In 2001, I worked on a team of people from various City agencies to mount an exhibit, "Clean Water for Life," celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Philadelphia Water Department. The exhibit is still on display at the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building, 1401 JFK Boulevard, Mezzanine Level. In some ways, it provided a prototype for the messages and images used in the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, which opened two years later in the old Water Works building along the Schuylkill River, behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibit section that follows, "Drainage for the City," is the one on which I did the most work, writing most of the text and choosing most of the images. Unless noted, all images come from the PWD collection.

The column of links (below right) will take you to various topics; once there, clicking on the topic heading will bring you back to the top.

Click here to see another section of the exhibit, "Water for the City."

The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers

Compiled by Adam Levine
Historical Consultant
Philadelphia Water Department
HomeCreek to sewerDown underarchivesmapsAdam LevineLinks

  • Need for Storm Drainage

  • Privies

  • Covering Polluted Streams

  • Intercepting Sewers

  • Extending the Sewers

  • Inspection & Maintenance

  • Sewage Treatment

  • Completion of System

  • Modern System: 2001

  • Treatment Process

  • Exhibit Credits Page
  • Drainage for the City

    Mill Creek Sewer under construction at 47th and Haverford, 1883
    Philadelphia Water Department

    Proper drainage is as important to the City's public health as the provision of pure drinking water. Sewers carry away excess rainwater, preventing flooding in streets and basements in all but the most extreme storms. They also carry disease-causing human and industrial wastes away from built up areas. In the City's present system, three treatment plants treat the sewage before discharging the effluent into the Delaware River. The treated effluent is cleaner than the river itself. The system has 3,000 miles of sewer pipes, ranging in size from 8 inches in diameter to 24 feet square.

    Need for storm drainage

    Control of stormwater was an important part of the City's early public works. As streets were laid out, low spots were filled in and high spots cut down. This allowed water to drain efficiently into the nearest natural stream without ponding along the way. The City's first sewers, built around 1740, supplemented this system of surface drainage with underground pipes, usually constructed of brick. “Storm sewers” were considered a benefit to property owners, who were charged for part of the construction cost. In Spring Garden in 1843, homeowners paid $.63 per linear foot of property frontage. An 1830 plan of the Pine Street sewer shows clearly how the terrain was leveled as streets were built.

    1843 plan of sewer in Ridge Road
    between Schuylkill 6th (now 17th) and
    Schuylkill 7th (16th) Streets
    Spring Garden District Culvert Accounts

    City Archives of Philadelphia

    1830 Plan of Pine Street Sewer
    Regulation of Ascents and Descents
    Book 1

    City Archives of Philadelphia
    (To read the title block of this plan, click here .)

    Sewer construction was meticulously recorded in large ledgers like this "Exhibit of Sewers, which recorded all branch sewers built by the city between 1867 to 1885.

    Exhibit of Sewers 1867-1885
    City Archives of Philadelphia
    (To see the "recapitulation" for 1883 branch sewer work, click here .)


    Privies at 2976 Emerald Street , 1919
    City Archives of Philadelphia

    Early sewers only carried stormwater. Human wastes were collected in privy wells, and most commercial wastes were simply dumped into the nearest stream. Once the City began supplying water to citizens, fixtures such as bathtubs and water closets came into wider use. The wastewater produced by each household increased greatly. Privies, designed for mostly dry wastes, were unable to handle this increase, and regularly overflowed. In the early 1860s both human and commercial wastes were allowed into the City's sewers along with stormwater, creating the combined sewers still used in the old parts of the City. Considered a health hazard, privies were strictly regulated by the City's Board of Health. Homeowners were often cited for having “foul and overflowing” privies, and required to have them cleaned. Privies were gradually phased out as sewer lines were extended. One section of the1915 regulations shown above reads, “This privy MUST be abandoned when Sewer is accessible.” (For more information on privies and privy cleaning, see Appendix 1.)

    Rules governing the sanitary maintenance of privy vaults
    and privy houses in the City of Philadelphia

    City Archives of Philadelphia
    (For a detailed look at the privy, click here .)

    Receipt for Privy Cleaning, 1885
    Courtesy of Tomlinson Family
    (For a close-up of the horse and cart click here .)

    Covering polluted streams

    Sewer under construction in Rock Run (a tributary to Tacony Creek)
    along the line of present-day Ashdale Street, 1922

    City Archives of Philadelphia

    Before the construction of sewage treatment plants in the 20th century, sewers simply emptied into the nearest stream, many of which became open sewers. Over time, most of the City's streams were encapsulated in huge pipes that became part of the sewer system. Putting the polluted streams underground eliminated serious health and aesthetic problems. Also, filling in the stream valleys over these sewers allowed the City's grid of streets to be extended without the expense of building bridges at every stream crossing. (To read a Robert Frost poem about buried streams, see Appendix 2.)

    Mill Creek once drained most of West Philadelphia. It was encapsulated in a sewer between 1869 and 1895. Parts of the Mill Creek Sewer (see construction photo at top of page) are 20 feet in diameter.

    Dock Creek, badly polluted by waste from leather tanneries, was covered in two stages, in 1765 and 1785. Dock Street, in Society Hill, now meanders above a small part of the former creek bed.

    Dock Creek
    Detail from Philadelphia in 1702, an engraving made in 1875
    City Archives of Philadelphia

    Pratt Street Sewer, 1901
    Little Tacony Creek, which once flowed through Frankford, had become an “open sewer” by the 1890s. Citizen outcry in 1899, spurred by The North American , a local newspaper, was met by a City plan to put part of the creek into a sewer that would run under a new street, Pratt Street. ( For the complete text of a North American article from Nov. 2, 1899, see Appendix 3.)

    The Aramingo Canal (dug in the 1850s along the course of a small Delaware River tributary, Gunner's Run) never made any money, and was converted into a sewer at the turn of the 20th century.

    Aramingo Canal during sewer construction, 1900

    Intercepting Sewers

    An aqueduct, built in 1892, carried the City's first “intercepting sewer” over Cresheim Creek. Running along the Wissahickon Creek and Schuylkill River, this pipe “intercepted” the flow of sewers that had formerly entered those streams and polluted the City's water supply. (For more on this interceptor and the pollution it later contributed to in the lower Schuylkill, see Appendix 4.) Raw sewage in drinking water caused a variety of diseases, including typhoid fever, which killed thousands of City residents in the 1890s and early 1900s. In the 20th century, a citywide system of interceptors was built to protect streams from pollution and carry sewage to treatment plants.

    Aqueduct over Creishem Creek, in the Wissahickon Valley, 1906
    City Archives of Philadelphia

    Extending the Sewers

    Beginning in the late 19th century, the City tried to spur real estate development by extending its infrastructure-including streets, sewer lines, gas mains and water mains-into rural areas. Tax revenues generated by new construction often paid for the cost of the City's improvements within a few years. Larger sewers like those built in Bingham Street, near Tacony Creek, in 1921 and Devereaux Street in 1911 (see photos below), were custom-designed and built in place. For smaller, branch sewers the City manufactured standardized pipes. Workers performed load tests to ensure the pipes, once buried, would not collapse under the weight of the soil and traffic. In the photo below, a 36-inch pipe was loaded with 33,000 pounds for 14 days.

    Bingham Street Sewer, 1921

    Devereaux Street Sewer
    Philadelphia , Vol. IV, No. 6, June 1911
    City Archives of Philadelphia

    Load test on Concrete Pipe

    City Archives of Philadelphia

    Inspection and Maintenance

    Inspection and maintenance have always been an important part of the City's management of its sewers. Modern technology has made it easier and safer to detect and fix problems without risking workers' health or lives. "Regulations for sewer inspectors and other persons engaged in sewerage work", an employee handout from 1908, recommends the following: "No manhole or sewer is safe to enter in which a lighted candle will not burn brightly, and in such cases fresh air must be admitted into the sewer until a steady light is obtained. All manholes or sewers must be tested in this way before any person can be permitted to enter, except that a light must not be used where there is any indication of illuminating gas in the sewer ." Today, gas detectors have replaced candles, and video cameras have partly replaced the need for human “sewer crawlers” to enter sewers. (For the complete text of the 1908 regulations, see Appendix 5.)

    Still photo from video sewer inspection

    Treatment of Sewage

    Planning & Research

    On April 22, 1905, the Pennsylvania State Assembly passed “An act to preserve the purity of the waters of the state, for the protection of public health.” This law prohibited municipalities from building new sewers that would discharge untreated sewage into streams. The goal was to have all the State's sewage treated before discharge, to prevent disease-causing micro-organisms found in sewage from entering drinking water supplies. Such bacteria and viruses were known to cause many diseases, including typhoid fever. This virulent disease killed thousands of Philadelphians in annual epidemics in the 1890s and early 1900s.

    Spring Garden Sewage Experiment Station

    Pennypack Sewage Treatment Works
    (To see a plan of this plant, click here .)

    A sewage treatment experiment station was set up near the old Spring Garden pumping station (along the Schuylkill near the Girard Avenue Bridge), where drinking water filtration experiments had been conducted several years earlier. As a result of this work, the City's first treatment plant was built in 1912 to keep the raw sewage of several municipal institutions out of Pennypack Creek, which emptied into the Delaware River within reach of water intake points at the Torresdale pumping station. (For more information on the Pennypack Sewage Treatment Works, see Appendix 6.)

    After nearly ten years of study (which included a tour of sewage treatment plants in Europe) the City, in 1914, published a comprehensive Report on the Collection and Treatment of the Sewage of the City of Philadelphia. (Click here to read the "purposes" for this report.) This plan included miles of intercepting sewers, designed to keep sewage out of the rivers and carry it to three proposed treatment plants. This extensive system took over 50 years to complete. Today's system, with many upgrades and additions, still conforms to the outlines of the 1914 plan.

