The gradual filling of the marsh for the construction of oil-storage tanks has narrowed the mouth of Fish House Cove considerably in the last 50 years, threatening one of the last remaining freshwater tidal marshes along the Delaware River and the last tract of open space in Pennsauken.
Neglected for many years, except by fishermen and children who came to ice skate or play among the cattails and bulrushes, the cove was nearly lost under
silt and debris, said Robert J. Wagner, Pennsauken's planning officer.
But in a few weeks, the township will begin an $800,000 project to clear away the garbage and restore the sensitive low-water tidal marsh to its natural state.
"We were always hearing the place should be saved," Wagner said the other day as he stood on a rise overlooking Tippin's Pond.
"There are plans going back 30 years, but no one ever did anything with them," he said.
The appearance of the 123-acre Fish House Cove can be somewhat deceiving. Amid the factories, the muck, and the flotsam and jetsam drawn there by the current, hundreds of species of birds, small mammals and rare plants manage to survive.
Just as it takes a while to focus on objects in a darkened room, it takes a few moments to forget the debris and notice how much wildlife there is at Fish House Cove.
Even to Wagner's practiced eye, the 12-acre Tippin's Pond appeared muddied and impenetrable the other day. But soon he was pointing out the phosphorescent glow of an orange carp on the sandy pond bottom and the turtles sunning on a tree stump above the water's surface.
Overhead, mourning doves cooed in the trees and a pair of mallards chased a hen. Muskrats swam under the surface of the water, forming elliptical ripples in the shallow tidal pool. Wagner said he had seen fox tracks, pheasant, quail and red-tailed hawks on his visits to the cove.
Several years ago, a commission was formed in Pennsauken to study ways of improving the cove and saving its abundant wildlife.
"Pretty soon we were getting grants, before we even had the shopping carts out of the water," said Wagner, who is directing the project.
In 1983, the township Water Management Commission decided to turn the cove into a sanctuary for wildlife, using money from a state Green Acres grant, a federal coastal preservation program and the township. It will use the grants to build several wooden walkways, fishing piers, a gravel parking area and an underground passage connecting the pond and the rest of the cove.
But Wagner said the cove mostly will be left undeveloped. The cleanup and construction should take about a year.
Almost three-quarters of all marshes and mud flats along the Delaware River have been filled in, developed or destroyed since 1957, according to a 1980 study prepared by the defunct Camden County Environmental Agency. The few that are left are essential to the survival of such endangered species as the osprey, great blue heron and bobolink, the report said. These remaining marshes are forced to sustain greater bird populations each year.
The report concluded that Fish House Cove is the largest and most diverse freshwater tidal marsh remaining in New Jersey.
The study estimates that 261 kinds of birds spend part of the year at the marsh.
A rare loon is known to spend part of the summer at the marsh and as many as eight unusual red-necked grebes have been spotted bedding down for the night.
Nearly 4,000 ruddy ducks, a threatened species, crowd the sand flats each spring, Wagner said. The last stand of wild rice in Camden County and rare forms of slender arrowhead and river bulrush thrive in the cove, according to the report.
Wagner said the assessment of Fish House Cove's importance was something of a surprise, considering its location. "It's a stone's throw from one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country," he said.
Fish House Cove is directly across the Delaware River from a Philadelphia sewage treatment plant. It borders on two oil company transfer terminals and is in sight of a third, the Petty's Island tank farm.
Wagner grew up within walking distance of the cove and spent his childhood there casting for catfish, sunfish and large-mouth bass.
"It was a great place, where parents always warned you not to go," he recalled. "It was a great place to get muddy." Wagner lives a little farther away now, but still goes to the cove to fish, hunt or find a bit of tranquility.
Fish House Cove has had many lives over the last three centuries, as an Indian settlement and hunting ground; a summer place for wealthy Philadelphians; a fisherman's paradise; a railroad stop, and a neglected wasteland and teenagers' hangout.
It has variously been known as Steele's Bay, Stone's Bay and Pea Shore, after the wild peas that grew there. Sometime in the late 19th century, it was dubbed Fish House Cove, possibly because of the abundant shad.
According to Jack Fichter, a Pennsauken schoolteacher and local history buff, the cove was home to the Lenni Lenape chief Tammane, a friend of William Penn and a man with a reputation for honesty. To Fichter's dismay, Tammane's name was borrowed by the corrupt 19th century New York City Democratic club, Tammany Hall.
As a boy, Fichter said, he spent almost every afternoon at the cove, picking berries or skating on Tippin's Pond, which was probably created by the Lennick Co.'s excavation of clay for its china dishes. An underground spring increased the depth to more than 6 feet.
Fichter remembers old-timers who talked about the days when Fish House was a thriving village in the mid-19th century. After the Civil War, it boasted several elegant summer homes overlooking the river and its own post office and grocery store.
A stage coach to New York went through the village, stopping at a white stucco house that still stands uphill from Tippin's Pond. When the former Camden & Amboy Railroad cut a swath through the cove, Fichter said, Andrew Tippin ran the Fish House station.
The tracks, now owned by Conrail and used exclusively for freight, still pass through the cove, but the village of Fish House is gone, except for a row of green-shingled houses off Cove Road that are occupied.
Even Andrew Tippin's house burned several years ago, Wagner said. All that remains of the Tippin legacy is the name he gave the pond.
Development began to close in on the cove in the 1950s, when Pennsauken actively sought heavy industry, Wagner said. Fichter said industries on the riverfront began filling in the tidal wetlands to gain more space.
About that time, dredging of the Delaware River also sent silt deposits into the cove, said Robert W. Pierson Jr., a planner hired by Pennsauken to plan the restoration of the area.
Pierson joined Patrick A. Kennedy, a civil engineer, in designing the project. Both work for Rogers, Golden & Halpern of Philadelphia.
"The cove is in a unique situation," Pierson said. The prevailing southwesterly winds blow debris into the cove. "All the junk in the river ends up there," he said.
Together, the debris and silt threatened to starve many of the marsh plants, burying their seeds so deep that the young shoots could not reach sunlight before they exhausted their stored nutrients. The low-growing plants would die before they produced seeds if submerged under the sediment, the 1980 study warned.
The greatest threats to the marsh, and other wetlands, are the high levels of fecal coliform and elevated oxygen levels resulting from sewage treatment plants' discharge, as well as chemical pollutants such as chlordane and cyanide, the study said.
Wagner said he believes the river's water quality is improving, however,
because the small-mouth bass have returned on a large scale after a long absence.
Pierson and Wagner agreed that Pennsauken's cleanup of Fish House Cove will not end the threats to the marsh's ecosystem. "It's like trying to keep sand
from being washed off the beach," Pierson said.
Still, Wagner argued, every bit of improvement in the environment is important. "When you work on a project like this, you get an idea just how fast these places can disappear. The reason animals disappear from the face of the earth has a whole lot more to do with the loss of habitat than getting killed off by hunters or predators," he said.