Fairmount Water Works
FWW Home Page

Discover. Connect. Act.

Philadelphia Water Department
Water and Drainage History Course

Module 2
Philadelphia: Colonial Settlement to U.S. Capital, 1682-1801

The landing of William Penn at Dock Creek, Philadelphia.
The building in the picture is the Blue Anchor Tavern, which was built shortly before Penn’s arrival.
(Castner Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia)

Philadelphia, founded in 1682 by William Penn, a wealthy English Quaker, quickly became one of the most important cities in the North American colonies. Along with Boston and New York, it was one of the centers of a revolution that would free the colonies from English rule, and after hosting the Constitutional Convention in 1787, it became the first capital of the United States.

William Penn’s treaty with the Indians when he founded the Province of Pennsylvania in North America.
(Painting by Benjamin West, 1771. Source: Wikimedia)


The original two square miles of the city were bounded by the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers on the east and west, and Cedar (now South Street) on the south and Vine Street to the north. The site chosen was drier and higher than the swampy land that covered large areas of land below South Street, but less hilly than the land to the north. It also was at the narrowest point between the two riverfronts. The cove around the mouth of Dock Creek provided a natural harbor; otherwise, the city waterfront was a sandy beach with a sandy bluff up to 30 feet high


Thomas Holme, “A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania in America.” 1683.
The original city only extended from river to river, between Vine and South streets. In 1854, under the Act of Consolidation, Philadelphia absorbed all the other municipalities in Philadelphia County to create a much-enlarged city.
(Philadelphia Department of Streets)


A sketch of the city in 1702, made in 1875.
Dock Creek and the drawbridge at its mouth are plainly seen; the creek was the site of early industry in Philadelphia, including several tanneries (leather makers) and slaughterhouses. Note the sandy bluff along the river, and the staircases leading from the city down to the riverfront. Market sheds are in the middle of Market Street, and the depressed street, crossed by an arched bridge at Front Street, is Arch Street. (Historic Urban Plans)

The site was also close to a number of streams that had a fall of water high and strong enough to power the sawmills and grist (or flour) mills needed by the early settlers; in fact, the Swedes had already constructed a mill on Cobb’s Creek by the 1630s, almost 50 years before the arrival of the English. By the time the photograph below of the Roberts Mill (built in the 1690s) was taken in the 1870s, the mill was in ruins and considered an interesting subject for artists and photographers, as well as a romantic destination for picnickers.

Photograph of Roberts Mill on Wingohocking Creek in Germantown, built in the late 17th century.
(Photograph by J. C. Browne, 1871. Castner Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia)

Rather than the random winding streets of most European cities of the time, William Penn instructed his surveyor, Thomas Holme, to lay out his new “City of Brotherly Love” in a regular, rectangular grid pattern, which he believed would make the city both healthier and less susceptible to the spread of fire. The right- angled system of streets was bisected by High Street (now Market Street) running from river to river, and Broad Street running north and south. It would be more than a century, however, before the built up part of the city reached Broad Street. While Penn had hoped the city would grow equally on both riverfronts, the Delaware was the larger river, and more accessible to ships, and so for all of the 18th century settlement clustered along the city’s eastern shore.[1]

Map of burnt London, 1666
(NN21098) © Museum of London.
Downloaded on July 8, 2012 from this link

Until the opening of the city’s first water works in 1801, residents got their water from springs or, in the densely built up part of the city, from public wells located in the streets or, for wealthier citizens, private wells in their backyards. Human wastes were disposed of in privy pits, often located in the opposite corner of the backyard. Since Philadelphia lots are narrow, that often meant that the water for drinking was coming out of a hole in the ground located 20 feet or less from another hole in the ground where wastes were deposited. It was inevitable that the wastes would reach the water table and thus be drawn up in the wells. This was noted in a 1763 petition to the colonial assembly, which mentioned, among many other sanitary complaints that “the vaults of wells for privies or necessary houses throughout the city are dug so deep as to injure the waters and render then unwholesome for drinking.” [2]

In his will, Benjamin Franklin recommended that some of the money he left to the city be used to bring in a better water supply, since by “covering a ground plot with buildings and pavements, which carry off most of the rain and prevent its soaking into the Earth and renewing and purifying the Springs … the water of wells must gradually grow worse, and in time be unfit for use, as I find has happened in all old cities.” [3] (In this statement Franklin provides an early description of the effects of impervious surfaces on water quality and supply–effects that the Philadelphia Water Department is now trying to mitigate with its Green City Clean Waters program.)

