From a grand spire to a modest stub in only a hundred years, the steeple of the Falls of Schuylkill Baptist church shrinks in photos by Kenneth Finkel in his book “Philadelphia Then and Now: 60 Sites Photographed in the Past and Present.” We don’t know why the steeple is so diminished (perhaps the Gale of 1878?)–but it is curious to us that one of the first churches in East Falls has gotten smaller as the community has grown. Finkel provides a colorful sketch of the transition from the Falls of the Schuylkill to today’s East Falls:
“The first village upstream of Fairmount was a small, mostly industrial place called Falls of the Schuylkill. Great boulders spanning the river there appeared to be convenient as bridge foundations. But bridges were washed out. One after another, by annual floods or destroyed by annual ice. These bridges, it seemed, provided better conversation than transportation. The village grew tightly on the steep slope up from the mills, everyone lived within earshot of the rushing water. The prolific catfishermen who stocked tanks and ponds of nearby taverns heard it best as it tumbled over the smooth boulders. Those who worked in the mills on the hillside barely heard it. But in 1821, when the dam at Fairmount caused the river to rise slowly and permanently submerge its boulders, the Falls of the Schuylkill faded until they made no sound at all.
“As the falls disappeared, so did the springtime ritual of catfish and waffle suppers. The river ran calmly, muddily, and with relatively few catfish about the Fairmount dam. If not for the retired fishermen’s propensity to weave tales of their phenomenal all-night catches, residents of the falls might have forgotten this lore.
“The catfish were gone in the twentieth century, when the neighborhood fell on hard times. The congregation of the Falls of Schuylkill Baptist Church, attended from the 1850’s by local brickyard and factory workers, dwindled in the 1980’s to a dedicated 45 members. Meanwhile an entrepreneurial urge in the neighborhood resulted in gentrification. New “fish” stories begin to replace the old ones. Real estate, underpriced by Center City standards, was ‘developed’ by moguls who cast out investments and hauled in an annual 40 percent increase in value. They talk of their “catches” at a local urban professional’s tavern, which, by no coincidence, serves farmed catfish.”