The Fairmount Water Works
by Jane Mork Gibson
Social and Technological Historian

Bulletin, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Volume 84, Numbers 360, 361 Summer 1988
Text posted on this Web site with permission of the author.
Copyright 2003. All rights Reserved.

This edition of the PMA Bulletin was published on the occasion of the exhibition The Fairmount Water Works, 1812-1911 (July 23-September 25, 1988). The original publication contains many illustrations and informative captions, a checklist of the exhibition, and a preface by Anne d'Harnoncourt, none of which is included below. (Click here to view the original Bulletin cover.)

I am working on a PDF version to reproduce this Bulletin with all the captions and illustrations. Besides negotiating this with PMA and the owners of the artwork depicted, I need to be able to make the illustrations clear while making the file a reasonably downloadable size. Any advice?

Even without the illustrations, the following text stands as the best and most complete history of Fairmount, from Jane Mork Gibson, the site's most knowledgeable historian.

The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers

Compiled by Adam Levine
Historical Consultant
Philadelphia Water Department
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The Fairmount Water Works occupy 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 century witnessed the extension of its surroundings into a glorious park and the introduction of ever more efficient technology, but ended with distress and disrepair of the facility, anticipating its impending abandonment as a waterworks in 1911.

For foreign and native travelers in the nineteenth century making the grand tour of the United States it was unthinkable to be in Philadelphia without visiting the Fairmount Water Works on the banks of the Schuylkill River. The waterworks and its surroundings were praised for their beauty in 1825 by a visitor to the city, John P. Sheldon, who wrote to his wife in Detroit:

The celebrated works on the Schuylkill, by which the water of the river is raised to the top of an eminence which is elevated far above any house in the city, are beyond all praise. The reservoir upon this eminence includes an area of more than half an acre, and from the power of the works, a city of perhaps twice the extent of Philadelphia, could be supplied from the reservoir. The water of the Schuylkill is of an excellent quality, can readily imagine the luxury in this respect, which is enjoyed by the inhabitants of Philadelphia. The scenery on the banks of the Schuylkill, particularly in the vicinity of the works alluded to, is of the most charming description. Delightful seats, surrounded by various kinds of trees and shrubbery, with gardens containing summer houses, vistas, embowered walks, &c meet your view in almost every direction, woods sloping gently to the river's edge, by the side of smooth lawns, add to the pleasing variety of the scene; and the Schuylkill, with its noble dam and bridges serves as a most beautiful finish to the foreground. [1]

By the 1840s the chaste, neoclassical architecture of the buildings, the landscaped garden, and the promenades up to and around the reservoirs on "Fair Mount," as the rise was identified as early as 1687 on a map of Philadelphia, were major attractions. Ornamental sculptures, fountains, and airy gazebos added to the visual pleasure of the site. For the general public as well as for those with engineering or technical interests, the technological components at Fairmount made the waterworks a unique wonder--the turning of the massive waterwheels, the action of the powerful pumps, and the sparkling reservoirs containing the city's water supply. This was what made it different from other garden spots, and lent excitement and edification to the visit.

The development of this remarkable facility was not fully envisioned or planned as an entirety from the beginning; rather, it evolved over decades in response to happenstance, exigencies of the moment, and technological advances. From construction beginning in 1812 of a single building at Fairmount that housed two steam engines pumping river water to a reservoir on the hill [Page 6] above, the waterworks expanded to become the extensive technological system and public park so famous in later years. The Joint Committee on Supplying the City with Water, known as the Watering Committee, was a city agency formed in 1798, made up of members of the Select and Common councils, the city's legislative branch. Its concern was to establish a system that would provide an essential service for the citizens of Philadelphia--a plentiful supply of potable water. The nature of the early city was described as having a "merchant-led committee system" that functioned very well. [2] But there were problems, too, along the way as Philadelphia grew in size and population, as state-of-the-art technology enabled improvements in the system, and as the realities of economics and politics intruded.

