Life on the River (3)
Until just a few decades ago, Philadelphia life was life along the river, with the gentry building houses upriver from the port. They were surrounded by abundant fishing, hunting, and all the sports of horsemanship.
ll over Europe the scene is repeated: a market town and seaport at the mouth of a river, with many miles of old castles
overlooking the banks of the river in the hinterland. The seaports had to be protected against pirates, the hinterland against marauding brigands. But the flow of commerce was that the baronies upriver fed the seaport, and the seaports carried on trade with other river-organized economies. From time to time, someone like Julius Caesar
would try to unify the various river economies, usually unsuccessfully. In fact, the same pattern was seen along thePacific Coast of South America, until the Incas figured out how to go along the mountain ridge in the far interior, and then come down the rivers from the sparsely populated areas to the maritime settlements at the mouth of the river, whose defenses were planned for enemies from the sea. Philadelphia followed the standard commercial pattern, but without fortresses and castles.
Because of the vagaries King Charles II
, and underneath that, because of marshes and their
mosquito-borne diseases, the Delaware Bay was settled fairly late in colonial times -- and entirely Quaker. The Dutch were interested in trade rather than settlement, the Dutch were too few, their sovereign too indifferent, and William Penn took care of the Indians. So the English settlers had no one to fight except other Englishmen, once the French stab at Inca strategy was put down in 1753. After 1783, or perhaps 1812, the world left us alone. The Delaware Bay and River are essentially free of fortresses, Philadelphia has no castles. The peaceful sixty miles of upper Delaware Bay became lined with big farmhouses, or big Federalist and Victorian mansions. For a century, from the Revolutionary War
to the Civil War
, and even for a time after that, the history of this peaceful pond reads like a novel by Jane Austen.
As a playground for menfolk, it would be hard to improve on Victorian Delaware Bay. The river was full of fish, notably shad. In the fall, the migrating ducks and geese made for marvelous hunting. In the countryside behind the riverfront houses were all the sports having to do with horses; fox hunting, racing, horses shows. The kids could putter around in small sailboats, the adult sailors could sail a yacht to Europe if they wanted to. After John Fitch invented the Steamboat, it was possible to take a daily commute to the best male game of all -- trading, investing and gambling in the financial and commercial center of Philadelphia.
Marion Willis Rivinus and Katherine Hansell Biddle wrote a little book in 1973 called Lights Along the Delaware
which tells the river story from the female point of view. The woman of the house was sort of the mayor of a little city, organizing the staff, supervising the garden, educating the children, planning the household, and organizing the dinners and social events. Educated and trained to the role, she knew what to do and enjoyed doing it. Jane Austen wrote the handbook. And while the menfolk were essential members of the cast, women were the managing directors. The men were off with their horses, or sailboats, or fishing rods, or their faraway big-deal mergers and acquisitions. True, it was not a notably intellectual community, there were no Edith Whartons, Abigail Adams or Emily Dickinson. You might find some of that in Germantown, perhaps. The professions, law and medicine, lured the more studious members away from Society, but the international diplomatic circle was seen as appropriate goal for any truly graceful and accomplished graduates of this environment.
As the riverbank was gradually destroyed by railroads and expressways, only a few mansions like Andalusia remain in good repair.
Curiously, what endures best are the clubs. The fishing club variously called the Fish House, the Castle, the Colony in Schuylkill, or the Schuylkill Fishing Company of the State in Schuylkill, has moved as many times as the name has changed. Started in 1732, it is the oldest continuously existing men's club in the world. It moved to the Delaware River
from the Schuylkill when the Fairmount dam was built, and to its present location at Devon, the estate of William B. Chamberlain in 1937. New members do the cooking, cleaning and serving, older members tell stories. When the river pollution is finally controlled, they may go back to catching the fish as well as cooking them. There's the Philadelphia Gun Club, which before 1890 was the Holiday Shooting Club of Riverton NJ. And then there's the Gloucester (NJ) Fox Hunt, which during the Revolution turned into First Troop, City Cavalry and after escorting George Washington to the battles of Boston Harbor, has been an active fighting unit of the National Guard (most recently in Bosnia) as well as a devoted center of male horsemanship between wars. The Farmer's Club, the Agricultural Society, and the Horticultural Society all reflect the rural interests that once predominated just behind the riverfront estates, nevertheless still thriving after 150 years of suburbia, exurbia and urban revival.
Although the riverfront industrial slums which destroyed the American branch of Jane Austen's gracious living manner are themselves declining and seem about
to go away, it would take a real visionary to imagine how the Grand Life on the River will ever return. The banks of the Delaware are much lower than the bank of the Hudson, for example. They make a great place to put high-speed rail lines and even higher speed interstate highways. The patroons of Hyde Park, West Point and Poughkeepsie are much higher up a cliff, and can overlook the river without much noticing an occasional whoosh. The mansions along the Delaware have to look right at the tracks. Except for a few places like Bristol which have been isolated on the river side of the tracks and highway, it's not easy to see how you would get from here to there, or when.
Keywords: Riverbank life, Delaware River, Rivinus, Biddle, duck hunting, horsemanship,
Â© George Ross Fisher, M.D., 2004