Benjamin Latrobe was more explicit in his 1798 report on the feasibility of a water works for Philadelphia. Both the wells and the privies, he wrote, were sunk into the same layer of permeable gravel. “The perfect permeability of this stratum is evident from the connection of the wells with each other, and with the sinks and privies, from whence arises the extreme unpleasantness of the water in the crowded parts of the city.”[4] Calling this situation unpleasant was a gross understatement; in fact, this commingling of drinking water and wastes was likely responsible for a great deal of the intestinal ailments and other illnesses suffered by colonial Philadelphians.[5]

Benjamin Franklin (above) was concerned for years about the health of Philadelphia, especially about the unhealthiness of the city’s wells. He left money in his will to provide a clean water supply from outside the built up part of the city. Earlier in his life, he also helped found the first fire company in Philadelphia.
(INA, 1967)

The growth of commerce in Philadelphia and other cities

Although a period of economic crisis had followed the Revolution, the young cities of the new nation, including Philadelphia, were now flourishing. American ships were renewing many of the lines of trade disrupted by the struggle for independence and were finding their way into new markets as well. Merchants were once again growing wealthy, and expanding maritime activity was giving employment to shipwrights, sail makers, and manufacturers of ships’ hardware. Within the cities resided ambitious professional men—lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and teachers—as well as thousands of sturdy representatives of the artisan class. Quite as important as the function of the cities as centers of commerce and industry was their service in stimulating the intellectual life of the country. In the towns, books and pamphlets were published, clubs and societies flourished, schools and colleges educated the young, and lending libraries served the needs of the old. Dancing assemblies, playhouses, concerts, and card games helped the rich to pass their days pleasantly, while the humbler classes amused themselves in tippling, brawling, and betting on cock fights.[6]

The following three engravings were created by William Birch and Son in 1799 and 1800, depiciting various aspects of life in Philadelphia at that time. Larger versions of these images, and two dozen others, can be viewed online at the John Carter Brown Archive of Early American Images, at Brown University.


New Lutheran Church, in Fourth Street, Philadelphia.

Goal [Jail], in Walnut Street Philadelphia. (Note the house-moving operation that is happening in the foreground. As the city expanded, old structures that encroached on the city’s street lines often had to be moved (or torn down) as the streets were extended.)

South East Corner of Third, and Market Streets, Philadelphia.


“A Fourth [of] July scene about the year 1795 as then sketched from a position on the south line of Chesnut St., showing that then the whole area was a grass commons from [Chestnut] to Spruce St. and from 6th St. westward.” [The “Papist Chapel” would have been a Catholic Church.]
(Library Company of Philadelphia)

Although the cities were growing rapidly, their institutions of local government were still those of villages. Constables and marshals by day and watchmen by night provided little protection against crime. Thefts and assaults were frequent, and occasional riots threw the cities into an uproar and resulted in much damage to property. Even more serious was the danger of fire in the closely built streets and alleys. To combat these, volunteer fire companies had been organized—the first by Benjamin Franklin in 1736—but their activities with buckets and primitive hand pump engines were often ineffective.[7] More reliable and effective fire-fighting became another argument for the creation of a municipal water works.