[Page 7]
From 1815 to the consolidation of the city with its districts in 1854, Fairmount Water Works was the sole pumping station supplying Philadelphia with water, and for part of that time it also supplied the districts of Spring Garden, Northern Liberties, and Southwark. After water power replaced steam, which used expensive fuel to power the waterworks' pumps, the financial rewards for the city were considerable. In 1844 the city purchased the Lemon Hill property, which had once belonged to Robert Morris and was directly upstream from the works, to prevent industries from locating on water lots so close to the city's water supply. The south garden at the waterworks had been built by 1835, and soon the idea of a large urban recreational park caught the fancy of many citizens, with additional land being acquired for today's Fairmount Park. By the time of the consolidation of the city in 1854, however, additional pumping stations that had already been erected by the districts along the river eliminated the city's dependency on water power at Fairmount. Although technological improvements were made with the installation of water turbines beginning in 1851, Fairmount Water Works began to deteriorate by the 1880s. River pollution reached untenable proportions in the 1890s, and the facility was decommissioned as a pumping station in 1911.

Many persons were instrumental in the creation and the operation of Fairmount Water Works. Most noted among them were Frederick Graff (1774-1847) and his son, Frederic Graff, Jr. (1817-1890). As a young man, the elder Graff was an assistant to the architect and engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Graff served as superintendent of the first Philadelphia Waterworks at Centre Square, the site today of City Hall, from 1805 and continued at Fairmount until his death in 1847. Responsible for the design of the Fairmount Water Works facility-the buildings, most of the machinery, the distribution system, the gardens immediately surrounding the waterworks--he, in effect, ran the waterworks. Graff, Jr., continued the tradition, serving from 1847 to 1856 and again from 1867 to 1872, becoming a leading civil engineer in his own right, and playing a major role in the development of Fairmount Park.

Fairmount Water Works today maintains its graceful presence in the Philadelphia landscape and serves as a picturesque reminder of the past when its buildings, gardens, and dam were depicted in drawings, paintings, woodcuts, lithographs, and engravings. Views of the waterworks were also transferred to porcelain and to pottery as the scene most representative of Philadelphia. These images and the remembrance of the days long gone enrich our perception of the present in contrast to the past-when a stroll in a garden and a viewing of waterwheels in motion were the grand moments of a Sunday afternoon.

[Page 9]

The need for an adequate, clean supply of water became critical after 1793, when the purity of the city's water supply from wells was questioned as a major yellow-fever epidemic plagued the city during the summer months and when there was not enough water to cleanse the streets or to fight fires. Members of the Select and Common councils debated how to remedy the situation, Philadelphia's active community of mechanics pondered the problem, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was in Philadelphia in 1798 to build the Bank of Pennsylvania, was asked for his advice. It was found that water was being contaminated by cesspools located too close to the city's wells, which supplied water to public pumps and hydrants. The need for a speedy resolution was accentuated by another major recurrence of yellow fever in 1798. The solution to the problem was either to bring water by canal or aqueduct from a distance outside the city or to tap the abundant supply of water in the Delaware and the Schuylkill, the two rivers flanking the city. Latrobe recommended construction of a system to pump water from the Schuylkill River and distribution of it through mains made of bored logs to the settled areas of the city.

Latrobe proposed that power for the system be supplied by steam engines, although at this time there were reportedly only three in existence in the country and little was known about their construction or operation. The engines were to be housed in two separate structures, one at the foot of Chestnut Street, which would pump river water up to the level of a tunnel, where it would flow by gravity under Chestnut Street to Broad Street to a pump house at Centre Square (the intersection of Market and Broad streets), which would house another steam engine, a boiler, and a pump. The steam engine at that location would pump water to reservoir tanks at the top of the building; from there it would flow by gravity to a distribution chest and then through wooden log pipes to pumps, hydrants, and the buildings of subscribers.

Latrobe's drawings illustrating his proposal were impressive, and his Continental manners were evidently influential, for he was awarded a contract to build the system, with the stipulation by the Watering Committee that it would be in operation before October 1799. This was an extremely optimistic representation to the Watering Committee by Latrobe and his partner Nicholas Roosevelt, who was to construct the steam engines. The facility finally went into operation in January 1801, with a resulting overage in the estimated cost.

The Philadelphia Waterworks at Centre Square was an early example of Latrobe's influential neoclassical architectural style. The building was admired for its proportions and use of Greek prototypes. The Centre Square system illustrated the manner in which a purely utilitarian function could be housed in a structure that gave no indication of its purpose and was a harmonious and attractive addition to its surroundings. That all the parts of the steam engine, the boiler, and the pump did not easily fit into the space provided in the interior of [Page 10] the building did not appear to disturb Latrobe or the Watering Committee. In practice, the close quarters made the operation of machinery difficult and created problems for Graff, who had been engaged by Latrobe to assist with the drawings and later with the operation of the works. In 1804 Latrobe described Graff as his first pupil.

