Rhawnhurst: Danger and Disease in Pennypack Creek

The view of the dam from Roosevelt Boulevard.

More than a dozen men, arms linked, spanned the Pennypack Creek. They trudged through the murky water looking for the body of a Father Judge High School student.

The boy, Nicky Simonetti, 14, went missing two days earlier after he dove into the creek to save a friend, who had fallen over the waterfall created by a dam. That friend, Chris Busse, 15, was found dead 20 minutes after the incident. Simonetti’s body was more than two miles downstream snared in a tree limb. His father and stepfather found him. That was July 1996.

“Neither man has ever been the same since,” said Beth Simonetti-Gallelli, Simonetti’s mother.

Despite the fact that swimming in the city creeks is illegal, the City of Philadelphia does not keep data on how many drowning incidents occur there. Research by the Daily News put the number at about 17 over the course of 20 years.

One year ago, July 1, 2013, Brandon Boyle, 13, drowned in the creek.

Yesterday, a drowning was reported in Tacony Creek, adjacent to Pennypack. Philadelphia police were called for a person in distress at about 5:50 PM. Rescuers reportedly pulled the teenage victim from the water and transported him or her to a nearby hospital where they were pronounced dead.

“You can say about one a year,” Simonetti-Gallelli said.

Simonetti-Gallelli said the city and the community need to do more. Others agree.

“There are not enough rangers in the parks,” said Elsie Stevens, the president of nearby Holme Circle Civic Association. “I know there’s not a lot of money around but maybe we can use intern rangers.”

A man laying with a newspaper next to the dam.
A man read a newspaper next to the dam.

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation generally do not issue citations for swimming violations.

“We usually get compliance with our educational enforcement approach,” said Mark Focht, First Deputy Commissioner of Parks & Recreation, in a June 27 email to Philadelphia Neighborhoods. “Each year Park Rangers have between 500 and 600 educational enforcement encounters in Pennypack for swimming from June through August.”

Stevens recently began a series of informational sessions at local schools to warn the kids before summer break.

“Education only goes so far though,” Stevens said. “We need more signs and the signs at Frankford and Solly should be in Spanish.”

Stevens said a lot of folks from the Spanish speaking neighborhoods take SEPTA’s 66 bus to that location.

Simonetti-Gallelli would support a totally different kind of sign that transcends language.

“I’d like a tombstone down there with all the kid’s name’s on it,” Simonetti-Gallelli said. “You could leave a place at the bottom that says, ‘If you want your name here go ahead and swim in the creek.’”

A Mother’s Pain and Warning

Down and Dirty

Simonetti-Gallelli worries kids may not fear the physical danger enough. So after learning about the bacteria in the water she developed a back-up plan.

“The water there is filthy,” Simonetti-Gallelli said. “There’s human waste, dog droppings, dead deer and car parts. All of it will make you sick. Why would you want to swim in that?”

She says all of the men who searched for her son became ill shortly thereafter.

Dr. L. Stewart Barbera, M.D., F.A.A.P., a local pediatrician in practice since the 1960s, concurs. He points out bird waste is also problematic. He considers about 28 diseases as possibilities from contact with the water.

“There’s a whole host of diseases that can come from the water,” Barbera said. “Anthrax can be distributed through the water, legionella, E.coli, campylobacter, just so many.”

Each condition varies somewhat, but early symptoms generally include diarrhea, cramps and high fever.

“Hepatitis E can come from there too,” Barbera said. “Another bad one is Haverhill Fever.”

Hepatitis E is commonly transmitted via the fecal-oral route. Haverhill Fever is also known as “rat-bite fever,” but does not have to come from actually being bitten by a rat.

Barbera’s practice sees a few water-related cases each day in the summer.

“Sometimes it’s just swimmer’s ear, which can come from a pool too, but we look for West Nile Virus and parasites like giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis.”

Most cases can be treated effectively with antibiotics. But the extreme cases can lead to meningitis and pneumonia, both of which have potential to cause outbreaks among other people.

A recent storm caused this tree to lean over the walking bridge.
A recent storm caused this tree to lean over the walking bridge.

The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) has studies that track fish populations. One disturbing aspect is the loss of fish that do not tolerate pollution well, coupled with an increase in fish that do tolerate dirty water.

“The shift in the composition of the Pennypack Creek fish community is likely due to increased habitat degradation and diminished water quality,” reads the “Pennypack Creek Watershed Comprehensive Characterization Report” from PWD.

The monitoring station closest to the dam indicates an increase in fecal coliform over time.

“Site PP340 (Pennypack Creek at Rhawn St.) was the only site in which modern mean fecal coliform concentrations were significantly greater than historic values,” the study reads.

Breaching the problem

Simonetti-Gallelli also understands the limits of convincing kids who believe they are invincible.

“Kids will be kids,” Simonetti-Gallelli said. She said the ultimate move is to remove the dam.

