Rancocas Creek: A small creek with big ideas

THE RANCOCAS CREEK in southern New Jersey twists and turns on the map like Christmas curly ribbon with its headwaters deep in the Pine Barrens, it flows west and empties into the Delaware River across from northeast Philadelphia.

It snakes its way through some pretty typical South Jersey development.

And then it doesn't.

If you look at Google Maps, from where the New Jersey Turnpike crosses the creek (near where the two branches converge) east to Mt. Holly, you discover a great polygon of green, beginning where the north and south branches of the creek separate. Most of that land is the Rancocas State Park and some of it is farmland. Green patches haphazardly abut the creek wherever it runs.

Standing on the bank of the North Branch, you can watch as the tide pushes the waters up toward Mt. Holly and back down again. Marsh grasses populate the farther banks. And the sky is bigger than seems possible.

You feel isolated from the hubbub of metropolitan Philadelphia only 17 miles away. Here, the creek seems forgotten.

It isn't.

John Anderson discovered this remarkable place about five years ago, and he wants other people to discover the joys of this placid creek — preferably on the water, not just on its banks.

Anderson is an avid kayaker and a life-long community activist. And he dreams big dreams for this creek.

He's heading up a community application to the National Parks Service to make this creek — all of it — a National Water Trail, a designation that brings bragging rights but no money. Most of the investment in the project so far is sweat equity, which is fine by Anderson.

And just to illustrate how ambitious this project is, there are only 21 such trails in the United States. Two of them are in New York: the Hudson River Greenway Water Trail and the Bronx River Blueway. (More about Water Trails here.)

There are none in the Delaware River watershed and none in the rest of Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware.

Looking downriver at the North Branch of the Rancocas Creek, flowing toward the Delaware River about nine miles away. MEG McGUIRE PHOTO

Anderson reckons that the way to preserve the peacefulness of this setting is to bring people here to appreciate it and they will help him conserve what he clearly loves.

He's already doing that.

Listen to Melissa Rozecki (taken from an email conversation about the creek):

I actually discovered the trail via Facebook. John had posted about a summer solstice paddle. Not a kayaker, 50+ and pretty lazy, I thought it looked cool but didn't do it.

A few weeks later (in July of last summer) I decided to message John about opportunities to rent kayaks and possibly go with others. My boys had kayaked as scouts and encouraged me to give it a shot despite my fear of ending up in the creek.

John emailed me back and said that if I didn't mind listening to him talk about the trail and the history and his plans and take them back to the Boy Scouts (where I work, and also right across from Melpine Landing).

My son and I met John at the landing and we set off. Remember I had never kayaked before! The next thing I know I was in downtown Mt. Holly! Little did I know we were working with the tide 🙂

My son and I learned about the history of the area and had a very enjoyable day.

I went back to work and shared my adventure with anyone who would listen. Boy Scouts came out to help clear the landing and I believe a few have been with working with John on Eagle Scout projects!

At that point Melpine Landing access was barely wide enough to get to the water.

The Boy Scouts as a whole are not involved but various local troops have been involved. Troop 2764 from Burlington is the one that I know about that is working on an Eagle Project proposal for the creek.

As someone who has hiked the land area along parts of the blue trail, I think it is a great resource that very few people know about.

This contagious enthusiasm becomes a leitmotif in many of the comments about Anderson and this project.

"Nobody but John and a few of his friends have seen the possibility here," said Steve Nagiewicz, who teaches teaches Underwater Archeology and Marine Science at Stockton University in Galloway, N.J. He's collaborating with Anderson in discovering the creek's history, using sonar to see beneath the surface, to see into the past.

Many creeks have businesses that have lined their banks for decades or even hundreds of years. Not here.

"Once the turnpike bridges were put in," said Nagiewicz, "they effectively cut off the creek and it sort of was forgotten."

But that "forgetting" is key to reaping a fascinating crop of historical footprints of commerce and trade along what was once an important watery highway.

