There used to be a train station, in the lower northeast of Philadelphia, called Cedar Grove. It was on Tabor Ave, just a bit southwest of Godfrey Ave, and was on the Frankford spur of the train line that goes to Fox Chase, which is in a bit farther part of the northeast of Philadelphia. This spur went just about all the way to Frankford Ave, ending at a terminus between Unity and Sellers Streets. It was a train line that carried freight and also passengers – starting in the late 19th century, it lasted well into the 20th century, going behind the Sears on the Boulevard, along the eastern edge of Northwood Park, and among the houses of heavily populated Frankford.
It also traveled through Cedar Grove. This was the name of the neighborhood, as well as the train station, and up through the early part of the 20th century, it had open marshes and thickets, and forests with spring wildflowers, and wild flocks of birds filling the sky.
Cedar Grove is just to the east of Tacony Creek and just above the Boulevard, and in the early part of the 20th century it was quite unbuilt. There were woods there, with beeches and oaks, and poplars and sweetgum and ash trees and sassafras, too, all growing there among each other. In the spring there were anemones and partridge berries on the forest floor – and hayscented fern was there, as was the trout lily, one of the beautiful wildflowers of the spring, which would’ve come up year after year alongside the mayflower that was there, neighboring side by side with the bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia) and jack in the pulpits.
Another fern, royal fern, would’ve grown in low wet areas of the woods, and yet another fern, interrupted fern would’ve been a bit higher up. Royal fern, whose latin name is Osmunda regalis, is in the same genus as the interrupted fern, Osmunda claytoniana. The interrupted fern, however, likes it a little bit drier than its wetland cousin, and so would’ve been in areas a bit drier – upland and underneath the trees, growing along with and near the wood sedge that would’ve dotted the ground up there.
Dwarf ginseng was also in the woods of Cedar Grove, on the ground, growing among the willow oaks, and poison ivy scrambled there, too. Pinxter, the azalea with its wild pink flowers, would’ve been a bright beacon in the forest of the early spring.
Beneath the beeches and the oaks were also Dutchman’s pipes, a plant also commonly called by its Latin name, Monotropa. This is a parasitic plant, it doesn’t make its own sugar, it isn’t green, it doesn’t photosynthesize – it eats sugar that is carried through mycorrhizal fungi, this achlorophyllous plant parasitizing the fungus that in turn has gotten its sugar from a plant with which it is mutualistically symbiotic.
In addition to these forests, there were wide open flats, somewhat wet, in Cedar Grove, with sheep laurel and blueberries, and purple milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), too. Swamp white oak and black willows made little canopies here and there in these wet areas, as woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) nodded in the breeze nearby, bobbing along with the rustling of the narrow leaved and the wide leaved cattails. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) attracted the butterflies, and close to the ground, trailing lightly and low, was the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).
And there were birds – enormous flocks of blackbirds flew above the flats. And in the woods Eastern Towhees (which also used to be called, colloquially, “chewinks”) scratched and picked among the leaves, loudly and boldly, with White-throated Sparrows following behind them, picking through their trails. American Kestrels (also known as sparrow hawks, back in the early 20th century) cruised above the long flat fields of Cedar Grove, and Ovenbirds walked among the forest trees, occasionally flying up to sit in a tree’s branch and sing.
Meadowlarks, now rarely seen in Frankford, used to be in Cedar Grove year round – in the middle of December, in flocks numbering to more than 25, they’d get flushed by a train going by and fly through the air. And the Winter Wren was out along the train tracks, too, in the icy cold, a little chilled hobo out there in the sleet and snow.
So how do we know all this? How can I say with such detail what was living and growing in Cedar Grove in the early 20th century, when I wasn’t there and wasn’t until many decades later? Well, one can reconstruct former ecologies, one can estimate historic plant and animal communities, by knowing habitats of plants and animals, and figuring out, based on climate and soil and hydrology what the habitat of the site would have been in the past, and then, building from that information, one can construct a vision as to what would have been there in the past. That’s one way to do it, and for most places in the world, that’s really the best you can do.
However, in Philadelphia, we very often have another way to do this – here, we have extensive written records and museum collections, and it’s amazing the level of detail available, documenting what has lived here before. One might expect there to be records for cultivated plants in parks and gardens, because they were planted by people, and people can keep records. But there is also extensive and intensive information available on many of the plants that grew without being planted by people, and for the animals that walked and flew among those plants. Philadelphia’s rich history of natural history is unequalled for supplying this kind of information, and for keeping these records. [Note: There is also a record of a Herring Gull of which “Mr. Wm. Morris Whitaker also secured a specimen October, 1893, on a mill dam at Cedar Grove, Philadelphia, five miles from the Delaware.” from Witmer Stone’s “The Birds of Eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey” (1894)]
And we can use those records, if we know about them, to learn about what was here before. Or, if we don’t know about them, we can talk to those that do. In 1910, Henry S. Borneman read a paper before the Historical Society of Frankford about the birds that were in the area, including Cedar Grove, in the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries. Over a hundred years later, in 2012, Susan Couvreur and Diane Sadler, of the Historical Society of Frankford today, drew my attention to that work, with its richly detailed description of the bird life of Frankford, and also its discussions of the plants and habitats of the time.
There are also plants from Philadelphia that were, in many years past, collected, pressed, dried, and mounted on paper sheets, that are now deposited at the Department of Botany of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and these plants that were collected decades ago provide evidence of what is no longer there. There’s also a list of historic collections of plants from Philadelphia, that was extracted from the Plants of Pennsylvania database maintained by the Morris Arboretum, that was kindly provided to me by Ann Rhoads and Tim Block (botanists at the Arboretum). This list provides an effective guide to the many collections from Cedar Grove that have been made in the past.
There were collectors in years gone by that allowed me to develop this wonderfully rich description of a site that has changed so much. Walter Benner collecting sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) on the 8th of July in 1926, in a moist thicket of Cedar Grove. Samson McDowell, Jr collecting blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) in the moist woods there, on the 19th of May 1926. These collections are now part of the Academy’s collections, and nearly 90 years later, their work allowed me to see first hand the plants that were there when they wandered through those open areas of Cedar Grove.
There are also maps, such as the 1895 and 1910 Bromley Atlases, from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia (available on PhilaGeoHistory.org), that show just how open the area was, how unbuilt it was a hundred years ago, and where the train line that cut through Cedar Grove went.
Taking these records, and applying some additional knowledge of ecology, we can describe Cedar Grove nearly as thoroughly as if we had walked through it ourselves – and a surprisingly detailed picture of this place in the early 20th century can be cobbled together. Its open marshy areas and its forests, both of them rich with flowers and birds, the train line running through it, trees dotting the flats. An evocative illustration can be drawn of a landscape that is no longer there. And perhaps an evocative illustration can also be drawn of a landscape that is yet to be.