Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In the glory days of the early republic, the Fairmount Water Works was one Philadelphia’s most famous landmarks: a marvel of engineering, scenic beauty, stylish design, and civic mindedness. It was built for the most practical of purposes – to provide a clean and plentiful supply of that most essential elixir: fresh water. Today, Philadelphian’s are blessed with one of the best “finished” water supplies in the nation, but it has not always been the case as early settlers began fouling their water not long after arriving.

Water from the city’s wells grew so bad that Benjamin Franklin bequeathed one hundred thousand pounds to dam the Wissahickon Creek to create a clean supply for the city. It would take the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s, which killed fully one-fifth the city’s population, to spur citizens – many of whom suspected polluted water to be the cause of the scourges – to demand cleaner, more reliable sources. In 1799, the City Water Committee financed an ambitious public works project proposed by English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was infatuated by the yet unproven technology of the steam engine. The system began with a station on the Schuylkill River in which a custom-designed steam engine pumped river water to Centre Square, the site of present-day Philadelphia City Hall, where a second steam engine forced the water up to a tower reservoir. Gravity then fed it through wooden pipes to public hydrants for firefighting and domestic use. Citizens who paid for construction of a connecting pipe and paid a modest yearly fee could have water piped directly into their homes.

Water first flowed through Philadelphia’s mains in January 1801. The first municipal water system in the nation, the Centre Square Water Works immediately became a symbol of the quintessential American melding of technology, nature, and beauty. A handsome white marble pump house, built in the fashionable Greek Revival-style, housed the powerful and dangerous mechanical monster. Visitors delighted in promenading amidst the fountains of Centre Square Park, the spray of which created “an elasticity in the air so necessary to health.” Residents, howev­er, were reluctant to give up their icy-cold well water for the tepid waters of the Schuylkill River.

City dwellers eventually used so much river water that wastewater running off the streets and leaching from privy pits and cesspools destroyed the purity of the city’s pump water. Philadelphia outgrew the facility within a decade of its construction. Broken boilers, erratic water supply, and smoke-­filled air also sped its demise. In 1811, the Watering Committee accepted a proposal from former Latrobe assistants Frederick Grail and John Davis to build a new pumping station and reservoirs atop the “Faire Mount,” a large, flat plateau on the edge of the west bank of the Schuylkill. The facility would use a mix of new, more efficient low-pressure and high-pressure steam engines capable of pumping more than 5.5 million gallons of water daily.

Steam engines again proved disastrous; they were unreliable, dangerous, and costly to operate. They also blanketed the city with heavy, dark smoke. In 1819, the Watering Committee decided to operate pumps by water rather than by steam. The monumental undertaking required the construction of a massive dam that would power eighteen-foot­ wide wheels and propel millions of gallons of river water more than 100 feet to the eminence above. On July 1, 1822, the water wheels provided water to the city for the fast time.

The Fairmount Water Works proved as attractive as it was practical. The vista from the top of the Fairmount provided a beautiful view of the Schuylkill to the west and the burgeoning city to the east. In the 1820s, the Watering Committee built a public garden along the river south of the Engine House, then enhanced the grounds with walkways, gazebos, ornamental sculptures by artist William Rush, and a fountain that shot jets of water sixty feet into the air. Visitors from around the world toured the works and enjoyed boat excursions on the river.

The water wheels proved to be as efficient as steam engines had been inefficient. Philadelphia’s abundant supply of clean water made it the envy of other American cities, for an abundant supply of water, so necessary for domestic and industrial uses, as well as for fighting fires, was essential for growth and prosperity. Fifteen years after the waterwheels first began to turn demand once again outpaced supply.

Early Philadelphians used only a few gallons of water a day. When the Centre Square Water Works opened, each of the residents used three to five gallons a day. Expansion of the city’s water supply system enabled consumers to use more water, so by 1875, when the city had grown to 817,000, per capita use rose to eighty gallons a day! The millions of gallons pumped into the city had to go somewhere, and here the great bounty of water became a great problem, for the land beneath the city was a vast wet sponge that overflowed with springs, brooks, streams, and open pools of
water. The delight of early residents, the water features became a growing nuisance and danger as the population increased. As early as 1762, responding to the “extreme dirtiness and miry state of the streets,” city leaders had organized a lottery to fund paving of the streets and laying underground pipes to channel wastewater to common sewers that dumped into the rivers.

