We’re called “East Falls” — but where are the waterfalls? Joseph Minardi explains our piscine origins, when the Schuylkill river roared with rapids (and delicious protein). In pre-Revolutionary days, a group of prominent Welshman from Philadelphia, some of whom were Quakers and close associates of William Penn, organized a society and a clubhouse that was the genesis of East Falls. They called themselves the Society of Fort St. David’s in honor of the patron saint of Wales.
Out of hemlock logs they erected a rough-hewn cabin as their headquarters in the wilderness. The primitive lodge sat at the foot of a hill, opposite a long rock that extended into the raging waters of the Schuylkill River, then teeming with rockfish, perch, catfish and shad. This long rock formed a natural dam and made it an ideal location for fishing, leading to some legendary fish tales.
Despite the crudeness of their summer pavilion and the rural setting, the Society of Fort St. David’s attracted a large and respectable number of associates from the upper echelons of Philadelphia’s aristocracy. The Society was militarily in its hierarchy and governing. There were governors, captains, lieutenants, etc., and, as its leader, there was a commander-in-chief who issued orders and proclamations. Even the name included the word Fort, implying that it was some sort of garrison or fortification.
The Schuylkill was formerly a more turbulent river than present-day. The waters of the stream rushed over the boulders and jagged rocks, producing cascades and rapids. The roaring of the waters were heard as far as five miles away. The earliest inhabitants of the area, the Lenni Lenape Indians, referred to this part of the river as Ganshewahanna, or “noisy waters.”
“Where Schuylkill o’er his rocky bed
Road like a bull in battle.”
At first, the fishing done by the Society of Fort St. David’s was more of a casual affair. They used to meet during fishing season, beginning with the first of May, and continuing every other Friday during the season. The original fortress-like house was torn down by Hessian soldiers, who used the wood to build their own huts during the bitter winter of 1777–1778.
After the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the members resolved to rebuild the fort. This second clubhouse was accidentally burned down some years later, and the society merged with another similar institution, the State in the Schuylkill. The newly unified club modeled its “castle” after Fort St. David’s in 1812 and became the Fishing Company of St. David.
East Falls was the greatest fishing spot to be found anywhere in Philadelphia County. There were frequently told stories of heroic catches so immense that they stretched the limits of credulity.
Historian John F. Watson, a man often given to stretching the truth, told of huge hauls back in the fishing heyday of East Falls. In his Annals of Philadelphia, first published in 1830, Watson told the age-old stories of Godfrey Shrunk, a well-known fisherman for the Fishing Company of St. David. Shrunk told of catching 3,000 fish a night using only a dip-net! Catfish were numerous too, with Shrunk cooking nearly 500 of the bewhiskered fish at a time.
According to another historian, Charles V. Hagner, there was nothing really extraordinary about these colossal catches, stating that a person could catch enough shad in fishing season, lasting only three months, to support his entire family for a whole year.
The catfish of those days were different from those found in the river nowadays. They supposedly migrated from the sea regularly on or about the 25th of May in numbers so immense that they blackened the narrow passages of the river. They were perfectly black on the back and white on the belly, and were remarkably fine eating.
They were caught in obscene amounts during their three-week run while others were put into holding ponds for the summer and autumn seasons.
These pools supplied the acclaimed hotels and roadhouses of Ridge Avenue and Wissahickon (now Lincoln) Drive, where patrons gobbled up the bottom feeding fish, washed down with a steaming cup of coffee.
The construction of the Fairmount Dam in 1821 put an end to the legendary days of far-fetched fishing. The dam caused the waters to rise upstream, submerging the boulders, which killed the fishing industry and silenced the “noisy waters” of the Lenape Indians.
The fisheries of East Falls are ancient history but the memory still remains. On the roof of the 1913 Falls of the Schuylkill Library is a steeple topped with a catfish, an acknowledgment of Fort St. David’s remarkable fishing history.
Joseph Minardi is a local photographer and author, specializing in historic architecture in Philadelphia. The third of his books features the East Falls neighborhood, as well as Manayunk and Roxborough. Joe is also the vice president of the University City Historical Society and editor-in-chief of their bi-monthly newsletter, On The West Side. Joe currently resides in the Girard Estate neighborhood on South Philadelphia.
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