The spawning habits of river herring may provide an important key to those who want to eliminate a deadly safety hazard created by the “boulevard dam” and swimming hole along the Pennypack Creek in Bustleton.
Councilman Brian O’Neill said Monday a draft memo that a consultant created in February outlines a plan that would cut a channel in the dam and create a natural fishway that would allow river herring to spawn upstream. At the same time, it would eliminate the swimming hole just above the dam, and the temptation that young people have had over the years to jump into the water from a nearby footbridge and float over the dam’s waterfall.
Most of Pennypack Creek in Northeast Philly is shallow, but the dam creates a swimming hole about four to seven feet deep — and much deeper when fueled by rainstorms.
“It’s a win-win” O’Neill said, eliminating a public safety hazard, preserving the environment and removing the last barrier on the Pennypack for fish that want to swim back and forth on the creek.
The councilman was spurred to action following the death of Brandon Boyle, 13, of Bell’s Corner, who jumped into the rain-swollen stream on July 1. His body was found downstream on July 4, after dozens of volunteers searched along the stream. A vigil that attracted about 200 people was held on the creek bank the night his body was recovered.
Over the last three years, two young people have lost their lives and three others — including Brandon’s younger brother, Anthony — had to be rescued after jumping into the popular swimming hole located between Roosevelt Boulevard and a park entrance on Winchester Avenue at Woodward Street.
The Boyle family issued a statement on Monday applauding O’Neill’s efforts.
“No family should ever have to lay to rest a young boy not yet in the prime of life,” wrote James P. Boyle, Brandon’s grandfather. “My family is not the first to endure this torture because of that dam, but hopefully we shall be the last.”
Boyle added that “the pain for this family will never diminish, and the void will never be filled. But I speak for all of us when I say the only solace we will ever feel is knowing that through Brandon’s sacrifice, that beautiful, vibrant little bran-man was able to accomplish what no one else had — closing down that death trap!
“If he could speak to the councilman himself, I’m sure he’d say — ‘Please Mr. O’Neill, make it count.’”
O’Neill, who will soon represent this area of Bustleton, convened a meeting at his City Hall offices on July 31 with Joan Blaustein of the environmental division of Fairmount Park, Joanne Dahme of the city Water Department and Jack Kraeuter of the state Department of Environmental Protection, who participated by telephone. O’Neill subsequently talked with Ben Lorson of the state Fish and Game Commission.
At the meeting, the contents of the draft memo was discussed. It includes otching the dam and installing a fish ladder or a nature-like fishway. Both would allow passage of river herring upstream to spawn in the spring, and create a steady flow of water, thus eliminating the swimming hole.
The four-foot tall stone and masonry dam once had value when mills and factories were located on the creek, but no longer serves any purpose.
“We have a preliminary plan that gives us a leg up,” O’Neill said. “There is momentum behind this.”
The next step is to determine the cost of creating the fishway, and then to begin the pursuit of the funding — using public and private foundation dollars — to build it.
O’Neill plans a follow-up meeting at the end of August.
Asked why he was determined to pursue the effort, he said, “I am convinced that the story of Brandon Boyle should be the last one. His death has struck a nerve with so many people, and that will be the driving force.” ••