    1914 Plan for Collection and Treatment of Sewage
    (For a large (1.8 mb) color image of this plan, click here .)

    One obstacle to building the new system was the cost, which was more than the City had ever spent on any public works project. Also, with drinking water filtration and chlorination in place by 1912, the risk of using the sewage-laden rivers as sources of drinking water was greatly reduced. This made the construction of expensive sewage treatment plants less of a priority.

    World events also conspired to delay the system's completion. During the Depression, greatly reduced City tax revenues brought most public works to a standstill. During the two World Wars, all non-essential construction was put on hold as manpower and critical materials such as steel were diverted into the war efforts. In the meantime, sewers continued to dump human and industrial wastes directly into the City's streams. These July 15, 1918 photographs show the Allegheny Avenue Sewer emptying into the Delaware River at Pier, while on the same day, on the other side of the pier, swimmers enjoy a refreshing (?) dip.

    Allegheny Avenue Sewer at Pier 126, Delaware River
    July 15, 1918
    City Archives of Philadelphia

    Swimmers at Pier 126, Delaware River
    July 15, 1918

    City Archives of Philadelphia

    In 1923 the City managed to complete one of the three planned treatment plants. The Northeast Sewage Treatment Works and its intercepting sewers replaced the Pennypack plant, helping protect the waters around the drinking water intake at Torresdale. But this single plant could not reverse the overall tide of pollution. By 1929, a City engineer declared that the lower Schuylkill River was no better than an open cesspool, receiving the wastes of roughly 500,000 people via the Schuylkill interceptor sewer. In the 1940s, the Delaware River's pungent smell reached as far inland as City Hall, and the low levels of oxygen in the water meant little or no aquatic life. ( To read about the ravages of industrial and sewage pollution in the Schuylkill, click here for a 1929 speech from the PhillyH2O Archives.)

    Plan, Northeast Sewage Treatment Works, 1918

    "Sewage in Delaware
    brings complaints
    from ship men"
    Philadelphia Public Ledger, 1931

    Just as sewers helped spur City growth at the turn of the 19th century, the lack of sewers in the City's rural and suburban areas during World War II meant a halt in real estate development and unpleasant conditions for residents. Burholme's “marching mothers” complained of overflowing cesspools and dirty dishwater running in the streets. (To read a 1941 editorial outlining some of the city's problems in completing the sewerage program, see Appendix 7.)
    "On to Washington!"
    Unidentified newspaper, 1943 City Archives of Philadelphia
    (Click photo for complete article.)

    Post World War II: System Completed

    "Sewage job promises a cleaner river here"
    Bulletin, April 25, 1948
    Temple University Libraries Urban Archives

    Federal loans, along with revenue from a new “sewer rent” implemented in 1944, allowed the City to complete the sewage collection and treatment system outlined in the 1914 plan. Two new treatment plants were constructed (Southeast and Southwest), and the Northeast plant was enlarged and modernized.

    Southwest Sewage Treatment Plant
    under construction in 1949

    City Archives of Philadelphia
    City Officials Tour New Interceptor Sewer,

    Southeast Sewage Treatment Works
    Centerfold of Brochure, 1955

    (For a map showing treatment divisions
    of the city in 1955, click here .)

    Northeast Sewage Treatment Works
    Brochure, 1951

    ( Click here for more pictures.)

    "3 Gigantic Sewer Lines Nearly Completed"
    Philadelphia Inquirer
    Dec. 29, 1957
    Temple University Library Urban Archives

    Work continued on the intercepting sewers into the 1960s. In new areas of the City, separate sewers were built, carrying stormwater and sewage in separate pipes. The photograph on the right shows the last gasp of the original Schuylkill Interceptor, which since the 1880s had diverted sewage from the Schuylkill River above the Fairmount Dam and dumped it, untreated, below the dam. On this day in 1956, the sewer's flow was diverted into a new interceptor that carried the wastes to the Southwest Sewage Treatment Plant.

    Last gasp of the Schuylkill Interceptor
    December 20, 1956

    Modern Day System: 2001

    Fishing in the Schuylkill
    Link Harper, City Photographer

    The first Earth Day in 1970 marked the start of a global environmental consciousness. The chartering of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later that year represented a new federal commitment to preserving the environment. Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (also known as the Clean Water Act) in 1972. This complex law required that every stream meet designated water quality standards based on type of use. To meet these new guidelines, the City began an upgrade of its sewage treatment processes that took 15 years and cost more than $1 billion.

    Wastewater Treatment Process

    The treatment of wastewater--sewage, stormwater or their combination--involves a number of steps.

    Preliminary treatment (steps 1-3)
    removes the heaviest objects from the water.

    1. Collecting and Pumping: Sewers collect household wastes and stormwater runoff from all sections of the city and deliver it to one of three wastewater treatment plants. 2. Screening: Wastewater is pumped into the plant where it passes through a bar screen that catches the biggest objects including trash. 3. Grit Removal: Plant technicians then slow the flow of the wastewater as it passes into the next tank. The slower flow allows grit (sand and gravel) to settle to the bottom of this tank.

    Primary treatment (step 4)
    removes all the particles that will settle out of the wastewater through gravity.

    4. Primary Sedimentation: Technicians slow the flow of the wastewater even further as it moves into the next tank, where smaller suspended solids such as paper fibers sink to the bottom.

    Secondary treatment (steps 5-6)
    removes dissolved pollutants and suspended solids too small to settle out through gravity.

    5. Aeration and Biological Reduction: Microorganisms, or “activated sludge,” are introduced into the wastewater by supplying oxygen, where they consume the remaining pollutants. 6. Final Sedimentation: The microorganisms become heavy and sink to the bottom of the tank, where they are collected and reused.

    7. Disinfection: Before it is discharged into the Delaware, chlorine is added to the wastewater. This kills any disease-causing pollutants that were not eaten by the microorganisms. 8. Effluent Discharge: Treated wastewater, now cleaner than the river, is returned to the river.

    City Map showing service areas of
    Water Pollution Control (formerly Sewage Treatment) Plants

    Regional Map showing service areas of Water Pollution Control (formerly Sewage Treatment) Plants

    Throughout the treatment process, treatment plant operators control the flow of wastewater by computers. Each plant has up to six channels to handle the flow of incoming wastewater. The sludge collected from the primary and secondary treatment processes, in the past dumped in the ocean, is now composted in Southwest Philadelphia (in an area between the Platt Bridge and I-95 bridge, as shown in the photo) and turned into a product called Earthmate. Earthmate is great for plants and helps build good soil. Contact the PWD about Earthmate. Your garden will thank you!

    Biosolids Recycling Center, Southwest Philadelphia
    Link Harper, City Photographer

    Untreated, or raw sewage, is 99.99% water, but the impurities in the remaining .01% can cause illness or death and render a stream devoid of life. Sewage treatment has meant the rebirth of Philadelphia's rivers. Decomposing sewage once consumed most of the oxygen in the rivers, leading to the death of fish and other aquatic life. Now, with sewage removed from the rivers, oxygen and fish have returned. All three of the City's sewage treatment plants were given gold awards in 1998 by the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies.

    Jar of raw sewage before treatment, 2000


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    Website by Panacea Design and Adam Levine
    Page last modified March 12, 2006

    Appendix 1
    Privies and Privy Cleaning

    Click heading to return to Exhibit

    Cleaning privies was dirty, stinking work done by "nightmen," so-called because they were only allowed to do their work at night, when the deleterious effects of the odors they stirred up were deemed to have less chance of causing harm to human health. Privy cleaners were supposed to receive permits for the work from the Board of Health, although, as the following shows, this law was not always followed. In the first half of the 19th century the City of Philadelphia maintained one or more "poudrette pits," where the nightmen dumped the privy waste (also called night soil) and it was turned into an agricultural fertilizer.

    Excerpt from City of Philadelphia Board of Health Report for 1859: "Persons engaged in the cleansing of such sinks, wells, and privies, as are not connected with the sewers, [have been neglecting or refusing] to obtain from this office, as required by an Act of Assembly of March 16, 1855, a license and permit to perform such work. The price of such permits vary, according to said Act, from fifty cents to five dollars, the saving of which, by parties interested, is an inducement to violate the law, and thereby defraud this Board and the city out of a considerable revenue. It had become notorious that numbers of persons were engaged in such unlawful practices, and that, too, at hours detrimental to the health and comfort of the community. To correct and prevent such illegalities and abuses, the present Board elected, in September last, an officer, styled Night Inspector, at a salary of forty-five dollars per month, whose duty it is to patrol the city at night, observe the operations of all persons engaged in such occupations, and ascertain whether they are so engaged by and with the permission of the Board of Health. This officer has been clothed by your Honor [the Mayor, to whom this report is addressed] with police powers whilst engaged on duty, and is respected accordingly. The labors of this Inspector have been crowned with great success, not only in preventing the violation of the Poudrette laws, and in the prevention of the creation of intolerable nuisances at an untimely hour of the night, but also in inducing such persons to perform their duties in a lawful manner, and also to pay into the treasury the price of such permits as are required by law. To his vigilance, in a great measure, is the Board indebted for a portion of the increase of revenue of the past year."

