Excerpts from
Department of Surveys Annual Reports
1856 to 1870

by Strickland Kneass, Chief Engineer & Surveyor
relating to sewers, privies, water closets and related topics

Biographical Note: Strickland Kneass (1821-1884) served Philadelphia as Chief Engineer & Surveyor from the City's Consolidation in 1855 until his retirement in 1872. He decided on the field of engineering at a young age. He worked with his older brother, Samuel H. Kneass (who was Surveyor of the Philadelphia from 1849 to 1853), on the surveys for the Delaware and Schuylkill Canal and the Philadelphia and Wilmington Railroad. He then attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating at age 18 with the highest honors. Before going to work for the City, Kneass held various surveying and engineering jobs, including the post of Principal Assistant Engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He helped conduct the preliminary surveys, and supervised construction of a section of the line, including several bridges and the Tussy Mountain Tunnel.

A far-thinking, well-educated man, Kneass had clear ideas about what he thought best for the rapidly-developing city. If the following excerpts are any indication, he must have been forever frustrated by the city's political machinery. Many of the well-founded recommendations for which he lobbied year after year were not implemented until after he left office.

To view some of the full reports from which these excerpts were taken, click here.

The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers

Compiled by Adam Levine
Historical Consultant
Philadelphia Water Department
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[Pages 82-83] Kneass asserted that several duties of the Department of Highways should be transferred to the Surveys Department, including "the charge and general direction for the construction of all culverts or drains built by private enterprise....It would facilitate operations and secure for our department, records of great value. Issuing permits for connections with culverts, and as now arranged, can be but imperfect, as their office contains no record as to whether a culvert is in existence at the locality applied for." He added that only his department could properly determine "the value or injury" of the requested connection; that the connection needed to be constructed "in the most approved manner," and that a record of their "location, level, material and gradient should be on record for reference"; and that his department would supervise the work and have "returns thereof made for the files...as would be useful by our citizens. Our suburban area is rapidly improving, and, in some instances, waiting only the extension of the city plan to be classed among the populous districts, and yield a yearly revenue [emphasis in original], from increased taxation, far greater than the required amount to complete the preparatory surveys. These surveys, once completed, may well be considered capital invested, from which a large percentage is at once derived, with a yearly increase."

Kneass also mentioned that preparation of plans would prevent payment of damages for future improvements. "A still more cogent reason, if possible, is, that it is only from these plans, that systems of drainage can be arranged, and without them, the hasty construction of a sewer is often called for, the sizes for which it is impossible to determine with any regard to accuracy, and the city is either entailed with a heavy excess of expenditure, for the purpose of being on the safe side, or for the want of proper proportions; is taxed with a heavy outlay to repair the evils committed, and in either case, the amount could easily far exceed the cost of plans necessary to contain proper data."


A long, report in which Kneass discussed many themes that he was to return to in the ensuing years:

  • Consolidation of authority over sewers in the Surveys Department
  • The need for more study of proper design and proportions of drainage systems
  • The inefficiency of old culverts
  • Overcoming the prejudice against the use of vitrified clay pipes for drainage
  • The problems that happen when oversized sewers are built
  • Sewerage vs. cesspools
  • Sewer connections

[Page 33] "Too much cannot be said or written in bringing before you, sir [the Mayor, to whom all these annual reports are addressed], and the Councils of our city, the inestimable value that judiciously enacted ordinances would be, compelling underground drainage from residences. Ignorance and parsimony both now militate against our endeavors to introduce it, as the increase in the value of property and the additional comfort is as yet appreciated but by those who have adopted it, or have examined the matter sufficiently to understand it....The great advantage in the introduction of lateral culverts is, not only that underground drainage from adjacent houses should be generally adopted, but that by the construction of frequent inlets, our gutters would cease to be reservoirs of filth and garbage, breeding disease and contagion in our very midst. There should be a culvert on every street, and every house should be obliged to deliver into it, by underground channels, all ordure or refuse that is susceptible of being diluted. We would then find our bills of mortality reduced in proportion to the extension of the system."

