Held at: The Historical and Interpretive Collections of The Franklin Institute [Contact Us]222 N 20th St, Philadelphia, PA, 19103
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the The Historical and Interpretive Collections of The Franklin Institute. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the first city in the United States to provide water as a public utility and was known for its early advances in water management technology, such as using a centralized distribution system and employing the use of hydropower for pumps. The Philadelphia Water Department traces its roots to 1799 when the city council established the Joint Committee on Supplying the City with Water (known as the Watering Committee). This was in response to pressure from city residents who wanted clean water for drinking, fire fighting, and cleansing streets following a series of deadly yellow fever epidemics in the 1790s.
The Philadelphia Water Department began providing water to citizens in 1801. The first system, with a steam engine at Centre Square (the current location of City Hall) and a second engine at the foot of Chestnut Street, drew water from the Schuylkill River. Water was piped throughout the city, with paying customers served by direct lines to businesses and houses and free water provided through public hydrants. This system was plagued by high costs and technical problems, however, mostly related the unreliability of the stream engines.
In 1812 work began on a new facility, the Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill River at Fairmount. Designed by hydraulic engineer Frederick Graff (1775-1847), the Fairmount Water Works began operating in 1815. Steam engines pumped water up to reservoirs on top of the hill at Fairmount overlooking the river (the current location of the Philadelphia Museum of Art). In addition to the technological advancements it represented, the Fairmount Water Works was widely recognized for its aesthetic beauty and architectural style. It immediately became a major Philadelphia landmark and one of the most popular tourist attractions in early nineteenth-century America.
While the steam engines at the Fairmount Water Works were better-designed than those at Centre Square, they were also inefficient and costly to run, leading to a plan to use water power to pump water into the reservoirs. This was accomplished in 1821, when a dam was completed across the Schuylkill at Fairmount. The dam diverted water to run water wheels to operate the pumps, resulting in major improvements in cost and efficiency over steam powered pumping, which was abandoned at Fairmount. Water-powered turbines were added to Fairmount between 1851 and 1871. By this time, several other steam-powered pumping stations were operating to serve various parts of the City, drawing water from the Schuylkill River, Delaware River, Monoshone Creek (serving the Germantown Water Works) and various springs (supplying the Chestnut Hill Water Works).
The City of Philadelphia and State of Pennsylvania passed various anti-pollution laws beginning in 1828 and in the latter part of the nineteenth century the city purchased large tracts of land upstream from the Fairmount Water Works in order to protect the quality of the water coming into the system. This land became Fairmount Park, the largest landscaped urban park in the world. While these measures helped, pollution remained a major problem. Both the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers became badly polluted. Combined sewers, carrying storm water and sewage in the same pipe, emptied directly into the city's rivers and streams while dumping of industrial wastes went largely unchecked. As a result, water-borne diseases, in particular typhoid fever, killed tens of thousands and sickened hundreds of thousands in the period between the Civil War and the early twentieth century.
To alleviate this public health hazard, the city constructed five slow sand water filtration plants between 1901 and 1912. Filtration, combined with chlorination of the water supply beginning in 1914, resulted in a dramatic decrease in the incidence of water-borne diseases. The Torresdale Filter Plant (now the Samuel S. Baxter Water Treatment Plant) and the Lardner's Point Pumping Station, which delivered filtered water into the city's vast network of distribution pipes, opened in the early twentieth century on the Delaware River in Northeast Philadelphia. These facilities were the largest of their kinds in the world at that time. Between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, the slow sand filters were replaced by more efficient rapid sand filters.
A small primary wastewater treatment plant went into operation along Pennypack Creek in Northeast Philadelphia in 1912, treating the sewage from several city-owned institutions to prevent it from floating upstream to the intake pipe at the Torresdale plant. In 1914 the city, under state mandate, developed a comprehensive plan for the treatment and collection of sewage, with three treatment plants and hundreds of miles of large intercepting sewers to keep pollution out of rivers and streams.
In 1923 the Northeast Sewage Treatment Plant opened along the Delaware River, but implementation of the rest of the comprehensive system was delayed by the onset of the Great Depression and World War II. Between the 1920s and 1940s, the coal-fired steam engines that pumped water in all plants were replaced by electric pumps. Construction on the comprehensive system began again in the late 1940s, with the Southeast and Southwest plants opening by the mid-1950s. By the 1980s another massive investment upgraded all three plants to secondary treatment. In the early twenty-first century, three water treatment plants supply the city and surrounding suburban communities: Baxter in Northeast Philadelphia, Queen Lane in East Falls, and Belmont in West Philadelphia. The design-rated capacity of all three plants is 522 million gallons a day, with a maximum capacity of 1.044 billion gallons a day. Besides the city's own wastes, the Philadelphia system also treats the sewage of several adjacent communities.
The Fairmount Water Works was decommissioned in 1909 and in 1911 the buildings were retrofitted to house first an aquarium, and later a swimming pool. After being unused for a period in the late twentieth century, the Philadelphia Water Department restored the complex. It is now listed on the National Historic Register and houses the educational and historical exhibits of the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center of the Philadelphia Water Department. The entire site, which also includes a restaurant and a restored historic landscape, is part of Fairmount Park and administered by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation.
Fairmount Water Works. "About Us." 2015. Accessed August 16, 2016. http://fairmountwaterworks.org/about-us/.
Graf, Walter A. "The Water Works of the City of Philadelphia: The Story of Their Development and Engineering Specifications." Last modified 2014. Accessed August 16, 2016. http://www.phillyh2o.org/backpages/GrafHistory_HSP.htm.
Kramek, Niva and Lydia Loh. "The History of Philadelphia's Water Supply and Sanitation System: Lessons in Sustainability for Developing Urban Water Systems." Master of Environmental Studies, University of Pennsylvania as part of the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative, June 2007. Accessed August 31, 2016. https://esa.un.org/iys/docs/san_lib_docs/Philalessonsinsustainability%5B1%5D.pdf.
Philadelphia Water Department. "Brief History of the Philadelphia Water Department." Accessed August 31, 2016. http://www.phila.gov/water/educationoutreach/Documents/PWD_History.pdf.
This collection consists primarily of volumes that contain printed reports and statements, 1803 to the early 20th century, from the Watering Committee of Philadelphia, and later, the Philadelphia Water Department. There are also pamphlets, glass plate negatives, photographs, prints and illustrations, mechanical and other technical drawings, and other materials related to the Farimount Water Works FWW).
The bound volumes with printed reports and statements from the Watering Committee and the Water Department run from 1803 to the 20th century with a small number of gaps. Pamphlets in the collection relate to investigations of abuses in the Philadelphia Water Department.
The glass plate negatives depict images of bridges over the Schuylkill River and the FWW. Photographic reproductions of documents, maps, paintings, lithographs, drawings, mechanisms, and views of or related to the FWW, as well as printed reproductions of prints and illustrations of FWW are also available in the collection. There is a small amount of handwritten notes about fire hydrants and fire services. The collection also includes oversized technical and mechanical drawings related to the FWW.
Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2014-2016 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.
In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact The Historical and Interpretive Collections of The Franklin Institute directly for more information.
- Centre Square Water Works (Philadelphia, Pa.)
- Fairmount Water Works (Philadelphia, Pa.)
- Philadelphia (Pa.). Water Department
- The Historical and Interpretive Collections of The Franklin Institute
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Sarah Leu and Jack McCarthy through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories
- This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
- Access Restrictions
Contact The Historical and Interpretive Collections of The Franklin Institute for information about accessing this collection.