I recall a popular saying when something seemed impossible: “It would take an Act of Congress” to make a change, cause an action to take effect, overcome the monumental.
Yes, it was after midnight in September of 1983, when a group of concerned citizens from Bucks County were feverishly typing out unwritten, unrehearsed testimonies. Typing — on actual typewriters — before word processors and modern methods of polishing quick thoughts into acceptable forms. And we had to take turns, scribbling notes by hand, typing a page or two, then relinquishing to a colleague. Around 2 a.m., it was a wrap; time to go back to the hotel and get some rest.
The project? Testimony before a Congressional Sub-Committee on Public Lands and National Parks regarding the qualification of the lower stem of the Delaware River as “Wild & Scenic.” None of us had ever testified before Congress before, few of us realized that Wild & Scenic could include populated areas, offering a clean river with a blend of natural and historic amenities and opportunities for recreation and appreciation of heritage resources. No, we were clueless, but in love with our Bucks County, in love with our Delaware River, and willing to stand before Congress and say so — with a sliver of hope that with Congressional approval, the beautiful, heritage-rich area which we cherished would be enjoyed for generations to come.
We were asked by then-Congressman Peter Kostmayer to speak to the values. I was to address historic resources, Bob Gerenser of New Hope spoke on heritage tourism, and others acknowledged the natural values, fishing and recreation. There were dissenters, as well, questioning the literal application of the term “Wild & Scenic” rather than the words and spirit of the law.
We filed into the hearing with our poorly-assembled typed notes and waited to be called upon. I viewed the gentlemen seated at a long table on a podium, looking serious, important, even intimidating…one puffing a cigar with a discriminating attitude. The hearing included presenters from other areas of the country, speaking to other rivers. Tough questions were asked and answered. I realized that while each of us was fully familiar with our beloved Delaware, we had to be able to describe and convince a group of individuals who had no idea what our river valley looked like.
Finally, the Delaware River was introduced as the next area of scrutiny. I spoke of the “string of pearls” — the continuous litany of historic villages, areas and towns that bordered the river, each benefiting from the rich 300-year history, the serene Landmark Delaware Canal, and the gentle progression through time of a rural, agricultural area that embraced industry modestly, and natural beauty abundantly. Added into the mix were the seminal national events of Washington’s crossing (at several times and places), shad fisheries, ferry and bridge crossings to enable commerce between Philadelphia and New York, unique hand-made mills, long-serving taverns and well-proportioned modest homes of stone, brick and frame. And to top it off, a fantastic connection to a nationally-recognized arts community, the Delaware Valley an inspiration to artists, home to writers, host to actors on their way to Broadway and Hollywood.
Again, some obscure questions were posed, and we were done. What next?
In was not until October, 1992 with additional legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Greenwood, that Congress authorized the National Park Service to undertake a detailed study to evaluate the Delaware for inclusion in the Wild and Scenic system, and with substantial proof, the development of a Management Plan defining priorities, goals and actions to sustain the character of this special area. Yes, an Act of Congress passed recognition of the Lower Delaware as Wild & Scenic in November, 2000.
One caveat: it was contingent upon a Memorandum of Understanding signed in agreement by all of the municipalities bordering the river, plus regional planning commissions, representatives of various county, regional, state and national agencies, legislators and governors.
The Understanding was a commitment to “an intergovernmental agreement for future management of the Lower Delaware and its tributaries.” The Wild and Scenic national program is “intended to permanently protect America’s outstanding rivers and streams for the benefit of present and future generations.” The Management Plan is a “reasonable approach to cooperative management of the Lower Delaware…and recognizes the various roles of landowners, government… n the protection of the river corridor’s important values.” The Secretary of the Interior is required to “administer the… river… in cooperation with… the management committee…and plan.”
Signatories to the Understanding agreed “to protect and enhance the values that have caused the Lower Delaware River and its tributaries to be designated by the United States Congress as a component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.” Parties to the Understanding included representatives of the NPS, DRBC, States of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, US Congress, PA State Senator, Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor Commission, Bucks, Warren and Hunterdon counties, watershed associations, and flanking municipalities, including Bridgeton, Tinicum, Plumstead, Solebury, New Hope, Upper Makefield in PA and Holland, Kingwood, Lopatcong, Delaware and Lambertville in NJ. (Lower Delaware River Management Plan, 1997; Memorandum of Understanding 2001)
Local municipalities are identified as significant in the successful execution of the management plan and the river’s protection. By signing they “agree to enforce all applicable land use, water use or zoning regulations in such manner to ensure that the …river and its tributaries are protected and actions consistent with…the Plan.”
This Act of Congress was serious, entered into with great deliberation, and only with confirmed agreement of cooperation by all government, municipal and non-profit agencies with jurisdiction in the area. A key term throughout the legislation, management plan and understanding is “permanently protect” (shield from harm). Directives in the Management Plan involve the “preservation of historic structures and areas—(as) an important way to preserve the character and aesthetic value of a community. Preservation of historic areas is important to economic growth and development through tourism and maintenance of property values.” Specific methods include surveys, listing on National Register, creation of local Historic and Architectural Review Boards, encouragement of adaptive reuse, and tax incentives for preservation.