[Pages 34-37] In pushing for the use of vitrified clay pipe for drainage, Kneass quoted an English report stating that the construction of large brick or stone sewers for town drainage, "which accumulate deposit, and which are made large enough for men to enter them to remove the deposit, by hand labor, without reference to the area to be drained, has been in ignorance or perversion of correct principles....The method of removing refuse in suspension in water by properly combined works, is much cheaper than that of collecting it in pits or cesspools, near or underneath houses, and emptying it by hand labor and removing it by cartage." The English report noted that one six-inch pipe perfectly drained 150 houses, where a large sewer big enough for a man to enter and clean might have been built.


  • Interceptor sewer to protect the Fairmount Pool mentioned
  • Inspection of private sewer connections.
  • Consolidation of culvert authority

[Pages 89-90] "I must again, sir, allude to the necessity of some system being adopted by which the connections made with our culverts for private drainage should be constructed under the immediate control of a city officer. Such abuse of privilege as is now exercised by individuals will be severely felt hereafter, particularly as they increase in number, which is very rapidly; they oftentimes injure the strength of the culvert-arch and more frequently are arranged with a total disregard to anything beyond the immediate purpose and private ends, while the flow in the culvert is seriously affected, and each forms a nucleus for deposit, which must someday be taken out by the city at great cost. In the cities of Europe this is guarded with jealous care, and all connections at the culvert-arch are made by officers especially delegated; nor under the present system, has this department any means of knowing where or how such connections are made, and when called upon at any time to correct an existing evil are entirely ignorant of what has been done by the authority of other branches of the city government, while the proper location of such connections, and the effect thereof upon culverts opened, can only be known at this department, where each system of drainage is being minutely examined and recorded. In perhaps most instances, these connections, if properly and scientifically made, improve the working of the sewer, but if, as is mostly the case, the pipes are protruded into the area of flow without regard to the necessity of retaining a smooth and regular interior surface, and the debris occasioned by the unworkmanlike manner in which such insertion is performed, is left lying in the sewer, we cannot be surprised if we are at length called upon to cleanse our sewers by manual labor of the deposits thus created.
Were it possible, and there is no apparent difficulty, for this department to have recorded all matters connected in any way with culverts, it would result eventually in great benefit to the city, and is particularly necessary now that the system of private drainage is becoming so universal in its application to new improvements."


  • Inspection of branch culverts and sewer connections
  • Consolidation of authority
  • Construction problems encountered in various main sewers
  • Sewers opening new areas for building sites
  • Factory connections

[Page 74] Kneass mentioned a branch sewer being built that is "not only part of the system for the protection of Fairmount [the water supply], but it occupies ground that could not be brought into use for building purposes without it, and its completion prepares the valley of the Dark Woods Creek for the opening and filling of streets, which will, at an early day, be sought as valuable building sites, thus giving a return to the City in increased taxation more than the interest of the cost for construction."

[Page 77] Writing about branch culverts completed in the watershed of the Cohocksink Creek, he noted that the work would not only have an affect on property values, but on human health:"Now there need be no fear attached to that particular locality, should an epidemic again visit us, as was the case some years since, when the line of the Cohocksink was marked by its ravages....Thus, the value of property on the line of the culvert is not alone enhanced, but the entire area over which the polluted atmosphere floated will feel the advantageous influence."

[Page 71] "Connections from manufactories are without any restrictions as to the matter delivered into the culvert, and in many instances it is such as to entirely interrupt the ordinary flow, creating pools, from which the most offensive effluvia emanates, and which requires the full force of storm waters to carry off. This should be prevented by Ordinance, and no material insoluble in water should be allowed to pass into the culverts."


