The Landscape Tells a Story: Philadelphia’s Cynwyd Trail

The Cynwyd Trail, in Philadelphia. Graham Prentice

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a monthly series about the historical and geographical contexts of specific locations in and around Philadelphia. It will delve into the histories of the regional landscape, both current and past. If you are interested in contributing similar stories about your city, please contact Julia [at] americancity.org.

In the morning light, the Cynwyd Trail on the outskirts of Philadelphia appears more like a secret battleground than a nature path. Two prominent ruts, choked with long grasses and voracious dandelion, follow the tracks of what used to be the Schuylkill Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Built in 1839, the rail used to transport coal and people across the state, but it’s been out of operation for decades. Sections of the metal rails emerge at unexpected intervals, rising out of the ground like ghosts. Old electrical towers, layered with vines and tagged in orange spray paint, rise on either side of the trail. Virulent stands of sumac and birch fill the gaps between the towers, their rambunctious foliage steadily overcoming the old rails.

Since the railroad closed in the 1980s, this 350-acre stretch of lower Merion County has become a rich cross section of industrial and ecological history. Steel production factories, closed since the end of WWII, stand abandoned just a short stroll from the area’s main footpath. Invasive empress trees and swaths of Queen-Anne’s lace have grown over the broken windows and up through the cracks in the unused delivery roads. The rolling slopes beneath the Schuykill Expressway, which runs adjacent to the old factories, hide remnants of the region’s once bustling mill businesses. Boxcars from the old railroad are lodged so deeply in the ground that they seem as much a part of the natural landscape as the birch and maples around them.

At times it’s difficult to tell which features were formed by natural or industrial means. A wall of slag blocks, the byproducts of steel fabrication, dominates one side of the forest footpath. From afar, the dark slag looks like natural stone. Rebar and concrete blend as seamlessly into the surrounding tangles of sumac as the birch and oak trees growing out of the slag wall. The footpath itself is constructed as much from gravel, crumbled brick, and macadam (a type of road construction material), as from loam and decomposing organic matter.

The lines between nature and industry have become increasingly blurred here, creating a topography as ambiguous as the area’s history. Part industrial wilderness, part commuter corridor, the Cynwyd Trail has become a no-man’s land. Aside from the squirrels, adventurous teenagers and the homeless are the trail’s most populous residents. Even in the thick of the forest, the hum of the expressway is clearly audible. Another railroad, still operational for commuters, runs diagonally under the highway, just a short stroll from the sleepy banks of the Schuylkill River.

All four means of transportation – highway, railroad, walking path and waterway — intersect at this juncture. That they interact so intimately here appears an unintentional testament to the many transitions the region and its inhabitants have been through in the last few hundred years. People who lived here once traveled solely by foot, then later by canoe and boat, followed by train and, finally, by car. While we’re theoretically familiar with the progression, none of us were old enough to remember what it felt like to know that the fastest way to get to the next village was to paddle a canoe down the river. Down on the Cynwyd Trail, where you can hear the drone of car traffic, the rumble of passing trains, the slosh of the river, and the wind whipping through the forest all at the same time, you feel it.

And now the area is on the brink of yet another transition. Within the next few years, the former industrial corridor is slated to become a two-mile recreational trail. Designed by Studio Bryan Haynes, with support from Studio Gaea and Pennoni Associates, the estimated $1.8 million project will be a multi-purpose trail — complete with skate parks, bike trails, and tree-house hideaways – that links residential neighborhoods, commercial areas, public parks and institutional properties along the Schuykill. One acre of the area, owned by O-Neil Properties Group, is likely to become a waterfront apartment complex. With strategies for site soil remediation and storm water management are incorporated into the plans, the project has the potential to play a pivotal role in the environmental and economic development of the region.

The project will be another layer in the already well-textured history of Cynwyd. As the old steel factories overgrown with poppy and black walnuts show, it’s a region that’s seen its share of change.

Tags: philadelphiabuilt environmentstormwater management