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“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”

Muhlenberg Township in Berks County, Pennsylvania — The American Northeast (Mid-Atlantic)
 

Reclaiming the River

Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area

 
 
Reclaiming the River Marker image. Click for full size.
By Devry Becker Jones, November 28, 2020
1. Reclaiming the River Marker
Inscription.  
"Too Thick to Navigate, Too Thin to Cultivate" — Unknown

To fuel the industrial revolution beginning around 1870, the Schuylkill County mines processed coal and dumped their culm, or waste, into huge piles in the valleys of the Schuylkill River's tributaries. Since this was before regulations requiring mine owners to contain the culm, the fine anthracite and silt from these piles made their way downstream. Later, waste from washing and sizing the coal were sluiced directly into the Schuylkill's tributaries. In 1945 it was estimated that coal and silt discharged into the River had reached 3 million cubic yards per year.

Before the dredging started, 30 million cubic yards of culm accumulated. That amount could fill a 2.5 mile tall building, the length and width of a football field. It clogged and choked the main channel, filled the dams, increased flooding, fouled the water, and spread a black blanket over the low lands with every spring flood. The Schuylkill River became known as the dirtiest river in the state.

The Schuylkill River Desilting Project
In the 1940s and
Reclaiming the River Marker image. Click for full size.
By Devry Becker Jones, November 28, 2020
2. Reclaiming the River Marker
50s, federal and state agencies funded a $55-million project to clean the river and its channel by dredging and transporting the culm to large tub-shaped basins near the River. Over the course of five years the Schuylkill Project demolished five old canal dams, built 27 impounding basins, and constructed three desilting basins adjacent to new dams near Kernsville, Augurn, and Tamaqua.

The culm dredge from the channel was transferred into these basins where it was left to dewater over the course of 5 years. The river edge was trimmed at a gentle slope, and undergrowth was removed for a width of 40 feet on both sides of the river to improve water movement. Although the initial dredging operation was finished over 50 years ago, active facilities remain at Kernsville, Auburn and Tamaqua to remove about 100,000 tons of culm annually.

Dredging the River
Remains of the Felix Dam dredging operation are the maintenance building you see in front of you, the fenced in area next to the building, the long spud pole to your left, the dredge slip, and the winch to your far left. All of these contributed to removing the culm from the pool behind the second, or newer, Felix Dam.

The fenced area next to the maintenance building housed high-voltage transformers and switching gear that was used to power the dredge's electrical cutting head and pumps. The
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electricity was cabled to the winch and fed out to the dredge. The cutting head at the bow of the dredge could move up and down to clear the culm and silt to a depth of 27 feet, but was fixed and could not move side to side.

Two spud poles, fastened into the stern, were raised and lowered to pivot the fixed cutting head back and forth along the river bottom and to pole the dredge forward and reverse. Suction pumps behind the cutter head could move material about one mile to a basin, and booster pumps could carry the culm and silt three move miles if needed. Cables to control the dredge's movement across the river were typically fastened to trees. The Felix pool was dredged in 1950 and again by the dredger "Montgomery" in 1951.
 
Erected by Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area; Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; Muhlenberg Township.
 
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Industry & CommerceWaterways & Vessels.
 
Location. 40° 23.552′ N, 75° 58.18′ W. Marker is in Muhlenberg Township, Pennsylvania, in Berks County. Marker can be reached from the intersection of River Road and Tuckerton Road, on the left when traveling north. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 4104 River Rd, Reading PA 19605, United States of America. Touch for directions.
 
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 3 miles
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of this marker, measured as the crow flies. The Schuylkill Navigation (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line); Removal of the Dams (about 300 feet away); Damming the River (about 400 feet away); Living with the River (about 600 feet away); Recreation on the River (about 700 feet away); Joseph Hiester (approx. 1.2 miles away); Union Canal (approx. 2 miles away); In Recognition of Warren Haggerty (approx. 2.7 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Muhlenberg Township.
 
 
Credits. This page was last revised on November 29, 2020. It was originally submitted on November 29, 2020, by Devry Becker Jones of Washington, District of Columbia. This page has been viewed 31 times since then and 4 times this year. Photos:   1, 2. submitted on November 29, 2020, by Devry Becker Jones of Washington, District of Columbia.
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Feb. 26, 2021