The pump house at Chestnut Street on the Schuylkill River was the first to go into operation, and Thomas P. Cope, a member of the Watering Committee, recorded his jubilation at the time:

It was an anxious moment & when the signal was given to put the engine in motion, my heart beat so furiously against my side I could scarce keep my feet. When I beheld the elevated fountain gush forth, tears of joy came to my relief. [3]

But difficulties with the machinery and the management of the facility hampered the system even after it was in full operation. The Watering Committee had been successful in achieving its goal of supplying the city with water, although to a somewhat limited extent because the amount of water that the reservoir tanks held would be emptied out in twenty-five minutes if no additional water was pumped in. In addition, purchase of wood for fuel was expensive, the crude boilers were inefficient, and parts of the machinery frequently had to be replaced.

The continuing need for improvements in the water-supply system became desperate. The security of the city was at stake, for there was danger of not having sufficient water to fight fires that might occur when the reservoir tanks in the Centre Square pump house had been depleted or when either [Page 11] one of the engines was not working. The health of the population was again threatened by yellow-fever epidemics that had recurred in 1802, 1803, and 1805. And, the cost of operation of the Centre Square system was high--so far above the estimated expense that prudence demanded a major revision.

A new solution was sought by the Watering Committee, which began to look for alternative methods of supplying the city with water. In 1811 the committee sent Latrobe's assistants John Davis and Graff to survey the situation. They investigated the same places that Latrobe had seen thirteen years earlier and arrived at a similar solution--pumping water from the Schuylkill River using steam power but from a new location. They proposed construction of a pumping station on the banks of the Schuylkill River at the foot of Fairmount (at one time called Morris Hill) and construction of a reservoir on top of the hill.

[Page 12]

The selection of a new site for the waterworks at Fairmount, just beyond the city limits in the district of Spring Garden, was propitious. The Delaware and Schuylkill Canal Company had previously possessed the rights to supply water to the city from that area, but the failure of the company made it possible to consider an otherwise unavailable location. Water could easily be drawn from the fast-flowing Schuylkill River by an intake leading directly to a pump house built at the river's edge, then pumped up to a reservoir located on top of the hill that rose precipitously behind, fifty-six feet above the highest ground in the city. From there the water could flow through the distribution system already in place throughout the populated areas of Philadelphia.

The district of Spring Garden lay to the north of the city and bordered the Schuylkill River. The area was mostly open land, with country seats farther out. Just downstream from Fairmount there was a major river crossing at Upper Ferry .The rocky cliffs, which were quarried, were scarcely far enough from the river's edge to allow space for Ferry Road. It was on this rock ledge next to the Schuylkill River that Graff located the first waterworks building at Fairmount, which was the engine house. The water main from the engine house ran under Ferry Road, then ascended through the rocky hill, where space for the main was excavated by blasting with black powder. The water was discharged into a basin, or reservoir, on top of the mount. Construction started August 1, 1812.

Graff was influenced by Latrobe's concept of designing an aesthetically pleasing building to house a potentially dangerous function, which the operation of stationary steam engines was considered to be at that time. From the outside, the engine house resembled a typical stuccoed house with Federal period detail, with doors and windows belying the actual space of the interior, where the floor levels and supporting structure were determined by the great size and the location of the engine cylinders, the lever beams, the fly wheels, and the pumps.

A unique situation existed inside the engine house with its two very different steam engines side by side--a traditional low-pressure steam engine on the south side and a newly designed high-pressure steam engine on the north. Both steam engines were made by members of Philadelphia's mechanics community, a group of talented men who excelled in developing mechanical skills and techniques. By installing two steam engines in the pump house, the Watering Committee planned to overcome the problem of breakdowns. With such a 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 reservoir.

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 [Page 13] 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. 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. Although the original plan had been to move the old Centre Square low-pressure engine to the new engine house at Fairmount, the Watering Committee gambled in contracting for this new type of steam engine, the largest noncondensing high-pressure steam engine he had built up to that time, which Evans patriotically called a Columbian steam engine. Evans, who promised a savings in fuel and assured a large capacity of 3.5 million gallons in twenty-four hours, guaranteed to remove it at no cost if it failed to meet these standards. 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.