    Excerpt from Board of Health Report for 1875, contained in Fourth annual message of William S. Stokley, Mayor of the City of Philadelphia, with the accompanying documents, September 18, 1876, p. 863. "On the 21st of July [1875] the Board adopted a resolution which virtually abolishes the old bucket-and-cart system for emptying wells [privies] after the end of the year for which licenses have been granted, namely, April 15, 1876, and substituting therefor the odorless method, by means of air-tight apparatus, pumps, and hose. This is a most important reform, which will put an end to a disgusting nuisance, and relieve the city of an opprobrium which has tarnished its reputation."

    Hill, G. Everett, "The bacterial disposal of sewage." Journal of the Franklin Institute, Vol. 159, No. 1, January 1905, p. 1-16: "Our lives have grown very complex. Things which our ancestors never saw are necessities to-day; and what we see in Nature's storehouse and want, we do not hesitate to appropriate. We kill the cattle, we cut down the forests, we tear the iron and coal from the bowels of the unwilling earth; we even appropriate the air and sunshine and use them as slaves to drive out motors and paint our pictures. All this is progress, and a certain measure of progress in acquisition is called civilization. But acquisition and use must always be followed by consumption and rejection of the products of consumption. Our track of progress is really a trail of desolation strewn with ashes, excrement and rubbish....Can we rightly boast of national civilization when less than 4 per cent. of the communities in our country have adopted means for the hygienic disposal of filth; and when the sixth city of the land is riddled--under buildings as well as under yards and streets--with cesspools, whose overflow babbles noisily and noisomely in the street gutters?"

    Appendix 2
    A Brook in the City
    by Robert Frost (1921)

    Click heading to return to Exhibit

    The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square
    With the new city street it has to wear
    A number in. But what about the brook
    That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
    I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
    And impulse, having dipped a finger length
    And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
    A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
    The meadow grass could be cemented down
    From growing under pavements of a town;
    The apple trees be sent to hearthstone flame.
    Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
    How else dispose of an immortal force
    No longer needed? Staunch it at its source
    With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown
    Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
    In fetid darkness still to live and run
    And all for nothing it had ever done,
    Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
    No one would know except ancient maps
    That such a brook ran water. But I wonder
    If from its being kept forever under,
    The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
    This new-built city from both work and sleep.

    Appendix 3
    “Cover the Sewer,” Frankford Cries
    Little Tacony Creek in its Present Condition a Nursery for Fever.
    Reeks with Drainage

    Click heading to return to Exhibit

    From The North American, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 2, 1899.
    Subsequent articles appeared on November 3, 4, and 15.

    Periodical outbreaks of malarial fevers, to say nothing of the depreciation of real estate in the district through with Frankford's open sewer passes, causes the residents of that locality to wonder how much longer their pleas for the amelioration of affairs are to be ignored by the city's government.

    The drainage of Frankford consists, as in many other parts of the city, of several small sewers falling into larger outlets, which, in turn, convey them to the river. In many sections these outlets have been enclosed as the district in which they existed became populated. But in Frankford, one of the largest of Philadelphia's subdivisions, an open and polluted stream is considered good enough to carry off two-thirds of the entire drainage.

    Menace to Health.

    Little Tacony Creek, the streamlet thus made use of, rises in the upper part of the county and flows in a southerly direction, crossing Frankford road near the northern extremity of the Twenty-third ward. Until it reaches this point it is a fairly clean stream, but after passing Frankford road its character materially changes. A few squares east of the main street the rivulet turns to the south, and from there on it commences to receive all the sewage of the east side of Frankford.

    As the stream passes street by street towards its mouth is, of course, becomes more polluted; the sewers, starting east from the main road, begin to drain into it; it assumes a dark and muddy appearance, and a noisome stench commences to exhale from it. Later on the mills and factories nearby use if for dumping purposes. Hereabouts the dwelling houses along its course grow fewer and fewer, until it passes ample stretches of waste and vacant lands. These tracts, submerged at times by the creek's contents, have become a fertile breeding place for the germs of malaria and typhoid fever. The remainder of its channel is only diversified by an occasional additional inpouring of foul matters until its waters are received at the southern end of Frankford into the almost equally pestilential waters of Lower Frankford creek.

    Protests Go Unheeded.

    For years this stream has been a menace to the inhabitants of Frankford. Time after time they have agitated for some bettering of its condition, but without success. Frequently the matter has been introduced into Councils, but as Frankford is not immediately contiguous to any other densely settled spot the members from other wards have preferred to ignore the matter in favor of some scheme more lucrative to themselves or more fitted to increase their reputation with their home constituents.

    Occasionally a crumb or two of the city's funds have been doled out for some petty improvement, but nothing really effective has been accomplished to minimize the danger to the health of the inhabitants. An archway over the stream in several places, as at Howard street, and a small amount of tunneling at the northern end is the extent of the work accomplished.

    About a year ago a determined effort was made by the Frankford residents to achieve something, but in vain. Little Tacony creek remains in the same state.

    It's an Outrage.

