Journeys: Rivers Run Through Us

Philadelphia has more miles of waterfront than Manhattan. So why don’t we think of ourselves as a river town? Our man sailed around the city to find out.

In Torresdale, where I started my voyage, I discovered a hideaway river-rat neighborhood. You turn right off dreary State Road, and suddenly you’re at the shore. A narrow road leads to Glen Foerd, an 1850 mansion on the water (unrelated to character actor Glenn Ford) that has arboretum-quality grounds and is available for weddings. Down a gravel driveway just before it is a little house called the Delaware River Yacht Club. It was established in the 1920s, when Torresdale was a rich man’s getaway. John Wanamaker was a charter member. Joe Apice describes it today as a workingman’s club. When I’d called the club looking for a boat, they said Apice was my guy. Apice (rhymes with “Ray Rice”) grew up in this neighborhood. As a kid in the early 1960s, he trapped and skinned river muskrats and sold the pelts to furriers. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 36 years, had a heart attack at 54, retired at 55, and now, at 58, smokes likes a Weber grill and takes his boat out whenever he can. She was tied to a dock when I went to meet him: a 1984 Chris-Craft Catalina. There’s always a great story behind the name an owner gives his boat, so I asked Apice about Impetuous. “It had that when I bought it,” he said. “It’s bad luck to change a boat’s name.” I’d found my captain.


Along with Cap’n Joe, we’d take his son Patrick, 28, a Bristol High substitute teacher. Joe also shanghaied his buddy Billy Wojtusik, 53, a barrel-chested retired roofer. At 9:30 on a cloudy morning, we loaded up Impetuous with cold ones. There was a whiff of gasoline, the motor began stroking, and it was anchors aweigh. Not far below the Yacht Club is Baxter Water Treatment Plant, from which 60 percent of Philadelphians get their water. We motored up near the intake grates, and I looked at the brownish liquid around the boat. Really? Fifty years ago, shad couldn’t get this far north. Water around Center City was so polluted with industrial waste that it didn’t contain enough oxygen for fish to breathe. Step one in getting the rivers back was getting the water back. Now the river isn’t industry’s toilet, and the fish run. Patrick showed me a picture on his cell phone – he’s holding a striper as wide as his chest. “When we were kids, you couldn’t even see your feet in the water,” Billy said. “Today, you can count your toes.”