  • Inspectors needed
  • South Philadelphia drainage
  • Inlets need more regular cleaning
  • Sewers opening up new property for the housing market
  • Records of sewer location and specs "very incomplete"
  • Sewer sizing formulae "err of the safe side" for want of information but expenditure is likely to be "extravagant."
  • Cesspool/privy connections with sewers should be abolished

[Page 67] "We should have an ordinance, making it a penal offense, for any one to deposit other than liquid matters into the inlets, or to allow substances insoluble in water to pass into the sewers through the connections allowed them by law. Another objectionable custom now permitted by ordinance, should be abolished, which is, the connections that are daily made as drains from cess-pools or privies. This is rendering the air in our sewers most fetid, making it absolutely dangerous in every way, as the gases penetrate everywhere, extending even into the material embedding the sewer, and on account of this, it is impossible in many instances, that any examination can be made with safety, of their interior. This liquid differs from the discharge from water-closets, as the latter being greatly diluted passes off without injury; their use should be encouraged; in fact, could the whole system of cess-pits be discontinued, it would greatly improve the healthfulness of our City."

[Page 72] Kneass noted that the record of sewers, especially in the old section of the city, was incomplete and asked for a "continuation of the examinations, authorized a few years since." He noted that such examinations "would expose many imperfections in early constructions" that could be corrected now at relatively small expense, rather than waiting for flooding and the call for reconstructing entire lines, when a simple rearrangement of the line would do. He mentioned one example where this was the case.

[Pages 72-3] Regarding the sizing of sewers, he wrote, "Had we the authority to institute a system of observations upon our sewers now in operation, the cost would be returned ten-fold in the saving that would be made upon the first large line of sewerage constructed. We are learning daily, but it is a branch of engineering that has been but little called for in this country, until of late years, and in our beginning we profit as much as possible by the experience of older cities; but even they vary so much in their reported results as the circumstances in all cases cannot be reduced to a common basis, that we are thrown upon our own judgment, and this we now ask may be assisted for the benefit of our city, but such information as can only be obtained under her auspices."

[Page 69] "The Ninth Street Sewer is in fact an extension of the Cohocksink, being upon the line of drainage of the main branch of that stream, and prior to the commencement of our work, the natural surface was so situated that no improvements could be made. Preparations are now in progress for extensive buildings operations in the spring. This sewer should be extended on Ninth Street 400 feet to Norris Street, and on Norris Street 250 feet to the Germantown Railroad; this at an approximate cost of $5000, will throw into the Market [upper case in original] the whole of the low ground north of Montgomery Street and eastward of the Germantown Railroad."


  • Again urged an ordinance governing private sewer connections, so they can be properly built under supervision, and properly recorded "for proper reference, and the rentals so arranged that the city may have the full revenue."
  • He also urged again that an ordinance be passed requiring buildings within reasonable distance of a sewer to connect, for water-closet purposes, "and that no cess-pools be hereafter permitted, unless the sewer be out of reach."
  • Lamented the repeal of an ordinance allowing an assessment or property owners of 75 cents per linear foot to help pay for sewers.
  • "That some method should be adopted for the further extension of our sewers, is most desirable, and perhaps the best that can be arranged, as bearing most equally upon all, is to levy a sewer tax upon the entire water shed belonging to any sewer to be constructed."


  • Reiterated that connections needed to be made with supervision noting that this happens in London.
  • Also asked that permits for sewer connections be issued by the Survey Department, so a proper record can be made and since "this Department alone has a record of the location of sewers, and is...better able to judge as to the propriety of granting the permit asked for."
  • Inlets need to be cleaned more regularly
  • Again asked that no privy wells be connected to sewers
  • Need for South Philadelphia drainage increasing yearly.

[Page 86] "Certain guards should also be thrown around this privilege [of connecting with the sewers], and only such matter be allowed to pass into the sewers as may be carried off without precipitation; no privy well should be drained into a sewer, while the introduction of water-closets should be by law insisted upon for every house within 100 feet of a sewer, and, when practicable, the cesspools should be destroyed; if retained, they will, by the permeation of the feces into the surrounding soil, so infect it, as to generate disease and encourage epidemics in our midst."