That's one of the criteria for the National Water Trails designation — that there needs to be some historical  or cultural significance to the waterway. And though the creek looks undeveloped now, it was the major highway for this area in the 1700s when there weren't good roads. So there are half-submerged docks, remnants of dams and foundations of forgotten buildings.

Nagiewicz is struck by how simultaneously unblemished by the present day the area is, as well as rich in history.

Timbuctoo, N.J., just off the Rancocas Creek, is a settlement founded in the 1820s by free blacks and former slaves. Below, a cemetery in Timbuctoo honors African-American soldiers from the Civil War with markers showing the letters GAR, for Grand Army of the Republic. STEVE NAGIEWICZ PHOTOS

"I've been out with John and his friends and we're hip deep in mud and I've never seen garbage, never seen evidence of drinking or fires," he said. "There seems to be nothing there but when you clear away the brush, you see old foundations, old mill runs."

Up another small creek off the North Branch called Grubbs Run is a small community called Timbuctoo, founded by free blacks and former slaves in the 1820s — some 40 years before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Hidden and out of the way, this was a stop on the Underground Railway run by blacks for blacks.

There's a Civil War cemetery with a plaque placed by the Westampton Historical Society in 2006 that commemorates the citizens of Timbuctoo who fought and died in the war. Descendants of the original families still live in the community.

The North Branch in the towns of Westampton and Mt. Holly is the focus of the work so far. Both towns support the project. Westampton Mayor André Daniels raves: "Absolutely in favor, enthusiastically support the National Water Trails designation. It's beautiful there. We have hawks and beavers. Things you read about or see on TV."

The South Branch, which wends its way up to Hainesport and Lumberton, is home to more expansive tidal marshes, and has it own story to tell — there were sand mines there and that sand was used to help build Philadelphia.

Nagiewicz' ambition is to use sonar to see underwater the length of both branches as well as the unified creek to the Delaware about 10 miles away.

In the town of Mt. Holly, the Christmas ribbon turns itself into almost a bow and circles back on itself not once but twice thanks to an oxbow in the stream, a dam and the work of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to mitigate flooding.

Randi Rothmel, chairwoman of the town's Environmental Advisory Committee, says that her committee is not working directly on the plan but is supports it.

"The stream in the town is underutilized, and the town generally wants to make it a focal point, " she said. Her committee has submitted a proposal for some grant money to allow building of more landings, making the connection of the upstream to the downstream easier for kayakers and canoers, Above Mt Holly, Burlington County has paid attention to the creek, designating it the Rancocas Creek Canoe Trail.

The possibility for young people to learn about and use the water safely is the chief reason for Sean Kennedy, the town recreation director, to support the project. Once again it was Anderson who helped him see the possibilities that the creek provides.

Anderson is forming a network through the two towns and beyond. Chris Linn from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission got involved when the DVRPA was asked by Mt. Holly to prepare its Public Access Plan, focused on ways to improve and protect public access to the Rancocas Creek in Mt. Holly. He wrote:

"Our main interest is enhancement of recreational opportunities in Mount Holly, conservation of lands along the creek to promote environmental quality and water quality, reductions of potential loss of life and property from catastrophic flooding by preserving floodplains in their natural state to the greatest extent possible, and improvements which will lead to economic development and a stronger tax base."

And one more partner — New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection. John Trontis, NJDEP's assistant director of Parks and Forests, notes that Anderson is helping with a simultaneous project of Park Superintendent Dave Robins and Regional Superintendent Tom Keck to obtain funding to make this part of the creek a state “blue” (water) trail. They, in turn, are supporting Anderson's federal application.

Much like the creek itself, there are twists and turns to make a project like this come to life.

"We have to protect this," Anderson says simply. He leaves it to others to celebrate his energy.

Nagiewicz sums him up nicely:  "He's passionate to the point of obsession."

And as Mayor Daniels point out: "Not everyone has that zeal, fortitude and stick-to-it-ive-ness that John has.

"Every community should have one."

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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