MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
The history of Torresdale’s Glen Foerd estate is indelibly linked to the waterways that surround more than half of the 18-acre property.
Robert Foerderer, the estate’s namesake patriarch, was just a teenager when he and his future bride Caroline first spotted the sprawling site while boating on the Delaware River. The year was circa 1880 and they immediately fell in love with its steep shoreline, lush landscape and lavish Italianate mansion. More than a decade later, Robert had earned a fortune in the leather tanning business, allowing the Foerderers to purchase the home and its grounds.
Next year, the modern-day keepers of what has become a nationally recognized historic site will revive its boating heritage with the construction of a launch dock and the development of environmental programs that they hope will attract recreational boaters to the Poquessing Creek at its confluence with the Delaware. The William Penn Foundation has awarded a $519,000 grant to the Glen Foerd Conservation Corporation to underwrite the project, which will tie into a boat-building program offered by Philadelphia Waterborne, a locally based nonprofit.
“We want people to use the bike trails to come up here, then get in a boat and go out on the water with an environmental educator in an organized program,” said GFCC Executive Director Meg Sharp Walton. “When people are out on the river and they connect with it, they become stewards of the river.”
Indeed, the project is meant to integrate ongoing physical improvements on the waterfront with community and environmental advocacy. For the last dozen years, the Delaware River City Corporation nonprofit has been leading an effort to construct 11 miles of parks and recreational space along the river from Allegheny Avenue north to the mouth of the Poquessing. Though still only partially complete, the greenway will feature a continuous bicycle path that would become part of the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway, while connecting directly to the Philadelphia region’s sprawling network of trails known collectively as The Circuit.
At Glen Foerd, Walton envisions a day when cyclists will arrive on site via the trails, park their bikes and hop into specially designed row boats, which have been built on site by students from the city’s schools.
Nicholas Pagon’s Philadelphia Waterborne will lead the boat-building component. Pagon formerly worked as a public school teacher in the city and led educational programs for the Independence Seaport Museum, where he would host student groups from four or five different schools and deliver hands-on lessons about boat construction. He started Philadelphia Waterborne three years ago to expand the program model and to bring it into participating schools.
Two years ago, Pagon met Walton and began a partnership with Glen Foerd. He uses previously idle space in the estate’s carriage house to craft boat components from raw pieces of wood. He then transports the components to participating schools, where students assemble the pieces into 12-foot row boats known as skiffs. The program has eight partner schools so far, mostly public and charter middle schools.
The components include an oaken stem, fir transom and marine plywood for the bottom and sides. The students use hand tools to trim and assemble the pieces, as well as nails, screws and adhesives to bind them. Once complete, the boats each weigh about 130 pounds.
“A skiff is a kind of rowing boat designed for fishing,” Pagon said. “These row boats are virtually impossible to tip over.”
The youngsters even get to personalize the boats with colorful paint schemes before launching them on the Schuylkill River at Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philly. The Bartram’s fleet has grown to about 25 boats, which are available for public use. On any given Saturday from April through October, dozens of people will take the boats out for a spin on the water.
“If the weather’s good, we’ll have 75 to 100 people out there in four hours,” Pagon said.
Self-guided trips are free to the public, although the program offers some fee-based activities such as treks up river toward the downtown area and evening social gatherings.
“Going forward, we’re hoping to build a fleet up here (at Glen Foerd),” Pagon said.
Walton sees boating as a way to reconnect Glen Foerd’s visitors with the water and nature. To make room for the new boat dock, workers will reclaim a couple of lawn tennis courts that have become overgrown with tree-sized weeds. The facility will include new boat and bicycle racks and rest rooms. It will be accessible in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Glen Foerd director finds it ironic and somewhat disappointing that waterways are often regarded in the modern age as barriers between states, counties and neighborhoods. Historically, water has been used to bring people together.
“These waterways are connectors among communities,” she said. “They connect waterways to other waterways and people to one another.” ••
Building a fleet: Glen Foerd Conservation Corporation Executive Director Meg Sharp Walton and Nicholas Pagon began a partnership two years ago. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
Water works: The William Penn Foundation awarded a $519,000 grant to the Glen Foerd Conservation Corporation to construct a launch dock, which will tie into a boat-building program offered by Philadelphia Waterborne. Above, Nicholas Pagon, who started Philadelphia Waterborne to teach students about boat construction, uses Glen Foerd’s carriage house to craft boat components. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO