It would be hard to find a more lovely spot in the flush of a summer sunset than Wister Woods. Old residents of the neighbourhood say that the trees are not what they were fifteen and twenty years ago; the chestnuts have died off; even some of the tall tulip-poplars are a little bald at the top, and one was recently felled by a gale. But still that quiet plateau stands in a serene hush, flooded with rich orange glow on a warm evening. The hollyhocks in the back gardens of Rubicam Street are scarlet and Swiss-cheese-coloured and black; and looking across the railroad ravine one sees crypts and aisles of green as though in the heart of some cathedral of the great woods.
Belfield Avenue, which bends through the valley in a curve of warm thick yellow dust, will some day be boulevarded into a spick-and-span highway for motors. But now it lies little trafficked, and one might prefer to have it so, for in the stillness of the evening the birds are eloquent. The thrushes of Wister Woods, which have been immortalized by T. A. Daly in perhaps the loveliest poem ever written in Philadelphia, flute and whistle their tantalizing note, while the song sparrow echoes them with his confident, challenging call. Down behind the dusty sumac shrubbery lies the little blue-green cottage said to have been used by Benjamin West as a studio. In a meadow beside the road two cows were grazing in the blue shadow of overhanging woodland.
Over the road leans a flat outcrop of stone, known locally as “The Bum’s Rock.” An antique philosopher of those parts assured the wayfarer that it is named for a romantic vagabond who perished there by the explosion of a can of Bohemian goulash which he was heating over a small fire of sticks; but one doubts the tale. Our own conjecture is that it is named for Jacob Boehm, the oldtime brewer of Germantown, who predicted in his chronicles that the world would come to an end in July, 1919. From his point of view he was not so far wrong.
Above Boehm’s Rock, in a grassy level among the trees, a merry little circle of young ladies was sitting round a picnic supper. The twilight grew darker and fireflies began to twinkle. In the steep curve of the Cinder and Bloodshot (between Fisher’s and Wister stations) a cheerful train rumbled, with its engine running backward just like a country local. Its bright shaft of light wavered among the tall tree trunks. One would not imagine that it was less than six miles to the City Hall.
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A quarter to one A. M., and a hot, silent night. As one walks up Chestnut Street a distant roaring is heard, which rapidly grows louder. The sound has a note of terrifying menace. Then, careering down the almost deserted highway, comes a huge water-tank, throbbing like an airplane. A creamy sheet of water, shot out at high pressure, floods the street on each side, dashing up on the pavements. A knot of belated revellers in front of the Adelphia Hotel, standing in mid-street, to discuss ways and means of getting home, skip nimbly to one side, the ladies lifting up their dresses with shrill squeaks of alarm as the water splashes round them. Pedestrians plodding quietly up the street cower fearfully against the buildings, while a fine mist envelops them.
After the tank comes, more leisurely, a squad of brooms. The street is dripping, every sewer opening clucks and gurgles with the falling water. There is something unbelievably humorous in the way that roaring Niagara of water dashes madly down the silent street. There is a note of irony in it, too, for the depressed enthusiasts who have been sitting all evening in a restaurant over lemonade and ginger ale. Perhaps the chauffeur is a prohibitionist gone mad.