for the incredible blend of nature and history, plus it does us all good to do a good few hours of walking once in a while.

The Fairmount Park system has 9,200 acres and consists of 63 parks in the city; the Wissahickon portion is about half of that, and it was there and along the River Drives that we concentrated today. (*It depends on who's counting and what you count for it to be the largest, hence the asterisk.)

Much of our exploration was in the Wissahickon Valley, named for a combination of the Lenape words for “catfish stream” and “yellowish water”. We saw the yellowish stone, too: the Wissahickon schist found only here that is used for many of the houses in the area.

Here is the picture link: http://travel.webshots.com/album/581750954zPwwbl

The first stop was the small but lovely Saylor Grove Stormwater Wetland, which treats the stormwater runoff in the natural wetlands process before it goes into the Monoshone Creek, a tributary of the Wissahickon which provides drinking water for Philadelphia. As the role of wetlands has become more appreciated, there have been attempts to recreate them, and this is one of those recreations.

Right across the street (now there's an urban skill!) is the cluster of buildings known as Rittenhouse Town, the site of the first paper mill in the New World. Here in 1702 William Rittenhouse started the mill, using flax grown in nearby Germantown to make paper which was then sold for the Bibles and newspapers of colonial America.

Our hike along the trail toward Mom RInker's Rock took us under the Walnut Lane Bridge; we couldn't see the Toleration Quaker statue on the rock due to the trees in the way, but it was a gorgeous walk for all that. You can ascend Mom Rinker's rock for an overlook view via a rather steep and precipitous path, but we left that for another day with a lot fewer people and more time, as we had more stops to make.

In the colonial era, what is now Fairmount Park was far removed from the city, and many wealthy Philadelphians built summer homes as a retreat here, often overlooking the Schuylkill River. We visited a few of them for photo ops and views of classic Georgian or Federalist architecture, both noted for attention to symmetry.

Woodford was the summer home of William Coleman, a friend of Benjamin Franklin. It was built in 1756. A later owner had all of the doors painted to look like (very expensive) mahogany wood. It's got an orchard, and inside there's a great antiques collection. Being a bit muddy from the hiking, we didn't go in, but did do a full circuit of the grounds.

Laurel Hill was built for a young widow, Rebecca Rawle, in 1764. She later married Samuel Shoemaker, who became mayor of Philadelphia just before the Revolution. The original house was just the center part, which is symmetrically Georgian; the other parts were added later. The Shoemakers were Loyalists and lost the property to the State legislature during the Revolution, but later regained it.

Mt. Pleasant also has Revolutionary ties. Originally built by sea captain/privateer John McPherson to show his ability to fit into Philadelphia’s society, it later became the property of Benedict Arnold, who had married Peggy Shippen, from a prominent Philadelphia family. Unfortunately, the Arnolds never took possession of the house, as a certain act of treason intervened. Mt. Pleasant is considered to be one of America’s great architectural gems. At one time it was a dairy, serving milk and ice cream to Philadelphia children.

We settled in for lunch along the Schuylkill; there's a great cafe there, at the end of Boathouse Row; the Azalea Garden and benches for eating our packed hoagies for those who didn't go to the cafe; and blue herons, Canadian geese, and various other fauna to keep things interesting while we ate. This was followed by the classic photo op for the senior class: the steps of the Art Museum. Yes, we did have a whole slew of kids running up the steps a la Rocky; no, I didn't. (Have done, but not with camera in hand and not whilst riding herd on teenagers.) The views of the city down the Parkway are wonderful.

Next we journeyed along Martin Luther King Jr. (formerly West River) Drive.
We stopped at the Civil War monument, the Smith Memorial, one of those elaborate wedding-cake styles which were so popular at the turn of the last century. It's right in front of the Memorial Hall left from the Centennial Exposition of 1876, a world’s fair to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The monument includes a statue of Richard Smith, who was never in the war…but who gave $500,000 for the memorial to be built. The “Whispering Benches” at the base have an odd acoustical quirk: if you sit at one end and whisper into the wall, a person at the opposite end can clearly hear what is said.

Back to school by 2:25; I think we may have had some kids who went home and took naps today!

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