Fire axes and fire buckets were standard fire-fighting equipment in the 18th century. The buckets carried water; the axes were used to break into burning buildings. The speaking trumpet at the bottom was used to communicate with firefighters at the scene.
(INA, 1967)

A hand-pumped fire engine made in Philadelphia in 1792.
Water was stored in the copper lined wooden boxes, and two men (one pumping on each handle) forced the water up through the pipe on top, into a hose. (It can be assumed that a bucket brigade was used to keep the boxes filled.)
(INA, 1967)

Sometimes, especially during summer droughts or winter freezes, the firemen were badly handicapped by a shortage of water in the wells and rivers. In 1791, Philadelphia was thrown into a panic by a report that arsonists were at work. Rewards totaling one thousand dollars were posted for the arrest of the criminals, and special patrols were organized to guard the city day and night.[8]

Waste Disposal in Colonial Times

In colonial Philadelphia (and most other cities of this time period) the streets, streams, and any ponds on vacant lots were deemed useful as places for dumping refuse. In 1702 a Philadelphia grand jury reported “great Anoyance that Inhabitants of this Citty doe Dayly Receive by Reason of butchers killing their meat in the street, and Throughing [throwing] the blood, Dung and Gargdish [probably garbage] in the streets, which is very hurtful to the health of the said Inhabitants.” By 1721, when a law was finally passed forbidding the butchering of animals in the streets or in public markets, such casual waste disposal had become a nasty habit. Besides the street, butchers and tanners (leather makers) dumped their refuse in Dock Creek, which ran through the heart of the city. (This creek and other bodies of water also provided easy disposal for dead dogs, cats, and horses.) Just about everyone abused the public space in a variety of ways: tradespeople including carpenters, hatters, shoemakers, bone boilers, soapmakers, distillers, and others, as well as individual residents, disposing of wastes by dumping them in the “kennels” or gutters in the streets that ran past their businesses or homes. [9] Add to all this mess the daily deposits of manure from the city’s equine population, and the “mud, muck, and mire” that filled the streets can scarcely be imagined.


This Philadelphia street scene, with dogs facing off with pigs for a pile of tasty garbage, was captured by artist Augustus Kollner in 1844, but would have been very familiar to 18th-century Philadelphians. Kollner titled the drawing, “Town street scavengers from life.” Early in the city’s history, the same 1702 Grand Jury that complained about butchers slaughtering animals on the street also mentioned the “Unnecessary Multitude of Doggs that are needlessly kept in the Citty” and which killed people’s sheep.
(Free Library of Philadelphia, Print & Picture Collection)

Another Grand Jury presentation in 1750 reported “the extreme dirtyness of the streets, not only for want of pavement in some places, but through the disorderly practice of throwing out all manner of dirt and filth without any care taken to remove the same, whereby the streets that have been regulated at a public expense are rendered exceedingly deep and miry in wet weather.” That year the Mayor issued a proclamation against these practices, which failed to cure the evil. [10]

Not until 1762 did Philadelphia and the other adjacent urbanized areas such as Southwark and Northern Liberties develop regulations governing the “cleansing” of the streets, which among other requirements, forbade citizens from piling any “shavings…mud, dung, ashes, or other filth” on the streets until the appointed day of the week for the visit of the “scavengers” or street-sweepers. One section of this law, relevant to the city’s water supply, decried the practice of “distillers, soap-boilers and others” who frequently discharged “large quantities of foul and stinking liquors, the returns from their stills and boiling vessels…into wells, vaults or sinks dug for that purpose” and thereby “injured if not totally ruined their neighbors waters.” [11] This added insult to the city’s wells provided another reason that a public water supply was needed; and a regular supply of water for cleansing the streets was a clear necessity.

Yellow fever: The impetus for the city’s new water supply.

Outbreaks of yellow fever had plagued Philadelphia almost from its founding, but the true cause of infection was not proven until around 1900. At that time a team led by American physician Walter Reed discovered that the disease was spread by biting mosquitoes that carried blood from infected people to the uninfected.

