Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Pasted Graphic 1

Fairmount Water Works, 1812-1815, 1819-1822, 1851, 1859-1862, 1868-1872
Aquarium Drive, Philadelphia PA

© Jane Mork Gibson, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The Fairmount Water Works is one of the most striking examples of industrial archeology in Philadelphia. The complex of buildings located on the east bank of the Schuylkill River north of the Spring Garden Bridge, represents an innovative approach that was undertaken by the city in 1812 to provide a municipal water supply following the inadequacies of the earlier Centre Square system that began operations in 1801. The buildings were constructed or remodeled in five stages that mirror the changes in the technology involved. 1
Charged with providing a sufficient supply of potable water for the city, the Joint Committee on Supplying the City with Water, known as the Watering Committee, had been formed in 1798 and was made up of members of the Select and Common Councils of Philadelphia. Frederick Graff had assisted Benjamin Henry Latrobe at the Centre Square Works and was appointed Superintendent in 1805. He continued in this position at the Fairmount Water Works, and is responsible for the design of most of the buildings and the technology, utilizing portions of the earlier system. Upon Graff's death in 1846, his son, Frederic Graff, Jr., was appointed Superintendent, serving until 1856, and again from 1867 to 1872.
The first stage in the development of Fairmount Water Works employed steam engines to power the pumps, in the same manner as in the Centre Square system, except that two engines were housed in one building so that if one was inoperable, the other could take on the "duty," and the greatly feared danger of lack of water during a fire could be avoided. The Engine House at Fairmount was therefore designed to house two steam engines—a low pressure Bolton & Watts style engine built by Samuel Richards, or Foxall-Richards, at the Eagle Works in Philadelphia and the Weymouth Forge in South Jersey, and a high pressure Columbian noncondensing steam engine built by Oliver Evans at the Mars Works in Philadelphia.
The low pressure engine had a steam cylinder 43-5/8 in. diameter and a six foot stroke; the lever beam was 23 ft. 9 in. long between centers and was cast in two leaves; the pump was double acting, 20 inches diameter, and with a 6 foot stroke. At first it was operated at 2.5 psi, but this was increased to 4.0 psi after the flue of the chimney was enlarged. It took seven cords of oak wood to raise 2,116,882 U.S. gallons to the reservoir.
The high pressure engine had a cylinder 20 inches in diameter and differing records indicate both a 48 in. and a 60 in stroke; the pump was vertical and double acting, 20 in. diameter. The engine was 100 horse power, and pressure was at times carried at 220 psi, but this was not considered safe. There were two explosions and three deaths due to the primitive state of the boilers and also possibly due to the inattentiveness of the attendants. It took ten cords of oak wood in 20 hours to raise 100 gallons 98 feet at each stroke, at 24-3/4 strokes per minute; the capacity was confirmed to be 3,556,401 gallons in 24 hours.
On the exterior, the Engine House resembled a federal mansion rather than an industrial facility, and the interior did not have the normal floor levels but was a great open space so far as possible to accommodate the flywheels and other parts of the two steam engines. Construction was started in 1812 and the system was in operation in 1815. Water was drawn from the Schuylkill River and pumped 96 ft. to the reservoir located at the top of the hill, where the Philadelphia Museum of Art is presently located. The high expense of operation, estimated at $30,858 annually for either engine, and the need for a greater supply of water led the city to consider alternative systems in 1819. The Committee decided to dam the Schuylkill at Fairmount and construct a water-power system, employing breast wheels.
The city purchased the water power rights at the Falls of the Schuylkill from Josiah White and Joseph Gillingham in 1819 and proceeded to construct a dam across the Schuylkill at Fairmount in conjunction with the Schuylkill Navigation Company. The dam would create a pond from which water for pumping and for power could be drawn. The six-foot fall was increased by the tidal conditions below the dam, but high tide was a hinderance causing backwater twice a day when the wheels had to stop. Ariel Cooley was engaged to build the dam,to consist of a 1204 foot long crib dam from the west bank - allowing for the canal locks there—to an earthen mound dam built to extend 270 feet out into the river from the east bank.
3 The millrace and space for the mill house on the east bank were blasted out of solid rock.

