Rebirth on the
River , continued
you find is there are layers and layers of our experience integrated into
the Water Works. Its so multidimensional. Its like having
a relationship with a wonderful older woman and finding that she has stories
that shes forgotten and tales that are not inconsequential in the
history of the citythe city that she produced in many respects."
In the 1790s, a mysterious fever descended on Philadelphia, killing nearly
10 percent of the citys population in a single year. To escape the
black vomit, carbuncles and yellow-tinged eyeballs that inevitably accompanied
death, thousands fled the city; those who could not get out of town did
their best to survive by avoiding neighbors-in-mourning and traversing
the streets with their noses cloaked in vinegar-laced handkerchiefs. Believing
that the virus, called yellow fever, was somehow related to the general
filth of the streets (it was actually spread by mosquitoes), city leaders
decided they needed to invest in a source of clean water to wash things
down periodically, and, while they were at it, provide a wholesome supply
for drinking and firefighting. Once the plague had abated, they appointed
a Watering Committee (forerunner of the Philadelphia Water Department)
to carry out this uncommon task.
Benjamin Latrobe, the English-born engineer and architect who had come
to Philadelphia from Richmond, Va., to build the Bank of Pennsylvania,
was invited to give his advice on a water-distribution system. In 1799
he submitted a proposal to pump water of "uncommon purity" from the Schuylkill
River using steam engines; impressed by his plan, the Watering Committee
awarded him a contract to complete the job by the following year.
But the task wasnt that simple. Even citizens who demanded quick
action for the sake of the populations health didnt necessarily
want to pay for it (the city ultimately resorted to a subscription
service), and others questioned the wisdom of contracting with "a foreigner"
like Latrobe. With no model of its kind and scale to follow, the project
dragged on for an extra year.
Thomas Cope, a local merchant who served on the Watering Committee, recalled
in his diary the tense months leading up to the tardy completion, in January
1801, of the citys first water works. So many friends had "shunned
me in the streets," Cope wrote, that he believed if the plan were to fail,
"I should be compelled to leave the City, greatly as I was attached to
it by interest & affection[,] & settled elsewhere."
As it turned out, that wasnt necessary. Cope described his reaction
when the facility went into operation at daybreak in Centre Square, where
City Hall now stands:
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.
that day," Cope continued, "I met smiling faces where I had long been
accustomed to contumely & scorn." (Never mind that he had dished out
a substantial amount of both himself, referring to Latrobe in an earlier
diary entry as a "cunning, witful, dissimulating fellow, possessing more
ingenuity than honesty" and expressing horror over the mounting costs
of the project under his direction.)
"Centre Square was certainly an engineering marvel," notes Grusheskiand
an architectural one as well, with its dome-topped neoclassical shape"but
it wasnt very efficient and effective." The boilers, made partly
of wood, kept exploding, requiring that the whole system be shut down
Eventually, the operations were moved to Faire Mount, the highest point
close to the city, from which the water could be distributed by gravity.
Frederick Graff, who had apprenticed with Latrobe and served as superintendent
of the Centre Square facility, designed and became chief engineer of its
successor, the Fairmount Water Works.
Function, Classical Style
In 1815 he opened the engine house on the east bank
of the Schuylkill, at the base of the hill where the Philadelphia Art
Museum now stands. Borrowing a point from Latrobes protractor, Graff
cleverly disguised its rugged industrial function with touches of Federal
architecture. From the outside, it looked like another genteel country
manor set on the river. But behind the stucco exterior and three-storied
windows, the building was wide open from the water level up to the rafters
except for two enormous steam engines. Graff figured that one machine
could serve as a backup in case the other broke down. But high operating
costs and the deaths of three men in boiler explosions at the site eventually
caused him to abandon steam altogether in favor of safer, cheaper water
power. It was a brilliant move.
The year 1821 saw the completion of the Fairmount Dam, which at 1,204
feet was, at the time, the longest dam in the world, according to Grusheski.
The following year, the water wheels were put into operation. The dam
channeled the Schuylkill into an artificial bay (blasted out of bedrock)
behind a Greek-Revival mill house. The water then filled buckets attached
to eight enormous water wheels lined up inside the buildings rectangular
space; as they turned, the wheels operated pumps that sent water through
a series of mains up hill and to the citys reservoir.
"They went from paying four hundred dollars to pump a million gallons
of water up to the reservoir to paying less than four dollars," Grusheski
says. "It was such an efficient system that all of the communities around
here wanted to get Fairmount water. So the water department became the
cash cow of the city of Philadelphia." And industries flocked to the area
to take advantage of this technological marvel.
Grusheski walks past a paint-flaked gazebo onto a pier at the Water Works
on a winter afternoon made more blustery by the proximity of the river.
He has driven over here from the water departments downtown office
to give a tour of the site. Behind the protection of his gold windbreaker
peeks a red bow tiean accessory that would have blended in here
a century and a half ago, amid families strolling the premises with parasols
and top hats.
During the golden age of the Water Works, it became the second-most popular
tourist site in the United States, after Niagara Falls. "If you visited
relatives or friends in Philadelphia," Grusheski says, "there was
such pride in it that they would drag you up there." So many visitors
came to the site that in 1835 a family-style "saloon" was opened in the
former engine house to provide refreshments. Resort hotels with postcard-perfect
views sprang up on the opposite bank. Newspapers advertised scenic steamboat
rides between the Water Works and local points of interest.
These were heady times for Philadelphia leaders. With obvious civic pride,
the citys Joint Council would hold its annual spring dinners "al
fresco" at the Water Works throughout the 1830s and 40s. Catering
orders from the era are replete with vest-popping Victorian fare: One
calls for copious quantities of Madeira, sherry and cigars as well as
a "rump beef a la mode," 3 tongues, 4 pairs of chickens, 12 squabs, 700
"best spiced oysters," 12 lobsters and, naturally, "4 shad to be provided
at the Works."
Grusheski points out the old millhouse entrance, where spectators would
have walked down a marble staircase to a public balcony stretching the
length of the building in order to marvel at the turning of the water
wheels ("big-time machinery," at 16 feet in diameter and 15 feet wide).
"This had to have been just breathtaking," he says, with a strong Boston
accent that in no way detracts from his obvious enthusiasm for a Philly
landmark. "We have peoples reports of the sound of water surging
through the building. They were surprised that they didnt hear the
machines, just the sound of the water moving."
Daguerreotypes, paintings and travel journals provide a rich picture of
the site during its heyday. One of Grusheskis favorite scenes, depicted
by Scottish-born artist David Johnston Kennedy in his painting "Waterwheel
at Fairmount," shows a woman in a floor-sweeping dress and her small son
standing within arms length of the enormous moving machinerya
precarious pose that obviously predated liability insurance.
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Visitors to the
Water Works were suprised they didn't hear the machines, just the sound
of water moving.