Summer Boating At Bartram’s Garden
By John W. Gilmore
From Lindbergh Boulevard it is difficult to tell where Bartram’s Village ends and Bartram’s Garden begins. Bartram’s Village, built in 1942, began as a housing project built adjacent to Bartram’s Garden, and was one of the oldest in Philadelphia. In 2018 the Bartram’s Garden Project received a 1.3 Million Kickstarting Grant to revitalize it into mixed income apartment buildings. Bartram’s Garden’s Boathouse, which we were seeking, is located along the river behind what is now Bartram’s Garden Village. It offers several opportunities for boating several times a week with kayaks, tandem kayaks, row boats, and paddle boats. Its position along the Schuylkill river makes it a prime location. The water is very smooth and the river wide at the Boathouse launch. But on weekdays the offices and welcome center close at 4 making the evening boating launch difficult to find for those unfamiliar with the area.
The GPS leads one down highway 76 and off the Passyunk Avenue exit. After many twists and turns we come to an empty lot with locked gates. The scene is surreal. We enter a small parking lot along a fence with small patches of grass beginning to break through the parking spaces as nature begins to reclaim the asphalt and concrete. We see a very large towering sign saying Bartram’s Garden, but no people. We don’t find any signs or instructions, only a walking path leading in two directions that seems to go nowhere. A road only open to authorized vehicles leads deeper in. We are lost. We look around for signs. They don’t exist.
We find one man fishing near the deserted parking lot who directs us to go farther down the road to the next turn. He motions to the bridge farther down the river where we see several row boats and kayaks along the river bank. We drive back out onto the busy, cracked, concrete road and turn right heading pass many large, brick buildings. They look old, but renovated. The small, brown sign we pass with yellow writing on the right side of the road says Boathouse, but points into several buildings. We continue until we come to the next twisting street and turn right.
The name of the housing complex is also called Bartram’s Garden for short, which is a bit confusing, but we continue to drive until we come to a sign that says parking. We drive down a narrow road pass several close to buildings, park off to the side of a circle, and make our way onto a wide, asphalt walking path, not sure which direction to take. We only see long grass and weeds. Some of it near the road has been trimmed with much left wild and many paths leading into nowhere like the Vincent Van Gogh painting of The Wheat Field. The next sign that says Boathouse points into a clump of weeds. We keep walking. Our persistence pays off. After almost 15 minutes of following the path it loops around the field of weeds and we come to a picnic table near the Boathouse where we have lunch. In the meantime people are arriving to open the Boathouse for their Summer Tuesday Free Boating Event. Guests are beginning to show up.
Soon everything is ready. Life jackets are provided for everyone. We sign a waiver, learn the necessary rules, are reminded of a 30 minute limit, and are ready to go. The volunteers and employees are very helpful when it comes to choosing the right life jackets, choosing the right boats, and helping us step down into boats constantly shifting back and forth under our weight as we climb in. In a tandem kayak with life jackets on, whistles attached just in case of an emergency, and black shiny paddles, we push off heading up the river toward the designated limits — a tree in one direction and down river a large, metal bridge.
We row out into the river on the smooth current moving ever closer to the tree and examine it and a few gardens growing on what used to be docks. We move along the shore, and even move back and forth across the large river a few times noticing several nooks and crannies we could probably explore along the way, but not on our first trip. We want to see as much as we can. We head down toward the bridge. Before we reach it, our time has ended. We return to the smiling faces at the dock, disembark and attain our goods that were left safe at the docks. It was a good afternoon and an interesting place that we may never have noticed except for the internet and our persistence.
Bartram’s Garden offers many opportunities for those who are interested: Summer Tuesday Free Boating; Saturday Free Boating which includes free bike rentals to ride The Bartram’s Mile Trail the third Saturday of each month; and Every Last Wednesday Free Fishing with rods, bait and instruction provided. Bartram Gardens also offers memberships on many levels, that allow one to partake of classes and community events as well as get organic foods from their Sankofa Community Farm. This hidden enclave on the backside of Bartram’s Village and along the river, offers many opportunities for those who live in the congested neighborhoods nearby. It is just down the road from many small homes and apartments offering summer fun and also education opportunities on gardening, nutrition, and health and wellness in a safe, family setting.
Bartram’s Garden wants to revitalize downtrodden communities through education and community, and through helping to revitalize unused plots of land in the city for the good of the whole community. You can find out more about Bartram’s Garden and their many volunteer opportunities at www.bartramsgarden.org or call 215-729-5281.
Oldest Botanical Garden In The USA.
According to Wikipedia, “Bartram’s Garden is the oldest surviving botanical garden in the United States. John Bartram (1699–1777), the well-known early American botanist, explorer, and plant collector, founded the garden in September 1728 when he purchased a 102-acre (0.41 km2) farm in Kingsessing Township, Philadelphia County.” It was run for several years focusing on research and the transatlantic sale of native, North American plants. It came upon hard times in 1850 and was sold to Andrew M. Eastwick.
Eastwick continued running the business and continuing the botanical research until his death in 1879. There was a movement to preserve the garden and its resources. Eventually after raising funds and with help from an organization in Boston, the garden was turned over to the city of Philadelphia. Bartram’s Garden Village (previously Batram’s Garden Housing Project) which is very close to the Garden, is close enough to almost be considered the same land.
— John W. Gilmore