Frederick Graff designed the mill house to enclose eight breast wheels, fifteen feet wide and sixteen or eighteen feet in diameter. The lower section of the building was divided into twelve apartments for eight individual forebays and four pump chambers containing two pumps each. Thomas Oakes was the millwright who advised on the form of the water wheel and the mill machinery. The first three wheels were of wood, constructed by Drury Bromley and Thomas Oakes. The remaining five were of cast iron with wooden buckets, and were made by Rush & Muhlenberg (sons-in-law of Oliver Evans, deceased), Levi Morris, and Merrick & Towne. The wheels were installed gradually from 1822 to 1843, and the first three were replaced in 1846 by I.P. Morris with the wood work and breastings done by Edward Heston. The speed of the wheels varied from 11 to 14 rpm, and capacity of the pumps varied from 91.08 to 121.4 gallons per revolution. The pumps were situated almost horizontally and had a 16 in. diameter, with the strokes varying from 4-1/2 to 6 feet. Additional reservoirs were added on Morris Hill (Faire Mount) above the water works until there were four reservoirs with a capacity of 22,031,976 gallons in 1836.
The exterior of the mill house took on neoclassical lines with the construction of two small tempiettos at each end as a Watering Committee Building and a Caretaker's House. The Engine House was remodeled in 1835 after removal of the steam engines and became a public "saloon" where refreshments were served, and the surrounding grounds were landscaped to become a public garden. The porch added on the river side in 1835 gave the Engine House a neoclassical aspect to harmonize with that of the mill house. The Fairmount Gardens thus became the forerunner of what was to become Fairmount Park.
The third stage in the development of Fairmount Water Works was the introduction of a small experimental Jonval turbine in 1851, which is still "in situ," although some parts are missing. Room for the turbine and gear train was created between the Engine House and the Mill House, with the pump room located under the terrace of the Engine House. The turbine runner was 7 feet in diameter with 30 buckets and operated at 44 rpm. The gearing reduced the speed to 12 rpm to power a reciprocating force pump similar to those in use at Fairmount.  The installation was under the direction of Emile Geyelin, who had the franchise for Jonval turbines in the United States.  The new turbine had a draft tube and was not affected by backwater, raising 1,685,016 gallons in 24 hours. A standpipe was erected in 1852 to accommodate the new reservoir at Corinthian Avenue, which was a quarter of a mile away and was at a higher elevation than the Fairmount Reservoir.
The fourth stage was the construction of the New Mill House alongside the Mound Dam (1859-1862). This was done to add three larger Jonval turbines to the facility and provide a greater supply of water for the growing city. The Act of Consolidation in 1854 had incorporated all of the outlying districts as part of the city. John Birkenbine was the Chief Engineer in charge of the new addition to Fairmount. The machinery installed was state-of-the-art and the additional pumpage required the construction of a distribution arch leading to the standpipe.
A continuing need to increase the water supply led to the fifth stage which consisted of a complete remodeling of the Old Mill House to accommodate three more large Jonval turbines. These were installed between 1868 and 1872 under the direction of Frederic Graff, Jr. The work included extending the river wall in places, and rearranging the structures on the deck so that they appear as they are today. The classical open pavilion added in 1872 by Frederic Graff, Jr. reflected an earlier drawing made by his father c.1920.
Fairmount Water Works in its heyday of the 1830s and 1840s was the most well-known scene of Philadelphia, and the increasing improvement in the surrounding grounds made it a favorite recreation spot for Philadelphians and visitors alike. The opportunity to observe the water wheels, pumps, and turbines made it of special interest. And, of course, the water flowing over the dam—if the water was high enough—was also worth watching.
Pollution of the river became a concern as early as the 1840s but little was done about it except for penalties which were assessed and generally ignored. It was not until the 1890s that scientific evidence was sufficient to compel the city to build filtration plants.  When these were completed in 1909, Fairmount Water Works was taken "off line" except for a few customers, and the facility was decommissioned in 1911 and turned over to the Mayor for use as a Public Aquarium.

The industrial use of the structures had ended. The machinery—except for the 1851 Jonval turbine, gearing and pump—was removed by March 1912. The reservoirs were drained and construction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the site was begun in 1919. The standpipe and distribution arch were demolished in the 1920s. In 1975 the American Society of Civil Engineers declared Fairmount Water Works a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, in 1976 it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, and in 1977 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers made the water works a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
Through a concerted effort of public and private agencies since 1974, Fairmount Water Works is being restored as a recreational area, with a strong emphasis on its utilitarian past. The existing industrial archeology includes not only the 1851 Jonval turbine, gearing and pump in situ, but also excavated artifacts including portions of the 1872 Jonval turbine, which had been removed to make place for the Aquarium, and portions of the 1851 turbine vanes and runner removed c.1930 when a sewer line was routed through the tailrace of the turbine.
The complex of buildings and the physical features present an opportunity to understand the past activities of the history of the site. An Interpretive Center focusing on the history of Fairmount Water Works and the value of a city water supply is planned as part of the restoration effort. This will enable visitors to learn what was there and how it worked.

1  For a more complete rendering of the history than is possible here, see Jane Mork Gibson, "The Fairmount Waterworks," Bulletin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Vol. 84, Nos. 360 and 361, Summer 1988; also, Jane Mork Gibson, Historical Report, and Susan Stein, Architectural Report, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Fairmount Water Works, HAER PA-51, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
2  Measurement was by ale gallon (282 cu. in.) until 1854 when the standard, or wine, gallon was adopted (231 cu. in.).
3  See Workshop of the World "Fairmount Dam" for more details.

Update May 2007 (by Jane Mork Gibson):
When the Fairmount Water Works was decommissioned in April of 1911, the buildings and one pumping unit were turned over to the Mayor for use as an aquarium, which opened in November of that year. Due to a change in the city administration, the buildings were placed in the charge of the Fairmount Park Commission the following spring. All of the pumping equipment was removed except for the small Jonval turbine in the basement of the former Engine House, which was used to provide the water needed for the aquarium. Although the First World War slowed down conversion, by the 1920s the Philadelphia Aquarium was state of the art and was one of the four largest aquariums in the world. The Engine House was converted for office use and the main floor served as a Lecture Hall, where attendees could watch fish in many small aquarium tanks that had been used in the 1893 Chicago Fair and the 1905 St. Louis Fair. New discoveries in making large strong sheets of glass for the aquarium tanks made it possible for visitors to watch fish swimming at eye level, a novelty at the time. The Old Mill House contained freshwater fish, and the New Mill House seawater fish. At one time seals from Atlantic City spent the winter in the forebay. After a series of mishaps, and consistent underfunding, the Aquarium closed its doors in December of 1962.

In the 1980s, as a result of the public interest in Fairmount Water Works and the desire to preserve the facility, the Old Mill House, where water wheels once turned, was stripped of aquarium construction in the interior, and the structure was restored as a large open space. Water storage tanks in the basement of the Engine House were removed. The New Mill House, which had been converted into an Olympic swimming pool, was only structurally repaired as necessary.

Following a careful restoration of the buildings comprising Fairmount Water Works, in 2003 the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center opened in the Old Mill House and on the lower level of the Engine House. Reflecting the restoration effort, the city changed the name of the street from Aquarium Drive to Water Works Drive. The Interpretive Center provides an opportunity to tell the two-hundred-year history of water supply in Philadelphia, and in its exhibits focus on how people’s actions on the land can make a difference to their water. The displays and interactive exhibits cover the many concerns about preserving the quality of the city’s water. Educational programs, which include lab participation, inform on existing conditions, and on what can be done to improve them. As the Delaware River Basin’s Watershed Education Center, classes are held for school children and lectures are open to the general public. A short movie with digital animation tells the story of Fairmount Water Works, illustrates how the water once flowed through the building and how the machinery had worked. Beside the building itself, the only artifacts remaining are the Jonval turbine and gearing, together with the double-acting pump installed in 1851. The Center is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, and on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

The Water Works Restaurant and Lounge, located in the Engine House and the Caretaker’s House, opened in July of 2006 under the aegis of Michael Karloutsos. Previously small cafés and restaurants had operated at the Engine House on a seasonal basis with an appreciative clientele, but no permanent plans were made. In 1981, the existing café closed after a fire in the building. Subsequent efforts for a restaurant were delayed by another fire in 2002. After these many false starts, Philadelphia has responded enthusiastically to the establishment of the Water Works Restaurant, contributing to the preservation and appreciation of this site.

At the 14th Annual Preservation Award Ceremony on May 2, 2007, the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia presented a Grand Jury Award for the South Garden and Cliffside Restoration. The citation is reproduced here:

Originally designed by Frederick Graff in 1829 as a romantic landscape, by the 1990s the South Garden, adjacent to the Water Works, suffered from vandalism and lack of maintenance. The Fairmount Park Commission and the Fund for the Water Works commissioned a comprehensive Historic Landscape Report, which, in part, determined the “target" date for the restoration should be 1875, by which time all the essential elements were in place.

While the setting for the restoration is a designed landscape, the restoration’s main focus was on the architectural and built features. The Marble Fountain—which hadn’t operated for more than 115 years—was dismantled and reconstructed after underground water service was reinstated. The 1848 Gothic-inspired Graff Memorial underwent extensive stone and metal restoration and conservation, and the return of the bust of Frederick Graff.

The elaborate cast-iron railings—largely missing by the 1990s—along with the Cliffside Path which connects to the Art Museum were recreated, and the path itself was stabilized and paved. Other historic features were also introduced, including reproduction light fixtures, benches, and ornamental railings. Now thousands of visitors can once again experience the South Garden as originally conceived.


See also:
Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center

Historic American Enginering Record - Fairmount Waterworks, Aquarium Drive

Historic American Engineering Record - Fairmount Waterworks, East bank of Schuylkill River

Pasted Graphic 5 The Fairmount Waterworks, by Jane Mork Gibson (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bulletin Vol. 84, #360-361, Summer 1998). 48 pages, well illustrated with color and black & white plates, technical drawings and maps, 8-1/2" x 11". Published on the occasion of the exhibition "The Fairmount Waterworks, 1812-1911" (July 23-September 25, 1998), celebrating the restoration of the waterworks.