Monday, November 9, 2009

Phoenixvile's Black Rock Sanctuary - a Jewel in Chester County



Carl R. Kelemen, RLA, FASLA, KMS Design Group, LLC
Bob Folwell, Former Capital Projects Coordinator, Chester County Parks & Recreation Dept.

The Black Rock Sanctuary project actually started in the late 1800’s at the advent of the industrial revolution. The discovery of coal as a fuel source, coupled with industrial development, created the need to efficiently send coal, other raw materials, and finished goods between communities located {Bird World} along the 130-mile Schuylkill River from the coalfields of Schuylkill County to Philadelphia. To respond to this market need, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania chartered the Schuylkill Navigation Company in 1815 to build a series of dams and locks along the river to create a deep shipping channel, which is referred to as a “slack water” canal system. This system was a way to travel from one pool, retained by a dam, to the next pool to get both downstream and upstream. Given the low rate of elevation fall in the river, it was easier to build dams every two to three miles to create the deep channel than to dig a trench and install more locks. The locks were generally constructed at dams as a way to get downstream around the dam areas while compensating for the river’s water elevation changes.

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In the early 1900’s, waste from upstream coal operations contributed over 3,000,000 tons of silt annually to the river. By the early 1930’s so much silt had settled behind the dams and in the river that it was no longer suitable for navigation or recreation, flooding increased, and its value as a water supply was threatened. After passing a series of laws to mitigate siltation of the state’s waterways, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania undertook the “Schuylkill River Project.” Beginning in 1945 the river was dredged to remove silt and place it in strategically located desilting basins. The Black Rock Basin, a 121-acre site in Phoenixville, was one of 27 desilting basins that were constructed. Along with the removal of some of the Schuylkill Navigation Company’s dams, the basin construction became a major public works project valued at over $31.75 million. The basins were constructed by relocating indigenous soil and rock located along the river’s edge to create long clay-filled berms about twenty feet high. In the case of Black Rock, an 8,000-foot long berm was built to create an 80-acre basin.

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After the basins were completed, the river was dredged by pumping the silt slurry into them. The basins’ use for dredging was short lived, although two remain active in Schuylkill County. Active use of the Black Rock Basin for dredge spoils ended in the late 1950’s. Later, sand, gravel and coal were removed for mineral recycling, leaving the site desolate and pockmarked. Over the intervening years, a young but mixed native and non-native forest proliferated albeit dominated by invasive species that were well adapted to the disturbed terrain. Various North American native species such as Black Locust, Sycamore and Black Willow were accompanied by the exotic invasive species Ailanthus and Phragmites.

In 1990, the PA Bureau of Mines declared Black Rock basin surplus and sold it to Chester County for wildlife conservation and recreation use. The County envisioned developing a truly different environmental and educational park. By taking advantage of it’s location along the Atlantic Coast Flyway, the County hoped to create and interpret breeding and nesting habitat for rare and endangered migrating waterfowl species. With this goal in mind, the County then sought and received grants from five private, County, State and Federal sources to complete design and construction.

In mid-1999, final design and construction documentation began for development of a comprehensive construction plan to address the County’s vision and goals for the site. The design team was led by Carl R. Kelemen, RLA, FASLA, Director of Landscape Architecture for Cowan Associates. Normandeau Associates, Inc.,, Playcare, Inc., and Archimedes also provided expertise. To complete the design goals, the team worked with Robert C. Folwell of the Chester County Department of Parks and Recreation, the Borough of Phoenixville, Chester County Conservation District, PA Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources (PA DCNR), PA Dept. of Environmental Protection (PA DEP), PA Bureau of Mines, PA Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (US FWS). The Phoenix Iron Canal Trail Association provided input and comment throughout the process to tie the Black Rock Basin into the Association’s trail network.

