Photo: Rox Rez 2

A view from the walking trails along the Roxborough Reservoir

It’s no secret that Northwest Philadelphia is one of the greenest sections of any city in the world. The Wissahickon section of Fairmount Park is one of the best reasons for that reputation. In Upper Roxborough, just off of Ridge Avenue at Port Royal, however, is one of the best kept secrets in the Philadelphia Park system: The Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve.

Stand along the old path that rings the 35-acre site, a stone’s throw from the Andorra Shopping Center, and you’d swear you were in some rural, wooded area in central Pennsylvania, not the 6th largest city in the country.

This is one of the many reasons Rich Giordano has fought to preserve this urban oasis. Giordano, president of both the Friends of the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve and the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, is a retired parole officer who grew up in South Philadelphia. He moved to Roxborough in 2000. 

“Just listen to this,” he says on the trail along the park, noting the steady stream of bird song and toad calls. 

“I lived in South Philadelphia growing up, and you could cut the grass with a pair of scissors,” Giordano said. “Now I live in a neighborhood where they close the roads for toads to migrate.”

“I lived in South Philadelphia growing up, and you could cut the grass with a pair of scissors,” Giordano said. “Now I live in a neighborhood where they close the roads for toads to migrate.”

That toad migration Giordano referred to is the annual Toad Detour in which volunteers prevent traffic from squashing hundreds of toads that migrate from winter hibernation spots in the nearby Schuylkill Environmental Center every spring to mate and lay eggs in the shallow pools left in the northern basin of the reservoir. 

“I think people, if they don't live here and don't experience this, don't have any clue just how unique how it is,”

“I think people, if they don't live here and don't experience this, don't have any clue just how unique how it is,” he said.

The fact that the park is standing at all is a testament to the work of Giordano and many other volunteers in the Friends organization, who ensured the old site of the Roxborough Water Works was not developed into homes, apartments and even, Giordano says, into a training facility for the Philadelphia Eagles.
 

History

The Roxborough Water Works was a response to the growing population of Roxborough in the mid to late 1800s. In 1890, the city began construction of two basins that would hold 147 million gallons for the waterworks at one of the highest points in the city -- 414 feet above sea level -- along Port Royal Avenue. It was filled with water from the Schuylkill River, which was transferred from a pump house at Flat Rock Dam in Shawmont. The water works was an expansion of a smaller reservoir in Roxborough at Eva and Dearnley Streets, behind Shawmont School.

The reservoir went online at the end of that decade. A massive slow sand filter tank just north of the reservoir was added and operational by 1910. 

In 1962, new filtering methods and the pump station at Queens Lane in East Falls made the Upper Roxborough Reservoir obsolete and it was closed for good in 1962, its massive basins drained of water. By the time Giordano moved to Roxborough in 2000, the abandoned reservoir was a tangle of weed trees, trash and a favorite site for the unsavory.

“It wasn't the most appealing place for people to come,” he said. “Except for people who don't like appealing places.”

In 2006, Giordano recalls, local residents who had been working hard to fend off development at the site decided to work together to improve it.

“It kind of occurred to a small group of us, rather than keep fighting all this, you'd be better off trying to become stewards of it. To make it your own. And that would be the way to preserve it,”

“It kind of occurred to a small group of us, rather than keep fighting all this, you'd be better off trying to become stewards of it. To make it your own. And that would be the way to preserve it,” he said. “And that's kind of what happened.”

The Friends formed a coalition and began work restoring the park’s current entrance, a stairway and ramp at the intersection of Port Royal and Lare Street. They removed trash and cleared weeds. The wide path around the reservoir, at one time wide enough for large trucks, was completely overgrown and impassable, even on foot.

“When we first cleared it out, I think we took 25 to 30 bags of trash just from that front entrance,” Giordano said. “We started there, and then basically just worked our way around the path, cleaning it out, you know, make it accessible.”

The city eventually took notice of its untapped potential and the efforts of its residents. Shortly after Mayor Michael Nutter was elected in 2007, his commissioner of Parks and Recreation, Michael DiBerardinis, said he wanted to add 500 acres to the city’s park system. The Friends were ready to make their pitch and the park was added to the city’s system in 2009.

 

Photo: Upper Rox Rez 1892

The Bromley 1892 Map, Plate No. 22

Keeping It Green

Today, 10 years after becoming part of the city system, Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve is still a work in progress. The Friends have replaced half -- about 2,000 of 4,000 feet -- of the rusty cyclone fencing put up to keep people out of the old basins. They’ve planted about 3,000 trees. And the work to maintain the park is never ending.

Giordano said that a number of smaller park advocacy groups in the Roxborough and Manayunk area participate in clean ups every week. Those crews convene at the reservoir at least four times a year. 

The work they do is evident in the remarkable park we see now. Once overlooked, the north basin has become a natural wetland, a home to those migrating toads, ducks and other wildlife. The south basin was recently filled with tons of soil taken from the north edge of the park along Summit Avenue to divert stormwater runoff. That soil was sloped and seeded, transforming the basin area into a meadow habitat.

Giordano said he’s not sure how many people use the park, but says it’s most popular for people walking their dogs. It’s also a destination for runners and the occasional cyclist. The meadow has attracted enough birds to make the reservoir a popular pitstop for birdwatchers; a group recently toured the park for that purpose.  

The Friends continue to clean and hold events at the park, including moonlight movie screenings. They solicit donations and work. A focus at the moment is replacing the remainder of the old cyclone fence with a much nicer, low wooden fence. They also plan to clear a path that stretched between the two basins that is currently closed.

Much of the value, Giordano boasts, is volunteer sweat equity. He said there is a core group of about a dozen members of the Friends and another 50 or 60 people on his mailing list who help out. He knows people who use the park appreciate it. 

“People see us out there all the time, we have people who walk their dogs or whatever, you know, just use the place,”

“People see us out there all the time, we have people who walk their dogs or whatever, you know, just use the place,” he said. “They'll just hand us checks.”

For Giordano, it’s all worth it. It makes living in Roxborough that much more special.

“It's an amazing thing to still have,” he said of the ample green space. “I think it would just be very sad to see it disappear.”

The Roxborough Reservoir Preserve entrance is on the intersection of Port Royal Ave and Lare St. 

Photo: Rox Rex Steps

Looking up the steps leading to the Roxborough Reservoir Preserve trails

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