Home > News/Public Information > Outreach/Education > DRBC Outreach/Education
DRBC Outreach/Education
Fairmount Water Works: A Place "Wondrous to Behold"
 View of the Fairmount Water Works from the Schuylkill River, 2014. Photo by DRBC.

Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works (FWW), site of the world's first high-pressure steam engine, is a symbol of man's technological triumphs and environmental mistakes. It served up water to a growing city for nearly a century, a cure for one generation's pollution, victim of another's. It is now home to an innovative educational facility focusing on urban water education as well as the FWW's incredible history.

In the year 1793 it wasn't unusual to detect a whiff of camphor or vinegar in Philadelphia’s air. It was thought the odors warded off the deadly yellow fever.

There was filth in the streets and not enough water to wash it away. And what little water there was came from the city's wells, by then fouled with waste from nearby cisterns (drains) and cesspools.

"In Philadelphia everyone has a cistern and a well, and the two are becoming indistinguishable," Benjamin Franklin had noted four years earlier.

Franklin, upon his death in 1790, willed the city 100,000 pounds to develop an abundant supply of water to "insure the health, comfort and preservation of the citizens."

Abandoning its ground water supplies, the city looked to its rivers for help.

Engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe recommended tapping the Schuylkill, distributing water through a network of bored spruce and pine pipes. Two pumping stations were built, one at the Chestnut Street wharf, another at Centre Square where City Hall now stands.

By the end of 1801, the Schuylkill was supplying water to 63 homes, four breweries, and a sugar refinery.

But the two small pumping stations couldn’t meet the needs of a growing city. The crude boilers often broke down, the pumps stopped, and then the fear of fire filled the air.

Philadelphia's Watering Committee searched for answers. In 1805, Frederick Graff, who had apprenticed under Latrobe, set out to design a larger water works on the banks of the Schuylkill at the foot of "Faire Mount," a rocky bluff that towered over the rest of the city.

From the blueprints emerged a collection of Federal and Greek revival buildings which first housed two hissing, wood and coal-eating steam engines and later giant water wheels and turbines powered by the river itself.

The buildings were surrounded by formal gardens creating a refreshing mix of new technology and old world charm. Painters and photographers captured the grace. Pictures of the stately buildings and the river, dotted with boats, appeared in 19th Century ads for ice skates, on firemen's hats, sheet music, pottery, porcelain and gilded vases.

Noted Charles Dickens after a visit from England in 1842: "In Philadelphia there is a place that is wondrous to behold, and that is the Philadelphia Waterworks."

Graff served as superintendent of Fairmount until his death in 1847, to be succeeded by his son, Frederic Graff, Jr. Both recognized the threat to water quality from upstream development and convinced the city to acquire buffer land on both sides of the Schuylkill. In time the Water Works was surrounded by an 8,900-acre park, today the largest city park in the world.

Construction of the Fairmount Water Works began on August 1, 1812, and was completed three years later. A single Federal-style building housed the two steam engines, one a back-up. A reservoir was built atop the bluff, its earthen walls nearly as tall as the roof of the Philadelphia Museum of Art which sits there today.

Water was pumped up to the three-million gallon impoundment (later enlarged to hold 38 million gallons), then flowed by gravity through the expanding network of wooden pipes to the city below. By 1817, some 3,500 homes and businesses were receiving water from Fairmount, but at considerable cost. It took up to 20 cords of wood a day to fire the cranky boilers which exploded twice, killing three men.

It was time to find a more reliable and cheaper energy source. Why not harness the Schuylkill with a dam and use the river's power to meet the growing demand for water?

In 1819 an agreement was struck between the city and the Schuylkill Navigation Company for the city to build a dam at Fairmount and purchase the rights to the water power. In return, the city constructed a canal and locks on the far side of the river for the navigation company, agreeing to maintain a sufficient water level in the slackwater pool behind the dam for lockage.

The dam, built of hickory log cribs, was completed in July of 1821. A mill house was constructed to house the water wheels which would drive the pumps. Gates were installed to control the flow of water diverted by the dam into the forebay or mill race, carved from rock behind the new building.

The first water wheel went into operation on July 1, 1822, supplementing the steam driven pumps. Four months later the steam engines were shut down and later sold for scrap. The engine house was turned into a public saloon, serving refreshments to those who came to marvel at the new machinery from a spectators gallery erected inside the mill house: the mammoth wheels driven by the water pouring through the rear of the building from the forebay, the connecting rods at the wheels' hubs driving the pistons in the pumps which lifted the captured water through pipes to the reservoir, the free water flowing back to the river through portals cut into the front wall of the building.

Thomas Ewbank, an inventor and manufacturer, described a visit to Fairmount in 1840:

"It is impossible to examine these works without paying homage to the science and skill displayed in their design and execution; in these respects no hydraulic works in the Union can compete, nor do we believe they are excelled by any in the world. Not the smallest leak in any of the joints was discovered; and, with the exception of the water rushing on the wheels, the whole operation of forcing up daily millions of gallons into the reservoirs on the mount, and thus furnishing in abundance one of the first necessaries of life to an immense population -- was performed with less noise than is ordinarily made in working a smith’s bellows!"

Eight water (or breast) wheels were in operation by 1843 and the Water Works was now supplying 28,000 customers an average of 5.3 million gallons of water a day. And it was pretty cheap water. It cost $29,713 to operate the Water Works in 1844, compared to $30,858 spent in 1819, mostly on the 3,650 cords of wood consumed that year by the two hungry steam engines.

