The Life of the Schuylkill: Part One


 

The Schuylkill is not an unattractive river. Reflections of the illuminated arches of the bridges above it gleam on its dark surface at night, while the lights of Boathouse Row have given commuters on I-76 and Amtrak and Septa passengers something to enjoy as they speed past. The Fairmount Waterworks, newly restored and featuring a high-end restaurant and high-tech museum, has been attracting locals and tourists alike for almost 200 years. Many Philadelphians spend hours on and around the river, jogging, fishing, boating and relaxing.

But how many would drink straight out of it?

When William Penn drew up Philadelphia’s grid and decided where to site the city in the late 1600’s, he did so with a careful eye to water resources. Nestled at the closest point between two rivers, Philadelphia was intended to become a green city of lush parks and wide avenues – everything overbuilt, dingy, plague-infested and fire-prone London was not.

Yet as the city grew into the second largest English-speaking city in the world in the eighteenth century, the groundwater Philadelphians had been drinking from wells and streams became deadly. By the time Benjamin Franklin bequeathed 1,000 pounds to the city after his death in 1790 to “insure the health, comfort and preservation of the citizens” by managing the water supply, Philadelphia was on the verge of a series of fever epidemics. A quarter of the population of the city would die, while half of Philadelphians – the wealthier half – moved out into the safety of the surrounding countryside. The cause, according to eminent Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, was sewage leaked into the city’s underground wells and the general filthiness of the city.

Even before disaster struck, Philadelphians avoided drinking the water when they could, preferring beer, wine or spirits. Apparently this was the foundation of a local joke explaining why the Continental Congress only held meetings early in the day – by afternoon, after a thirsty morning’s work, the founding fathers were unfit for much other than reeling home to sleep it off.


 

Fortunately, the city had a river in reserve. Philadelphia’s growth had not gone at all according to Penn’s plan, hugging the Delaware instead of filling out the grid and leaving the Schuylkill and the land to the west relatively untouched. The city government formed a special Watering Committee to examine the possibility of building a conduit to the Schuylkill or Wissahickon Creek. According to B. H. Latrobe, the engineer tasked with finding a safe water supply and getting it to the city, the Schuylkill was remarkably fresh. Latrobe reported back that “In favor of the Schuylkill: The Principal circumstance is the uncommon purity of its water” and devised an innovative plan to pump the water out using massive steam engines.

The plan went forward – at a time when there were only three steam engines of the size required in America – and a pumping station was built on the Schuylkill at Chestnut Street, which fed water from the river to a 16,000 gallon tank in Center Square, where City Hall is today. It then naturally flowed down from this massive water tower to the rest of the city via a network of underground wooden pipes. Philadelphians were then invited to pay a fee to be connected to the water system. Subscribers – initially mostly businesses like tanneries and breweries – soon numbered in the hundreds.

Already on the cutting-edge of contemporary technology, Philadelphia”s water system then got even better. Frustrated with the expense of fueling the steam engines and the constant breakdowns – and explosions – that plagued the pumping stations, the Watering Committee converted the two-engine Fairmount Waterworks into a water-powered, self-supporting technological wonder.


 

The job fell to Frederick Graff, one of Latrobe’s former assistants. Graff executed one of the most successful public works projects of the era with only a few drawings – there were no similar designs that could be copied and no models or prototypes were made. The Schuylkill is a wide, deep, flood and ice-prone river, a nightmare for engineers of the time to tame, dam and harness. Graff did it, housing his machinery in graceful Greek-revival buildings as Latrobe had done with the pumping stations. A technical and aesthetic triumph, the shift to water-power slashed operating costs from $360 dollars a day to $4.00.

The Fairmount Waterworks’ fame spread to Europe, and the image of the Greek temples by the Schuylkill became one of the most reproduced prints of America in travel books. Hotels were built on the opposite bank for visitors – the public was invited to tour the Waterworks from its first day of operation on. Even Charles Dickens, unremittingly harsh in his observations of the United States in his American Notes for General Circulation, had to admit that, during his visit in 1840, Philadelphia was,”most bountifully provided with fresh water, which is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off everywhere. The Water-Works… are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the best and neatest order.”

Yet the “golden age” of Philadelphia”s water system was already nearing its close.

Many thanks to the Philadelphia Water Department for their willingness to share valuable information for this blog entry!

References:

  • The Philadelphia Water Department. The Philadelphia Water Department: An Historical Perspective,, 1987.
  • The Philadelphia Water Department, in collaboration with Hal Kirn and Associates and Rocky Collins.The River and the City: Script for a Film, 1994.
  • “View of the practicability and means of supplying the city of Philadelphia with wholesome water.” In a letter to John Miller, Esquire, from B. Henry Latrobe, engineer. December 29th. 1798. Printed by order of the Corporation of Philadelphia. (Accessed via American Antiquarian Society and NewsBank, inc. Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans Readex Digital Collections).
  • See also, http://www.fairmountwaterworks.org/.
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