Benefits of Wild and Scenic designation include “protects important resources,” “funding priority,” “predictable land use,” and “regional coordination across political boundaries.” The “Lower Delaware is distinguished from the Upper and Middle sections and other designated Wild and Scenic rivers by its unique combination of natural and cultural resources…The history of our nation is also found along the shores of the Lower Delaware—eighteenth and nineteenth century villages and mansions, historic canals…Washington Crossing, important Native American sites, an agricultural heritage, and remnants of the country’s industrial revolution. The outstanding scenery along the Lower Delaware is a combination of both dramatic and sublime natural areas and the historic landscape.” (Executive Summary- Lower Delaware River Management Plan, August 1997).
“No great American landscape is ever saved by accident…it is deliberate actions by citizens and their political leaders that assure these great landscapes will be more than sites for motels, shopping centers, suburban sprawl and vacation house developments…Recreation and tourist use needs to be properly managed to protect the very resources that attract visitors.” (Introduction-Ibid.)
“Appropriate types of development should be identified that are sensitive to the important natural, historic, scenic and recreational resources. Corridor municipalities should assure that local zoning ordinances direct development to locations that are compatible with the river corridor’s resources. Municipalities should report development plans to adjacent communities for review. Municipal, county and state departments of highways and transportation should assure that new or improved roads in the river corridor will be compatible with the river corridor’s resources…” (Goal 5- Economic Development– Municipal-Ibid.)
“Historic sites in the corridor are also dependent upon the preservation of open space. If a historic resource is preserved, but the land around it experiences modern development, the structure often looses its context and much of its historic value.” (Open Space Preservation– Ibid)
So, what do we see happening today? Just look at road and bridge projects in the river corridor. Or just look at Odette’s. There are strong forces working against the Management Plan goals by municipal and state agencies, with vague attention by the National Park Service and frustration or apathy by local citizens.
The Delaware Canal, a National Historic Landmark, especially where it flows past the “oldest continuously operating quarry in the United States” and in an area with the best stone masons in the country, has its prism walls replaced by vertical white concrete – International Style, and visible from Scenic River Road, the canal towpath and even across the river from New Jersey. Historic? The Friends of the Delaware Canal can only do so much in the face of resistant state agencies. Similar walls installed less that 50 years ago are failing. 170 years or 50? Preserve and protect, or destroy?
Likewise, the Paunacussing Creek, one of several creeks specifically included in the Wild and Scenic legislation and a National Register Historic District, is witnessing the sanitizing of Fleecydale Road and scouring of its stream banks with impervious, ugly concrete formliner, white curbs and heavy guide rail. Nothing historic, nothing natural. 170 or 50?
Both these calamities could have been averted with proper installation of guide rail, not pounding upon historic stone walls, causing failure. Repair actions should be immediate and in keeping with the historic construction using stone walls in prism form. f not here, where? What historic and scenic values are protected? Preserved? Is the National Park Service really doing its job to keep state transportation agencies in check?
Bridge replacement projects of large scale in highly scenic, historically sensitive areas such as Point Pleasant and Cooks Creek are destroying significant historic engineering resources, stream banks, bedrock and water quality, and are introducing new designs alien to the setting, far too wide and inauthentic to be compatible with Wild and Scenic. Better concrete? Just look at 10-year-old Dark Hollow bridge, crumbling. 100 years or 10?
And Odette’s. Now is the chance to reverse this helpless failure of the Wild and Scenic Management Plan to actually protect and preserve those outstanding qualities that supported designation. Every municipality along the Delaware can comment on another municipality’s plan and actions. New Hope Borough Council is violating its agreement under the Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2001 to protect its historic resources, to support its zoning laws and hard-working conscientious Historical and Architectural Review Board, and to invite input from other municipalities and organizations concerned with the welfare of the total river community and its cultural and natural character.
The proposed project flies in the face of all the principals and goals of the management plan. The project is over-sized for the location, it blocks river vistas, it destroys the 220-year-old historic building, it destroys the understanding of the Landmark Delaware Canal and its historic landscape setting, it destroys the proper interpretation and representation of centuries of history, it creates a false image of industry with a large, factory-type building.
It paves the way for future defiance of laws and replacement of our true history.
Oh, it will be transformational, yes — no more bucolic Bucks County and quaint village of New Hope. The project will “impact the borough for at least another 20 years,” Borough Manager John Burke said at the last council meeting.
So did the casinos in Atlantic City. Three decades ago, we watched the news as the elegant hotels of the 1920s were imploded to be replaced by large, characterless factories of folly. The promise was to transform the economy of the city. I had occasion to drive past about eight years ago, limousines entering shiny buildings on one side, derelict bars and idle persons on the other. And now bankruptcy. Twenty years? False promises, short term gain, permanent loss.
Our string of pearls; the string cut, and one by one the pearls lost. Or pearly whites, a perfect set of teeth, until one is punched out. Then another. Yes, still 90% intact, but 95% ugly. 20 years or 220?
It is time for Delaware communities to place preservation of historic sites as their first priority in the sustainability of our region, our economy, our lifestyles and our proud heritage, aptly designated by an Act of Congress.
It took an Act of Congress to recognize the Lower Delaware as a Wild and Scenic River, a treasure for the nation. It takes a single act by selfish and short-sighted bureaucrats to destroy that for everyone. Once gone, you can never get it back. 170/50, 100/10, 220/20…
Preservation expert Kathryn Ann Auerbach of Erwinna is a graduate of William & Mary, and an instructor of historic preservation at Bucks County Community College. A former member of Solebury Township’s Historical Architectural Review Board, Auerbach served for more than eight years as Director of Historical Programs at the Heritage Conservancy in Doylestown.
(The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Free Press.)