[PAGE ?] "The necessity for some provision being made for the drainage which now passes off by the Chickhausing Creek, increases every year. This stream originally took its head near Fifteenth and Pine streets, and passing down Thirteenth Street to near Wharton; thence eastwardly through the Parade Ground to Twelfth and Reed streets, and on southward, crossing Broad Street near Moore Street, Passyunk Road near Sixteenth Street and Moyamensing Road, east of Penrose Ferry Road, emptied into Hollander's Creek. The Sewers on Pine, Thirteenth, and Christian streets of early construction, and on Federal, Wharton and Reed streets of later years, cut off the drainage north of the [Moyamensing] Prison and east of Broad Street; but there is yet much area now covered with buildings, and some of it with residences of costly construction that have no means of drainage except by using our street gutters."


[Page 93] "There has been no change in the law regulating sewer connections from private property, and the same evils so frequently alluded to in previous reports still exist. A bill was presented to Councils during the past year, which it was thought would correct them; but owing to the objections made to some of its features, by the Board of Health, it was withdrawn....As it has opened up a most important question in city hygiene, it will be a subject for a future report; the want of time to make proper investigations alone preventing its presentation before this."

[Page 93] "Among the sewers that will be called for at an early day, is that proposed for Broad street, northward from Allegheny avenue, which should be constructed before the improvement of Broad street, which is now so much desired, is commenced. This sewer is upon the head waters of Gunner's Run, and must be about eight feet in diameter, and, at present prices, will cost about $18,000."


[Pages 6-10] Kneass discussed sewer connections, including the pros and cons of connecting water-closets and privies to sewers. He quantified the capacity of the Delaware for absorbing sewage. He noted that some unnamed "high authority in our midst" wanted to retain cess-pits "on the grounds of the fertilizing value of their contents." He noted that in London, death rates were highest where cesspits used, and that in English cities the utilization of sewage on sewage farms had not been a paying proposition. But he did mention options for using it in Philadelphia, figuring that it would require one acre for every 50 people, or 16,000 acres for a population of 800,000. He said only a portion of the 5,000 acres in South Philadelphia called "the Neck" could be used, since the area was rapidly being built up, adding that parts of West Philadelphia between the Schuylkill and Darby Creek might be incorporated into such a plan.

Kneass cited other examples from England throughout. He mentioned other uses for excreta, and trade wastes, suggesting the substitution of centralized abattoirs for little slaughterhouses: "Several methods of utilizing the excreta of the population, exclusive of sewage and without cesspits, have been suggested both abroad and among ourselves, which are entirely practicable, but with such a marked innovation upon our accustomed habits as to cause difficulty of their introduction, all of which adopt the first principle that all such matters should be carried off from about the neighborhood of residences as speedily as possible. Was this [excreta] taken from our sewage there remains what may be more easily dealt with, viz, the manufacturing refuse and the offal from slaughter houses. The latter should be dealt with summarily and as soon as possible, for there are but few of our arterial sewers that are not horribly polluted with the refuse of these establishments; and our river gives evidence that some arrangement ought to be made by which we should be relieved, at least from those nuisances which are repulsive both to smell and sight. Our sister cities are advancing in these particulars more rapidly than we are, as they have already at Chicago and New York authorized abattoirs or general slaughter houses, whereby the City is relieved from all those annoyances, and if properly managed, insure healthy flesh for the market." [Philadelphia built such an abattoir in 1875; see Board of Health report for that year and 1876.]

Kneass again regretted that a bill "To Promote Cleanliness and Health" had not been not well received in Common Council. He said his hope has been that by abolishing cess-pit connections, cesspits themselves would be gradually abolished, "or at least prevent, to a great extent, their increase by the more general use of the water closet connection with the sewer, which, it is believed, will correct a great evil, and not by entailing a greater one upon the public as some have intimated , for our sewers generally, with the free use of water, as is requisite by the water-closet arrangements, would carry off all fecal matter that may be delivered into them, without any danger of deposit." [He referred to Board of Health opposition to water closet connections; see Board of Health Report for 1864, p. 14-30].

