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Click here to see another section of the exhibit, "Drainage for the City."
The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers
Compiled by Adam Levine
Philadelphia Water Department
Outbreaks of yellow fever in the 1790s prompted the City
of Philadelphia to establish a municipal water system. In the summer of 1793,
a yellow fever epidemic swept Philadelphia, causing an estimated 5,000 deaths.
The plague returned the following summers, taking the lives of 3,500 in 1797.
Although the disease was actually carried by mosquitoes, panicked citizens thought
the cause was polluted water in city wells, contaminated by nearby privies and
cesspools, and gases rising from the filth in the streets. The epidemic mobilized
the populace to petition the City to provide drinking water for its citizens as
well as water for washing the streets and for fighting fires. (For more information--and
The Watering Committee accepted the proposal of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the United States' first architect and engineer, to take water from the Schuylkill River and distribute it through wooden pipes to the developing city. Public hydrants were set up, both for fire fighting and for citizen use. Those who paid a "Water Rent," and constructed a connecting pipe, could have water delivered directly into their homes. Water first flowed through the water mains at the end of January in 1801.
The Centre Square Water Works was located where City Hall now stands, and was powered by a steam engine. It was designed following classical architectural forms, and its park-like setting became a gathering place for citizens. Water was drawn from the Schuylkill River at Chestnut Street, and pumped by the Schuylkill Water Works to a sufficient height so that it could flow by gravity through a tunnel to Centre Square.
At the Centre Square Water Works, water was pumped to an elevated tank in the building from which it flowed by gravity throughout the city in water mains. This system was abandoned in 1815 due to maintenance problems, along with the need for a more reliable water supply and a larger reservoir. ( For more information on the City's first water supply system, see Appendix 2.)
With the city growing rapidly in population, the Watering Committee looked for new ways to distribute greater amounts of water to its citizens. It accepted a proposal by Frederick Graff and John Davis to build a new pumping station and reservoir on the Schuylkill in the Spring Garden District at "Faire Mount", the highest point near the original city.
Initially, steam engines provided the power for the Fairmount Water Works. The south engine, built by Samuel Richards, is a low pressure engine based on the Boulton & Watt design, similar to those in Centre Square.
The north engine was a new design by Oliver Evans, advertised as his "Non-Condensing, High-Pressure Columbian Steam Engine." With a possible pressure of 100 pounds per square inch, it was the largest he had built.
In 1822, waterpower was harnessed to drive the pumps, at first using waterwheels, and later turbines. Fairmount Dam was constructed to provide the power for pumping water to the reservoir. At 1,774 feet, it was said to be the longest dam in the world at the time. The original dam consisted of three sections: a crib dam, a mound dam of earth and rocks, and the stone wall of the Mill House. Cribs of hemlock logs were fastened together with locust pegs, filled with rocks, and then anchored to the bedrock. The dam has been repaired many times, as shown in this 1904 photograph. The current spillway is a concrete structure, built in 1929, in front of the original wooden cribbing.
Improvements in Fairmount's water-powered technology were necessary to provide greater amounts of water for the city's growing population. Turbines, more efficient than waterwheels, were installed starting in 1851. (For more detailed information about the Fairmount Water Works, see Appendix 3.)
Pipes and Reservoirs
Water Distribtion Main, 1946
Philadelphia's water distribution system
has maintained Latrobe's original plan. Large pipes feed smaller pipes, always
following Philadelphia's grid of interlocking streets. Each year, as the number
of homes and businesses directly supplied with water increased, the demand for
water also increased. The Watering Committee's response was to expand the infrastructure
with larger pipes, more pumping stations and reservoirs.
Starting in 1819, the City began replacing
wooden pipes with cast iron ones. Besides being more durable, the cast-iron pipes
made it easier to maintain water pressure throughout the system. Today's distribution
system contains pipes made of cast-iron, ductile iron, steel, and concrete. The
large concrete Queen Lane pipe shown above carries water from one reservoir to
Like many American cities, Philadelphia experienced rapid expansion in both population and industrial development in the 19th century. In 1854, the original City was joined with the surrounding Philadelphia County to create the current city limits. The population in this consolidated city grew from 81,009 in 1800 to 565,529 in 1860, and in area from 2 to 130 square miles. This explosion in human population also meant a dramatic increase in human waste, much of which ended up in the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, the same rivers that supplied the city's drinking water. Numerous industries sprang up on the banks of these rivers. Textile mills, iron works, paper mills, tanneries, and other businesses went mostly unmonitored as they dumped their waste into the rivers. Throughout this period, river water was taken untreated into the system, although some impurities settled out in reservoirs. Toward the end of the century, outbreaks of typhoid fever occurred. The large number of typhoid deaths prompted the City to adopt a filtration process for its water supply.
In 1883 the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal reported on a curious challenge made by a Philadelphia theater owner, who offered a prize of $50 to anyone who could drink a quart of Schuylkill River water every day for ten days without vomiting or dying in the attempt. The offer was accepted, and a man ceremoniously drank the water on stage each evening, accompanied by slow music. The fate of the water-drinker is unknown. (To read the text of the journal article, click here .)
Typhoid fever is a water-borne disease. Privies used by infected people living upstream contributed to the contamination of the city's water supply. Typhoid deaths were high when untreated water was pumped through the system. The benefits of filtered water, supplied citywide by 1912, and of chlorinated water, supplied by 1914, can be seen in the drop in typhoid deaths.
headlines on the Water Filtration Controversy, 1890s
In the 1890's
there was controversy over adopting filtration. Concerned citizens' groups organized
and petitioned the City to provide safe, drinkable water. Some people opposed
filtration. City Councils finally approved and funded filtration in 1900. In 1912,
after a breakdown in the newly developed filtration system, the City posted "Boil
Your Water" notices, warning citizens of the still-present danger of typhoid fever.
(For more information on pollution, disease and filtration,
see Appendix 7.)
The City adopted filtration in response to increased citizen demand. At first, the City had tried using a larger reservoir system, arguing that more settling time would result in acceptable water. This initial approach did not work, and the City then focused its efforts on filtration. The Belmont Raw Water Pumping Station and the Belmont Filtration Plant serve as good examples of the process of bringing pure, filtered water to Philadelphia.
The original Belmont Pumping Station was built on the west bank of the Schuylkill at the foot of Montgomery Drive in 1869. It contained steam engines and pumps that provided river water to West Philadelphia. In 1899 it was converted to pump river water to be treated at the Belmont Filtration Plant located at Belmont and City Line Avenues. The Belmont Plant is one of three filtration plants now in use, along with the Queen Lane and Baxter Plants.
The Belmont Plant originally had Slow Sand Filters in which the river water flowed through underground beds of sand. The sand in these beds was periodically removed and washed to remove impurities. The beds were then re-filled with the clean sand and manually raked smooth. Rapid Sand Filtration was adopted following WWII. Rapid Sand Filtration is faster and requires little human labor. In this process, the water travels through filters made of sand and crushed coal that can be cleaned without removing them from the filters. The filtered water is then stored in underground reservoirs until needed for distribution.
Rebuilt in 1899, the Belmont Pumping Station first used steam power and later, electric power to drive the pumps. A laboratory at the Belmont Filtration Plant tested the water for impurities.
The City has employed different power sources over the decades. Except for the Fairmount Water Works, which used waterpower, all the early pumps were powered by steam engines, with boilers to provide steam. Workers had to constantly stoke the boiler fires with coal to keep the system running. In the early 20th century, vertical triple expansion steam engines 57 feet tall were in place. These were later replaced by electric motors, much smaller in size, which did not require boilers.
Lardner's Point Pumping Station, completed in 1908, was the largest pumping station in the world. Receiving filtered water by gravity from the Torresdale (now Baxter) Filtration Plant, the Lardner's Point pumps were capable of pumping 240 million gallons a day into the system. They supplied nearly 60% of the City's residents with water, from South Philadelphia to the far Northeast. ( For more details on the city's pumping stations, see Appendix 8.)
The Philadelphia Water Department has continually refined its approach to providing water, both in terms of quality and quantity, over its 200-year history. The Department has followed many of the same basic principles during the past two centuries, such as harnessing the power of gravity to distribute and treat water. In many cases, it is the technology that has changed in order to exploit these same principles more efficiently. The system now produces roughly 325 million gallons of drinking water daily.
The modern water treatment process has many steps. 1. Natural Sedimentation : Water is pumped from the river and stored in reservoirs to allow the heaviest particles to settle and the lightest materials to float. 2. Chemical Addition for Coagulation : Chemicals are added and mixed into the water. 3. Chlorination : Chlorine is added to kill disease-causing organisms. 4. Flocculation : The water and chemicals are mixed to help the small particles coagulate or bind together. 5. Sedimentation : The smaller particles, now joined together, also settle. 6. Filtration : The water is then drawn through fine filters, made of sand, and crushed coal, to remove any remaining particles. 7. Final Chemical Treatment : Fluoride is added to prevent tooth decay, ammonia is added to counter chlorine taste, and zinc orthophosphate is added to reduce pipe corrosion. 8. Distribution : The treated water is now ready to be distributed to your community and home.
From the time of Benjamin Latrobe's Centre Square Water Works, when it was determined that the Schuylkill was a purer source of water than the Delaware, the Department has continued to analyze water quality. Today, these tests are done, before, during, and after filtration and treatment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires all water utilities to release reports annually that list the evaluations and results of water quality. The Philadelphia Water Department's annual Drinking Water Quality Report provides information to assure customers that their drinking water meets the highest standards.
City Map showing areas served by Drinking Water Plants, 2001
Philadelphia's three pumping and filter plants--Belmont and Queen Lane on the Schuylkill River and Baxter on the Delaware River--provide all the water for Philadelphia as well as for some of our suburban neighbors. The map can help you determine which plant serves your home and community.
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Jane Mork Gibson, Historical
The yellow fever epidemics were actually due to the fact that the city carried on an extensive trade with the West Indies, and mosquitoes and persons infected with the disease arrived in Philadelphia on vessels from Santo Domingo (Haiti) as refugees fled from the political revolution taking place there. During the epidemics, everyone who could left Philadelphia for the countryside. The poor either died at home or were taken to a hospital set up on Bush Hill (later the location of the Old United States Mint, and now Philadelphia Community College). There was no known remedy for the disease, and doctors invented their own methods. Dr. Benjamin Rush treated patients with bloodletting and a purgative, and miraculously, some of them survived. People who stayed in the city were either sick, caring for the sick, or disposing of the dead bodies. The outbreak was so widespread in 1798 that the city more or less shut down from August to October. As in earlier epidemics, the coming of cooler weather and rain brought a respite from the spread of the disease.
On December 5, 1798, the Select Council of Philadelphia drafted the following Memorial (or petition) to the state legislature, seeking financial support to develop a water supply system for the city. The Memorial was not agreed upon by the Common Council and was evidently not sent; nevertheless, it provides a clear synopsis of the problems the city faced:
To the Senate & House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in general Assembly met
The Select and Common Councils of the City of Philadelphia respectfully represent--
That the loss of many valuable Citizens, the various distresses & the
almost ruinous suspension of trade, repeatedly & recently sustained by the
City of Philadelphia from the frequent prevalence of what is called the Yellow
fever during part of the Summer & Autumnal Months calls for every effort which
human Wisdom can devise to avert its dreadful effects. Whether this destructive
Enemy is introduced among us, from foreign places with which we have Commercial
Intercourse or whether it originates from local causes at home, divides the Opinions
of our Physicians, and the same diversity of Sentiment prevails in some degree
with other Classes of Citizens. In this state of uncertainty prudence dictates
the propriety of guarding in the best possible manner against both sources &
it seems generally agreed, be the Origin foreign or domestic, that the Introduction
of good wholesome Water for drinking & Culinary purposes & for the occasional
flooding of the Streets of this City will be the best means of promoting the Health
of its Inhabitants & of correcting the State of our Atmosphere so as to render
it less recipient of Contagion. - Impressed with this belief the Select &
Common Councils have nothing more ardently at heart than the Accomplishment of
an Object so much desired by their fellow Citizens, but beg leave to represent,
that under the limited powers of the Existing acts for incorporating the City
of Philadelphia they possess neither the power nor the means; they therefore respectfully
request the legislature will be pleased to vest such powers in the city Corporation
as may be fully efficient for promoting useful improvements for the benefit and
health of the City & particularly for the Introduction of pure & wholesome
Water. - They beg leave further to represent that the introducing of good Water
will be an Object of considerable expence [sic] & tho no Expence [sic] may
be thought too great to avert a return of the calamities & ruin of the last
Summer, yet tottering as our Citizens are, under the weight & effects of the
late melancholy Scene, the burthen of the Work may prove too heavy for them if
unaided by the fostering hand of Government. - The Select and Common Councils
then further solicit that as a means to enable them to effect so salutary &
desirable an end that in addition to a proper enlargement of Powers to the City
Corporation the Legislature will be pleased to grant as an aid, the duties raised
by Sales at Auction within the City & some other equally efficient aid, not
doubting that the wisdom of the Legislature will perceive that in preserving so
great a Commercial City as Philadelphia from ruin & in regaining its reputation
for salubrity, the Interest of the whole State at large will be materially and
beneficially affected & promoted.
[SOURCE: Minutes of the Select Council of the City of Philadelphia, 1796-1799, Book One, pp. 266-268. City Archives of Philadelphia.]
For further information on yellow fever in Philadelphia, see: J. H. Powell, Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1949). This book includes the following poignant poem:
Hot, dry winds forever blowing,
Priests retreating from their pulpits! --
Doctors raving and disputing,
Nature's poisons here collected,
--Philip Freneau, Philadelphia, 1793
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Philadelphia Water Department
Beginning the Philadelphia Water Department's two hundred years of service to the community, the "Joint Committee of the Select and Common Councils for Supplying the City With Water" in 1799 employed the services of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architect and engineer, to design a system that ended up becoming a pattern for the infrastructure of subsequent utilities, such as gas and electricity. As Philadelphia grew in population and size, this basic design of the distribution system was followed when additional pumping stations and reservoirs were constructed.
Bounded by two rivers and with water from other smaller streams to the north within reach of the city via aqueduct, Philadelphia had numerous choices for the source of its water supply. The Delaware River water was deemed unsatisfactory due to the activities of a major port, as well as its use in disposing of offal, sewage and other wastes. Other options that were ultimately rejected included Benjamin Franklin's earlier proposal to bring water by aqueduct from Wissahickon Creek; bringing in water from Spring Mill, near present-day Conshohocken; and tapping the Delaware and Schuylkill Canal (designed to connect the rivers north of Vine Street, a project that was never completed). The chosen source--the Schuylkill River--was fast-flowing, removed from the City's population center, and had an extensive upstream watershed to feed the river.