Pennypack creek had several dams due to the amount of mills nearby and to mitigate flooding problems. But since the mills are gone and the flooding issues are addressed in other ways most of the dams have been removed.

Stevens said Councilman Brian O’Neill’s office is working on funding to that end. Part of the problem is PWD pipes under the dam. The other is the difficulty in getting heavy equipment to the site, which can only be accessed by small roads designed for bicycles.

Councilman O’Neill’s office would not comment for this story, but Stevens said the figure they gave her was $800,000 to $900,000.

A fishing related sign at entrance to the Pennypack Creek area.
A fishing related sign at entrance to the Pennypack Creek area.

Some folks worry about the dam removal hurting fishing. Chris Lamplugh takes his family to fish in the creek.

“One of the problems if you take down the dam, it brings down the water level a lot,” Lamplugh said.

But a study by the Philadelphia Water Department concludes the opposite may be true.

Dams can block the passage of fish…from passing through [and] can also create backwaters resulting in…depleted oxygen conditions, according to the study.

Lamplugh said more signs might help.

“I saw one sign up there posted but maybe more you know,” Lamplugh said. “Because if you look up there near the bridge there is one sign posted ‘No Swimming’ but that’s the only one I see.”

“It’s sad, it really is,” Lamplugh said. “[Boyle] was from Rhawnhurst. So…a few people knew him that I knew so it was really tragic.”

In the meantime, Focht has some advice.

“Swimming in creeks and streams in the City of Philadelphia is illegal,” Focht said. “We encourage users of all ages to adhere to the law for their own safety. Parks & Recreation offers 70 swimming pools throughout the city, which are open free of charge to all for a safe and fun experience.”

SUPN14OXFORD-ss1-entrance-horrocks SUPN14OXFORD-ss2 SUPN14OXFORD-ss3-rip brandon sign2 SUPN14OXFORD-ss4- SUPN14OXFORD-ss5-grafitti SUPN14OXFORD-ss6-bridge2 SUPN14OXFORD-ss7 SUPN14OXFORD-ss8 SUPN14OXFORD-ss9 SUPN14OXFORD-ss10
A “No Swimming” sign high up on a tree near a walking bridge near the dam. Someone scrawled a tribute to Brandon Boyle on the bottom.

– Text, video and images by Bob Stewart and Jeff Neiburg.


  1. Excellent article and well researched. It is the responsibility of the PWD to keep all creeks and waterways clean and pollution-free. This article speaks aloud about so much. I grew up around Cobbs Creek Park. It was cleaner in those days and mounted police kept guard. As kids we were protected. Thank you Robert Stewart for your insightful writing. Keep on top of these things.

  2. the Pennypack Creek in Huntingdon Valley is where my sister and 5 cousins always waded and explored…those were the happiest of days…1948 thru later years…

  3. The creek near Pennypack creek is TOOKANY Creek not Tacony ( near DE river ie Tacony-Palmyra bridge

  4. i remember well when Chris Busse drowned. Such a tragedy: such a waste! Unfortunately, our teens have the idea that they are invincible, and have a “that won’t happen to me” attitude.

  5. I don’t like this article. Typos abound (Water Sheds!?), but also misses an important opportunity to highlight the need for cleaner water. We should be imploring PWD to give us fresh, fishable, drinkable water for our children to play in–not imploring them to send mounted rangers to keep kids out of wster we’ve allowed to become embarrassing ly filthy.

  6. There are families living at Frankford and Ashburger in PennyPack Park leaving trash and swimming in that water we need police presence there to enforce the law!!!

  7. The Pennypack Creek is way cleaner than it was when I frequented the park in the late 60’s & early 70’s! Way cleaner!

  8. I grew up on Old Newtown Rd in Bustleton. This was late 1940’s through 1963 when I graduated high school and left the area. I have wonderful memories of learning how to swim in Pennypack Creek, walking down to the creek at the bottom of Newtown Rd to fill our bottle at the spring head there with pure drinking water. The city kept the area down there clean, grass mowed with picnic tables and many families would go there to swim and fish and barbecue. What a better time that was. Today it is all grown over with weeds and piles of trash dumped there, etc. A tragedy of huge proportions and a sign of how far down our society has gone. We even had a general store called Gallaghers where most folks shopped. It was a beautiful country town. Now it is a chopped up mess with evidence of past corruption that ran wild between developers, zoning boards or the lack of and city planners or whatever they were called then. To say the least, from the looks of a once beautiful town a lot of money changed hands. Too bad this seems to be the story of so many small towns. It’s hard to recognize the town I grew up in as it simply no longer exists.

  9. I live in Pennypack and all Summer long there are parties and people in that creek they leave there trash every where its disgusting they drink and break bottles im suprised there aren’t more drownings because of that 🙁 We need more police and Park Rangers down there PLEASE

  10. SADLY! Removing dams or waterfalls will never keep anyone out of Pennypack ‘crick’, especially after a heavy rainfall, which is a draw. And for a previous commenter, Look up ‘watershed’ in your dictionary, it is not a typo…

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