[Page 14]
Although the south engine with its twenty-four-foot lever beam was very impressive and, because of its large size and design, was known as the great English engine, George Escol Sellers reminisced in later years that most of the time it was the north engine that was working. [4]

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, and Evans stated that, in his opinion, both pumps could be in operation at the same time. Air chambers such as the one Graff had designed for the Centre Square works to permit that pump to operate more efficiently by reducing water hammer were attached to the pumps. Throughout his period of service, Graff found it necessary to design several new components--hydrants, valve chests, and stopcocks--for the city system.

[Page 15]
The reservoir had the capacity of 3 million gallons. Five wooden distribution mains, each with a six-inch diameter, led to the cast-iron distribution chest at the Centre Square works. The water then flowed as before through the already established distribution pipes to hydrants, pumps, business establishments, and dwellings in Philadelphia.

A system is only as good as any of its parts, and although the city had constructed a new pump house and installed state-of-the-art steam engines, the distribution system needed to be improved, for it had simply been patched onto the original one, which used bored logs. By 1817 there were over thirty-two miles of spruce and yellow pine pipes supplying about 3,500 houses and businesses, along with "upwards of 300 cistern pumps placed in the streets for public use. " [5] Inquiries were begun on the use of cast-iron pipes to replace the old wood mains, which were joined by cast-iron connectors.

A water shortage in the summer of 1818 demonstrated that only 1 million gallons in twenty-four hours were able to be distributed to the city, even though the reservoir was full and an engine at work. The cause was the small internal bore of the pipes--three to six inches--and leakage at the connections. In 1819 improvements were made, such as the adoption of cast iron for new and replacement mains as well as the installation of a twenty-inch main from the Fairmount reservoir to Broad and Chestnut streets, past Centre Square. The spigot and faucet joint, which became standard in cast-iron pipes, together with curved pipes for going around corners, made the installation a successful resolution of the major problems of distribution. The distribution chest at Centre Square was abandoned, marking the end of that building's usefulness to the system, and Latrobe's handsome structure was tom down in 1829.

High costs continued to plague the system. Although the two engines were able to keep the reservoir filled with water as planned, there was no letup in the cost of operating the new facility, for the engines required large quantities of fuel. In 1819 Graff estimated that the annual cost of operation of each engine to raise a safe load of 2.3 million gallons in twenty-four hours was $30,858, the major expense being the purchase of 3,650 cords of wood per year. This report discouraged the Watering Committee from plans to install an additional discharge pipe to the reservoir so that both engines could work at the same time. Further distress was caused by disastrous events in 1818 and 1821, when the boilers exploded, resulting in the deaths of three men.

For the Watering Committee, the use of steam engines at Fairmount had been a noble experiment for seven years. But, as with the earlier system at Centre Square, water was provided as promised but still at too great a cost.

[Page 16]
Both steam systems had operated on the cutting edge of technology, and now the city made plans to revert to the use of an older power source--water. 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 true magnificence of Fairmount Water Works was just beginning.

[Page 17]


The first step in constructing a water-powered system at Fairmount involved damming the Schuylkill River. In 1819 an opportunity presented itself that seemed to be the solution to the city's water-supply problem both for the present and for the future--converting Fairmount Water Works to water power, a most inexpensive source of power. In this endeavor, the activities of the Watering Committee were influenced by outside events. Josiah White, a local manufacturer, who with Joseph Gillingham owned the water-power rights at East Falls on the Schuylkill River, had proposed the construction of a dam at or near Fairmount in conjunction with the city in order to harness the abundant water power but had met with no success. In 1815 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted a franchise to the Schuylkill Navigation Company to erect dams and canals, but the company found itself in financial difficulty by the time the final canal and lock were to be constructed near Fairmount. This final stage in the construction of the Schuylkill Navigation Company's slackwater canal system was the impetus for the shift to water power for the waterworks.

A plan was developed for the city to purchase the rights to the water power, to throw a dam across the Schuylkill River at Fairmount, and to construct a canal and locks for the 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 [Page 18] 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. Not only would this plan yield a good return to the city but additional revenue could be obtained by selling surplus water to nearby districts.

The Watering Committee realized that if the city failed to act at this time and if a dam were to be constructed by another party at a different location, the opportunity would forever be lost for the city to harness the Schuylkill River's water power. Members of the committee and Graff traveled to the Gilpin paper mills on the Brandywine River to observe newly installed breast wheels--wheels that receive water in buckets higher than is customary on undershot wheels--which were reported to be highly efficient in similar conditions. Led by Chairman Joseph S. Lewis, the Watering Committee promptly decided to undertake the project of converting to water power at Fairmount. At this time, according to Graff, except for the dam and the waterwheel, no thought was given to the "specific plan or design...with regard to the buildings, or the location or form of any part of the works." [6] 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. His drawings show his indebtedness to Latrobe in the neoclassical exterior design of buildings. The complex was designed to harmonize with the surroundings [Page 19] and be pleasing to the eye. A neoclassical effect was provided by the small templelike structures placed at each end, which provided needed administrative space.