To bring water to the citizens required two pumping stations. Latrobe was well aware that the Centre Square pumping station, at the center of Philadelphia and as the centerpiece of the nation's first large-scale public water-works, would attract a great deal of attention. He had introduced the neoclassical style a few years earlier with his Bank of Pennsylvania, and he designed the Centre Square building to be an architectural wonder. Faced with white marble, its dimensions followed classical criteria. Behind this beautiful facade were crowded the pumps, air chamber, steam engine, flywheel and wooden boilers, so close together that operation and maintenance were difficult. But from the outside, the only evidence of all this interior activity was smoke issuing from the building's oculus, or chimney. Philadelphians gave it a rather irreverent nickname: The Pepper-Pot, and the park-like setting became a public gathering place.
Centre Square was supplied with water by another pumping station on the Schuylkill, at the foot of Chestnut Street. There a steam engine pumped water to the height of Chestnut Street, after which it flowed by gravity through a brick tunnel under Chestnut and Broad Streets to a well under Centre Square. The Centre Square engine raised the water to two wooden reservoirs at the top of the building, and from there it flowed by gravity to a distribution chest below ground, and then through wooden pipes to hydrants and buildings throughout the settled parts of the city.
Both steam engines were of low pressure Boulton and Watt design, made in England, and if either one broke down, the whole system went off-line. This was a major defect in the system. The engine at the Schuylkill produced more power than needed to pump the water, and the extra power was used to operate a rolling and slitting mill in an adjacent building. Later a china factory was located at the site.
The reservoir tanks of the system were small, holding a mere twenty-five minute supply if no additional water was pumped in. This put the security of the city at stake, for there was danger of not having sufficient water to fight fires that might occur when the reservoir was depleted or when either engine was not working. The cost of operation was far above the original estimates, and ironically, the disease that had prompted the search for pure water--yellow fever--recurred in the city in 1802, 1803 and 1805. By 1811, with the population and the number of buildings in the city rapidly expanding, it became evident that a new system would be needed, and the waterworks at Fairmount were developed, first supplying water in 1815.
According to Philadelphia annalist John Fanning Watson, the Centre Square building (after it was no longer needed as a pumping station) served as a watch-house (for the town watchmen), and as a supply depot for oil burned in the city's street-lamps. It was torn down in 1828, and later in the 19th century another Philadelphia landmark was built on the site: City Hall.
(For further information on the architecture of the Centre Square Waterworks, see Jeffrey A. Cohen and Charles E. Brownell, The Architectural Drawings of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, in Vol. 2, Part 1, The Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Series II, The Architectural and Engineering Drawings, Edward C. Carter II, Editor in Chief. Published for the Maryland Historical Society and The American Philosophical Society by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1994.)
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The following text consists of excerpts from Jane Mork Gibson's excellent history,
The Fairmount Waterworks (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 1988).
Some of the text was revised by Ms. Gibson in 2002.
During its course of operation
from 1815 to 1911, Fairmount Water Works employed three distinct types of pumping
equipment: steam engines, traditional water wheels, and water turbines. The buildings
were constructed to suitably house these changes in power production machinery,
but there was never a loss in architectural beauty, as initially promoted by Benjamin
Henry Latrobe at the city's first water works at Centre Square. This was due to
the work of Frederick Graff, Esq. (Latrobe's assistant), who was the Superintendent
of the city's water system from 1805 until his death in 1847, and of his son Fred
Graff, Jr. who succeeded him. The effect of these impressive but thoroughly practical
neo-classical buildings today is that of a Grecian temple complex on the banks
of the Schuylkill River.
A unique situation existed with two very different steam engines side by side in the Engine House - a traditional low-pressure steam engine on the south side and a newly designed high-pressure steam engine on the north. By installing two steam engines in the pump house, the Watering Committee could overcome the problem of breakdowns. With this backup system, they believed one of the engines would always be in working condition and the city would never be deprived of the means of supplying water to the new reservoir that could hold 3 million gallons, a much larger supply for distribution. The pumps were vertical double-acting force pumps and were connected to a single discharge pipe in the basement level of the Engine House. Valves to control the water flow could be adjusted according to the engine being used.
The south engine was built by Samuel Richards, the proprietor of the Eagle Works, located on Upper Ferry Road at William Street (now Callowhill and 24th streets), and some of the castings were made at his Weymouth Furnace in South Jersey. This low-pressure engine was of the same design as that of the British manufacturers Boulton and Watts, and except for the use of cast iron for the lever beam and the flywheel arms and shafts, it was similar to the older engines at Chestnut Street and Centre Square. It had a twenty-six-foot lever beam. The boilers were a combination of wood, cast-iron, and wrought-iron parts. After some difficulties, the south engine was put into regular operation on September 7, 1815.
The north engine was made by Oliver Evans at his Mars Works on Ridge Road at Ninth and Vine streets, where his sons-in-law, James Rush and David Muhlenberg assisted. This was a new type of steam engine, the largest noncondensing high-pressure steam engine he had built, which Evans patriotically called a Columbian steam engine. Evans promised a savings in fuel and assured a large capacity of 3.5 million gallons in twenty-four hours. The Columbian engine was delivered by March 1815 and was used at intervals when the south engine was inoperable even though it was not officially accepted by the committee until December 15, 1817. It was said that the north engine was the one most often in operation.
The growth of the city and the continuing need for more water brought about a change. Plans to have both engines work at the same time were dropped due to the high annual expense of operation, estimated at $30,858 in 1819, with the cost of fuel the major expense. In addition, there had been three deaths when boilers exploded in 1818 and 1821. This led to investigation of utilizing water wheels, an old technology that employed water power, minimizing operating expense, but entailing considerable capital expense.
The majestic steam engines had made a mighty effort, but they were retired when the waterwheels took over the duty. On October 24, 1822, the steam engines were stopped, never to be used again. Although initially held in reserve for emergencies, they soon deteriorated and were sold for scrap in 1832. A few years later the utilitarian engine house was converted to a public saloon, where refreshments were provided for ladies and gentlemen, and its surroundings were developed into a public garden.
The first step in constructing a water-powered system at Fairmount involved damming the Schuylkill River. A plan was developed for the city to purchase the rights to the water power at Fairmount, to throw a dam across the Schuylkill River at Fairmount, and to construct a canal and locks for the Schuylkill Navigation Company, guaranteeing to maintain a sufficient water level at the dam for lockage. The city would have an ample supply of water both for distribution and for power to turn waterwheels, thus operating the pumps without the continual exorbitant expense for fuel. With such a dam, the water would be backed up to the normal fall line at East Falls, creating the Fairmount pool, an extensive slackwater pond for water storage and recreation, which was to be utilized by the rowing clubs, or what was called the Schuylkill Navy in later years.
Led by Chairman Joseph S. Lewis, the Watering Committee decided to install breast wheels - water-wheels that receive water in buckets higher than is customary on undershot wheel - which were reported to be highly efficient in similar conditions. There was no prototype for the scale and configuration of the kind of structure that would be needed to contain multiple waterwheels, so Graff set out to design the mill house through which the water would flow.
