O’Neill: ‘A leg up’ on removing dam hazard

Coun­cil­man de­tails plan that would cut chan­nel in Pennypack Creek dam and elim­in­ate swim­ming hole just above the dam.

A mod­el: This fish­way in Ply­mouth, Mass., could be a mod­el for one that could be ad­ded to a sec­tion of Pennypack Creek.

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.” ••

You can reach at lswanson@bsmphilly.com.

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