    On this subject Joseph R. Embery, Common Councilman from the Twenty-third ward, when seen by a reporter for The North American, expressed himself as follows:

    “The condition of things along Little Tacony creek is an outrage, and the city's refusal to better matters there is little short of criminal. A disgraceful state of things exists at the outlet of the Margaretta street sewer. The houses on Margaretta street near Edmund, which will in the future drain into Torresdale avenue, are filled with sewage water. Only recently a committee of citizens waited on me from this place, and requested me to have the evil remedied. I did my best, but in vain.

    “The whole stream is utterly putrid; drains from every foul source, mills washings, privies and dumping grounds flow into it. At times the stench is unbearable. In the spot mentioned a considerable amount of sickness has arisen from this very cause. For the sickness occasioned by this creek the city is undoubtedly responsible. Municipal governments are not obligated, indeed, to construct sewers under penalty, but on the other hand, they cannot lawfully dump sewerage before houses--as they do at the Margaretta outlet--with impunity. I am glad The North American has taken the matter up, and I will give it all the aid I can.”

    Wholly Polluted.

    J. Howard Morrison, Common Councilman from the Twenty-third ward, said: “Little Tacony creek is unquestionably a serious menace to the health of Frankford. It carries off an immense amount of the drainage, and is afterwards polluted further by the refuse from the mills along its course. Again and again ordinances have been introduced into Councils to enclose the creek. I hardly need to say that the Twenty-third ward Councilmen have always supported these measures by all means in their power, but, notwithstanding this, we have accomplished practically nothing. If The North American will enter earnestly into this matter, I feel convinced something will be accomplished to secure a better condition of affairs, and I need hardly add that no one is more anxious than myself for such a result.”

    Appendix 4

    Notes on the City's First Interceptor Sewer
    and the Pollution of the Schuylkill River

    Click heading to return to Exhibit

    There are sanitary advantages to be gained by the construction of such a sewer [interceptor sewer from Manayunk to below the Fairmount Dam], independent from those which must result from the improvement in the quality of the water to be used for domestic purposes. The Schuylkill River, flowing as it does through the city, should be prevented from being fouled by sewage, even should the water not be used for drinking purposes. The moderate volume of water and gentle current favor a deposition of the organic constituents of the sewage, which undergo decomposition, and evolve poisonous gases. This would be more likely to occur in the Summer season, when the receding of the water from the banks would leave a filth-sodden surface exposed to the solar rays.

    The intercepting sewer (on each side of the river) could be continued to a point below the city, where it might empty into the mouth of the Schuylkill or the greater waters of the Delaware, only at the ebbing tide, if possible. The Schuylkill below the dam would then be purged of its foulness, and a nuisance which is becoming worse every day would thus be effectually abated. In the course of time [sewage treatment] works might be erected at the termination of the intercepting sewers on the Delaware, where the sewage could be purified and utilized [as fertilizer], and the effluent water, deprived of its impurities, discharged into the river without producing any injurious effects. Because we cannot keep all sewage out of the Schuylkill River is no reason why we should not keep as much out as possible, the most dangerous influx being within city limits, and therefore within city control. [Source: City of Philadelphia Board of Health, Annual Report for 1875, p. 23]

    [When this interceptor sewer was finally built in the 1880s, it simply carried the sewage around the Fairmount Water Works and dumped it into the Schuylkill below the dam. By the 1920s the sewage of 500,000 people was entering the lower Schuylkill River, and a city engineer wrote:]

    Philadelphia has been exceedingly fortunate in a location which provided watercourses for dilution on almost all boundaries, but the growth of the City development increased discharges to an extent that overtaxed all available streams. They are still used to receive storm water, but the discharge of sanitary drainage has now been removed or controlled along all of the smaller watercourses and along the Schuylkill River to the Fairmount Dam, where the tide water is halted.

    Forty-five miles of collecting sewers have been completed and 60 miles are yet to be constructed. These figures, however, do not fairly represent the proportion of expenditure since the completed work is all of smaller size and the portion remaining to be built is far in excess of size and difficulty of execution.

    In the Southwest section the complete removal of all sewage discharge from the Schuylkill River below Fairmount Dam is imperative. During certain periods of the year, the entire fresh water increment, which should overflow the Fairmount Dam, is absorbed for water supply purposes and the entire River below the Dam becomes an immense septic tank, the surface of which rises and falls with the tide and has a horizontal movement of only 1200 feet back and forth. Advance of its water into the Delaware River takes place only during times of sufficient rainfall to cause a movement of water over the Dam. [SOURCE: Allen, John E. [Principal Assistant Engineer, Bureau of Engineering and Surveys, Philadelphia], Sewage Treatment for Philadelphia. Reprint from American Society for Municipal Improvements, p. 221-232. No date; but probably in conjunction with the ASMI 35th annual convention, held in 1929 in Philadelphia.]

