Rebirth on the River , continued

Philadelphia Water Department Archives
    "What you find is there are layers and layers of our experience integrated into the Water Works. It’s so multidimensional. It’s like having a relationship with a wonderful older woman and finding that she has stories that she’s forgotten and tales that are not inconsequential in the history of the city—the city that she produced in many respects."
    In the 1790s, a mysterious fever descended on Philadelphia, killing nearly 10 percent of the city’s 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 wasn’t that simple. Even citizens who demanded quick action for the sake of the population’s health didn’t 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 city’s 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 wasn’t 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.

    "From 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 Grusheski—and an architectural one as well, with its dome-topped neoclassical shape—"but it wasn’t very efficient and effective." The boilers, made partly of wood, kept exploding, requiring that the whole system be shut down for repairs.
    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.

Industrial 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 Latrobe’s 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 building’s rectangular space; as they turned, the wheels operated pumps that sent water through a series of mains up hill and to the city’s 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 department’s downtown office to give a tour of the site. Behind the protection of his gold windbreaker peeks a red bow tie—an 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 city’s 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 people’s reports of the sound of water surging through the building. They were surprised that they didn’t 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 Grusheski’s 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 arm’s length of the enormous moving machinery—a precarious pose that obviously predated liability insurance.

previous page | next page 


Visitors to the Water Works were suprised they didn't hear the machines, just the sound of water moving.


January/February Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 2000 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/23/9