The County encouraged the design team to stretch their imaginations. Many ideas were “floated,” and, due to expense, some were eliminated. Some, however, were incorporated, or scaled back to address budget concerns. For example, a “bird nest” made of branches from cleared trees and vines, was a scaled back version of a tree stump and an entrance tunnel to DinoWorld. The original station layout drawings for the trail provided the “bones,” which the final design concepts used as their points of departure. The creative interactive exhibits designed by Playcare, Inc. and signage designed by Time Flys Design were vital to the educational benefit sought by the County. The trail interactive programming developed by the County’s naturalists and education coordinators, especially Michele Wales and Glenn Nelson, included ideas such as a “prey game”, a role-playing exercise in a Native American village and water testing experiments. These inspirations challenged us to be creative and adaptable in our approach. The Consultant/County team worked together and stretched together…a true collaboration which made the project significantly more than it would otherwise have been.

he two prime goals were: 1) to form a comprehensive network of high quality wetlands by creating new and enhancing existing wetlands to provide breeding and nesting habitat for migratory waterfowl; and 2) to create a highly interactive interpretive trail designed to explore and explain the complex biological interconnections and interactions between people and the environment. A major aspect was to use and reuse materials found within the site to create the trail and many of the interactive exhibits and activities. A major challenge inherent with the project was to create high quality wetlands on a site where the soil contained significant quantities of coal and its attendant maladies. Due to the complexity of site objectives, the project was broken into separate wetland construction and interpretive trail construction projects.

A myriad of twists, turns and delays occurred along the way. Agents from the US FWS visited the site and noted concerns for heavy metals and other contaminants that could be associated with the on-site coal silt. Design work was briefly stopped while a Phase I environmental audit was conducted, and soil, water and fish tissue samples were taken for testing and analysis to assure that possible contaminants would not harm the targeted waterfowl species. After the US FWS reviewed the studies, it was determined that there was little concern to endangered waterfowl species.

In November 2002, wetland construction work was completed and included building and enhancing existing deep-water, emergent, palustrine scrub shrub and forested wetland ecotones. Over 27 acres of new wetlands were created, resulting in a total of over 46 acres. Construction techniques included grading to return portions of the area to pre-basin elevations, creating mounds and pools to provide “temporary islands” for nesting sites, excavating to create vernal pool areas for amphibian breeding; providing and enhancing deep water areas for fish as a source of food for birds and animals, and removing invasive plant species.

In constructing the wetlands, over 12,000 cubic yards of coal silt were removed - enough to cover a football field six and one half feet deep - and sold to a recycling company for use in charcoal and other products. In hopes of using it in constructing the trail and interpretive stations, some of the coal silt was retained. Ultimately, combinations of crushed stone, recycled plastic decking, and hot-mix asphaltic concrete were used for trail surfaces. Combined with the wetland creation project was the restoration of upland areas with warm season grasses such as big and little blue stem, and prairie drop seed in areas that were disturbed during the construction process. Restoration efforts in non-wetland portions of the site included creation, restoration and/or enhancement of upland forest, old-field and meadow ecotones.

Since completion of the wetland construction, birds such as Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Mallard, Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Killdeer, Solitary Sandpiper, and Belted Kingfisher have been observed visiting the site. It is hoped that future years will see birds of prey such as osprey nesting in the area.

In fall 2003, the 4,000-foot Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant trail, built to host a series of specialized displays designed to interactively explain the complex interface between man and nature, was completed. After much research and testing, it was determined that the retained coal silt could not be satisfactorily used for trail construction since it could not be {Bird Nest} made stable enough to be ADA compliant.

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The interactive displays were designed to teach different aspects of science and environment by manipulating elements to encourage a “learn by doing, not just reading” approach to the educational component. The interpretive stations locations were strategically planned as a learning progression and were integral to the overalll educational program goal. The educational component begins with simple concepts: the basics that nature generally provides – habitat, land and water – and become increasingly more complex with displays of geology, amphibians, plants and birds that show how these basics of nature are used. The next set of educational stations builds on this knowledge to demonstrate the affect of human impact with displays about canals, desilting activities and locks. Finally, the trail ends with exhibits on site recovery and stewardship showcased by the project, warm season grasses, groundwater and bio-filters.

