Manayunk Steps: Climbing Hidden Staircases with a Friend
By Barbara J. Hoekje
It’s a chilly day, even gloomy, as my friend Bonnie and I start out to explore the sixteen staircases of Manayunk. She’s heard the number from a local artist, but we’re doubtful. We’ve been walking and climbing Manayunk for years now and can only think of eight or nine. We both agree the One Hundred Steps stairs on the lower Wissahickon Creek is NOT MANAYUNK. Our first climb, farthest east, will be the staircase that scales the towering stone wall of Ridge Avenue as it sweeps up from Main at the Wissahickon Train Station. We set off at a brisk pace. Bonnie used to be a mail carrier and she moves fast.
#1 Wissahickon Train Station steps
high: Ridge Ave.
low: Main Street
I snap a few shots while Bonnie starts to sketch. I try to help with details but soon give up. It’s hopelessly hard to draw stairs like these, with landings and turns. I always thought people were harder--I want to enroll in art classes right now and specialize in stairs!
We go up and up. The stairs branch into a tunnel and we go through it to the train tracks on the other side. This old line used to bring coal up from Reading and other points west. Today it’s people on the R6. Back to the main stairs, we keep climbing to find ourselves at the top of Ridge near a hidden street that skims off to the left. We lean over the stone wall and see Main Street far below, the Schuylkill Valley spread out open and wide in front of us. How did we get so high so fast?
The street beckons us on. It is a bit of enchanted land, tucked between the train tracks on the east and the cliffs on the west. Bonnie tells me this is where a new development is planned. It’s hard to see it as a development, with its barking dogs and weeds and old industrial storage buildings. For today at least, it is left alone.
There is a bridge over the railroad tracks here, all rusty iron--golds and browns and reds, and decorated with graffiti from long ago. Joined to this train bridge are the steps going back down to Main Street.
#2 Dawson Street Transom Steps
High: Dawson at Cresson Street
Low: Dawson at Main Street
When was this built? We go down to Main Street, counting all the way, but disagree at the bottom. Back up, this time in lockstep counting together. Ninety-one at the top. We’re sure! We cross over to Cresson and continue north, Bonnie writing down names of sheriff sale and abandoned houses along the way. Her life is between things, full of possibilities. Mine, on the other hand, feels locked up, full of givens and hard work in every area--my job, marriage, parenting. This counting steps, though, feels free. “Did you see the light last night?” Bonnie asks me.
We head for the last set of stairs for today, the ones we think are next up. They aren’t, in fact, though we don’t know that until later. The next ones really are the East Street Stairs, which lead up to the rooftop walk of Manayunk Avenue as it crosses high above Shurs Lane. These I found by myself months later, on an unexpected traffic detour. (When I saw the characteristic gap in the wall, I almost drove off the road. How long had those steps been there? Why didn’t I ever see them before?) Those were the East Street Steps, which own the highest view of all of the whole river valley.
#3 East Street Steps
High: East at Dexter
Low: East at Manor
Today we’re on different path, though, finding the stairs from the lower approach up Shurs Lane. This staircase looks newer, is set into a casing of silvery stone that reminds us of a castle. Later, that’s what we always call it--the castle steps.
#4 Castle Steps (Wendover Street)
High: End of Wendover Street
I pick up my son from his lesson and we go along with Bonnie to an event down on the Flatrock River that turns out to be a protest against the proposed development on Venice Island. The protesters claim Venice Island is a floodway and have the pictures from Hurricane Floyd to prove it. My son is torn between telling or not telling Fox 29 reporters about the high water mark he found with his dad after the flood--he settles for me telling them and is deeply satisfied when he sees the reporters head off in that direction. Tonight we’ll watch the news.
It’s March, and a bright, brisk day, our second day out on the steps. We start with coats buttoned but by the time we’re done, they’re all opened. Today I start puzzled--I don’t know any steps between the ones we did last week and the Silverwood ones farther on. Bonnie does though. We start by climbing the Castle Steps and end up high on Manayunk Avenue. From there it’s back down to Terrace and Churchview as it begins to sweep down to the right.
#5 Jamestown (Churchview) Street Steps
High: Jamestown at Churchview and Terrace
Low: Jamestown at Tower
This is a metal straight-shot staircase with 109 steps going down in this pattern: 8--12--12--11--11--17--17--18--3. We find ourselves in the heart of Manayunk, hovering just above Pretzel Park. I ask Bonnie about my own house, to the west of here--“This is Manayunk but that’s Roxborough, right?” But Bonnie points out I have the “27” zip code and “that’s Manayunk.” Her voice has the ring of authority. As a former postal employee, she knows what she’s talking about.
