Lack of participants, spectators threatens future of historic Wissahickon Day Parade

Click-clacking their way through Forbidden Drive in Northwest Philadelphia, a caravan of nearly two dozen horses took part in the Wissahickon Day Parade on Sunday, many decorated with colorful saddles and garnished with props. Seven others pulled 1920s-replica carriages.

“We were surprised about how many horses came out to compete. You got a real sense of the community here, which you don’t often see, not on roads, at least,” said Susan Miller of Chestnut Hill.

But the future of the 92-year-old tradition — which gave Forbidden Drive its name and is hailed as the oldest annual equestrian parade in the United States — is now at risk of shutting down. 

“It used to be a great, big social event,” remarked Thomas Fitzpatrick of Flourtown, a longtime participant, who competed in the carriage competition of the parade. “I’m not sure if it’ll ever be the same like it was.”

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A changing dynamic 

He says when the parade peaked about 60 years ago, it was comprised of hundreds of horses and thousands of people packed along the Wissahickon parade route to watch the show.  This year’s parade brought out about 100 spectators and featured roughly 20 horses. 

“I remember in the 60s and 70s, and there were just hundreds of horses,” said Ruth Musko, who has been participating in the event for three decades. “Now there’s less people then there was a few years ago and the park is more populated with runners and bikers.”

While participant attendance has stagnated over the past few years, it remains so low that Fitzpatrick fears the parade may no longer be sustainable. And worse, he says, the loss of the tradition could also mean the loss of the park’s historical significance, which helped shape how people recreationally use the park today.

Celebrating a 1921 community protest 

In 1921, hundreds of equestrians rallied in the park during a ‘Save the Wissahickon” rally, protesting a proposal that would have allowed cars to drive along what was then called “Wissahickon Boulevard,” which sits parallel from the Wissahickon Creek in Fairmount Park. The protesters defeated the bill and city officials subsequently renamed the wide gravel road to “Forbidden Drive.” Today, it still remains closed to cars and is used by joggers, bicyclists and equestrians.

“[The Wissahickon parade is] the one time when everyone in the community gets together to just ride together,” said Colleen Murphy, who participated this year with her horse, Sunny Delight. “It’s beautiful to come down here, it’s a really nice ride.”

An unknown future 

Fairmount Park has three horse stations, but the once-robust equestrian community that made Forbidden Drive what it is today is losing its presence, said Jo Catanzaro, President of the Wissahickon Valley Riders and Driving Association, which organizes the parade.

“Equestrian [interest] is dwindling. The facilities are fewer, it’s expensive to own a horse, it’s time-consuming. People got away from owning horses,” she said.

Parade participants pay a $25 fee, so increasing participation would help balance the future budget sheets. But the lack of participation and prevalence of some crash riders who don’t pay an entrance fee is hurting the WVRDA’s efforts to keep the roughly $700 parade alive.

“We’re hoping we can make it to the 100th year, but we’re just not sure,” said Catanzaro. “In the next few years, we will possibly not have the money to continue. We would love 100 participants for the 100th anniversary, but we don’t even know if we’ll make it there.”

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