Scroggie Valley: How history inspires conservation
Monthly Feature, October, 2016.
By Stephanie Gaboriault
Scroggie Valley: How History Inspires Conservation
Monthly Feature, October, 2016.
By Stephanie Gaboriault

“As for the valley and its hills as they now are, I have known all their nooks since the beauty, the quietness, and the nameless charm of Scroggie drew my steps through the opening, and by degrees toward the far, blue, woody ending thereof more than twenty years ago.” - T. Chalkley Palmer, 1889

Image For the past five years, I’ve dedicated an embarrassing amount of time to the restoration of a 33-acre county park in suburban Philadelphia, with mixed results.

During a discussion with a volunteer at a recent Friends of Glen Providence Park tree planting event, I had an epiphany: when I walk through the park, I see it not just as it looks today, but also as it looked long ago, with its rustic WPA footbridges and charming carved-letter entrance signs, and, yet longer ago, the sylvan home of the First-Nations Okehocking; and, when I look at the native saplings and shrubs we have planted, I envision the mature grove I hope they will be in 100 years. I realized that my view of the park is temporally fluid - I edit from the past, future, and present so that I see the most positive vision of the land, a landscape thriving with native species, abundant with wildlife, aesthetically pleasing, and beloved by the community.

We are fortunate to have a detailed description of this steep valley on the edge of Media Borough from 1889 when it was enchantingly called Scroggie Valley. A local scientist and naturalist named T. Chalkley Palmer poetically described its landscape, vegetation, and wildlife in a 13-page essay for his alma mater, Haverford College. He recounted liberating a water snake named Joe he had held in captivity as a child, and where in the park he “first heard the wood-robin [Wood Thrush] strike a note from his harp. It is the perfection of music when heard in its place and season… the note of the wood-robin is the spontaneous voice of Nature, devoid of artifice, clear as a bell.”

These stories from the past hang in the air as I hike through the park. When I hear a Wood Thrush or Eastern Towhee, or see a Watersnake, Jewelweed, or Mountain Laurel, I think of T. Chalkley Palmer. It’s comforting that so many of the species he described endure in the park; however, his description of the eastern side of the valley as “wooded continuously with oaks and chestnuts” also reminds us of those we have lost: the American Chestnut decimated by blight, and his beloved trailing arbutus, which we have yet to find.

Though Chalkley describes an idyllic landscape, there was a shingle mill operating in the valley just decades before, fed by a mill race running the length of the current park. Much to Chalkley’s disdain, a 30’ dam was later built at one end of the valley; to this day, it remains a source of ecological problems. These areas, disrupted well over 100 years ago, are those where we spend the most hours liberating native trees and shrubs from invasive plants. Knowing how disturbed the land once was, and seeing how it is recovering (the western hill once “nearly devoid of trees” is now fully wooded), gives me perspective and helps me to be more patient with the land and its rate of recovery.

Image Glen Providence Park was founded in this valley as a bird sanctuary and arboretum in 1935, and effusive newspaper articles from its first decade provide details about the landscape and its WPA structures and records of birds, trees, shrubs, reptiles, and amphibians. Some of these records are specific enough to enter into databases, and they provide lists of what to seek in our current citizen science efforts and what to replant at our volunteer days. A printed Nature Guide from 1941 describes a self-guided walk through the park; the loving caretaker wrote that it “has been prepared as a seeing eye for nature lovers, in order that they may enjoy the abundance of shrubs, flowers, trees and wildlife found in this lovely Glen.” Some of those treasures are sadly gone, but some remain - today there are four surviving Trillium right where the guide describes them. The guide indicates that over 90 species of birds had been found in the park, so our list of 127 feels like a true accomplishment!

We draw on nostalgia for past events - summer concerts, July 4th fireworks, Halloween Haunted Woods, and fishing derbies - to re-engage the community with the park, which had been largely ignored in the 1990’s and 2000’s. We reinstated summer concerts at the historical WPA stage, where we also introduced Shakespeare in the Park, and for Halloween, an enactment of the park’s ghost and witch stories from local folklore.

We hope to draw some of these event attendees to hike the trails, sit in contemplation by the pond, watch wildlife, and volunteer. And by learning about the park, they too may think of T. Chalkley Palmer when they hear the ethereal song of the Wood Thrush. The park, as it is now, and our nature walks, concerts, and volunteer days can deepen connection and inspire stewardship.

Every day, I see a large American Beech in the park through my kitchen window. It stands magnificently on a steep hillside below my house so that I have a view straight into its canopy. Over 100’ tall, its form is elegant, and the afternoon sun shining on its pale gray bark can be breathtaking. It is the most lovely tree in the park, but it is showing its age; some limbs have already fallen, and after storms I check to make sure it still stands. I have passed it hundreds of times but just learned this year about an inscription on it from 1897 written in calligraphy by local master mason Isaac Worrall. Based on the tree’s species and diameter, it is estimated to be 273 years old! Seeing this majestic tree in its decline reminds me of the importance of planting new trees to replace it, so that future generations may someday appreciate them as I do this one.

Each tree we plant is an act of hope - hope that it will survive, thrive, and fulfill its potential. Whenever we plant a tree, I envision the many birds, caterpillars, and pollinators that will use it for food and habitat. In 100 years, some may even be majestic. When I get discouraged with our progress - when a fallen tree flattens a collection of Spicebush we liberated over several years from dense invasive multiflora rose, or a storm worsens erosion along a streambank - I think of the amazing recovery the valley has made from its years with a millrace, the construction of a 30’ dam, and even decades of neglect as a park.

This history of Glen Providence Park, and Scroggie Valley before it, captures the imagination and deepens our connection to the land. These stories of place enrich our experience of the park, and transform an at-times-lovely but not spectacular valley into a place more magical and wondrous, inspiring us to continue preserving and enhancing this 33-acre haven in a densely populated county outside of Philadelphia.

Image Stephanie Gaboriault
After a completely unrelated business career, Stephanie Gaboriault has volunteered full time in Media Borough, PA since 2005. She coordinated 2nd Saturday Arts Strolls, Bastille Day celebrations, annual streams cleanups, and a junior science club, and served on a Fair Trade Town committee and historical archives commission. In 2011, Stephanie founded the nonprofit Friends of Glen Providence Park. Her favorite park pursuits are historical research, admiring birds and trees, hiking, and battling multiflora rose.