A fluid history


The successful Revolution notwithstanding, late 1700s Philadelphia was a tough place to be.

Unsanitary conditions—dead animals, human waste and garbage in the streets—helped yellow fever and other diseases sweep through the city, killing thousands. Civic leaders blamed the city’s dirty water supply (even though water wasn’t actually the culprit) and formed a new department, the Watering Committee, to find a way of finally delivering fresh, clean water to the city.

The man tabbed by the Committee to lead the project was a promising young engineer named Frederick Graff. And what Graff dreamed up—a huge pumping station along the Schuylkill River—probably had as big an impact on Philadelphia as any single public works project in the city’s history. Graff’s brainchild, the Fairmount Water Works, allowed Philadelphia to grow into early America’s most powerful city, spurred manufacturing and residential expansion and put Philadelphia at the forefront of the global Industrial Revolution. The stately but utilitarian Water Works became a tourist attraction unto themselves. Charles Dickens mentioned the Works in 1842, writing in American Notes that ... “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.”

Nearly a century after the Works were shut down, though—the old plant was finally deemed outdated in 1909—one of Philadelphia’s grandest achievements seems on the verge of being forgotten. The Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center in Fairmount Park aims to prevent that from happening.

Lost in the park

Situated as it is—hidden behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Fairmount Park—it’s not surprising that the Interpretative Center goes so easily unnoticed. Which is a shame, because this small Philadelphia museum, housed in the same buildings that once pumped water to thousands of city homes and businesses (through miles of hollowed-out logs) actually does offer a succinct, and sometimes fascinating, examination of both the Works and the key role they played in the city’s history.

On a blustery Tuesday afternoon, the museum is empty—so empty, in fact, that a visitor is greeted personally by a museum staffer, handed a map and given a quick explanation of the museum’s highlights. The center’s five exhibits each cover a different topic—watersheds, the water cycle and environment, the Philadelphia Water Department, pollution and stormwater runoff, and history and technology—and can be covered in about 45 minutes or less. For those visiting without kids, the visit can be even shorter. That’s because a couple of the attractions—the water cycle and pollution exhibits, especially—seem geared more towards children than adults, with interactive features and a bright, cheery approach.

A fascinating history

The strength of the museum—and the one exhibit that makes a stop there most worthwhile—is the history section.

Carefully planned storyboards tell the linked stories of the Water Works and the city and lead visitors, step-by-step, into the depths of the old pump house. It is there that the old building’s scale can be appreciated: The old water mains and intake systems and massive steam pumps —all of it conveys a sense of history that is only reinforced by the short, 15-minute film that plays in the Engine House Theater.

The film tidies up the story behind the Works’ founding and provides visitors with an understanding of both Graff’s stunning design skills—after first building the Works with powerful but dangerous steam engines, Graff re-engineered them, years later, to run on the power of the Schuylkill itself—and the glory of the Works in the mid- to late-19th century.
As historical accounts and old images attest, the Works were, for a time, possibly the single most famous landmark in Philadelphia—a rare combination of architectural beauty and engineering genius that makes for a true, if forgotten, civic treasure.

The Fairmount Water Works Interpretative Center is located at 640 Waterworks Drive. For more information, visit www.fairmountwaterworks.org.

Originally published on February 23, 2006