Kneass continued: "I do not wish to be understood as setting forth the present water closet system as perfected, for it has its objectionable feature in the fact that their delivery flows through the sewers into the rivers: and large as is the capacity of our river Delaware in comparison with the Thames, and small as is our population compared to that of London, yet we have a large area of territory which may be as extensively and densely populated as either London or Paris; and notwithstanding many years may elapse before our population will reach a number which will bear the same comparison to our water capacity as London does to that of the Thames, yet it is not too soon to give a thought as to what shall be done with the sewage. More fears may justly be felt as regards the Schuylkill than the Delaware, for already we have at least twenty five per cent. of our population [of about 800,000] delivering their refuse into it, and the progress of improvements in West Philadelphia has been and will continue to be very rapid."


[Pages 187-91] A long discussion of the need for proper inspections of all aspects of sewerage, from connections to branch sewers. Kneass referred to the ordinance of March 9, 1867 that was passed for private connection inspection, but which was then effectively nullified by a supplement of July 15, 1867. He provided many details of how faulty connections were made, the resulting injuries to the sewer and back-ups that resulted. He stated the advantages of the new ordinance and explained why the supplement nullified its effects: mainly, that inspectors were only paid $1 per connection, instead of doing the work on salary as do the Water Department inspectors. "Our inspector is authorized to charge one dollar [payable by property owner], and to obtain it, he would be compelled to make two visits to the same place, or wait an unreasonable time for the sewer to be exposed, neither of which is renumerating."

[Page 192] "There is little doubt that all extensions of main sewers give a large return to the City over and above their cost."


[Pages 6-7] In part o a long plea for supervision and inspection of connections, he wrote: "As regards private connections with sewers, of which so much has been written...this department issues permits, but knows nothing of the mode of their construction. And we feel assured that a large number are made without even the form of an application for permit; while in many cases, the permit granted is not conformed to, either as to the character or amount of drainage applied for. I feel assured that, was the location of every private sewer connection known and recorded in this department, as they should be, the annual return for sewer rental would be largely increased, and we would find a large proportion of them had been constructed without any authority whatever. Was the original Ordinance of March 9, 1867...in force, we should have a guard against this in the person of the licensed inspector, as [it] would be his interest to watch such violations of the law, and the City thus be benefited both in revenue and in item of repairs to sewers. I earnestly plead for the repeal of the Supplement of July 15, 1867."

[Page 8] "Again, by ordinance of March 9, 1867, Sect. 8, it is made the duty of all persons, either erecting new houses or altering old ones upon the line of any sewer, to provide underground drainage from such premises by connections with the sewer; yet, important as this law is, it is entirely disregarded, from the fact that there is no one whose duty it is to examine for and report upon such facts....There is no officer in this department whose time could be spared to make the required investigation."


  • Long report on sewage utilization via the Leirnur system
  • Again lamenting the lack of proper inspection
  • Plans for South Philadelphia drainage.
  • Streets for Fiarmount Park

[Page 559] In a long report of plans for drainage in South Philadelphia, via another outlet for Hollander's Creek, Kneass noted: "These marshes are now extensive in area, and each is in fact a morass which must affect more and more seriously the healthfulness of that section. It is believed that the facilities which this drainage channel will afford for relieving the meadows from the excess of water which now lies upon them, will render that large section fitted for agricultural purposes, and thus enhance greatly its value, and admit of such increased assessment for taxation as will reimburse the expenditures now proposed."

[Page 562] In discussing a plan for new streets in the new Fairmount Park, Kneass wrote: "The old streets which were laid out in uniform squares frequently crossed the valleys at their greatest depressions, and where the adjoining hills were the steepest, making it almost impossible to obtain practicable grades even at a great cost. The new winding roads will be less expensive and more picturesque, and allow the retention of many beautiful knolls overlooking the park for building sites....Here and there it will be advisable to make some straight streets where the ground is nearly level, or a certain view desired to be preserved, with these exceptions the streets will be adapted to the general topography. The preparation of these plans will require more careful field work than has heretofore been necessary for our sectional plans, as the rural drives thus proposed must be located not according to any imperative line extension [emphasis added] but so as to conform to the topography of the country.. This renders necessary the preparation of a plan exhibiting the contour lines of the surface, the extra cost of which will be more than repaid in reduced expenditure necessary for grading."

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