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. Graff never lost sight of the function of the works, and his layout of the interior was simple and efficient. 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 [Page 20] 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.

Experts were called upon for the design of the Fairmount dam. Only a few years earlier, White noted that there had never been a dam attempted across such a wide expanse of a river with the peculiarities of the Schuylkill. [7] Not only was the river subject to sudden freshets, or floods, but in the winter ice breaking up could do extensive damage. Capt. Ariel Cooley of Chicopee, Massachusetts, was just completing the Flat Rock Dam above Manayunk for the Schuylkill Navigation Company, and it was his proposal that was accepted by the Watering Committee.

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 1,204 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 [Page 21] 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 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. The first wheel went into operation July 1, 1822.

[Page 23]
At the time of the conversion of Fairmount Water Works from steam to water power, Philadelphia was actively promoting industry and commerce in Pennsylvania in an effort to compete successfully with other East Coast states for linkage and trade with the developing western lands on the Ohio River. One of the proposals called for a canal to cross the city from the Schuylkill to the Delaware River, with a Schuylkill Navigation Company canal lock at Fairmount on the east bank. Although this earlier plan had been discarded and the canal lock was constructed on the west bank, the Watering Committee continued to think in terms of profiting from the surplus water power by extending the millrace on the east bank of the river and by building or leasing factories there to purchase the power. Graff made drawings that show several plans for an industrial complex south of the engine house, but no mills or factories were ever built. Legal difficulties arose concerning water rights of persons from whom the city had purchased land, and the geological formations of the area were such that additional blasting for a canal on the east bank would have been extremely difficult and imminently dangerous to the existing structures. The plans to create an industrial complex next to the waterworks were abandoned by 1829. Happily, the area was developed as the south garden within six years.

[Page 24]

With the construction of the mill house and the adoption of water power, Fairmount entered a new era. The employment of water power proved a great success, enabling the city to reverse the financial losses of previous years; the development of the gardens was also a fortuitous decision.

The garden in the area south of the engine house and the esplanade below, where boats docked, were completed by 1835. Several factors contributed to this development over a period of a few years. By the time plans to industrialize the site had been abandoned, the Watering Committee had begun filling in the quarry hole, constructing a retaining wall, and building up and leveling off the area from the engine house to the Upper Ferry Bridge. Walkways around the reservoir and plantings to hold the soil had been established, and extensive repairs were made to the engine house following the removal of the steam engines in 1832. Philadelphia's public gardens were popular places for recreational activities, and the natural beauty of the waterworks at the edge of the city, together with its neoclassical structures and attractive garden, had enormous appeal in an age that embraced the romantic concept of taming nature for the use of man without destroying it. Also, adjacent to the garden, another graceful engineering wonder spanned the Schuylkill River in the form of Lewis Wernwag's Upper Ferry Bridge, called the Colossus of Fairmount, astride a major waterway.

The south garden was laid out with geometrically ordered walks and plantings, a marble fountain was placed at the center, and ornamental railings were erected along the retaining wall and on the walkway that led up the side [Page 25] of the hill to the reservoir, with a gazebo built on a resting platform halfway up. The interior of the engine house was redesigned as an attractive hall and outfitted with benches to become a public saloon selling refreshments to visitors to the site; the portico on the river side was added in 1835. When the opportunity arose for the city to purchase additional land from the Lancaster Bridge Company, which operated the tollhouse at Upper Ferry Bridge, the garden was extended to Callowhill Street. Meanwhile, at the northern end of the works, the walkway along the mound dam was improved so that people could walk to its end, where another gazebo was constructed from which visitors could look out over the river and, if the water was high, watch the overfall of the dam--a sight that in the eyes of the engineer demonstrated a power to be harnessed but to the passerby represented the romantic movement of primeval forces.

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 [Page 26] 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. [8]

[Page 27]
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.

