With an investment of $100,000—the equivalent of millions in today’s dollars—City Fathers assured Philadelphians that the “noisome” Cohocksink, the creek that drained much of North Philadelphia, had finally been contained. No longer would its “fetid and polluted waters” meander in plain sight, sluggishly making their way to the Delaware. It was 1871, and this country-creek-turned-urban-sewer would forever be “closed from view…shut off from further sight and further mischief.” City life could continue, unimpeded, above.
Or so they thought.
In spite of the best of intentions, this “work of magnitude and importance” would not tame the Cohocksink. With runoff from the expanding grid of North-Central Philadelphia, this underground “solution” gained power as it flowed to the Delaware. By the time its “fetid and polluted” waters got to Northern Liberties, the Cohocksink could become much more mischievous, especially when swollen with storm water.
Time and time again, the Cohocksink dramatically carried away bits and pieces of the city. In November 1888, the horses and delivery wagon of wholesale grocer Henry Graham were saved only by tremendous efforts on the part of driver and a handful of pedestrians, who managed to pull a half-swallowed horse onto solid ground at Germantown Avenue near 2nd Street.
Before workmen could repair that gaping hole, another storm opened it up even more just as a horse-drawn streetcar passed over. The driver, “realizing their peril” as “the ground was rumbling and sinking,” lashed his horses into a gallop, and…got onto firm ground” before “the earth beneath the tracks gave way.”
Engineer Frank Seaville, slipped into the “yawning chasm.” If not for the efforts of fellow workmen, Seaville would have “fallen into the malodorous and swift rushing waters” to certain death. William F. Keppler wasn’t so lucky. When another storm caused a collapse over the Cohocksink, Keppler was swept away.
The gorge at Second Street soon extended “from curb to curb,” compromising homes and ruining businesses. Clothier P. Ostheim & Sons lost their Christmas trade. Store-keepers along nearby Girard Avenue: a baker, a butcher, a tobacconist and a pair of saloon keepers lost goods and customers. Rising waters extinguished cellar furnaces as far away as 4th and Girard.
Sinkholes opened in nearby streets with increasing frequency. “A mighty stream of water poured through the Cohocksink sewer last night,” reported the Inquirer in January 1889, “and near the big break at Germantown and Second Street masses of earth and masonry were heard giving way as the torrent swept toward the river.” That rainy summer the Inquirer reported yet “Another Big Cave In.” The waters “carried away sidewalks, and threatened to undermine houses.”
Frustrated residents above the Cohocksink pleaded with City Council “to take immediate measures to prevent further breaks.” Repairs would take years.
As work continued, so did the storms. In September 1894, a nighttime deluge led to another, familiar “deep rumbling” heard throughout Northern Liberties. Everyone knew what happened: the Cohocksink claimed yet another chunk of the city.
(Sources in The Inquirer: “Municipal Improvements,” January 4, 1871; “Work of the Storm,” November 12, 1888; “Like a Yawning Chasm,” December 18, 1888; “Another Break in the Cohocksink Sewer,” January 10, 1889; ”Snow, Rain and Slush,” January 21, 1889; “Cohocksink Sewer Again,” March 22, 1889; “Another Big Cave-In,” July 31, 1889; “Cohocksink Sewer,” May 23, 1894; “City Deluged By Heavy Rain,” September 9, 1894; “The Earth Dropped,” July 29, 1899.)