Besides being unaware of this vector of transmission, the medical professionals of the 18th century were also divided on the cause of the disease, some believing (correctly) that it was carried to Philadelphia on ships carrying rum and sugar from the Caribbean islands (which brought infected sailors to the port). Others thought it was a homegrown disease caused by bad air, or miasmas, that arose from rotting organic material—as one doctor put it, from “the exhalations of the city.” [12] These “exhalations” came from wastes rotting in the streets and gutters and polluted creeks, from marshy land and the city’s docks at low tide. They might also come from the privy pits into which human wastes were deposited, and which were sometimes not emptied as often as they should and would overflow into cellars and backyards. The doctors also disagreed on whether or not yellow fever was contagious, some believing that anyone who had contact with the sick people themselves, or their soiled clothing, bedding, excrement etc. ran the risk of getting infected.

A particularly terrifying yellow fever epidemic struck the city in 1793, killing between four and five thousand people, or almost 10 percent of the population, and paralyzing the government of both the city and the nation, since Philadelphia served as the U.S. capital from 1790 to 1800. This was followed by less severe, but still deadly epidemics in 1795 and 1797, and another horrific epidemic in 1798, when 3,645 deaths were recorded. While they did not know the true cause of the disease, city officials believed that providing pure water for both cleansing the streets and culinary purposes might help prevent another outbreak. Having a supply of water to fight fires was another reason for this civic improvement. In the wake of these epidemics, a watering committee was formed by City Councils, and in 1801 the city’s first water works was opened. Designed by Banjamin Latrobe, it had one pumping station on the Schuylkill River at the foot of Chestnut Street, and a second pumping station at Broad and Market streets, in Centre Square.

Yellow fever is a viral hemorrhagic disease that is transmitted bythe female Aedes aegypti mosquito. Symptoms include fever, nausea, bleeding, and vomiting. If untreated, yellow fever may result into kidney failure or death. (Symptons downloaded July 8, 2012 from: http://medicalkenya.co.ke/2011/01/yellow-fever-vaccination-to-delay-for-two-weeks/; Mosquito by James Stewart/CDC, downloaded from http://bestpractice.bmj.com/best-practice/monograph/906/resources/image/bp/3.html)

Yellow Fever, Philadelphia, 1793
Downloaded July 8, 2012 from: http://sortor.com/benjamin_rush/source/yellow_fever_philly_1793.html

Yellow fever deaths, September 1798.
Downloaded July 8, 2012 from: http://www.pahrc.net/index.php/tag/1798-yellow-fever-epidemic/

Industrial Waste: Dock Creek and the Tanners

Modern day map showing historic Dock Creek with adjacent historical features.
(American Philosophical Society Museum. 2008)

As city grew through the 18th century, Dock Creek became increasingly polluted by tanneries, slaughterhouses, distilleries and other businesses set up along its banks. A petition in 1739 to the colonial government, encouraged if not written by Benjamin Franklin, to force the tanners to move to a less populated part of the city, was turned down, and the tanners were allowed to continue their operations.

A proposal in 1747 to cleanse Dock Creek and wall it in was also, likewise, never implemented. [xv] After a final petition to cleanse the Dock and wall it in was ignored in 1763, the final solution for the creek was to cover it with a brick arch in several stages, beginning in 1765, and run Dock Street over the meandering line of the former stream. Other smaller streams may have been similarly put into sewers before Dock Creek–possibly a branch of Dock Creek itself, but this was both the largest creek-sewer conversion undertaken by the city up to that point, and by far the city’s largest sewer in the 18th century. [13]


TOP: 1762 map of Dock Creek, showing the street than ran on either side of it. Although this map and many others do not show this, the creek actually continued above Third Street, in two branches, the north branch reaching almost to Broad Street. BOTTOM: A section of the original Dock Creek Sewer, excavated in 1962, nearly 200 years after it was built.
(Both images from Library of Congress)

FOOTNOTES and other ideas to think about

[1] Unlike old cities in Europe, such as London, with their organic, winding narrow streets, a grid system of streets regularized the city layout, and Penn (presumably) envisioned that Philadelphia would thus be more healthy, and less susceptible to the plague he had seen ravage London in c.1666 and the fire of London, which spread quickly through the narrow streets.