This “water carriage system” of waste disposal had worked well when population was low and the volume of flowing water was high. It was based upon the natural “law of purification” – the ability of water to break down organic wastes by oxidation in only a few miles of flow. But the explosive growth in population and economic activity produced more waste than nature could cleanse.

Historically, the city of Philadelphia had extended only from river to river, from South Street to Vine Street. The burgeoning population created administrative nightmares in law enforcement, taxation, and the provision of services, among the most significant of which were water and sewerage. Consolidation in 1854 of the neighboring municipalities into the current city boundaries brought the Schuylkill River within the city’s limits for several miles above the Fair­mont Water Works. And it did so not a moment too soon, for the city’s water supply was becoming dangerously polluted by human waste and by discharges from the dye works, mills, breweries, and industrial establishments that had been springing up along the river’s banks. To protect its supply of fresh water, city leaders in 1855 had begun to acquire land along both banks of the river. They ultimately acquired more than three thousand acres, which they incorporated into the city’s newly designated Fairmount Park, the largest municipal park in the country.

To further safeguard the water supply, the Philadelphia Water Commission constructed massive sewers to carry human waste below the Water Works’ dam, and went after industrial dumpers, condemning Manayunk companies in 1867 for their “wanton outrage upon common decency.” Pure-water advocates introduced legislation to stop industrial dumping into the Schuylkill. In 1872, the city solicitor initiated legal proceedings against polluters in Manayunk, only to have City Council order him to drop the case. A decade later, Philadelphia Water Commissioner William Ludlow spoke publicly about the public health menace of increasing industrial pollution, but City Council passed a resolution requesting that he cease, lest he harm Philadelphia’s “good name.”

In the water wars of the nineteenth century, government and business drank from the same trough, and the city’s residents paid the bill with dysentery and death. Typhoid and cholera, which thrive in foul water, were by the 1890s killing hundreds of Philadelphians each year. City officials could no longer ignore the deadly crisis.

One solution proposed construction of a series of canals and aqueducts to draw water from unpolluted upriver stretches of the Schuylkill. Too expensive, critics cried, insisting there had to be a less expensive way. Technology, once again, came to the rescue. Borrowing a sand filtration system developed by civil engineers in Germany, Philadelphia in the mid-1890s undertook a massive overhaul of its water supply system.

Opened in 1899, the revamped Belmont Raw Water Pumping Station supplied water to the new Belmont Filtration Plant on the Schuylkill, where underground beds of sand filtered out unwanted solids and microorganisms. Belmont, augmented by a second plant at Roxborough, filtered water drawn from the river, but city sanitation engineers had long recognized that the fight for clean water on the Schuylkill was a losing battle; its watercourse was simply too small to absorb the wastes produced by upstream polluters. So the city funded construction of the largest pumping station in the world on the banks of the Delaware River – a much larger and cleaner body of water – at a site well above the northern edge of residential development. The new Torresdale Filtration Plant would gravity-feed water to the Lardner’s Point Station, whose massive turbines would be able to pump 248 million gallons every twenty-four hours, supplying 60 percent of the city’s needs.

Construction of the plant at Torresdale and the miles of underground water mains needed to carry Delaware River water into the city’s neighborhoods was a complex, costly endeavor. Brothers John, Bernard, and James F. “Sunny Jim” McNichol, part of the “contractors combine” that ran the city, had a lock on public works contracts north of Broad Street. With the McNichols at the helm, Torresdale’s construction was plagued by enormous cost overruns, shoddy construction, and delays. Even as typhoid killed hundreds of Philadelphians each year, the McNichols kept pushing back the date of completion. In 1905, Republi­can Party boss Israel W. Durham attempted to finesse one of the most audacious scams in the history of an American city. Arguing that the city needed immediate cash to finance the completion of Torresdale and other public works projects, Durham ordered City Council to lease the municipal gas works for a fraction of its value to the United Gas Improvement Company – which happened to be run by a close friend of his. Outraged Philadelphians quashed the deal and implored the federal government to send a U.S. Army officer to take control of the mess at Torresdale. Completion of the Torresdale sand filtration plant in 1908 and chlorination of all city water by 1912 ended typhoid’s reign of terror. City residents and industries made full use of their sand filtered and chlorinated water, then returned it to the rivers, loaded with raw sewage.

The same year that Durham attempted to defraud the city gas works, legislators in Harrisburg and Trenton, New Jersey, decided it was time for their respective state governments to become more involved in managing the public water­ways in order to promote public health – and to protect their favorite trout – fishing streams. In 1905, the General Assembly of Pennsylvania empowered ­Commissioner of Health Samuel G. Dixon to control the discharge of sewage into state waters, and demanded that Philadelphia submit a comprehensive plan for the collection, treatment, and disposal of its sewage.

The design and construction of a comprehensive sewage containment and treatment system required years of research and immense outlays of money. When the new comprehensive water plan was completed in 1915, 1,684,000 Philadelphians were using more than 400 million gallons of water each day – and dumping more than 300 million gallons of it back into the rivers in the form of raw sewage. E. coli levels in the Schuylkill nearly doubled between 1914 and 1920. The City Water Bureau warned that the water entering the main intake at Torresdale was the most polluted of any raw water supply in the nation. Water from the Schuylkill, which supplied 40 percent of the city’s needs, was even worse, giving off a strong odor and taste from residual traces of phenol, chlorine, coal tar, and chemicals dumped by industries upriver. The Water Department insisted that city water was safe to drink, but many doubtful Philadelphians preferred to obtain their drinking water from springs in Fairmount Park – a practice that continued into the 1960s – or to buy it at their neighborhood drugstore.

Shoddy workmanship and design flaws plagued the city’s new filtered water system from the start. “Such a piece of costly and useless hydraulic construction,” reform mayor Rudolph Blanken­burg had fumed about Torresdale in 1913, “could not be duplicated in the wide universe.” A few years later, water pressure plummeted because of leaks and breaks in the cast iron water mains, forcing fire department officials to warn it would be difficult to put out fires.

Following World War I, growing numbers of Delaware Valley residents and public officials found the water conditions intolerable. Pennsylvania’s Commissioner of Health Edward Martin fired the opening salvo in the renewed war for river cleanup in December 1921. The Delaware River, he told the press, was “nothing but an open sewer.” The following year, Pennsylvania’s and New Jersey’s health departments ratified an unprecedented joint plan for preliminary treatment of all sewage entering the Delaware below Trenton. State legislators extracted an agreement from the City of Philadelphia to spend three million dollars a year towards implementation of the 1915 comprehensive sewage treatment plan. Spurred by the Commonwealth, Mayor J. Hampton Moore appointed a “smelling squad” to patrol the banks of both the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers and hunt down the sources of obnoxious odors. Philadelphia’s Northeast Sewage Treatment Plant went on line in 1923. As a symbolic gesture, the Northeast facility was an important “first,” but as a remedy to water pollution its impact was negligible; the facility treated only a small stream of the city’s rivers of wastewater that began as far away as the Lehigh Valley.

Beginning in the early nineteenth century, coal companies had dumped three hundred million tons of coal dust and culm into the upper reaches of the Schuylkill River. During normal flows, the river’s limestone bed settled out most of the suspended solids and neutralized anthracite’s acids before they reached Philadelphia. However, storms washed down enough coal run off to make the water temporarily unfit for use. In addition, tanneries, chemical factories, paper mills, and paint, dye, and varnish works dumped industrial wastes directly into the river. Add to this the sewage from more than a million people and the blood and decomposing leavings of the thousands of oxen, hogs, and sheep butchered each week in Philadelphia’s slaughter­houses. “Sewage in the lower Schuylkill,” wrote dean-water advocate John Fred Lewis in 1927, “has utterly destroyed its fishing and made its otherwise available banks unfit for human habitation and undesirable even for industrial purposes.” “Do-gooder humbuggery,” shot back righteous defenders of the free market. Hadn’t State Commissioner of Health Samuel G. Dixon explained that acidic industrial runoff in the state’s streams was a powerful germicide that, in fact, protected public health?

The Delaware River suffered as well.

Philadelphia was the oil-refining capital of the nation; below the city’s freshwater intakes, ships emptying their bilges and spills from local refineries coated shores with a black film that caused huge fish kills. Of all the water pollution problems, sludge was the most offensive. Philadelphia’s sewers dumped more than 200,000 tons of solids each year, which combined with other wastes into deposits often twelve feet deep. Exposed at low tides and churned up by incoming ships, the sludge released a stench of sulfuric dioxide and other gases that drove hardened sailors to jump ship rather than sleep in their berths.

In August 1923, Captain Thomas Bulkeley, skipper of a freighter that had recently departed the notoriously malodorous port of Calcutta, told a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, “I’ve been in all the principal harbors of the world. I’ve seen – and smelled – some filthy ones. But Philadelphia is the worst. No wonder you have no buzzards flying about the harbor. Their hardened stomachs could not stand the strain of the nauseating odors which assail their nostrils here.”

In 1923, Philadelphia – still the nation’s largest freshwater port – trailed only New York and New Orleans in total volume of goods. When hardened sailors like Bulkeley threatened to unload their cargoes elsewhere, even diehard defenders of the free market were forced to recognize that pollution was bad for business. Spurred by passage of the Federal Oil Pollution Act of 1924, river­front industries and Pennsylvania’s Sanitary Water Board agreed on a plan to reduce both the organic and acidic loads dumped into the rivers. The ink on the agreement barely dried before Philadelphia’s economy slumped into recession and the plan collapsed. The stock market crash of 1929 ended river cleanup. Although local industries and municipalities did rally to the clean water cause in the late thirties, industrial resurgence at the outbreak of World War II sank the initiatives.

During World War II, apocryphal stories abounded: of suds rising in ships’ wakes as tall as buildings; of toxic sludge so heavy with chemicals that flames shot up along the sides of tankers forcing their way through the muck; of pilots flying twenty thousand feet above the city assailed by the stench from the river below; of shipyard workers who began each day by shoveling away the thousands of dead fish they found rotting along the shipways; and of cereal mash dumped by the Publicker Commercial Alcohol Company forming a varnish that clogged ships’ engines as well as the machinery in industrial plants and power stations along the Delaware. Gases rising from the Delaware River were making ship painters physically ill, discoloring fresh paint overnight, and turning silver coins black.

Scientific studies confirmed that Philadelphia had the most polluted water of any of the nation’s major cities – water that was, in fact, flat-out dead. Water-­borne bacteria feasting on the raw sewage during the summer months were sucking up oxygen, creating a thirty-five to fifty-­mile stretch of the Delaware in which no other organisms could live. Early in 1944, the federal government officially declared the Delaware a “black water” river, and in July, Philadelphia Director of Public Works John H. Neesom vowed, “We are going to hand back our summa cum laude in the college of stench.” Pressured by the Interstate Commission on the Delaware River (INCODEL), the federal government took control of river cleanup, and Governor Edward Martin committed Pennsylvania to INCODEL’s joint state and federal plan to solve the anthracite silt problems on the Schuylkill. The public rallied to the campaign the next summer when radio station WCAU broadcast a series of forums on the city’s water supply. In June 1945, Dr. Joseph Stokes Jr., medical director of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, warned Philadelphians about “a new group of germs called viruses,” microscopic but deadly organisms that he claimed caused infantile paralysis, epidemic jaundice, and recurrent outbreaks of diarrhea known as “the Philadelphia disease.”

