Schuylkill Banks eyes train bridge-trail connection, resumes riverboat tours

A silvery metal pier newly jutting into the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia’s Forgotten Bottom neighborhood offers open views of the water and the University Ave./34th St. Bridge. Glimpses of the Woodlands Cemetery and Mansion can be seen behind trees across the water.

In its past life, the pier was owned by Dupont Marshall Labs. This is the spot where river water was pumped through still-visible pipes in case of a fire. The pier has been revitalized as one of the latest addition to the Grey’s Ferry Crescent segment of the Schuylkill Banks Trail.

“The Fishing Pier,” Schuylkill River Development Corporation President Joe Syrnick calls it on a recent visit. Indeed, that’s what a lot of its visitors do there.

A bend in the curvaceous Schuylkill hides a tract of land on the opposite bank where design is underway for the Bartram’s Mile trail segment. Construction will begin in 2014 or 2015, said SRDC Director of Marketing Danielle Gray, and the segment will open in 2015 or 2016.

Bartram’s Mile will connect walkers, joggers and bicyclists to the plants and open space and historic buildings of Bartram’s Gardens.

But first, the SRDC has to secure a way to get trail users from the east side of the river – where Grays Ferry Crescent lies – to the west side – the home of Bartram’s Gardens and the in-the-works Bartram’s mile.

The plan: Reusing an old freight train bridge, just south of Grays Ferry Avenue.

While rusty, the bridge is structurally sound, Syrnick said. A swing bridge that once closed for freight trains but swung open for tall watercraft, it has been in the open position for decades.

But SRDC hasn’t yet reached a deal that would allow the bridge to be incorporated into the trail. Syrnick isn’t worried about acquiring the swing bridge – talks with the railroad that owns it have been great.  He’s worried about how far above the water the re-purposed span would rest.

Under the trail plan, the old swing bridge would be closed permanently. At its current height, the span would cross 22 feet above the water. SRDC proposes making the supports higher, so that it is 35 feet high – about the same height as the South Street Bridge.

Some industrial users of the river have concerns that height could interfere with some barge traffic, however. SRDC has hired a consultant to negotiate with river-users.

The higher the bridge is, the more expensive that part of the trail would be, Syrnick said. But he is also concerned about the aesthetics and the experience trail users would have if they had to use long ramps to get to the higher height.

When asked if trail users couldn’t cross on the nearby Grays Ferry Avenue bridge, Syrnick, who was once the city’s chief engineer, said that bridge carries a lot of traffic, including trucks. Giving those in motor vehicles and those on foot or bicycles separate crossings is “better for motorists and for recreational users,” he said.

Syrnick also likes re-using part of the city’s industrial past that otherwise could wind up as scrap metal. “It’s a critical, critical link,” he said of this piece of trail. Without it, Bartram’s Mile will be isolated.

This project is projected to cost about $8 million, depending on the bridge height. The SRDC has the $400,000 for planning, acquired through a grant. They’ve begun raising money for construction, Gray said.

Under the Schuylkill Banks trail plan, recreational users will one day be able to travel along the river from Fairmount Park to the confluence with the Delaware River. That day is probably 20 years off, Syrnick said.

Currently, users can travel from Kelly Drive, past the Art Museum to Locust Street. The Grays Ferry Crescent and Bartram’s Garden segments are also complete, but as indicated earlier, are not connected.

But SRDC is now finishing work on the last of seven priority projects outlined in its 2003 master plan: A boardwalk and ramp that would extend the trail to South Street. These $17 million projects are expected to be finished in late summer 2014.

Design work is also underway on a segment that would stretch to Christian Street.

In addition to these capital projects, the SRDC hosts events near and on the river. After a one-year hiatus caused by a disagreement with the former operator, the SRDC’s riverboat tours program is back.  Learn more about the tours and other events and projects at the Schuylkill Banks website, here.

The “Boat to Bartram’s Garden Tour” starts on Mother’s Day. It includes one hour of on-the-river transit time and a two-hour tour of Bartram’s Gardens. Some seats are still available, Gray said, and the SRDC is pondering adding a fourth tour. Boaters board The Schuylkill Perch at the Walnut Street Dock, beneath Walnut Street.

The regular riverboat tour season begins May 30. In addition to the Bartram’s Garden option, there’s a one hour “Secrets of the Schuylkill” tour, which also boards at the Walnut Street Dock. From Walnut Street, The Perch heads north to Fairmount, and then down river to Bartram’s before heading back to dock.

On either tour, travelers learn about river sites and history – and SRDC’s trail.

Syrnick notes that many of the old mansions and homes near the Schuylkill, including the Bartram house, were built with their fronts facing the river.

“Today, everyone visits by car, but (centuries ago), visitors came by boat,” he said. Boat tour takers will re-live that experience, he said.

Back at the Grays Crescent Fishing Pier, a low-slung, rectangular building clings to the riverbank.

That building was once a hotel where Philadelphia Eagles stayed during home games, Syrnick said. To learn more about the unusual structure, and waive to current residents, take a boat tour, he suggests.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal