Falling Waters: The Legacy of the Schuylkill Navigation
A Culture & Conversation Exhibit by Sandy Sorlien
About the Exhibit
No human endeavor has had a greater influence on the Schuylkill River than its 19th century network of dams. Yet residents of Southeastern Pennsylvania today may know little about the Schuylkill Navigation, as most of its infrastructure is gone. There were once 32 dams, 46 miles of slackwater pools, 62 miles of canals, and 120 locks.
Constructed from 1816-1828 to tame the wild river, the privately-owned system extended 108 miles from Fairmount to Port Carbon. Thus began a long period of human dominance of the river for our own purposes: transportation, commerce, power, and recreation. Anthracite coal, other raw materials, and finished goods were carried on barges over this system, literally fueling the Industrial Revolution in the Schuylkill Valley. It brought numerous factory boom towns like Norristown, Conshohocken, and Manayunk. Unfortunately, with this development came heavy pollution of Philadelphia’s drinking water source. Finally in 1947-51, our state and federal government accomplished a massive cleanup, the Schuylkill River Project, dredging coal silt from the river and largely restoring its flow.
Most of the infrastructure of the Schuylkill Navigation was demolished. But there are four remaining navigation dams, two desilting dams, two watered canals, one working lock, and numerous dam abutments, lock ruins, canal traces, and silt impoundment basins. Some remnants are buried or overgrown or blocked by railways. In 2013, photographer Sandy Sorlien began looking for them.
At the 200th anniversary of the Schuylkill Navigation, this exhibition represents the first three years of Sandy’s ongoing quest to photograph all 32 dam sites on her native river.
“Falling Waters” will be on display at the Fairmount Water Works from September 15 – December 31, 2016. (The gallery is occasionally used for private events. Calling ahead is suggested.)
About the Artist
Sandy Sorlien is a photographer, neighborhood planner, and watershed educator. Her photographs are in the collections of numerous institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Michener Museum, and Haverford College. Since 2012 Sandy has been a contractor at the Fairmount Water Works, the education arm of Philadelphia Water. She has developed several upriver dam-related programs, including the Falling Waters tour series and the Schuylkill Dam Series geocaches. She was born and raised in the Schuylkill River watershed and lives in Roxborough near the Manayunk Canal. Sandy rows out of Bachelors Barge Club on Boathouse Row, and watches carefully for herons, kingfishers, and otters – all biological indicators of a healthy river.
About Culture & Conversation
Using art as the platform, Culture & Conversation prompts meaningful, thought-provoking dialogue about our environment.