“Why should we, Mr. Mayor,” demanded Dr. Stokes of Bernard Samuel, “be asked to drink filtered sewage, which you are not disinfecting with chlorine because you can’t disinfect with chlorine in the amount that we can drink? Chlo­rine in our water will not kill viruses. The people of this city are not fooled, therefore, when we hear officially it is fine water to drink. Filtered, chlorinated sewage can’t be fine to drink!” Conceding that it was impossible to concretely link infantile paralysis to the city’s water supply, Stokes continued warning listeners about the number of diseases “our filtered sewage is causing.” A week later Temple University professor of clinical medicine, Joseph C. Doane, insisted that raw polluted water was getting into the mains. How did he know this? Distilled city water used for intravenous solutions was causing chills and fever among his patients at the Jewish Hospital. Six months later, in November, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts described Philadelphia water as the most serious problem confronting the city. Philadelphi­ans agreed. In a poll, 79 percent of the respondents were unhappy with their water.

Pressured by all sides, the city contracted five prominent engineers to settle its troublesome water problem once and for all. The engineers offered the city two alternatives: invest $316 million over a period of seven to ten years to obtain a new upriver water supply – this would require construction of a dam on the Delaware near the Walpack Bend, a holding reservoir, and an eighty-mile pressurized tunnel hundreds of feet under solid rock – or spend $91 million to modify and improve the existing local supply system over the next three years. In 1946, the city began a major overhaul of the existing system.

The first challenge was to eliminate the foul taste and odor that had made Philadelphia water a national joke. To disinfect and mask the taste of one of the dirtiest raw water supplies in the country, the Water Department had been treating it with tremendous amounts of chlorine, alum, and other chemicals. The end product was what many Philadelphians called a “chlorine cocktail.” In the summer of 1946, the city dredged 500,000 tons of sludge out of the silt-clogged Queen Lane and Roxborough Reservoirs – the first time either reservoir had been cleaned since they opened in the 1890s. City leaders then invested $10 million for installation of new treatment and filtering equipment at the Belmont and Queens Lane water filtration plant, supplementing chlorination first with carbon filtering and later with ozone treatment.

Over the next twenty years, the City of Philadelphia invested more than $482 million in its water supply and sewage treatment systems. The city opened new sewage treatment plants, completed universal metering of 525,000 water users, set up an efficient water leak detection and distribution control system that cut water use fifty million gallons a day, and made the municipal water system financially self-supporting. Radio patrols of customer service inspectors dispatched to trouble spots within minutes of notification of a problem. The city, in 1959, opened at Torres­dale the world’s largest automatically controlled water plant. Torresdale, boasted Water Commissioner Samuel S. Baxter, would now provide “the best drinking water of any city in the country.” Opening of the $10.4 million Belmont Water Treatment Plant in September 1965 marked the completion of Philadelphia’s ambitious twenty-year effort. The Belmont Plant became the symbolic centerpiece of the Water Department’s modern version of American civil engineering. Unlike its nineteenth-century predecessor, this version had no fountains, gazebos, or public promenades; instead, Belmont offered a “push button” control panel.

Every phase of the plant operation was electronically controlled: water flow, the addition of chemicals, their mixing and processing through new rapid-sand filters. In the dawn of the nineteenth century, the city had gambled on steam to supply pure water; at the turn of the twentieth century on electric turbines, sand filtration, and then chlorination. By 1970, the Philadel­phia Water Department had fully embraced the concept of water as a manufactured product.

“Push button” water! It was a testa­ment to the powers of chemistry and electronics, harnessed for progress through large-scale industrial planning. Through these Philadelphia would reclaim its status as the best municipal water system in the nation. And for a short while it seemed to work. In 1965, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, so impressed by the Philadelphia Water Department, argued that Congress has “every right to insist that U.S. cities do what Philadelphia is doing.” Alas, the success was not to last, for the chemical revolution of the twenti­eth century had created new dangers to human health that soon shocked the nation . Cholera, typhoid, and diarrhea might be distant memories, but there were new aquatic killers in town: deadly “carcinogenic agents.”