The atmosphere of the waterworks was one of quiet beauty, and the additions to nature included ornamental sculpture, which was strategically placed in, at, and on the buildings and gardens. The sculptor William Rush was chairman of the Watering Committee's Building Committee in 1822 and an active member of the Watering Committee from its early years until 1826, and his son served as registrar. Two carved figures by Rush were commissioned to be placed over the entranceways to the mill house, Allegory of the Schuylkill River in Its Improved State (The Schuylkill Chained) and Allegory of the Waterworks (The Schuylkill Freed). His white-painted wooden sculpture Allegory of the Schuylkill River, a graceful figure of a woman sometimes called Water Nymph and Bittern, was moved to Fairmount from Centre Square in 1829 and placed at the base of the hill, on the edge of the millrace, where it [Page 28] was in strong contrast with the black rocks that rose behind it to the reservoir. A figure of Mercury by Rush was mounted atop a gazebo. Other statuary that adorned the garden included a marble statue of Diana at the foot of the walkway to the reservoir and the marble Boy and Dolphin placed in the center of the marble fountain about 1835. [9]

The golden age at Fairmount Water Works covers the period roughly from 1830 to 1850. Receipts were well over expenditures, the waterwheels were operating efficiently, and the public was enthusiastically responsive to the well-designed buildings and the picturesque setting. During this time 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. [10]

In his American Notes for General Circulation, Charles Dickens recorded his 1840 visit to Fairmount:

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 [Page 29] 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.[11]

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 1891. [12] 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, [Page 30] generated, in part, by water rates paid by neighboring districts where assessments were fifty percent above the rates paid by Philadelphians.

As the population of both the city and the districts increased, the demand by the districts for cheaper rates and the need for an additional supply of water resulted in the construction of other pumping stations by the districts, taking water from the Fairmount pool. These pumping stations employed the latest in steam engines for power, and the city objected to the lowering of the level of water at the dam caused by the new facilities. Although the city contended that it possessed through purchase all the rights to the Schuylkill water, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against the city in 1847, stating that water in its natural course has from earliest times been for common domestic use, as opposed to being a power source, and thus belonged to all the municipalities bordering the river. [13]

The Schuylkill River provided plentiful water through most of the year, but in the late summer and fall there was not enough to keep the wheels turning and the pumps running all the time while continuing to provide sufficient water at Fairmount for lockage on the canal. From the beginning, the city had [Page 31] experienced major differences with the Schuylkill Navigation Company in trying to control the loss of water through leakage or improper operation of the locks at Fairmount. Joseph Lewis, who had been chairman of the Watering Committee for seven years, became the president of the Schuylkill Navigation Company in 1825 and its champion in bitter struggles with the city over control of the water. During the 1830s and 1840s Graff diligently fought incursions on the Fairmount Water Works by many other projects such as the proposed routing of railways, plans for additional canals, and even the widening of a street that would encroach on the guard pier.

Fairmount Park was established as a way to maintain a potable water supply for the city. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the area near Fairmount had been a bucolic retreat, and the river was bordered by the country seats of the gentry, not by industrial complexes. As East Falls, Manayunk, Conshohocken, Pottsville, and other municipalities built factories and other industrial enterprises, they used the river not only for transport and power but as a convenient sewer. Testing of the water in the 1840s revealed levels of pollution that were not as high as those reported in other urban water supplies; however, when the property at Lemon Hill came on the market in 1844, the city was convinced that this was an opportunity to see that the land immediately above the works, at least, would be protected from industrial growth, and Lemon Hill was purchased for that reason.

Since the days of William Penn when public squares were laid out within the city, there had been a recognition of the value of open space in an urban area. Therefore, when Graff, Jr., took over as superintendent of Fairmount Water Works on his father's death in 1847, it was no surprise that he would press for an increase in the protected area for the waterworks supply and recognize the value of an extension of the recreational area that had been started at the south garden years before. He recommended the extension in a public statement in 1851, finally gaining public support for action in 1855. When the Fairmount Park Commission was established in 1867, Graff, Jr., as chief engineer of the Water Department, became one of its commissioners. The commission's report in 1870, which he prepared, states that the encroachment of industries on the water supply was the reason for the establishment of the park.

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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. [14] 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.