I’m a newcomer to this geography. I came as an adult already imprinted with New Jersey sandbars and Ohio glacial till. But this large valley, home to the river the Lenape called “Meneyung,” speaks to me with its mix of geography and history. The row houses built for workers on the hillside, the staircases that people climbed up and down as they went to the factories along the canal, the stone houses that sparkle in the sunshine--I am entranced by it all. With its underlying sparkling stone, it’s the last solid rock between here and the Atlantic Ocean.
We head on over to what we think are the next steps, navigating by intuition and experience now to the next steps. High above Pretzel Park, they have their own pretzel twist!
#6 Roxborough Street Steps
High: Roxborough at Terrace
Low: Roxborough at Tower
These steps start up to the right 13 steps, then turn and go up to 49. Suddenly a side staircase branches off up to Boone Street while the main set goes up to 72. Another side branch goes up to a private house perched on the hill, while the main branch again goes up to Terrace.
We go up the main branch and walk over to Boone, where we pull against a cyclone fence perched high above Manayunk. The whole valley is spread before us again. This is the best view I’ve seen (since last week). We count the Catholic churches: St. John’s, the Irish Catholic grand cathedral is right below us. To the left is St. Josaphat’s (Polish) and we can just see St. Mary’s (we think that’s German). There are still further spires we’re not sure about. We complain about the cyclone fence (“It’s so city”), and go down the side flight of steps and join up with the main branch again. This is fun. We go up again and then walk over to Boone. Mid-block there’s another set of steps whose entrance lies between ivy covered fences. It feels secret, mysterious.
#7 Cotton Street stairs (lower)
High: Cotton at Boone
Low: Cotton at Tower
We go down to Tower. That’s it for today.
Saturday, March 11
I’m out solo today because I’ve got a lot on my mind. I’m about to go on a trip and need to be as solitary as possible this morning. I decide to retrace our steps--to find the connections between stairs by myself. They are already blurring in my mind and I want to find some way to anchor them. I remember reading about London taxi drivers and how their brains actually got bigger as they learned more of the geography they needed for their licensing exam. I do our route beginning at Cotton Street going backwards to the beginning. I am excited to find that I am able to navigate, to know as I go eastward down Cresson that the transom bridge ends in stairs to take me back down to Main. I begin to feel more geographically confident--perhaps my brain is bigger after all. But Manayunk is magical with its streets that appear and disappear and can never be found again.
Saturday, March 18
It’s cold again, unexpectedly winter weather. It snowed yesterday, amid the progression of spring. Bonnie lends me a scarf for the wind and we set out: Windchill makes it feel like four degrees today! Still, there is more green against the brown of the rock, more redding branch in the trees. We set off straight for the stairs at Cotton Street. This time we have a map with us copied from the Manayunk phone directory and we stand there awhile trying to locate where we are. Then up we go. This is a double set, from Tower up to Boone and then up again to Terrace. At Boone we turn around. This is the nicest spot, with an old spruce tree and withered old cherry. It’s already high. So we keep going, all the way up to Terrace.
#8 Cotton Street Stairs(upper)
High: Cotton at Terrace
Low: Cotton at Boone
At the top, we head over on Terrace to Grape and back down again to Boone. This is a grand view, with a clear vista to the Manayunk Bridge and all the other churches. You can see the hills across the river in what was once called West Manayunk too. We hover right over the church “Josie Heard A.M.E”. It looks like once a wider flight of stairs, almost street width, plunged down the hill--did Grape Street ever go through on this slope? It’s hard to imagine any vehicle--horse drawn, gas-powered, or otherwise--ever going up or down this incline.
Bonnie talks about how she came here on the winter solstice, with the moon rising and the sun setting. She took pictures and just looked and looked. This reminds her to ask me if I saw the sky again last night. Yes. Pink luminescent fluffy clouds had floated low overhead last night as I was making my way home in the Friday rush hour traffic. We smile at each other, remembering. Bonnie and I share this landscape, this sky, these ups and downs of the hills. We are fiercely held by it.
#9 Grape Street steps
High: Grape at Boone
Low: Grape at Tower
We decide we have time for one more, so cross Lyceum looking at an old property that might be on the market again and head down Silverwood. Tiny, charming Maiden Street draws us down its narrow passage, and we stand there talking in a whisper, which is somehow called for. Then we head up the stairs from Silverwood up to---well, there’s no cross street really but farther on it’s Fleming.
#10 Gay Street Stairs
High: Gay at (Fleming)
Low: Gay at Silverwood
At 139 steps, this is the king of stairs. Bonnie pauses several times along the way, to let me catch my breath, to look at the view. I’m reminded of climbing these steps on New Year’s Day years ago with my family. No one was out--it was bitter cold and the wind was whipping around, but we were impelled out to take a walk and explore. The steps took us up to the old Manayunk Club and the old orchard. Now, time has passed since our walking up these steps, and the Manayunk Club has burned down and the orchard has been plowed over for a development. But then you could still see the old apple trees and find the secret paths of children at the wall’s edge.