The city was turning a profit and it was using the money to buy up more land along the river. Gazebos and fountains were added to the gardens and a dock was built just upstream of the dam for the passenger steamboats that churned to Manayunk.

In 1853, Mark Twain, then an 18-year-old typesetter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, described the splendor of Fairmount in a letter to his brother back in Hannibal, Missouri:

"Unlike New York, I like this Phila amazingly, and the people in it. ... I went to the Exchange yesterday, and deposited myself in a Fairmount stage, paid my six-pence, or 'fip' as these heathen call it, and started. We rolled along until we began to get towards the outskirts of the city, where the prettiest part of a large city always is. ... We arrived at Fairmount. I got out of the stage and prepared to look around. The hill, (Fairmount) is very high, and on top of it is the great reservoir. After leaving the stage, I passed up the hill till I came to the wire bridge which stretches across the Schuylkill (or Delaware, darned if I know which! ...). This is the first bridge of the kind I ever saw. Here I saw, a little above, the fine dam, which holds back the water for the use of the Water Works. It forms quite a nice water-fall. Seeing a park at the foot of the hill, I entered -- and found it one of the nicest little places about. Fat marble Cupids, in big marble vases, squirted water upward incessantly. Here stands in a kind of mausoleum, (is that proper?) a well executed piece of sculpture, with the inscription -- 'Erected by the City Council of Philadelphia, to the memory of Peter [i.e. Frederick] Graff, the founder and inventor of the Fairmount Water Works.' The bust looks toward the dam. It is all of the purest white marble. I passed along the pavement by the pump-house (I don't know what else to call it) and seeing a door left open by somebody, I went in. I saw immense water wheels ... There was a long flight of stairs, leading to the summit of the hill. I went up -- of course. But I forgot to say, that at the foot of this hill a pretty white marble Naiad stands on a projecting rock, and this, I must say is the prettiest fountain I have seen lately. A nice half-inch jet of water is thrown straight up ten or twelve feet, and descends in a shower all over the fair water spirit. Fountains also gush out of the rock at her feet in every direction. Well, arrived at the top of the hill, I see nothing but a respectable-sized lake, which is rather out of place in its elevated situation. I can’t say I saw nothing else, either: -- for here I had a magnificent view of the city."

By the mid-19th Century the Fairmount Water Works was being heralded as one of the most efficient and successful municipal water supply systems both in the United States and abroad. Yet there was a glitch at Fairmount -- the water wheels sat idle for several hours each day, swamped at high tide.

To fix the problem, the younger Graff installed an experimental French turbine which operated in conjunction with the water wheels. Because the turbine's two horizontally mounted wheels were encased in a vertical watertight cylinder it was unaffected by tidal flows.

A new mill house was built and a pump room added and by the early 1870s the eight water wheels had been replaced with six Jonval turbines.

There was another problem, however, that wasn't so easy to fix.

The Schuylkill River was becoming polluted.

The buffer land that would form the biggest city park in the world wasn't big enough to protect the Water Works. The pollution flowed downstream from Schuylkill Valley coal mines and dairy farms and from upriver towns like Pottsville, Reading, Pottstown, and Conshohocken.

Again, fresh technology would be called on to remedy this latest environmental threat, but the Water Works would be left out of the scheme. Five pumping stations with sand filtration beds to purify the river water were placed in operation near the turn of the century. Fairmount, hugging the river and hemmed in by the rocky outcropping, did not have room for the beds.

It closed its doors in 1909, having supplied the city with water for 94 years.

But that's not the end. Two years later the Fairmount Water Works reopened as the Philadelphia Aquarium. Sea lions and seals splashed in the forebay. Fish tanks lined the walls of the mill house. The aquarium closed in 1962, but not before a debutante named Trout chose the site for her coming out ball.

The walls of the reservoir were torn down in 1924 and the Art Museum was built.

For a while a restaurant operated on the brick deck of Fairmount's old mill house and a public swimming pool, built the same year the aquarium closed, was located inside. The pool, constructed with funds from the John B. Kelly family, was used until 1973.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has declared the Fairmount Water Works a National Historic Landmark as have two professional engineering societies. Historical reports on its technology and architecture are deposited in the Library of Congress.

The Fairmount Water Works once again opened its doors in October 2003 as Philadelphia's premier urban environmental education distination. Exhibits in this unique structure nestled beside the Schuylkill River focus on the urban watershed and the incredible history of this site, including an actual working model of the Fairmount Water Works. The 9,000-square-foot interpretive center not only offers conventional and high-tech interactive exhibits, but also includes several river balconies, an historic esplanade, a classroom, a Water Lab for visiting students, and a small theater for multimedia and professional presentations. General admission is free to the public and Philadelphia School District student groups; however, there are recommended donations for special group tours and student groups outside the City of Philadelphia. Groups of 10 or more must schedule in advance. Please visit http://fairmountwaterworks.org/plan-your-visit/ for current details. 

A lot of water has tumbled over Fairmount Dam since Frederick Graff picked his spot on the Schuylkill and built a water works which received worldwide acclaim for its engineering ingenuity and architectural charm.

"It's quite a place," notes Ed Grusheski, the now retired general manager of public affairs at the Philadelphia Water Department who, along with many others, played an important role in creating the adaptive resuse of this National Historic Landmark. "Frederick Graff had a vision which mixed machines and Mother Nature and in doing so caught the attention of the world. Through our restoration work we hope to recapture all we can of that noble experiment."

(Most of this article, compiled and written by DRBC Public Information Officer Christopher Roberts, originally appeared in the commission's 1992 annual report. We wish to thank Ed Grusheski for his valuable assistance.)