    Appendix 5
    Regulations for Sewer Inspectors
    and other Persons Engaged in Sewerage Work

    Click heading to return to Exhibit

    Philadelphia Department of Public Works, Bureau of Surveys, 1908
    Original document part of a scrapbook of such notices
    in the PWD Historical Collection

    To Sewer Inspectors:

    You attention is called to the fact that several accidents have lately occurred in this and other Cities in this vicinity, during examinations or work in old sewers, or in tightly closed new sewers, caused by gas explosions, asphyxiation by marsh gas or other foul air. Inspectors will be required to see that the following regulations are observed in making examinations, and in working in and about old sewers upon work in their charge:-


    1. Great care must be taken before entering any manhole or sewer to ascertain that the air therein is sufficiently diluted with fresh air to enable work or examination to be prosecuted with safety.

    2. Entrance into manholes or sewers must not be made until the cover of the manhole where the work is to be done, and the covers of at least two adjacent manholes have been opened and left open for not less than a half hour before making an entrance. In all cases at least two manholes in advance and one manhole in the rear of the examination party shall be kept open.

    3. A man must be kept on watch at every open manhole to prevent accidents and to render assistance, if found necessary, to the workmen or examination party.

    4. No manhole or sewer is safe to enter in which a lighted candle will not burn brightly, and in such cases fresh air must be admitted into the sewer until a steady light is obtained. All manholes or sewers must be tested in this way before any person can be permitted to enter, except that a light must not be used where there is any indication of illuminating gas in the sewer.

    5. In sewers with a heavy flow, a life line must be passed by floats from manhole to manhole and secured at each.

    6. Any person engaged in the work of in the examination, feeling the least symptom of drowsiness or dizziness must return immediately to the surface.

    7. After the completion of the work or examination, the persons making the examination and the workmen shall be accounted for and all manhole covers must be replaced and made secure.

    Yours truly,
    C.H. Ott, Assistant Engineer.
    George S. Webster
    Chief Engineer
    March 5, 1908.

    Appendix 6
    Pennypack Creek Sewage Treatment Works
    The City's first sewage treatment plant

    Click heading to return to Exhibit

    The Pennypack Creek sewage treatment works were put in operation in December, 1912, with the primary intention of protecting from immediate sewage pollution the waters of the Delaware River used as a source of supply for the Torresdale water filters, and secondarily to restore to a clean condition the lower part of Pennypack Creek which, at that time, was grossly polluted by the sewage of Holmesburg, the County Prison and the House of Correction [and the Home for the Indigent].

    At the end of two years' operation it can be said that the excellent design and careful operation of these works have accomplished the purposes for which the plant was installed. The sewage has been treated to such a degree that the final effluent discharged into the creek has been non-putrescent, nearly sterile and free from appreciable amounts of suspended matter. The sludge withdrawn from the tanks is inodorous and has been taken away by neighboring farmers.

    These results have been accomplished in an inoffensive manner, no nuisance being created even during the drying of the sludge, credit for which in a high degree must be given to the interest of efficient employees. [SOURCE: Annual Report of the Bureau of Surveys of the City of Philadelphia for the year ending December 31, 1914.]

    [ This report continues in more technical terms, discussing the operation of the pumping station, and how the Emscher tanks accomplished the treatment process. As the Pennypack Works was a prototype for a much larger Citywide sewage treatment system, its operation and performance was closely scrutinized.]

    [The plant ceased operations on December 13, 1930, when the construction of an intercepting sewer along the Delaware River allowed the routing of the sewage farther south, to Northeast Sewage Treatment Works, completed in 1923. Source: Bureau of Surveys Annual Report for 1930, manuscript, p. 41-1930 (p.10). PWD Historical Collection]

    Appendix 7
    Philadelphia's Sewer Problem

    Editorial from The Nor'easter (publication of the Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce), March 1941

    Click heading to return to Exhibit

    A good overview of the problems encountered by Philadelphia in implementing its 1914 plan for sewage treatment.

    Philadelphia's sewage problem is acute. Several years ago a contract was made with the State of Pennsylvania to spend some three million dollars each year until sewage disposal system was entirely completed, eliminating all sewage from the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Unfortunately the city, after partial completion of Northeast Philadelphia facilities, was unable to continue this program. Today the State threatens to step in and complete the work, and charge the bill to the municipality.

    Northeast Philadelphia is vitally interested in the completion of the sewage system, as large numbers of substantial homes in this area have been without sewer facilities for a number of years, and the condition today, due to certain land conditions, is deplorable. Furthermore, the flooding by Frankford Creek has cost a number of industries in this district more than a quarter million dollars in the past dozen years, and while partially improved this hazard cannot be entirely eliminated except by a complete sewage system including the Creek area.

