When I was going through my father’s things, I found a book titled Travels in Philadelphia written by Christopher Morley, bound in red leather and held together with duct tape. There was a folded piece of paper inside marking an article entitled “Up to Valley Green.” My wife and I have always loved this part of Fairmount Park and we go there as often as we can. It is wonderful to see how little it has changed in the 90 years that have elapsed since Morley wrote these words:
UP TO VALLEY GREEN
MADRIGAL had a bad cold, and I was trumpeting with hay fever; and we set off for consolation in a tramp along the Wissahickon. In the drowsy stillness of a late August afternoon, with a foreboding of autumn chill already in the air, we sneezed and coughed our way along the lovely ravine. Those lonely glades that once echoed to the brisk drumming of horses’ hoofs rang with our miserable sternutations. The rocky gullies and pine scented hillsides became for one afternoon the Vallombrosa of two valetudinarians. Thoughts of mortal perishment lay darkly upon us. We had lunched gorgeously with a charming host who was suffering with sciatica and had described this affliction to us as a toothache as long as your leg. Then the Ridge avenue car carried us between two populous cities of the dead — Laurel Hill and Mount Vernon Cemeteries. Was this, we thought, the beginning of the end?
The Ridge avenue car set us down at the mouth of Wissahickon Creek. We each got out a clean handkerchief from a hip pocket and determined to make a brave fight against the dark angel. Under the huge brown arches of the Reading Railway which have all the cheering gayety of an old Roman aqueduct we entered the valley of enchantment. At this point it occurred to us that the ancient Romans were really prohibitionists at heart, since it was on aqueducts that they lavished the fullness of their structural genius. They never bothered with vinoducts.
Perhaps Philadelphians do not quite realize how famous the Wissahickon valley is. When my mother was a small girl in England there stood on her father’s reading table a silk lampshade on which were painted little scenes of the world’s loveliest beauty glimpses. There were vistas of Swiss mountains, Italian lakes, French cathedrals, Dutch canals, English gardens. And then among these fabled glories there was a tiny sketch of a scene that chiefly touched my mother’s girlish fancy. She did not ever expect to see it, but often, as the evening lamplight shone through it, her eye would examine its dainty charm. It was called “The Wissahickon Drive, Philadelphia, U.S.A.” Many years afterward she saw it for the first time, and her heart jumped as hearts do when they are given a chance.
The lower reach of the creek, with its placid green water, the great trees leaning over it, the picnic parties along the western marge, and the little boats splashing about, is amazingly like the Thames at Oxford. I suppose all little rivers are much the same, after all; but the likeness here is so real that I cannot forbear to mention it. But one has an uneasy sense, as one walks and watches the gleaming motors that flit by like the whizz of the Ancient Mariner’s crossbow, that the Wissahickon has seen better days. The days when the horse was king, when all the old inns were a bustle of rich food and drink, and the winter afternoons were a ringle-jingle of sleigh chimes. Then one turns away to the left into the stillness of the carriage drive, where motors are not allowed, and the merry clop-clop of hoofs is still heard now and then. Two elderly gentlemen came swiftly by in a bright little gig with red wheels, drawn by a spirited horse. With what a smiling cheer they gazed about them innocently happy in their lifelong pastime! And yet there was a certain pathos in the sight. Two old cronies, they were living out the good old days together. Only a few paces on was the abandoned foundation of the Lotus Inn. And I remembered the verses in which Madrigal himself, laureate of Philadelphia, has musicked the spell of the river drive —
On winter nights ghost music plays
(The bells of long forgotten sleighs)
Along the Wissahickon.
And many a silver headed wight
Who drove that pleasant road by night
Sighs now for his old appetite
For waffles hot and chicken.
And grandmas now, who then were belles!
How many a placid bosom swells
At thought of love’s old charms and spells
Along the Wissahickon.
“But, my dear fellow,” said one of these silver-headed wights to Madrigal when he had written the poem — “it wasn’t chicken, it was catfish that was famous in the Wissahickon suppers.” “All right,” said Madrigal, “will you please have the name of the creek changed to Wissahatfish to fit the rhyme?” The necessities of poets must be consulted, unless we are to go over, pen, ink, and blotter, to the blattings of vers libre.
But a plague on the talk about the “good old days!” Certainly in those times the road along the creek was never such a dreaming haunt of quietness as it is today. An occasional proud damsel, cantering on horse, accompanied by a sort of Lou Tellegen groom; a rambling carriage or two, a few children paddling in the stream, and a bronzed fellow galloping along with eager face — just enough movement to vary the solitude. The creek pours smoothly over rocky shelves, churning in a white soapy triangle of foam below a cascade, or slipping in clear green channels through an aisle of button woods and incredibly slender tulip-poplars. Here and there is a canoe, teetering gently in a nook of shade, while Colin and Amaryllis are uttering bashful pleasantries each to other — innocent plagiarisms as old as Eden that seem to themselves so gorgeously new and delicious. The road bends and slopes under cliffs of fern and evergreen, where a moist pungency of balsam and turpentine breathes graciously in the nose of the sneezer. Gushing springs splash on the steep bank.
Already, though only the end of August, there was a faint tinge of bronze upon the foliage. We were at a loss to know whether this was truly a sign of coming fall, or some unnatural blight withering the trees. Can trees suffer from hay fever? At any rate we saw many dead limbs, many great trunks bald and gouty on the eastern cliffs and a kind of pallor and palsy in the color of the leaves. The forestry of the region did not seem altogether healthy, even to the ignorant eye. We have seen in recent years what a plague has befallen one noble species of tree: it would be a sorry thing if Philadelphia’s dearest beauty spot were ravaged by further troubles.
Talking and sneezing by turns we came to Valley Green, where a placid caravanserai sits beside the way, with a broad, white porch to invite the traveler, and a very feminine barroom innocently garnished with syphons of soda and lemons balanced with ladylike neatness on the necks of grape-juice bottles. Green canoes were drawn up on the river bank; a grave file of six small yellow ducklings was waddling toward the water; a turkey (very similar in profile to Mr. Chauncey Depew) was meditating in the roadway. A bantam cock and his dame made up in strut what they lacked in stature, and a very deaf gardener was trimming a garden of vivid phlox. Here was a setting that cried loudly for the hissing tea urn. Yet to think again of refreshment seemed disrespectful to the noble lunch of a noble host, enjoyed only four hours earlier, and we passed stoically by, intending to go as far as Indian Rock, a mile further. But at a little waterfall by the Wises Mill road, we halted with a common instinct. We turned backward and sought that gracious veranda at Valley Green. There, in a pot of tea and buttered toast with marmalade, we forgot our emunctory woes.
We set match to tobacco and strode upward on Springfield road, through thickets where the sunlight quivered in golden shafts, toward the comely summits of Chestnut Hill. Let Madrigal have the last word, for he has known and loved this bonniest of creeks for forty years:
There earliest stirred the feet of spring,
There summer dreamed on drowsy wing;
And autumn’s glories longest cling
Along the Wissahickon!