[2] Pennsylvania Archives, Series 8, Volume 6, p. 5385. Accessed June 6, 2012 from http://www.fold3.com/image/#205357. See also Cotter at al. The Buried Past, p. 242-246, for archeological evidence that privies were indeed used that were as deep as the groundwater level. About a privy excavated at 8 South Front Street, the authors write that it “may originally have been dug as a well, for it seems to have extended more than 26 feet below the original grade. With its greater depth, it would have served the needs of the site’s occupants better than either of the previous privy pits. The health of anyone using water from wells in the vicinity of this deep privy pit would, however, been ill-served.” [p. 246]

[3] The Last Will and Testament of Benjamin Franklin, downloaded February 2, 2102 from http://fi.edu/franklin/family/lastwill.html

[4] View of the Practicability and Means of Supplying the City of Philadelphia with Wholesome Water. In a Letter to John Miller, Esquire, from B. Henry Latrobe, Engineer. December 29th. 1798. Philadelphia: Printed by Zachariah Poulson, Junior, No. 106, Chestnut-street. 1799, p. 6-7. In a seminal work on sewerage more than 130 years after Latrobe, the authors wrote of the well-privy connection: “Tight cesspools require frequent removal of their contents and transportation to a place of disposal; and if not emptied in time, cause much trouble by overflowing. Leaching cesspools [similar to most of Philadelphia’s old privies], which are intended to allow their contents to percolate into the surrounding earth, are often satisfactory if located in porous earth and at a sufficient distance from dwellings: but their use results in pollution of the soil and endangers well water supplies, and after a time the earth is likely to become clogged so that the contents of the cesspool will no longer percolate away.” (Leonard Metcalf and Harrison P. Eddy, Sewerage and Sewage Disposal. New York: McGraw Hill, 1930, p. 9.)

[5] “Another most preposterous and baneful custom prevails among us, it is that of digging privies twenty or thirty feet deep, whereby magazines of putrefaction are maintained for a hundred years together; as by means of the absorbent powers of the gravel that is generally found at a certain distance beneath the surface of the earth, they must naturally communicate their excrementious qualities to the waters of the city. Common sewers properly constructed, through which the water is made to flow, would be the most salutary mode of discharging the contents of privies; but such arrangements will very probably be referred to our posterity.” Aurora, May 3, 1799, cited in Blake, Chapter 1.

[6] This paragraph almost verbatim from Blake, Chapter 1

[7] See also SW, v. 1, p 208; my Watson, v. 3, p. 405-430, good overview of early firefighting and fire companies

[8] This paragraph almost verbatim from Blake, Chapter 1

[9] A. C. Abbott, “The Development of Public Health Work in Philadelphia.” University of Pennsylvania Medical Bulletin, Vol. 22 (Sept. 1909), No. 7, p. 202-203; also, John T. Faris, The Romance of Old Philadelphia. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1918, p. 80-83.

[10] Scharf and Westcott, p. 258]

[11] The Statues at Large of Pennsylvania from 1682 to 1801. 16 vols. Vol. VI (1759 to 1765), p. 230. Harrisburg: Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1899.

[12] The report elaborated that the disease came from “the exhalations of the alleys, gutters, docks, and common sewers of the city; and from stagnating water in its neighborhoods [and from] “the foul air discharged with the ballast of the ship Deborah, and the cargo of the brig Mary; the former of which arrived from Hispaniola [sic] on the 18th of July, and the latter on the 29th of the same month….In support of our opinion of the disease being derived from the exhalations of our city before enumerated, we shall mention the names of…persons who had the fever before the arrival of the Deborah or Mary in our port [several names listed].” (“Letter to Thomas Mifflin, governor of Pennsylvania, from the Academy of Medicine of Philadelphia, on the origins and means of preventing the yellow fever.” