Schuylkill Falls

The Falls of the Schuylkill
(Detail from "Portrait of John Dickinson")




"Portrait of John Dickinson"
by Charles Willson Peale (1770)


"the celibrated falls of Soolkiln" to Meriwether Lewis

During the eighteenth and early 19th centuries the falls of the Schuylkill2 River, four miles upstream from its once marshy confluence with the Delaware River, was the most famous natural attraction in the vicinity of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where its roar could be heard when the wind blew from the northwest. Schuylkill Falls was more like the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville than the Great Falls of the Missouri, inasmuch as boats could be guided thorugh its rocky hazards by skilled pilots.

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), the "patriarch of American painters of the Revolutionary period," made a watercolor sketch of Schuylkill Falls before introducing it in Dickinson's portrait to subtly identify the man with the city.3 Beginning in the 1790s the falls became a popular subject of drawings, magazine engravings, landscape paintings, and portraits such as this one. In 1821 Fairmount Dam was built a short distance downstream, and Schuylkill Falls was submerged in the backwater.

John Dickinson (1732-1808), the American statesman known as "the penman of the Revolution," drafted the Articles of Confederation, and was a delegate to the Continental Congress. His book, Letters from an American Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (1767-68), influenced support for Colonial independence both at home and abroad. He also wrote a popular song titled "A Song for American Freedom." He signed the Constitution and, as a pamphleteer under the pseudonym Fabius, was an effective advocate for its adoption.



1. Peale also painted the well-known portraits of William Clark (1806) and Meriwether Lewis (1807).

2. Schuyl Kil, pronounced skoo-kul, is Dutch for "hidden stream."

3. Martin P. Snyder, City of Independence: Views of Philadelphia Before 1800 (New York: Praeter Publishers, 1975), 86.