In 1963, two National Cancer Institute scientists first warned Americans about cancer-causing agents passing through water filtration equipment. But it was not until 1973 that the public took notice when Dr. Robert Harris, in a yearlong study of the presence of cancer causing chemicals in the nation’s water supply, concluded that Philadelphia’s drinking water was as bad as any in the country. Three years later a landmark Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on carcinogens in the nation’s major urban water supply systems found Philadelphia water to contain benzene, bis(chloroethyl)ether, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, trichloroethylene, vinyl chlorine, and about fifty other chemicals.

Unregulated industrial dumping of the new organic chemical wastes directly into the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers had created a chemical concoction, the nature and toxicity of which no one yet understood. Focusing on the older “conventional pollutants,” Philadelphia had not significantly changed the way it treated its water since the 1910s. Chlorine might be very effective at eliminating harmful bacteria, but it could not combat a whole new universe of carcinogenic chemical compounds produced in the twentieth century. Indeed, some of the new threats to human health, including chloroform and tri­halomethanes, were formed in the process of chlorine treatment of the city’s water.

Once again the Philadelphia Water Department mobilized to combat an invisible enemy. Once again, the city emerged victorious. Since passage of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, Philadelphia’s drinking water has consistently met or exceeded water quality standards set by the EPA. Today, the department continues to win national awards and is a leader in water quality research. Each year its laboratories examine more than 12,000 water samples and perform more than 350,000 tests while looking for more than one hundred contaminants. To deliver water to city residents, the department operates and maintains a massive infrastructure. Three water treatment plants chemically treat 300 million gallons a day – well below its 540 million-gallons-a-day capacity – that are then delivered through 3,300 miles of water mains to 1.5 million people and 27,700 fire hydrants spread out over an area of about 130 square miles. Twenty-two hundred miles of sewers then channel anywhere from 473 to 600 million gallons resulting in a loss of tax revenues neces­sary to maintain their systems.

Pollution remains a daunting problem, the severity of which is as yet undetermined. Today, more than 120 chemical manufacturing plants and the largest massing of petrochemical facilities in the nation hug the Delaware’s shores, producing plasticizers, industrial solvents, and other chemicals. The river suffers from high levels of mercury, lead, zinc, and cadmium, ranks in the nation’s top ten rivers in levels of organochlorine insecticides, and contains perhaps the third highest concentration of PCBs of any major river in the nation. All these mix into a chemical cocktail whose properties – and toxicity – scientists have yet to fully comprehend.

Philadelphia may be losing population, but people pouring into the surrounding counties are placing increasing demands on both ground and surface waters. Regional water usage increased from five billion to seven billion gallons a day between 1979 and 1987. Major problems it is picturesque. As much as 90 percent of its summer flow is treated wastewater. Despite expanded treatment facilities, fecal coliform levels downriver reach 255 times the safe swimming limit. The use of small streams to carry sewage in the Delaware River basin is, according to environmental expert Robert Hesser, “out of control and grossly abused.”

“When the well’s dry,” Benjamin Franklin homilized more than two centuries ago, “we know the worth of water.” Generations of Philadelphians might have revised this to, “When the well runs foul, we know the worth of water.” Today, more than seventeen million people draw fresh water from the Delaware and its tributaries, showering it on lawns overdosed with pesticides, filling swimming pools, and washing automobiles and recreational vehicles (not infrequently during droughts). They in turn dump their wastes and in the process foul ground water, rivers, and lakes with the toxic discharges of the American dream, confident that nature or technology will, without charge, dean up the mess. Today, quantity and quality are both at risk, perhaps more so than ever before, forcing Philadelphians – and Pennsylvanians – to realize just how precious and fragile a commodity water is.


For Further Reading

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

Lewis, John Frederick. The Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill: The River As It W«s, The River As U ls, The River As It Should Be. Philadelphia: City Parks Association, 1924.

Patrick, Ruth, et al. Groundwater Contamination in the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

Paulachok, Gan; N. Geohydrology and Ground-Water Resources of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1991.

Scharff.Thomas, and Thompson Wescott. History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1884.

Weigley, Russell F. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1982.


Charles Hardy III is a professor of history at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.