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The Allure of the “Unknowable” Delaware River

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Story Photos and captions by Will Daniel,
excerpted from his book, “Delaware River
Reflections,” Schiffer Publishing, 2017. 
For more, visit willdaniel.com.

Generations of Delaware schoolchildren have been taught that the state was named for Thomas West, the third Baron De La Warr. It’s not entirely true, however. As early as 1641, De La Warr’s name was affixed to the massive river that runs more than 300 miles from central New York state to the Atlantic. The three counties that became the state of Delaware separated from Pennsylvania in 1704 and achieved recognized statehood in 1776. We are named not for the man, but for the river.

And yet, for most of us, the river is an abstraction. The Delaware isn’t an easy river to get to, and it’s not an easy river to get to know. And that makes it easy to forget, or at least, to take for granted.

I was born on the banks of the Brandywine, my first breaths composed of the oxygen from its trees. It is a river that I feel I know. I’ve canoed it, swum in it, picnicked beside it, lived next to it. I can tell from the driver’s seat of my car if it’s high or low, how fast it’s running, where it is deepest. These days, I drive down the Delaware for the first 10 miles or so of my daily commute, and I still don’t have that sense of familiarity. Mark Twain complained, in his memoir “Life on the Mississippi,” that training as a riverboat pilot stole all the magic of the Mississippi away from him. By knowing it too well, he lost sight of it.

I disagree with Twain’s premise. I’ll never know the Delaware as he knew the Mississippi, and I’ll never have to think of it in the ways he did. But I think there is magic in knowing a thing—in being able to see it for what it really is—as much as there is in the mystery of not knowing, and I think getting to know something increases its intimacy. I watch the river now, from roadsides and parks and the tops of bridges, seeking to understand it better. I look as closely as I can at its edges, at the space where it reaches out to touch the land I call home. We are named for this river; in some ineffable way, it is our home too.

What most of us think of as the Delaware River—that wide swath of water we sometimes see off the east side of I-495 and Del. 9 that runs southeast to the ocean—isn’t technically a river at all. It’s an estuary, a body of both fresh and salt water that leads to a bay, affected by both tides and river currents. The river proper ends at Trenton, New Jersey. The 130 remaining miles run to the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

I grew up on rivers, canoeing the Nanticoke, fishing in the Indian River, wading through the rocks and boulders of Darley Creek. The Delaware is different. Maybe it’s how big it is, how wide, how long, how open. It seems somehow unknowable. Unseeable.

And on the aesthetic spectrum, our stretch of the Delaware doesn’t compete, not with the Susquehanna’s dramatic confluence with the Chesapeake Bay, not with the serene, marshy flow of the Nanticoke, not even with itself, as the upper Delaware pours over the waterfalls and through the wooded valleys of central New York. The lower Delaware—our river—runs past industrial plants, oil refineries, giant deep-water ports and over 100 miles of scruffy, weedy banks.

This structure on stilts is part of the DuPont Nature Center on the Delaware Bay at Milford.//Photo by Will Daniel

And yet, as with so much of nature, if we look closely, the beauty begins to show. Stand at Fox Point State Park in Edgemoor and look west; you can see as the continent rises to the Piedmont Plateau, nearly 80,000 square miles of geological formation reaching from northern New Jersey to central Alabama, from the coastal plane to the Appalachians. Sit quietly in Battery Park in New Castle long enough, and the birds will come: regal, prehistoric great blue herons and their distant cousins, snowy egrets, waiting in the shade and shallows for prey. If you’re lucky, a bald eagle will soar over your head in Port Penn, moving between its inland nest and its hunting grounds on the river.

As you move south through Kent County, the river offers more life, many the source of traditional Delaware meals: geese and duck, blue crab. If you look closely near the riverbank, you can spot the domed den of a muskrat. From August through October, snapping turtle eggs will hatch from shallow nests in the riverbank. At Bombay Hook and south to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, the birds begin to multiply, especially at migratory season high points; here you find horseshoe crabs, sandpipers, plovers and, in the spring, the red knot, whose only stop on their annual migration from Brazil to the Arctic is to feed on horseshoe crab eggs right here, almost 4,000 miles from their starting point.

Our section of the Delaware isn’t easy to appreciate without effort. It’s less a destination for most of us than something we cross, by bridge or by boat. Its views are impeded by container ships and oil tankers, by scruffy banks and gray-brown water, by oil refineries and a nuclear power station. Recreationally, it also creates challenges, from complicated navigation channels to dangerous submerged obstacles. And yet, if you’re paying attention, you’ll be able to watch as an osprey wheels over the shallows to snag a fish, or you’ll catch a glimpse of a two-masted schooner headed south on an adventure. Like most of the big rivers on this continent, the Delaware’s beauty is easier to see when you know it a little better.