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The addition of the first Jonval turbine in 1851 created the need for another reservoir, and land for this purpose was purchased at Corinthian Avenue between Poplar and Parrish streets, about a quarter of a mile away. Because this new reservoir was at a higher elevation than the existing reservoirs on Fairmount, a standpipe four feet in diameter was built of sufficient height so that water pumped into it could flow by gravity to the Corinthian Avenue reservoir, from whence it was redirected to the Fairmount basin or distributed to the city. Graff, Jr., designed the standpipe to be protected from frost by ornamental brickwork and to resemble an Italian bell tower rising above the rocks on the cliff behind the works and giving little indication of its utilitarian function. With the addition of three more turbines and the construction of the new mill house, a decorative stone distribution arch was added to the complex in 1860 with a sixty-inch cast-iron main running through it, which served as a [Page 35] link to the standpipe. The Victorian visitor enjoying the beauty of the park, with its gazebos, fountains, and inviting pathways, found the standpipe and the distribution arch simply attractive additions to an already enticing landscape.

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. Birkinbine 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 [Page 36] 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.

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Rehabilitation of the garden area at Fairmount also took place in this period. In 1866 rustic summer houses were built at Fairmount and benches installed. One summer house was near the lower fountain to the north of the works, an area that had been run down until it was made into a park in the 1860s, with an entrance at Green Street. Graff designed a small building there that housed a steam engine to supplement the turbines during the dry season when the river was low, as well as an attractive terminus for the passenger steamboats going up the river to Manayunk and beyond. The use of the Fairmount pond for sculling and for boat races had begun in 1835 and the Schuylkill Navy was organized in 1858. Permanent boathouses were built to the north of Fairmount's gardens beginning in 1860. In the wintertime the river teemed with ice skaters.

The politics of the city had been irrevocably altered with its consolidation in 1854. Not only was the works at Fairmount no longer the sole supplier of water for the city, but the political system grew more complex than the small group of merchants that had been so interested in promoting the city and its waterworks. The opportunity for political patronage did not go unnoticed in the Water Department's continual need for unskilled workers, who were often new immigrants, Philadelphia's newest voters. However, the first evidence of [Page 38] a major shift in management came when Graff, Jr., relinquished his office as chief engineer at Fairmount in 1856, dismayed by the new government then in power in the city. Following the brief terms of Samuel Ogdin, Henry P. M. Birkinbine, and Isaac S. Cassin, Graff returned to serve from 1867 to 1872. The chief engineers after 1872 had interests and abilities more in the area of steam power, which had become the standard--as opposed to experimental status--source of power for Philadelphia's pumping stations. 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 Water Works 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. Fairmount Water Works, with its history of devotion to the public good, would still play an active role in the lives of Philadelphia's citizens.

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The significance of the buildings of the Fairmount Water Works continued in the next fifty years as the Philadelphia Aquarium occupied the waterworks facility and helped the public become better acquainted with the habitat, breeding, and activities of freshwater and saltwater fish, especially those native to Pennsylvania. In 1911 this was a new concept, which had grown out of the exhibitions of fisheries at the world's fairs in Chicago in 1893 and St. Louis in 1904.

Under the direction of William E. Meehan, the Philadelphia Aquarium opened on Thanksgiving Day 1911, with nineteen small tanks set up in the engine house, and in December the first of regular lectures on marine life was given. The machinery was removed from both mill houses in 1912 and they were eventually refitted with the latest in aquarium equipment. In 1929 Philadelphia had one of the four largest aquariums in the world. In the early years, seals and sea lions frolicked in the forebay, much to the enjoyment of the public, but the animals became ill and later the forebay was filled in to become Aquarium Drive. Although the 1851 turbine and pump, together with the standpipe, remained in place, they were used only for a short period before repairs were necessary and city water was found to be purer and more beneficial for the fish than the untreated water from the then polluted Schuylkill River.

A few months after its opening, the aquarium was turned over to Fairmount Park and its history is a record of ups and downs as pleas for adequate funding were met with acceptance or rejection. The aquarium closed its doors at the end of December 1962, a victim of neglect and political maneuverings, despite the efforts of many dedicated parties to save it.

In the nineteenth century the small temples of Fairmount Water Works arranged at the water's edge had become a symbol of Philadelphia. Now what might be considered a twentieth-century symbol stands grouped on the top of Fairmount in the connected large temples that form the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The construction of the Museum was begun in 1919 on the site of the reservoirs on Fairmount, fulfilling a desire for a public art gallery, which had been proposed for various locations in the city since the 1876 Centennial exhibition. The monumental building of the Museum serves as one terminus of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with City Hall at the other end. During the construction phase, the standpipe, along with the distribution arch, was blasted into a pile of rubble, although it had been delineated on the architect's drawings for the Museum complex.

