The Fairmount Water Works — Disease and the City’s Water Supply
Opened in 1815, The Fairmount Water Works was the center of Philadelphia’s water distribution system for nearly a century. Located on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, the Water Works provided clean water for homes and businesses in the city until it ceased operations in 1909.
At the end of the 1700s, a Yellow Fever epidemic killed 10 percent of the city’s population. The disease, along with the need for water to fight fires with, led city officials to hire Benjamin Latrobe to build a pumping station in Centre Square in 1801. Located where City Hall stands today, the station pumped water from the clean, fast-flowing Schuylkill River through a network of wooden pipes to subscribers. However, as Philadelphia expanded, the Centre Square station failed to meet growing population’s needs.
In 1811, the city’s chief engineer Frederick Graff, a former apprentice of Latrobe, was tasked with building a new water works at the foot of Faire Mount, the hill on which the Art Museum stands today. The Fairmount Water Works began operating in 1815. Two steam engines pumped water from the Schuylkill to a 3 million gallon reservoir on top of Faire Mount. This was a great improvement on the wooden tanks at Centre Square, which held less than 18,000 gallons.
Although the new Water Works provided the city with more water than its predecessor did, it still faced its fair share of problems. The new and unreliable steam engines were dangerous and costly to operate. The boilers exploded twice, in 1818 and 1821, killing several people and leading city officials to search for a quick solution.
They decided to harness the power of the Schuylkill itself to pump water to the reservoir. In 1821, the City built a dam that diverted the river into a forebay blasted out of the bedrock of Faire Mount. From the forebay, the water traveled through flumes into a newly constructed millhouse and powered eight massive water wheels. In 1851, Frederick Graff Jr. began replacing the water wheels with Jonval turbines. Graff ordered seven turbines built, as well as a second millhouse to store them.
The successful harnessing of the waterpower marked the beginning of the golden age of the Fairmount Water Works. The Water Works became the city’s principal tourist attraction; travelers from around the world would walk the esplanade along the Schuylkill, or watch in awe as the gears of the turbines rotated and pumped water up to the reservoir. Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Frances Trollope wrote of their visits to the Water Works, while numerous artists attempted to capture the beautiful sights of the surrounding area on canvas.
The Industrial Revolution threatened the success of the Water Works. Although city officials built Fairmount Park to protect the river from pollution from within the city, they could not stop industrial waste from towns upstream of Philadelphia. By the late 1800’s, water from the Schuylkill was no longer safe to drink. Between 1860 and 1909, waterborne diseases such as Typhoid Fever and Cholera killed 27,000 people in Philadelphia, causing city officials to begin developing plans to filter the water supply. The Fairmount Water Works closed in 1909, after the City opened water treatment plants in Upper and Lower Roxborough, Belmont and Torresdale.
After it ceased operations, the Fairmount Water Works remained a staple in the community. From 1911 until 1962, it housed the Philadelphia Aquarium. Following the closure of the aquarium, the site was used as a community swimming pool until 1973. In 1977, the Water Works was designated an ASME Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark. In 2004, the Philadelphia Water Department converted the Water Works into a museum dedicated to educating the public about the history and value of clean water in Philadelphia.
- Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center. "Training Manual for Volunteers". Philadelphia: Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, 1998. Print.
- “Historical Perspective.” Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center. 640 Waterworks Drive, Philadelphia, PA 19130. 20 November 2014.