In more than 1,500 years of human settlement, the Delaware River has known many names. The Lenni Lenape, who were settled in the Delaware Valley by 600 CE, called it Pautaxat, Mariskitton, Makerishkisken, Lenape and Whittuck. The Swedes, arriving on the Kalmar Nyckel in 1638 to settle what is now Wilmington, called it New Swedeland Stream, New Port May or Godyns Bay. The Dutch who settled first in Lewes called it Nassau River, Prince Hendrick River, Charles River and South River (as did Henry Hudson, on a brief exploratory foray on his way to New York and the great river that now bears his name). But in 1610, a British sea captain sailed in and named it for Lord De La Warr, then governor of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. Once the British took control of the colonies, the name held fast.

In the 17th century, the Delaware teemed with wildlife: perch, sturgeon, beavers, otters and birds. “The quantity of fowle is so great as can hardly be believed,” wrote Capt. Thomas Young in his ship’s log in 1634. A year earlier, a Dutch fisherman reported that a single net caught enough perch to feed 30 men. William Penn, after he founded Philadelphia in 1682, described oysters from the riverfront 6 inches long and sturgeon playing in the river which were visible from shore. Twenty years later, Penn’s city had become an important port for shipments between the West Indies and Europe, along with those from the burgeoning industries growing up around it.

The Delaware River had its most visible moment in American history when on Christmas night, 1776, Gen. Washington and his army crossed the partially frozen river north of Philadelphia to defeat the Hessian troops stationed near Trenton. It was a daring move, made almost at midnight and in the midst of a winter storm. The troops, along with horses and artillery, crossed in flat-bottomed cargo boats, and their victory in Trenton boosted the flagging morale of the Continental Army.

Washington’s great Christmas gamble wasn’t the Delaware’s only moment of value to the Colonial troops, however. In 1778, an early thaw sent American shad migrating up the river and then up the Schuylkill to spawn much earlier in the year, in time to help save the Continental soldiers who had suffered through months of disease and famine in their winter camp at Valley Forge.

After the Revolution, the Delaware resumed its status as a strategic home for deep-water ports and riverside factories. Industry boomed along the river and its tributaries; in 1802, DuPont built its gunpowder mills on the Brandywine at Hagley. Coal mines opened near the mouths of the Schuylkill and Lehigh rivers, and settlement and business expanded throughout the Delaware watershed. Fishing and shellfishing industries, especially for sturgeon and oysters, boomed. The town now known as Bayside, New Jersey, directly across the river from the Cedar Swamp Wildlife Area in southern New Castle County, was originally named Caviar, established to process Atlantic sturgeon roe for distribution around the world. In 1896, more than 14 million pounds of shad were caught in the river; its value would be almost $11 million in 2016 dollars. A year later, nearly 22 million pounds of oysters were harvested from the Delaware Bay.

Today, the Delaware River Basin covers more than 13,000 square miles and drains parts of the four states that surround the river. Almost 8 million people live in the basin, and nearly 15 million—about 5 percent of the U.S. population, including half the residents of New York City—get their drinking water from the river. According to the Delaware River Basin Commission, the Delaware River Port Complex, shared between Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is the largest freshwater port in the world, generating $19 billion a year. The Delaware houses the third-largest petrochemical port in the United States, providing heating oil and gasoline for 70 percent of the East Coast. From 1776 to 2000, the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was one of the largest shipbuilding and production sites in the country. More than 65 percent of South American fruits imported to the United States arrive in Delaware Estuary ports. Cross the I-495 bridge going north across the Christina River any Monday or Tuesday and look down into the Port of Wilmington. You’ll see boats from Chiquita and Dole offloading bananas. More bananas enter the country through the Port of Wilmington than any other place in the country.

New York Route 97, the state’s Scenic Byway, offers spectacular views like this one of the Delaware River.//Photo by Will Daniel

All of this settlement and industry, from Colonial times until very recently, severely impacted the water quality. In 1700, Philadelphia boasted a population of nearly 5,000, and the damage from the city’s sanitation disposal could already be seen on the Delaware. By 1739, a young Benjamin Franklin had organized his neighbors to convince the Pennsylvania General Assembly to stop tanneries from dumping waste in the Delaware’s tributaries. Thirty years later, he led a commission to regulate water pollution in the Schuylkill and the Delaware. Despite his efforts, cholera and typhoid outbreaks happened repeatedly throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. A Sanitary Survey conducted by the Philadelphia Water Department in 1885 identified the pollutants present in the Schuylkill, all of which flowed directly into the Delaware: human waste, chemical plant by-products, decomposed animal materials from tannery plants, soaps and ash.