As we go home, Bonnie tells me the sad story of the hearing about the development of the canal floodway. The neighbors sent down half a busload of people, but they were closed out of testifying at the hearing. Her conclusion: “Money talks.”
April 4, Tuesday, 5:45 p.m.
It’s two weeks after our last walk--I meet Bonnie after work to walk before going home. It’s beautiful, fresh, several days after changing the clocks back--it’s still light, flowers are blooming. It’s heady spring.
We start back at the Gay Street steps, climb up. Then we head left, picking our way along the old trail and the high stone wall, stopping to look out over Manayunk. The clouds attract our attention--everything is beautiful. We are happy, joyful even, to see each other and be counting steps again. Bonnie has started a raw foods diet and has made me carrot juice before starting out. We feel strong, invigorated, giddy. We greet everyone we meet. I ask Bonnie about the guy in the navy uniform who walks around the neighborhood. His house reminds me of a boat, with a strong prow facing down the hill.
New steps appear, off Green Lane. Where did they come from? They rise straight, steep, right up the cliff, right above the green roofed garages built into the rock right there at the steep part of Green Lane. Up we go.
#11 Green Lane Steps
Low: Green Lane
Up here it feels like a different world, higher, quieter, removed. It’s special, a hilltop place. Children walk casually in the street. There’s no traffic roaring through here. We walk down Boone to Dupont, turn left to another hillside. A man appears, wondering if we are real estate agents, curious about why I’m taking pictures of the steps with my polaroid. He loves the quiet. I don’t tell him that Bonnie and I are making a hiking guide that will bring hundreds of curious hikers past his snug retreat.
The house on the left has a string of bells hung on the porch and we can imagine their ringing as we look over the cliff--this time straight down to the Gothic Episcopal church (St. David’s). Every view, every set of stairs is my favorite. I love them all, am madly in love with them, want to paint them, to capture them, to be captured by their up and down, the landscapes they bring me to. This one is my very favorite of all.
#12 Dupont Street Steps
High: Dupont at Boone
Low: Dupont at Silverwood
We are down to Silverwood again. The sky is turning pink and the whole rock, the silver steps, are now glowing with pink. We head back slowly, and make plans to meet again. What other magic staircases will appear now that we are paying attention?
It’s been months since Bonnie and I have been out counting steps. Who knows why--life has intervened with all its other activities. But now I wonder, How could it keep us from counting steps together? Perhaps finding all the steps wasn’t ever the real reason we went out. Maybe we went for the pure exhilaration of climbing up and down together in the raw and glorious months as winter turned to spring.
I do, though, know all the stairs by now, because the ones remaining are the ones around my neck of the woods. First there are the Krams Avenue steps. These steps run up over two ascents, from Wilde to Silverwood (lower) and from Silverwood to Boone (upper). I can turn off at Silverwood, toward Bonnie’s. But if I keep going up, I’ll be up on the high knoll again, the hilltop place.
#13 Krams Avenue Steps (lower)
High: Krams at Silverwood
Low: Krams at Wilde
#14 Krams Avenue Steps (upper)
High: Krams at Boone
Low: Krams at Silverwood
The last steps are the ones closest to me. The women who claimed them from the trash and weeds several years ago are my idea of saints. These are wide concrete and paving stone steps with black wrought-iron handrails, running under the R6 train transom on the way to the canal path. Wild snapdragons, purple iris, lavender Polonia blossoms surround them in spring. Now in midsummer, there are tiger lilies and belladonna. The steps run down in a series of four, framed at both ends: 6--4--4--4--4--4--4--4--4--4--4--4--4--4--5 for 63 steps.
#15 Fountain Street Steps
High: Fountain at Umbria
Low: Fountain at the canal
So did we find them all? Maybe. It depends on if the double staircases should be counted as one big staircase each or not. Counting Cotton as two and Krams as two, we found fifteen and are missing one. The last one could be the One Hundred Steps of the Wissahickon, or even the hidden stone steps that climb up the hills in old West Manayunk across the river.
Or there could be one other. And I think I might have seen it one day. I was riding the R6 home in the spring before all the summer leaves came out. I was staring out the window when I suddenly saw a set of steps heading straight down the hill. They ended right in the back of an industrial building on Main Street. I have never found these stairs again, ever, though I did go poking around one early Sunday morning behind the building, and I peer hard out the train now every time I go by.
So who knows? Manayunk is a magical place and refuses to be fully pinned down. All I know is this: A lot of friends share the ups and downs of life together. But in Manayunk last winter, Bonnie and I climbed them together.
A Note About the Author: Barbara Hoekje grew up in Ohio and has lived in Manayunk near the Fountain Street steps since 1990.