The Philadelphia Inquirer
Bill Brinkman moved into the caretaker's house in Pleasant Hill Park after the Japanese surrendered to MacArthur in '45. He was a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne over New Guinea and the Philippines before he served on land in the honor guard, around the time the Japanese signed documents of surrender aboard the USS Missouri.
"We were there to make damn sure there was no hanky-panky," Brinkman recalled.
He returned to a factory job in Philadelphia, but jumped at the chance to manage the Pleasant Hill fish hatcheries when that job was offered to him. The Victorian park had provided generations of children with their first fish-catching experiences.
Pleasant Hill is one of the few parkland areas in the north near where Philadelphia, Bucks County, and New Jersey meet on the Delaware River, although the grounds surrounding the 1850 riverfront mansion Glen Foerd hold claim as the city's most northeasterly spot.
The park sits just a five-minute drive off Interstate 95 at the Academy Road/Linden Avenue exit in Torresdale. The drive east on Linden Avenue is unremarkable, but the industrial landscape that hugs much of I-95 gives way to a quiet residential area; if you blink you might miss the hatcheries on the right. They're slightly hidden, framed between a pair of robust weeping willows. The street eventually guides visitors to a large parking lot next to the river.
For Brinkman, 85, it was the ideal place to raise a family. With his late wife, Miriam, Mim to those who knew her, he raised a girl and two boys, Helen, Bruce, and Bill. They spent 35 years in the caretaker's residence until 1980.
Bill Brinkman with a striped bass caught in the Delaware.
In 1961, the family opened Brinkman's Bait and Tackle at 4999 Linden Ave. near Academy Road, which they still run today (www.brinkmansbaitandtackle.com). All the while, Brinkman kept hatcheries stocked with sunnies, catfish, and the occasional shad. He held one of the very few netting licenses issued by the state. From spring to fall, he and Mim would wake at 3 a.m. so Brinkman could cast his nets into the Delaware and later release the trove into the hatcheries.
"You have to put something in there to keep the kids interested," he explained. "Otherwise, they get bored and they're using their rods like swords. They're dueling. As long as they're catching fish they're good as gold."
Brinkman recalled that each week, nearly 3,000 to 4,000 kids were bused to the ponds during the 1970s through the city's Cane Pole Program. Each child received a bamboo cane pole and a floater for the day. Cane poles can still be found at Brinkman's for $3.99.
Meanwhile, the riverbank and water became so polluted that the riverside of the park fell into disrepair. The Clean Water Act of 1972 took years to affect the river's health and even longer to change people's perceptions.
Today, however, the size of some of the river's striped bass astonishes. The females make their way upriver for a piscine bacchanal gorging on herring and shad as they spawn.
They can grow up to 30 to 40 inches long. The larger fish are protected. While they can be caught for sport, they must be released.
Much of the park has rebounded with the river, mostly because of nearly $1 million in capital investments made over the last few years with substantial state grant assistance from agencies including the Fish and Boat Commission, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. Parks coordinator Barbara McCabe said the changes had a practical as well as an aesthetic purpose. Originally, the five-acre asphalt parking lot crumbled off at the river's edge and just upriver from where the Baxter Water Treatment Plant collects the water that services more than half the city's population.
"With the parking lot, there was a real green infrastructure purpose. Plus, it looks better," McCabe said. "I kind of think we were a little ahead of the curve on this."
Five separate storm-water retention basins and plantings now help filter the runoff before it flows into the Delaware. It took several years before the master plan overseen by the eco-friendly firm Andropogon got approval from the community. Students from the School of Environmental Design at Temple University Ambler assisted the landscape design firm.
Elements from three plans acted as a kind of tasting menu for the community, with favorite aspects finding their way into the final design. McCabe said that plan is now used as a guide and the entire restoration process, initiated in 2002, should finally be completed in spring when a pond restoration and new play area are built. The city Capital Program Office will be accepting bids and expects the renovations to cost $500,000 to $600,000.
The view from the restored riverbank is fantastic thanks to the pristine Jersey side. Jersey's Hawk and Amico Islands, together with the Taylor Wildlife Preserve, provide a glimpse of what the native Lenni Lenape must have seen before Swedish farmers came to till the area's soil.
Access to the water can be had via the public boat slip, a fishing pier, or just straddling rocks at water's edge. But for the little ones, the best place to start fishing is at the hatcheries. Officially, the hatcheries are for children only, though this is not strictly enforced. Children don't need a license, but anglers 16 and older would be advised to buy one from Brinkman's or online from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission atwww.fishandboat.com. For Pennsylvania residents, a license costs $11.70 for the day or $22.70 for the year.
Each spring the ponds are stocked, though perhaps not as vigorously as when thousands of kids came each week. McCabe said only about 1,200 kids made the trip this summer season.
"For many of these kids, they never really get a chance to fish," McCabe said. "For some of them it's the first time they've ever even seen a fish."
But Brinkman is concerned that interest in the sport might be waning.
"The kids have these cell phones and texting and they're not interested in outdoor sports like they used to be. They used to fish and ice skate out there. Not anymore. I saw a kid doing that texting on a bike," he said. "I was 80 before I got a cell phone."
In all, it was a wonderful life for the man the locals still call Mr. Brinkman. To this day middle-aged adults ask him if he remembers them.
"I knew everybody. But, hell, I'm 85. I hardly remember my own name," he said, and then added, "It was a great life, with great, great kids."