Experts were called upon for the design of the Fairmount dam. It was said that there had never been a dam attempted across such a wide expanse of a river with the peculiarities of the Schuylkill. Not only was the river subject to sudden freshets, or floods, but in the winter ice breaking up could do extensive damage. The proposal of Capt. Ariel Cooley of Chicopee, Massachusetts, was accepted by the Watering Committee. The councils approved the plan on April 8, 1819, and work was started on the dam ten days later. It was 1821 before the last crib was put in place, and July 23, 1821, saw the first water over the dam.
In order to direct destructive currents of the river away from the mill house on the east bank, the dam was laid out diagonally upstream in a line 1,2O4 feet long from the mill house to the west bank, where it had been determined that the canal would be located. As it neared its western terminus where it joined the guard locks of the canal, the dam made a sharp angle to permit the breaking up of sheets of ice when they reached the overfall of the dam. (In later years, damage from ice was prevented by a guard pier constructed on the eastern side of the river to protect the entrance to the millrace itself.) The dam was built of cribs of hickory logs filled with stone that were sunk in the river and fastened to each other and to the rock bed of the river. At the east bank, a mound dam 270 feet long was constructed because the riverbed at that location consisted of eleven feet of mud above the rock bottom, allowing no possibility of anchoring a structure of any kind. Beyond this three head arches formed a bridge, 104 feet overall, with gates that controlled the entrance to the millrace, or forebay. The millrace had to be cut out of solid rock and was 419 feet long, 90 feet wide, and from 16 to 60 feet deep.
The mill house was a monumental structure 238 feet long, situated along the rocky east bank of the river, which required extensive blasting to construct. The mill house was divided into twelve so-called apartments, eight for wheels and four for the pumps. At first only three wheels were installed, although space was provided for eight fifteen-foot-wide breast wheels. Each wheel operated a pump placed almost horizontally, which was activated by a connecting rod attached to a crank on the waterwheel, connected to the shaft of the waterwheel. Because the Schuylkill is a tidal river at Fairmount, the water in the tailrace, where water exits from the waterwheels, rises and falls with the tide. The bottoms of the waterwheels were placed two feet below high water and could operate in up to sixteen inches of backwater; thus the wheels were necessarily idle twice a day during high tide, and the pumps also remained idle.
The first wheel went into operation July 1, 1822. As the population and the number of industries continued to increase, always requiring more water, additional waterwheels were added at Fairmount, and additional reservoirs were built atop Faire Mount. By 1843 there was a full complement of eight breast wheels in the mill house. The original three wheels were made of wood, designed by Thomas Oakes and constructed by millwright Drury Bromley, both of whom had worked previously in England with John Smeaton, a prominent engineer. The five other wheels were made of cast iron, with wood buckets, designed by Graff and built by members of the mechanics' community in Philadelphia: Rush and Muhlenberg of Oliver Evans's Mars Works, Levi Morris, and Merrick & Towne Company. The I. P. Morris Company replaced the first three wheels in 1846 with wheels of the original design. The pumps were designed by Graff and built by members of the same group.
By the 1830s Fairmount had become the prototype of a water-supply system for growing urban areas in the United States and abroad. Graff acted as consultant for more than thirty-seven other waterworks, and Philadelphia became the "Mecca of the hydraulic engineer," according to Emile Geyelin in "Growth of the Philadelphia Water Works" (Proceedings of the American Water Works Association, Philadelphia, 1891, p. 21). In 1844 the system supplied an average of 5.3 million gallons of water per day to 28,082 water tenants, expenditures were $29,713, and the amount paid into the treasury was $151,501. This marked a high point for revenues, generated, in part, by water rates paid by neighboring districts where assessments were fifty percent above the rates paid by Philadelphians.
Seeing the waterwheels at full force was a highlight of a visit to the works. The interior of the mill house was designed so that the public could observe the machinery in operation, with two entrances leading to a gallery from which to view the massive wheels--fifteen feet wide and fifteen to eighteen feet in diameter--as water flowed into their buckets and the wheels silently turned, activating connecting rods that moved the pistons in the cylinders of the pumps, drawing water from the individual forebays, or flumes, allotted to them. Visitors found an endless fascination in the practically noiseless flowing of the water, the turning of the wheels, and the movement of the pumps.
Describing a visit to Fairmount in 1840, Thomas Ewbank, inventor and manufacturer, wrote:
"It is impossible to examine these works without paying homage to the science and skill displayed in their design and execution; in these respects no hydraulic works in the Union can compete, nor do we believe they are excelled by any in the world. Not the smallest leak in any of the joints was discovered; and, with the exception of the water rushing on the wheels, the whole operation of forcing up daily millions of gallons into the reservoirs on the mount, and thus furnishing in abundance one of the first necessaries of life to an immense population, was performed with less noise than is ordinarily made in working a smith's bellows! The picturesque location, the neatness that reigns in the buildings, the walks around the reservoirs and the grounds at large, with the beauty of the surrounding scenery, render the name of this place singularly appropriate." (Thomas Ewbank, A Descriptive and Historical Account of Hydraulic and Other Machines for Raising Water, 4th ed. (New York, 1850), p. 301.)
European visitors were greatly impressed with the beauty and the power of the works, especially since it had been conceived and built in this country by locally trained engineers. Frances Trollope had high praise for Fairmount as she recorded her visit to the waterworks in 1830:
"The water-works of Philadelphia have not yet perhaps as wide extended fame as those of Marley [at Versailles], but they are not less deserving it. At a most beautiful point of the Schuylkill River the water has been forced up into a magnificent reservoir, ample and elevated enough to send it through the whole city. The vast yet simple machinery by which this is achieved is open to the public, who resort in such numbers to see it, that several evening stages run from Philadelphia to Fair Mount for their accommodation. But interesting and curious as this machinery is, Fair Mount would not be so attractive had it not something else to offer. It is, in truth, one of the very prettiest spots the eye can look upon. A broad wear [weir] is thrown across the Schuylkill, which produces the sound and look of a cascade. ...The works themselves are enclosed in a simple but very handsome building of freestone, which has an extended front opening upon a terrace, which overhangs the river: behind the building, and divided from it only by a lawn, rises a lofty wall of solid lime-stone rock, which has, at one or two points, been cut into, for the passage of the water into the noble reservoir above. From the crevices of this rock the catalpa was everywhere pushing forth, covered with its beautiful blossom. ...At another point, a portion of the water in its upward way to the reservoir is permitted to spring forth in a perpetual jet d'eau, that returns in a silver shower upon the head of a marble naiad of snowy whiteness. The statue [Rush's Allegory of the Schuylkill River] is not the work of Phidias, but its dark, rocky back-ground, the flowery catalpas which shadow it, and the bright shower through which it shews itself, altogether make the scene one of singular beauty." (Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans. London, 1832, Vol. 2, pp. 74-76.)
Charles Dickens recorded his 1840 visit to Fairmount in his American Notes for General Circulation (London and New York, 1842; reprint New York, 1985; p. 89):
"Philadelphia is most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off everywhere. The Water-works, which are on a height near the city, are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the best and neatest order. The river is dammed at this point, and forced by its own power into certain high tanks or reservoirs, whence the whole city, to the top stories of the houses, is supplied at a very trifling expense."
The first hydraulic turbine was installed at Fairmount in 1851, a harbinger of major change. Again the city embraced new technology to increase the supply of water and to improve service. The physical plant was altered by creating a turbine room between the mill house and the engine house and a pump room under the engine-house terrace. Graff Jr. installed an experimental Jonval turbine, a type of horizontal waterwheel introduced in this country by the French engineer Emile Geyelin. Portions of the 1851 turbine remain in situ at the Fairmount Waterworks. This turbine proved so successful that a new mill house was constructed on the mound dam in 1859-62 and the old mill house was altered in 1868-72 to convert the rest of the system from eight water wheels to six state-of-the-art Jonval turbines and more powerful pumps.
The population of the city had increased and the works expanded to meet the need. With the consolidation of the city in 1854, the steam-powered pumping facilities of the districts were taken over, but Fairmount's water power was still the means of considerable financial benefit to the city and, when there was a sufficient flow in the river, saved on operating expenses. The problem of pollution persisted, however. Although Fairmount had been able to keep up with demand by the shift to turbines and by an ever-expanding distribution system, there was no way to increase the landmass on Fairmount in order to add a filtration system to the five reservoirs that had been constructed there over the years.
The 1859-62 construction of the new mill house on the mound dam presented special difficulties. There was the danger that the mound dam might give way during the excavation to the depth required for the wheel pits of the three large Jonval turbines to be installed. There were some close calls when the cofferdams were in use, but the new mill house was successfully completed. Henry P. M. Birkenbine was then the chief engineer of the Water Department and his design was entirely utilitarian. The roof of the new building was made into a terrace.
The alterations to the old mill house in 1868-72 that were required to install three more large turbines, however, were supervised by Graff, Jr., who was again the chief engineer. The extension of the river wall by eight feet and the reorganization of the interior caused extensive changes to the exterior structure, but Graff's design was able to maintain the original ambience of the works. The size of the machinery necessitated both deepening the wheel pits and raising the level of the deck. Utilizing a design of his father's from 1820 that had been made when the water-power facility was being developed, Graff placed a large, airy pavilion at the center of the new deck of the remodeled old mill house. This was flanked by entrance houses affording access to the interior below, and the carved wood figures by Rush were relocated above the doorways. The gallery overlooking the waterwheels was removed, and although the entrances still made it possible for the public to observe the new machinery, there was no visible flowing of water since the flumes for the turbines and the moving parts of the turbine wheels were completely enclosed by iron casings. What could be seen in action, however, was the massive gearing that enabled each turbine to power two equally massive pumps. Although one of the old breast wheels remained in place until 1883, it was in poor condition and was not in use.
The knell for Fairmount came in 1899 when a report on the pollution in the river was released. Although there had been laws against it for many years, industry had continued using the river as a sewer. Pollution, together with deterioration of the machinery when the inevitable abandonment of the works became apparent, spelled the end of the active life of this pioneer waterworks. By 1909, when filtration plants had been erected in other parts of the city to take over the duty, plans for decommissioning Fairmount Waterworks were begun. In 1911 the city passed an ordinance giving the Fairmount buildings along the river to the mayor for use as a public aquarium and another ordinance giving the site of Fairmount's reservoirs to the Commissioners of Fairmount Park for construction of a public art museum.
Notes on the Gardens at Fairmount
Click heading to return to Exhibit
The Fairmount Water Works occupies a unique position
in the iconography of nineteenth-century Philadelphia. In the early part of the
century it illustrated the romantic concepts of the era and was celebrated as
a prime example of the blending of nature and technology. The latter half of the
century witnessed the extension of its surroundings into a glorious park
Click heading to return to Exhibit
Philadelphia Water Department
A distribution system consists not only of pipes, valves, connectors, and reservoirs, but also the pattern in which they are put together to provide the efficient handling of water as it is drawn from supply source and delivered to those who will use it. The general requirements of a distribution system are well laid out in the following passage from Waterworks Handbook of Design, Construction and Operation by Alfred D. Flinn, Robert S. Weston and Clinton L. Bogert (New York: McGraw Hill, 3d. Ed., 1938, p. 398):
Some important requisites of a satisfactory distribution pipe system are well-laid mains of durable material, of sufficient capacity to meet all demands with no more than a reasonable drop in pressure; two or more main feeders well located with respect to the system as a whole; all mains interconnected and so controlled by valves that in event of break or for other reason a small section may be put out of commission quickly, with minimum inconvenience to consumers; master meters registering the quantities delivered into the several districts; protection against electrolysis; ample but not too high pressures; freedom from causes of interruption of flow; a good map showing the position, size, material, depth of cover, and date of laying of each main, together with size, location, and kind of each valve, hydrant, air valve, blow-off, and other appurtenance.
A water distribution infrastructure runs under Philadelphia's streets, containing pipes made of cast-iron, ductile iron, steel and concrete. The original distribution system used wooden pipes made of spruce or yellow pine. Log rafts were floated down the Delaware or Schuylkill River and then selected logs were stored in a holding pond at the foot of Chestnut Street. The logs were bored from both ends to create a hole of the desired size. A connector--a short iron pipe tapered on both ends--was inserted and bound with an iron ring to join two pipes. Some of these wooden pipes were unearthed during construction work along Market Street around 1901.
In 1819 the city adopted the use of cast-iron pipes and began replacing the old wooden ones. As he considered the change, Graff made notes on his 1819 drawing giving details and estimates. Cast-iron pipes reduced the problem of maintaining pressure on turns and at tee-connections as the water flowed through the system. Cast-iron pipes also had a longer life expectancy than wooden pipes. Originally the cast-iron pipes were imported from England, but later, foundries in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey supplied them.
There were four reservoirs at Fairmount, with one divided into two sections. One reservoir was used as a sedimentation basin, with water initially passing through that section. The construction of the reservoirs at Fairmount is described on page 19 of the Annual Report of the Watering Committee for 1836: The reservoirs are built of stone, and paved with bricks laid upon a very tenacious clay puddle in strong lime cement, and covered with grouting to prevent leakage. They are surrounded by an embankment 38 feet high, the base line of which is about forty feet, composed of strong clay immediately in contact with the walls of the reservoirs, and forming a belt about two feet thick, and the remaining portion of good loam, the whole being neatly faced with grass sods, which prevents washing.
Reservoirs are located at a sufficient height to provide the gravity necessary for distribution of the water. The diagram shows the several reservoirs and standpipes constructed from 1800 to 1905, with the height to which the water was pumped. It shows how the water system in Philadelphia has always used gravity for delivery. By pumping water to reservoirs or standpipes higher than the general level of the users, water could flow by gravity alone. In later years, as the city built on higher ground in some areas and as higher buildings were constructed, high service pumping stations were added to the system. Many people do not realize how much higher the reservoirs are than the areas being serviced. This 1906 table shows how gravity distribution is possible in Philadelphia.
At the Schuylkill Pumping Station on Chestnut Street, river water was captured at ebb tide in an enclosed holding basin. A steam engine pumped water from this enclosure up to a level higher than the basin located under the Centre Square Pumping Station at the intersection of Market and Broad Streets (City Hall now), and then the water traveled to Centre Square by gravity in a brick tunnel built under Chestnut and Broad Streets.
At the Centre Square Pumping Station, a steam engine pumped water from the holding basin under the building to two wooden reservoirs (or holding tanks) at the top of the building. From this height, the water flowed by gravity to an underground iron distributing tank and from there to the distribution system of pipes laid throughout the settled part of the city.
At the Steam Powered Pumping Station (Engine House), water was pumped from the Schuylkill to the reservoir at the top of Faire Mount (sometimes called Morris Hill), an elevation of 94 ft. above city datum. As shown on the 1819 map, water initially flowed by gravity through wooden log pipes to the Centre Square Pumping Station where it connected with existing distribution pipes throughout the city. Later there was direct gravity flow of water from Fairmount Reservoir to hydrants and water rent payers.
For the Water Wheel System (Old Mill House), gravity flow continued, with no change in the distribution system from Fairmount Reservoir. The water wheels originally pumped water to Fairmount Reservoir. After 1852, water was pumped to the Corinthian Avenue Reservoir at Poplar and Parrish Streets, which was higher than Fairmount Reservoir. The water then flowed by gravity back to Fairmount Reservoir and through the existing distribution system.
With the Hydraulic Turbine System, the 1851 turbine (with its pump in the Engine House) pumped water to Fairmount Reservoir utilizing the original 16-inch main from the steam engine era. The later turbines pumped water to the new Corinthian Avenue Reservoir, and then it flowed back again by gravity to Fairmount Reservoir for distribution. At Fairmount, a Standpipe (48 main inside) and a Distribution Arch (60 main inside) were essential parts of the expanding system.
The water has always been taken from the two rivers bordering Philadelphia. In most cases, the system has been for a pumping station located along the river to use steam engines--and later electric pumps--to pump water to a filtration treatment plant and reservoir located at a sufficient elevation to allow the distribution system to operate by gravity, with high service pumping stations where needed. A somewhat different system is employed at the Torresdale/Baxter Plant, where raw water is pumped from the river into the filtration system at that site, and then the filtered (clear) water flows by gravity to Lardner's Point where the water is pumped to East Park Reservoir, East Oak Lane Reservoir, or directly to the city distribution mains.
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Jane Mork Gibson, Historical
The creation of Fairmount Park along the banks of the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek in 1867 was an attempt to protect the water supply taken from the river at pumping stations by preventing growth of industries along the river and also to provide a recreational park for the citizens to enjoy. The original Fairmount Park consisted of the East Park, West Park and land bordering Wissahickon Creek, all within the 1854 city boundaries. By the 1840s industries had begun to be established on the banks of the river--breweries, ice houses, rolling mills, and by 1864 an oil refinery and a calico printing mill--all encroaching on the areas bucolic past, when only country estates bordered the river. In addition, Wissahickon Creek had long been a cradle of early industry with paper mills, textile mills, and a log mill and flour mill right the creek's junction with the Schuylkill. The threat that landed estates would be taken over by polluting industries spurred citizens to promote the citys purchase of the land along the river, which took place over the next several decades.
The South Garden and later, the North Garden, as well as the walks around the reservoirs at Fairmount, had long provided a setting for leisure activity, and are considered the beginnings of Fairmount Park. Before construction of the Fairmount water supply system in 1812, there was an active quarry at the site. When the waterpower system was developed in 1822, consideration was given to constructing mill buildings to utilize the expected extra waterpower, but this plan was abandoned. Although not included in the early plans for Fairmount, the city in 1826 promoted the concept of developing a recreational park for the use of citizens, as indicated in the following recommendation in the Report of the Select and Common Councils on September 18, 1826:
The best Interests of the City, and the Comfort, and pleasure of the Citizens, would be consulted, by securing to them, to all future time, the advantage of a pure supply of water, unpolluted...and we believe that it would be the wish of a majority of the Citizens, that the ground in the vicinity of the basins, should be reserved for their pleasure or use, that in proper time it may be embellished by the planting of trees, the construction of public walks, etc., etc....
The change in 1822 at Fairmount from steam engines (practical but not visitor-friendly) to water wheels (interesting to view and romantic) was finalized in 1835 with the conversion of the former Engine House into a public Refreshment Saloon. Paths and green lawns were laid where once stood piles of coal and cords of wood. A gazebo beckoned on the path up to the reservoir, offering a good view of the city from the walkways circling it. A second gazebo ornamented the end of the mound dam, overlooking Fairmount Dam and the flow of water in the river.
In 1844 the city purchased Lemon Hill, just north of Fairmount, after a nine-month campaign by Thomas P. Cope during which he garnered 2,443 signatures on 27 petitions. Cope had presented an eloquent argument for its acquisition on October 26 1843:
Whereas the City of Philada. has been at great expense & incurred a heavy debt by the introduction of a copious supply of pure water from the river Schuylkill into the City & whereas it is essential to the health & comfort of the citizens & the prosperity of the City that the water used for culinary & other domestic purposes should be free from all impurities & whereas the possession by the City of the Lemon Hill Estate may prove the means of more effectually protecting the basin at Fairmount from the introduction of substances more or less prejudicial to the community & whereas it is the bounden duty of Councils as the Guardians of the City interests to pursue all proper means to protect the health & comfort of the inhabitants... (SOURCE: Eliza Cope Harrison, ed., Philadelphia Merchant: The Diary of Thomas P. Cope 1800-1851 (South Bend, Indiana: Gateway Editions, 1978, p. 411.)
After the city acquired the property, it was leased out to private parties for several years. Cope had also proposed purchasing the ground between Fairmount Water Works and Lemon Hill, but this was not done until ten years later. When Cope retired from the Council in September 1845, he stated, The acquisition of Lemon Hill for the city would not have taken place but for my exertions. (op. cit., p. 475)
After Cope, Eli Kirk Price, a prominent Philadelphia real estate lawyer, took on the cause of creating a city park. A member of the state legislature, in 1854 Price campaigned for the Consolidation Act that united the City of Philadelphia with Philadelphia County to create the sprawling metropolis we know today. Price pushed a specific provision to be included as Section 39 of that act, calling for the City to purchase of adequate no. of squares or other areas of ground, convenient to all its inhabitants, and lay out and maintain such squares and areas of ground as open public places, for the health and enjoyment of the people forever.
Based on this provision, on September 28, 1855 Council approved an ordinance which devoted and dedicated to public use, as a Park, the Lemon Hill estateto be known by the name Fairmount Park.
"In connection, also,
with Fairmount Park, an improvement second only in importance to the preservation
of the water, the acquisition of the west bank, which now alone remains to be
secured, is essential, and we should greatly deplore that inaction which would
eventually mar a spot now rapidly unfolding beauties which must render Philadelphia
superior in this respect to other cities. The vast importance of these paramount
objects to the present well-being and future importance of our city, compels us,
therefore, to ask of Councils the adoption of such measures as will at the earliest
period secure them."
The acquisition of land on both banks of the Schuylkill took place in a number of ways in the succeeding years. Often private funds from interested citizens initiated a drive to add more land to the park, with the city contributing funds and finalizing the purchase. The various land areas can roughly be listed as follows: Fairmount South Garden: 1835
Fairmount North Garden: ca. 1840
To manage this land and other properties that would eventually be purchased, Price proposed the creation of theFairmount Park Commission, which was established by an act of the state legislature on March 26, 1867 (P.L. 547).
Notes on Pollution, Disease and Water Filtration
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Jane Mork Gibson, Historical Consultant
In 1800 city leaders chose the Schuylkill River as Philadelphias water source because, unlike the Delaware River, it was mostly free of pollution. That changed over the years, however, as the Schuylkill became tainted by discharges from manufacturing industries that sprang up in the watershed, including hatteries, soap factories, sugar houses, breweries, iron foundries, paper stainers, tanneries, dye houses, distilleries, morocco factories, paper makers, printing and binderies, and scores of textile mills. Other pollution came from acid-laden drainage from extensive coal mining near the headwaters of the river, and from upstream towns that directed their sewer pipes, carrying human wastes, into the river. Using rivers and streams for disposal of industrial wastes and human sewage was standard practice in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. In Philadelphia, the eventual result was that the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers became de facto sewers.
1828 law and others disregarded
Even in the early days, the Watering Committee was aware of the potential problem of pollution in the Schuylkill, especially from the upstream districts and municipalities over which the city had no control. In an attempt to prevent pollution from industries near the city, especially Manayunk and East Falls, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed a law on April 12, 1828 (P.L. 315), which read in part:
If any person or persons shall hereafter willfully take, lead, construct or carry off or shall knowingly suffer or permit to be taken, led, conducted or carried off any offal or any putrid, noxious or offensive matter, from any dye house, still house, brew house or tan yard or from any manufactory whatever into that part of the river Schuylkill, which is between the dam at Flat Rock and the dam at Fair Mount, near the City of Philadelphia, every such person shall for each and every offence forfeit and pay a sum of not less than five dollars, nor more than fifty dollars, at the discretion of the magistrate....
Unfortunately, because the penalties were so low, and because manufacturing interests wielded such strong influence over legislators, this and later anti-pollution laws were generally disregarded.
Filtration considered in 1846
Filtration of the citys water supply to remove pollutants had been considered as early as 1846, when Fairmount was the sole station for supplying the city with water, but since a filtration bed would have taken up a major part of Fairmount Reservoir the idea was dropped. Frederic Graff, Jr. responded to this proposal in the following report to the Watering Committee:
Having carefully examined the proposition made to the City Councils to erect filtering apparatus in the Fair Mount Reservoirs capable of filtering 4,500,000 gallons per day, at a cost of $42,000 which was referred to me by the Watering Committee at their last meeting. I will briefly state that the Reservoirs at the Fair Mount not having been adapted for the reception of filters, many very great difficulties would occur in arranging them for that purpose. But even if the work could be accomplished without interference with the continual supply of water to the city, the quantity of water, which the proposed filters will be capable of supplying, would be entirely inadequate to the demand. By reference to the Report of the Watering Committee for 1845 it will be seen that the average consumption of water in the City and lower districts from July 1 to Oct 1 was 5,186,762 gallons per day, during that period upon some hot dry days upwards of 6,000,000 gallons per day were drawn off from the Reservoir. As this fact proves conclusively the insufficiency of the plan proposed I will not trouble the gentlemen at this time with the many various objections to construction of any kind being placed in the reservoirs that cannot be controlled at all seasons of the year which would so much endanger the constant supply of water to the citythe continuance of a supply of water with which this city has been blessed without interruption for the last 30 years without interruption.
Sedimentation considered sufficient
Sedimentation--letting the water sit in the reservoir long enough for the solids to settle to the bottom--was considered sufficient treatment in the early years at Fairmount, and one of the reservoirs was always used for that purpose. Even when concerns about the health effects of pollution became stronger, as typhoid fever epidemics became an annual warm-weather occurrence, some people still considered sedimentation the answer, and the city spent large sums building new reservoirs to increase the length of time the river water remained in sedimentation basins. Some City officials fought the adoption of filtration, because they thought it was uneccessary and because of the huge expense involved. Mayor Edwin H. Fitler expressed this point of view in his annual message to City Council in 1890:
Three years ago the storage capacity of our reservoirs was 190,000,000 gallons of water, equal only to two days supply; on the first of January last, this capacity had been increased to nearly 900,000,000 gallons, nearly eight days supply--a very satisfactory increase. The clearness and purity of the water now distributed to a very large portion of our city proves conclusively the correctness of the policy of subsidence, and the work of building storage reservoirs should be continued until their capacity is at least doubled. The most pressing needs of the Bureau of Water are four large reservoirs, larger distributing mains in many sections of the city for the purpose of supplying the older portions with subsided water and of giving water to the thousands of new buildings annually erected, and new pumping engines at several of the stations. Having had interviews with many scientific men of our country respecting a purer supply of water for our city, and having given this important subject much consideration, I have reached the conclusion that any attempt at filtration upon a scale large enough to purify by that method the enormous quantity of water used is at present impracticable, and the condition of our finances for many years to come will not warrant the adoption of any of the many proposed schemes of bringing our water supply from the Delaware river, the Perkiomen, or from Lake Erie, or of any extended filtration, and all that can be done at present for a supply of pure water consists in the immediate increase of our subsiding and distributing capacity. When in the future the water we use is brought from other sources than our present supply, it will be necessary to have storage basins, and those now constructed will be required in connection with any plan that may be hereafter adopted, and as the purification of the water by subsidence is rapid and certain we should not delay such constructions, and work upon them cannot commence too soon.
Germ theory gains acceptance; filtration urged
Over the years, several studies were made of the quality of Schuylkill water, resulting in differing opinions, but in general claiming that Schuylkill water was better than that provided in many major cities. But relying on subsidence alone did little to decrease the incidence of typhoid, a water-borne disease that killed thousands of Philadelphians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the official posture insisted that the Philadelphia water supply was sufficiently free of offensive matter, it became increasingly difficult over the years to counter the complaints that were voiced.
The method of testing the purity of the Schuylkill water changed with the better understanding of scientific principles in the second half of the nineteenth century, according to historian Michael P. McCarthy. Scientists in the early nineteenth century thought that mineral content was related to water quality, and the standard tests were for the hardness and softness of the water. By mid-century a test for organic solids had become the new standard for measuring water quality.... In the 1860s scientists developed more sophisticated tests that measured pollution based on the amount of nitrogen and albuminoid ammonia, two chemicals found in human waste.... In 1880...two German scientists working independently at long last identified the typhoid bacilli [but] the germ theory of disease was not completely accepted despite all the discoveries in bacteriology. (Michael P. McCarthy, Typhoid and the Politics of Public Health in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia . Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1987, pp. 10-11)
With widening acceptance of the Germ Theory, bacteria invisible to the naked eye--such as those that cause typhoid fever--began to be considered as major pollutants, and pressure increased on City officials to take additional steps to purify the water. Some religious people (including at least one influential City Councilman) refused to believe that God would create a germ that would harm his greatest creation, man. Political intransigence in the corrupt City government also delayed the adoption of filtration. John C. Trautwine, Jr. who headed the Water Bureau in 1895, proposed an experimental filtration plant to determine the benefits of filtering water, and to decide whether slow sand filters or rapid sand filters were preferable. This $250,000 project would have provided purified water to just one section of the city and was met with opposition from many groups. The appropriation ultimately failed to get enough votes in City Council. T. M. Drown, the president of Lehigh University, wrote to the head of the citys Department of Public Works in 1896: It is inconceivable that with the indisputable facts before them, there should be any member of the councils who hesitate to provide means to filter the Schuylkill water that it may be both clear and wholesome. ( Press : March 11, 1896) After the defeat of this bill, Frank J. Firth of Germantown formed the City Organizations Filtration Committee. This organization and others, such as the Womens Health Protective Association, spent the next several years lobbying for the construction of a filtration system for the entire city.