Examples of the interpretive stations include: a stream table to create landforms and add water to see how slope, land shape, water volume and other variables affect landforms, erosion potential and water quality; a watershed map to see where the viewer lives within the watershed and how they affect and are affected by neighbors; a river canal system exhibit, complete with a lock and boats to help understand the mechanics of canal locks; and, an amphibian identification display accompanied by four seasonal vernal pools to exhibit a frog’s lifecycle. For younger users, there is a kiosk to help them understand how animals find homes and food, and how their beaks and feet are adapted to the food they eat and the environment they call home; a graphic time line to show the geology of the Sanctuary and it’s neighboring community; and an opportunity to see a battle of the large lizards and search for dinosaur eggs in “Dino World,” which will be installed in the future.

Partially completed interpretive stations include: a bio-filter to demonstrate the difficulties of dealing with residential surface water runoff and nitrogen pollution (primarily as found in lawn fertilizers); “Plant World,” a 20-foot wide tree trunk to demonstrate the different types of plant materials found in both wetland and river edge areas; “Bird World,” a “twig bird’s nest” to accommodate 25 visitors and host exhibits showing different adaptations birds use to eat.

Future displays will be designed to provide fun-to-do learning activities that reinforce programmatic goals and objectives established for the project and will include interactive exercises that demonstrate water quality, meadow ecosystems, and butterfly gardening. The learning goals were chosen to comply with science and environment teaching units described in Pennsylvania’s junior and senior high school education curriculum guidelines.

Overall, the Black Rock project was, at times, a bit unruly given the shear number of approvals, reviews and funding sources involved. Ultimately, this site will be connected to the Schuylkill Valley Trail as a part of the Schuylkill Valley National and State Heritage Area. This is a project that when completed, will have dollar investments from Chester County, the US FWS North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant program, PA DEP, PA DCNR Community Conservation Grant Program, and the William Penn Foundation in excess of $2 million for design, construction, site acquisition and restoration.

Today, the park is heavily used for recreation and education by nearby residents, school children and even college classes. All in all, the brainstorming that encouraged everyone to stretch their imaginations to make this project truly unique and a valuable asset to the County’s park and recreation system was one of the best experiences we had on the project.

Madeline CantĂș, RLA/ASLA, Trails Project Coordinator, Schuylkill River National and State Heritage Area, writes:

The project at Black Rock Sanctuary is a prime example of what can be done when federal, state, private, and non-profit partnerships are formed in the interest of a vision. The inspiring result is a pleasant recreational and natural resource for Chester County that will educate residents and visitors to the site.

The Schuylkill River watershed has been designated by the United States Congress as a nationally significant heritage area because of the natural and cultural resources within its boundaries. A big part of that significance is related to the use of the Schuylkill River as an engine for the Industrial Revolution. The environmental damage that the coal industry brought to the waterway had negative impacts on its image that linger even to today, despite the cleanup efforts of the 1950’s that have cleared its waters.

The work at Black Rock Sanctuary focuses on the progress that the Schuylkill River has made from the blighted remnants of the industrial machine to a recreational resource and community asset. The story that the sanctuary tells is one of renewal and hope and the successful project implementation process provides a template for other heritage resource sites in the Schuylkill River watershed.


Hair Riot said...

Wow, Karen...thanks for the information. Our family often walks there and now we know lots more about it's history and importance! Nice job!

Karen said...

You're very welcome!

DianeScraps said...

Thanks for the information - my kids and I checked it out today and enjoyed our walk.

Karen said...

Oh, you are welcome, Diane!

Did you or your children have any favorite areas or learn of anything else of interest while there?

Carl R. Kelemen said...

Karen et. al.

Currently, the Black Rock site is closed for installation of new educational exhibits, trail paving to make it easier to use for those with disabilities and a butterfly garden! It will repoen in the spring.

Carl R. Kelemen said...


Currently the Black Rock site is closed for improvements, including paving of trails to make it easier for those with disabilities, upgrades to some of the existing educational exhibits, installation of new exhibits and a butterfly garden.

The Sanctuary will reopen in the spring.