    The financial condition of Philadelphia during the past few years not only prevented completion of the sewage system through lack of cash, but also prevented additional borrowing by the municipality for such projects. Recently the improvement of the water system was acted upon, a loan authorized and methods for the improvement are under consideration. Regarding the sewage problem, a sewer tax was proposed based on the water rent paid amounting to one and one-quarter times such rent. This would have been such a burden to large users of water that it was discarded, and a tax proposed based on real estate assessments, with the idea of lowering real estate assessments a certain percentage, so that the taxpayer would pay little more as a total, and a base for funds to finance the sewage improvement would be secured. Unfortunately the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declared this unconstitutional. Apparently wherever sewer taxes are charged they are based on water rents paid or the amount of water used. There seems to be no other adequate method. Various plans have been proposed, one with a minimum charge of $10.00, plus three-quarters of the water rent, and possibly one with a minimum charge of $12.00 plus one-half the water rent or maybe one-quarter of the water rent above a certain amount. Even these place extra burden on large water users, and would in reality make them pay considerable additional funds without extra service, while others would pay little if any more under the same provisions.

    While sewer improvements are desperately needed, the averaged size industrial concern must not be imposed upon. There are many difficulties to any equitable sewer tax. In the first place about one-half of the properties in Philadelphia are metered and pay for exactly the amount of water used; the other half pay certain fixed sums based on fixtures regardless of how little or how much water is used or wasted. If a maximum charge was placed on the tax and a proportionate reduction made in real estate taxes some companies would pay little more including the sewer tax. Other concerns like dye houses would pay a substantial sum for the sewer tax with a negligible amount of real estate tax reduction, for the simple reason that the average dye house may pay four or five thousand dollars water rent per year and four or five hundred dollars real estate taxes per year. In addition to dye houses, laundries, bottling establishments, leather concerns and certain other businesses are large users of water, even though they may be only average size concerns.

    The sewage discharge from homes and many concerns that use comparatively little water must be thoroughly assimilated and digested by the sewage disposal plant; on the other hand the discharge from laundries and some other concerns using tremendous amounts of water is beneficial to the sewage system, and in no sense a cost other than piping. Due to these many angles an equitable sewer tax is a difficult matter.

    Two years ago at the regular 1939 Session of the State Legislature, Joint Resolution No. 2 was passed which provides that cities may raise their debt limit 3% to pay for or complete sewage disposal systems. While raising debt limits of municipalities may be dangerous in many instances, in this case where it is for a specific purpose and must be done, it appears to be not only the best, but the only fair method that can be pursued. This Joint Resolution has been again placed before the 1941 Legislature as it must be acted upon by two consecutive Legislatures. If this is passed by the present Legislature it can be placed before the voters and the city will then have authority to definitely complete this work, meet State requirements, give ample facilities to home owners and industries, and place no particular group under any unreasonable expense. Inasmuch as the funds must be definitely used for the purpose designated, there is no chance of it being wasted or utilized for other purposes.

    This phase of the matter should be given ample consideration and publicity, so that the voters of the city as well as the legislators may understand the need for this specific legislation at this time.

    Clean Water for Life
    An exhibit co-sponsored by the
    City of Philadelphia Department of Records
    and the
    City of Philadelphia Water Department


    John F. Street, Mayor
    Joan T. Decker, Commissioner, Department of Records
    Kumar Kishinchand. Commissioner,Philadelphia Water Department

    This exhibition was prepared through the research and creativity of the following individuals:

    Project Directors
    Linda F. Townsel, Executive Secretary, Department of Records
    Gail Tomlinson, Director, Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, PWD

    The Curatorial Team
    Dona W. Horowitz-Behrend, Curatorial Director, University of Pennsylvania; Steven Tucker, Exhibit designer; Richard E. Roy, Deputy Commissioner and General Manager of Operations, PWD; Ed Grusheski, General Manager of Public Affairs, PWD; C. Drew Brown, Manager of Public Education, PWD; Jane Mork Gibson, Researcher; Adam Levine, Researcher; Joshua Horowitz, Writer.

    The Project Team

    Department of Records: Ward Childs, City Archivist; Josephine Clements-Churchville, Forms Management Analyst II;
    Link Harper, Photographer.
    Philadelphia Water Department
    : Public Relations: Joan Przbylowicz, Manager; Ray Kempinski, Graphic Artist. Geographic Information Systems Unit: Daniel Gonzalez, Engineering Aide 2. Administrative Services: Joseph Clare, Director III; Betty Gray, Supervisor; Rosemary Hogan, Supervisor.Office of Watersheds: Lance Butler, Aquatic Biologist 2; Chris Crockett, Sanitary Engineer 3; Brian Marengo, Sanitary Engineer 3; Chad Pindar, Sanitary Engineer 2 . Plant Managers: Kate Guest, Baxter Water Treatment Plant; John Muldowney, Belmont Water Treatment Plant. Public Affairs Interns: Noah Downs, Sarah Hughes, Doua Kue, and Mary Talianis.

    Contributing Area Institutions

    CIGNA Museum and Art Collection
    Franklin Institute Science Museum
    Germantown Historical Society
    The Historical Society of Pennsylvania
    Temple University Libraries Urban Archives


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