1899 typhoid epidemic: The final straw
The argument for and against filtration dragged on with no concrete results until another typhoid epidemic hit the city in 1899. As had happened a century earlier, when yellow fever prodded the Councils to act, the need for a quick solution to the water supply problem became painfully evident. Soon after Samuel H. Ashbridge took office as Mayor, in April of that year, he appointed a commission to study the water problem. The commissions report concluded that the Schuylkill and the Delaware Rivers provided a sufficient supply, and that filtration would be the best method to purify the water. City Councils finally approved the necessary ordinances for filtration in January 1900.
Having determined that filtration was the answer, some city officials still considered using subsidence alone to render river water pure enough to drink. An experiment was undertaken to determine if sedimentation over a period of time (for example, 10 days) would produce water quality as good as that obtained through filtration.
At the time the plans and contract for the Torresdale filters were being prepared it was thought that the present Queen Lane basins of about 350,000,000 gallons capacity might be used as slow subsiding reservoirs, and that by ten days subsidence upon the continuous plan, the water would be as free from bacteria and turbidity as the filtered water from Torresdale, and that such water at the rate of 35,000,000 gallons per day could be supplied from this source. Experiments therefore were commenced on quiescent sedimentation on the Schuylkill water in basin No. 3, at the Fairmount Works, which was set aside for this purpose. Investigations running through a year indicated that no ordinary time of subsidence would render the water comparable in quality with filtered water, and the plan of drawing water from the Queen Lane basins, excepting in a case of emergency, was therefore abandoned, and plans made for an addition of filters at Torresdale sufficient to supply the volume of water which it was thought might be obtained from the Queen Lane basins by simple sedimentation. ( Philadelphia Bureau of Filtration Annual Report , 1903, p. 129)
Construction of the filtration plants took the better part of the decade, and they were still not in full operation by 1906, when typhoid once again ravaged the city, killing more than 1,000 residents. Once again the newspapers chastised those who were involved, as in this excerpt from an editorial in the August 22, 1906 edition of the Press :
The typhoid fever returns are an unanswerable argument against delay. The wail of the typhoid patients, the households left desolate by deaths from typhoid cry to heaven for the release of the city from the deadly effects of polluted water. Those who needlessly and wantonly postpone the completion of the filter plant and the abolition of the tainted water that now afflicts the city are guilty of manslaughter. The responsibility for the continued ravages will rest on the heads of these obstructionists. There is no escape from it. Those who delay filtration a single day must accept and bear the awful responsibility of such delay.
Proof of the effectiveness of water filtration in preventing disease can be seen in the accompanying chart of typhoid fever deaths, which dropped dramatically after 1912, once the citywide filtration system was finally in place. The addition of chlorine to the water further improved its quality.
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Jane Mork Gibson,
Over its 200-year history, the Philadelphia Water Department has met the needs of the city for water by building pumping stations, reservoirs, and filtration plants in different sections of the city. With a commitment to service, physical structures have been designed to accommodate technical equipment such as pumps, air vessels, steam engines, water wheels, turbines, and electric motors, together with an extensive system of pipes and valves. Filtration plants have required large outdoor and indoor processing and storage basins.
As with Philadelphia's earliest water supply system, architecture has always been important. Over the years pumping stations have presented a combination of aesthetically appealing structures on the exterior with practical utilization of space in the interior. The buildings exhibit municipal pride and reflect the culture of the times.
In 1854 the Act of Consolidation joined the original City of Philadelphia with Philadelphia County. Before 1854, Fairmount Water Works was the sole pumping station for the original city of two square miles. In 1854 when the enlarged city covered an area of 129 square miles, the city took over the existing Spring Garden Works, the Twenty-Fourth Ward Works in West Philadelphia, and the Delaware Works in Kensington. Later the city purchased small private water systems in Germantown and Chestnut Hill. As the population and water use increased, the city remodeled or retired obsolescent plants and built new pumping stations, reservoirs, and filtration plants.
Until the adoption of electric motors, steam power has been the standby for the city's pumping stations, with the exception of waterpower at Fairmount Water Works. A variety of steam engines have been used, often the latest design at the time of installation. Steam engines require a large number of boilers, which in turn require large buildings and coal storage areas adjacent to the pump houses. With the conversion to electric power, much of this previously necessary space was no longer required, and several pumping station buildings were demolished.
For many years the pumps employed followed the design of Frederick Graff for "almost" horizontal double-acting pumps. Later more highly developed horizontal pumps, by Worthington and others, were used. With the coming of double- and triple-expansion engines, both horizontal and vertical pumps were used. The further development of centrifugal pumps also changed the interior space needed for pumping. Instead of a fifty-seven-foot high triple expansion engine, a compact combination of an electric motor and a centrifugal pump could do the work. The contrast is shown in the photos of Lardner's Point.
A reciprocal (or double-acting) pump is one where steam in the cylinder forces the plunger and the water in one direction, then in the opposite direction by using a valve. In this way double the amount of water is pumped. A vertical triple expansion (VTE) steam engine uses the steam three times. Three sizes of vertical cylinders are placed side by side and are connected to each other. The piston in the first cylinder is moved by high-pressure steam released into the cylinder, and the escaping steam--which has expanded to a medium pressure--moves the second piston. Finally the escaping low-pressure steam moves a third piston. A vertical pump can be directly connected to the VTE steam cylinders, or the power can be transferred to a horizontal pump.
To show the response of the city to the need to supply water, a list of pumping stations and a partial listing of the mechanical equipment and date of installation follows:
2 Vertical Double-acting (reciprocating) Force Pumps (1801)
1 High Pressure Engine made by Oliver Evans (1815)
1 vertical reciprocating pump
Iron and Wood Water Wheels made by Rush & Muhlenburg, Levi Morris, Merrick & Towne (1824-1845)
3 Replacement Wooden Water Wheels made by I.P. Morris (1846)
1 Jonval Turbine made by I. P. Morris (1851)
3 Jonval Turbines made by I. P. Morris (1860, for New Mill House)
3 Jonval Turbines made by I. P. Morris (1872, for remodeled Old Mill House)
(All of the above turbines used reciprocating pumps based on design of Frederick Graff.)
When the city enlarged its borders in the Consolidation Act of 1854, the following pumping stations were absorbed, including a variety of steam engines:
1 Double-Acting Condensing Engine, vertical steam cylinder, horizontal pump
1 Cornish Engine
1 Condensing Engine, with vertical cylinder, with overhead lever beam, with double-acting horizontal pump
1 Worthington Compound Duplex (1872)
The PWD Annual Report for 1883 lists additional pumping stations and the equipment installed:
#2 Duplex Compound, Worthington (1871)
#3 Duplex Compound, Worthington (1873)
#2 Duplex Compound, Worthington (1872)
#2 Knowles Pump, H.P. (1876)
#2 Knowles Pump (1876)
#2 Worthington Duplex (1878)
#1 Horizontal high-pressure
1883, additional pumping stations were added to the system and some of the older
stations were decommissioned or remodeled. A variety of power systems have been
employed. These newer stations include the following:
Belmont Filtration Plant
Roxborough Filtration Plant
Queen Lane Pump Station
Queen Lane Filtration Plant
Lardner's Point Pumping Station (on Frankford site)
Baxter Filtration Plant (formerly Torresdale)
Department of Public Works Annual Report (p. 34f)
Water for Life
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA
F. Street, Mayor
This exhibition was prepared through the research and creativity of the following individuals:
The Project Team
Department of Records: Ward
Childs, City Archivist; Josephine Clements-Churchville, Forms Management Analyst
Contributing Area Institutions
CIGNA Museum and Art Collection