In recent years the Fairmount Water Works has been recognized as a national treasure by the federal government and by two professional engineering societies. In 1975 the American Society of Civil Engineers declared Fairmount [Page 40] Waterworks a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and on May 11, 1976, it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. In 1977 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers made the waterworks a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. Despite its multiple-award status, the facility continued to deteriorate and in 1984 was included in the report to Congress by the Secretary of the Interior on damaged and threatened national landmarks.

Local Philadelphia institutions became interested in saving Fairmount Water Works even before its landmark designation. In a revival of the spirit of yesteryear when the Fairmount Water Works was a local spot of charm and beauty, efforts have been mounted to restore the buildings and the gardens to serve the public, with the added attractions of a restaurant and an interpretive center focusing on the history of the works and the importance of water to civilization. In 1974 the Junior League of Philadelphia began a campaign to restore and preserve the waterworks, and dedication to this goal has continued to the present. The Philadelphia Water Department and the Fairmount Park Commission have joined in the effort to restore this landmark facility to its former status as a prime recreational area. As part of the preservation activity, the Historic American Engineering Record made Fairmount Water Works a Summer Recording Project in 1978, and the resulting drawings together with historical reports on the technology and architecture of the works are deposited in the Library of Congress. [15] Through public and private funding, the small buildings for the Watering Committee and the caretaker have been restored, the old mill house has been stabilized, its interior cleared, its roof redecked, and the large central pavilion is undergoing restoration. Additional work will be done as funds are available.

William Rush's Allegory of the Waterworks depicts a gracious woman reclining, with one hand guiding a waterwheel, and the water of the river cascading from a cast-iron main behind her. It is this spirit that is now being summoned to provide Philadelphia with another necessity-appreciation of the city's past when Fairmount was recognized as the very best in hydraulic engineering and when the park and gardens were known throughout the world. The collection of images celebrating this fact makes history more vivid, and the viewer is transported to a time when wheels were turning at the Schuylkill's edge and water was glistening in the reservoirs atop Fairmount.

Click links to jump between footnotes and text

1. John P. Sheldon to Eliza Whiting Sheldon, December 10, 1825; "A Description of Philadelphia in 1825," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 60, No. I (January 1936), p. 75.

2. Sam Bass Warner, Jr., The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth (Philadelphia, 1968), p.104

3. Eliza Cope Harrison, ed., Philadelphia Merchant: The Diary of Thomas P. Cope 1800-1851 (South Bend, Ind., 1978), p. 386.

4. See Eugene S. Ferguson. ed., Early Engineering Reminiscences (1815-40) of George Escol Sellers (Washington, D.C., 1965), p. 38.

5. Frederick Graff to Joseph S. Lewis. December 22. 1817. Watering Committee Archives, City Hall Annex, Room 523, Philadelphia.

6. Frederick Graff to the Select and Common Councils of the City of Philadelphia: The Memorial of Frederick Graff, April 17, 1833, p. 5. Watering Committee archives, City Hall Annex, Room 523, Philadelphia.

7. See Josiah White, Josiah White's History Given by Himself (n.p. [1909]; reprint, Carbon County Board of Commissioners, Jim Thorpe, Pa, 1979), p 3.

8. Thomas Ewbank, A Descriptive and Historical Account of Hydraulic and Other Machines for Raising Water, 4th ed. (New York, 1850), p. 301.

9. Boy and Dolphin was replaced by a bronze casting of Rush's Allegory of the Schuylkill River in 1872. In 1936 the bronze was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on loan from the Commissioners of Fairmount Park. The original wood version remained at its place at the side of the millrace until it became badly deteriorated and was removed about 1900.

10. Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (London. 1832), vol. 2, pp. 74-76.

11. Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation (London and New York, 1842; reprint New York, 1985), p 89.

12. Emile E. Geyelin, "Growth of the Philadelphia Water Works," in Proceedings of the American Water Works Association (Philadelphia, 1891), p 21.

13. Mayor of Philadelphia v. Commissioners of Spring Garden. Pennsylvania State Reports, VIII, p. 363. Cited in Nelson Manfred Blake, Water for the Cities: A History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the United States (Syracuse, N. Y., 1956). pp. 97-98.

14. Portions of the 1851 turbine remain in situ at the Fairmount Water Works.

15. Jane Mork Gibson, Historical Report, and Susan Stein, Architectural Report, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Fairmount Water Works HAER PA-51, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Department, Room 338, Madison Building, Washington, D.C.


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