The pollution levels, unsurprisingly, had a devastating effect on marine life from Philadelphia to Wilmington. By 1905, the annual American shad harvest had dropped by more than 10 million pounds since 1896. Sewage and industrial dumping reduced the oxygen levels so severely that by the 1940s, the shad had all but disappeared. So had Atlantic sturgeon and striped bass. As the fish went, so went the birds.

The pollution’s impact was not limited to wildlife. During World War II, a newly painted Navy vessel changed colors while sailing on the river, and Navy pilots were told to ignore the stench of sulfur as they flew a mile above the water. Instruments onboard ships harbored on the Delaware required much greater maintenance because of corrosive gases from acid mine waste. In 1941, President Roosevelt ordered an investigation to see if pollution was hampering the war effort. By 1946, the Delaware was a dead river, with oxygen rates less than 1 part per million from the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philly to Marcus Hook.

What happened next, however, was the result of unprecedented state cooperation and federal investment. The 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act provided federal funds for river restoration. INCODEL, the Interstate Commission on the Delaware River Basin, formed in the late 1930s by the four states on the river, implemented wastewater control projects in Philadelphia, Camden, New Jersey and Wilmington. The City of Philadelphia further funded $80 million in sewage treatment plants, and by the mid-1950s the blue crab, better able to tolerate lower oxygen levels than other species, began returning to the upper reaches of the estuary.

In 1961, President Kennedy, urged on by the governor of Pennsylvania, signed the Delaware River Basin Commission compact, the first federal-state water resource commission, involving the four governors and a presidential appointee. Congress voted to approve, stating “there is one river, one basin, all water resources are functionally interrelated, and each one is dependent on the other.” In 1967, five years before the Clean Water Act, the DRBC and the states began a pollution abatement program for the full length of the river.

Recovery is a slow process. By 1970, the Delaware was still too low in oxygen to be considered fishable. In 1972, however, Congress enacted the Federal Clean Water Act, which established goalposts for returning American waters to fishable and swimmable quality. And it worked. Oxygen levels had risen from 2 parts per million in 1968, to 3.5 in 1981, to 5 by 1987, a mere 15 years later. The ideal oxygen level varies with water temperature, but 5 to 6 year-round is the goal.

As the water improved, the fish returned. Striped bass and American shad numbers increased a thousand-fold by the 1990s. Blue crabs, a $7 million industry, are increasingly plentiful. And in 2009, for the first time in half a century, biologists caught a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon in the river, off Wilmington. Once again, as the fish returned, so did the birds. By 2004, the states reported 96 bald eagle nests along the river, up from 44 in 2001.

This isn’t to say that the river is fixed. Increasing salt levels, the result of drought and sea level rise, mean that oysters are still in jeopardy. Though the 2009 sturgeon catch is encouraging, dredging the river channel destroys their habitat and keeps them hovering on the edge of a real return to the Delaware. Fluctuations in horseshoe crab numbers and their increasing use for medical treatments, further jeopardize the red knot, already struggling with the warming of its Arctic nesting grounds. Upriver from us, the brook trout, state fish of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, has been wiped out in 15 percent of the river’s basin because of climate change, drainage from mines and watershed urbanization. But in 80 years, the Delaware has achieved the greatest recovery of any polluted river in the world. “The Delaware River,” says Gerald Kauffman, director of the University of Delaware Water Resources Center, “is the phoenix for popular and scientific river recovery.”

All of these efforts—decades of work by federal, state and local governments, by scientists and researchers, and by thousands of volunteers who support the various water quality and wildlife restoration projects—could be reversed by the ordered repeal of the Clean Water Act. Budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency mean grants and investments to cities for wastewater treatment, to watershed groups for wetland conservation and to farmers for runoff reduction, could be eliminated. These investments are both ecological and economical, says Kauffman. The river is responsible for half a million jobs. Taxpayer investment in the Clean Water Act is returned to us in the form of clean water for drinking, for recreation, for us to live next to—and for us to live with.

Rivers are ubiquitous in American life. Of our 150 largest cities, says author Tim Palmer, 130 are on the banks of rivers. In most of them, the rivers have been incorporated into city redevelopment as centers for community activities, recreation and restaurants. Rivers are often either the focus of our trips to national parks or the source of the parks themselves. As Palmer points out, “Niagara Falls—the most visited natural tourist attraction—is first and foremost a river.”

And perhaps that’s part of the difficulty we have with rivers—if we don’t live on them or travel purposefully to see them, we can too easily forget about them. The Delaware is easy to ignore, easy to forget.  It exists on our fringes, on our border. But we are also its namesake. And the human body is 85 percent water; for us, that water comes from the Delaware. We belong to it, much more than it belongs to us.

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