Digest>Archives> June 1997

The Light on Turtle Rock

By Judi A. Kearney


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Photo by: Judi A. Kearney

Philadelphia- City of Brothery Love, rich in the history and tradition that helped shape our country. Does it surprise you that Philadelphia has its own lighthouse?

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Photo by: Judi A. Kearney

Well, it surprised me-and I've lived in the Delaware Valley all my life. Even after I yielded to the mystique that draws one to lighthouse history, and began making regular pilgrimages up and down the Eastern coast of the US, I didn't take notice the little lighthouse at the end of Boathouse Row until about a year ago. Driving on the Schuylkill Expressway, toward the safety of the suburbs, I noticed a beacon light, winking at me from its station on the river bank. I began my research into the history of the little lighthouse on the Schuylkill.

Just beyond the towering skyline of Philadelphia, lies Fairmont Park, or "Faire Mont" as it was originally named, encompassing both shores of the Schuylkill River, the Wissahickon Creek, and wrapping its 8,700 acres around the City of Brotherly Love. As city limits burgeoned in the early 19th century, wealthy families purchased land overlooking the river, and built summer homes-stately mansions that provided an escape from bustling city streets, cool river breezes for boating in the summer, and ice skating in the winter. The early 1800's brought a new appreciation of the river, and boating clubs began to spring up along the river's edge. Boathouse Row became an important center for the sport of sculling, and clubhouses for the rowers were built at the river's edge.

The Schuylkill was also a working river. It was used by the Schuylkill Navigation Company as part of an extensive canal system, and for more than 75 years, brought anthracite coal from upstate Carbon County to Philadelphia industry.

The Schuylkill River underwent a substantial change in 1820, when the erection of the Fairmount Waterworks and Dam altered the river from a tidal stream to a long freshwater lake. The Waterworks helped to establish a new transportation system on the Schuylkill River-steamboats. Carrying textiles downriver in the spring and fall, steamboats became a popular tourist attraction in the summer months. With all the new maritime activity drawing Philadelphians to the river bands, it is not surprising that the Fairmount Park Commissioners recognized a need to provide security and safety for all citizens enjoying the river. Ideas began to appear in the minutes of Commission meetings for a beacon light near Turtle Rock-a formation of rock above the boathouses, shaped like a giant tortoise shell. At a meeting of the Committee on Plans and Improvements for the Fairmount Park Commission in July, 1881, a request was made for $1,500, "for the construction of a lighthouse at Turtle Rock on the river near the Boat Houses." Classified as necessary, but not urgent, the project was delayed, and there's no further mention of the lighthouse until February 8, 1887, when Park Commission minutes acknowledge acceptance of a proposal for construction of a lighthouse at Turtle Rock. The minutes of the June 14, 1887 meeting reveal that "the Chief Engineer reported verbally on the beacon light and shelter recently constructed by Frank Thurwanger." The lighthouse was in full operation by August, 1887-the total cost was $2,663.00.

Originally surrounded by a wooden pavilion/shelter, it is currently enclosed by the last clubhouse built in Fairmont Park. The Sedgeley Club was granted permission to build adjacent to the lighthouse in 1902-03, ending development along the banks of the river.

As lighthouses go, it's not large or overpowering. The brick tower has 2 arched openings at different levels, which provide light to the stairway. There is an 8-sided walkway surrounding the 6-sided beacon light. It was originally constructed to house a gas-lamp, but reconstruction in 1990 provided electricity to the tower.

The lighthouse has been cared for by the members of the Sedgely Club, who celebrated the little light's 100th birthday in October, 1987. In 1990, after successful fundraising efforts, the wooden balustrade and newel posts were replaced, the beacon was electrified, and the crumbling brick was re-pointed.

Although the beacon shines on social events only, its light is a gentle reminder of the vision of early Park Commissioners, who felt compelled to provide for the safety of all persons on the river.

It is our mission now, as lighthouse devotees, to preserve the history and vision which formed the foundations of the light towers, and molded lives of dedication in the keepers and families who lit the lights.

Thanks to Amy Freitag, Fairmount Park Archives, City of Philadelphia Archives, Elizabeth Parsons, The Sedgeley Club for assisting in research.

This story appeared in the June 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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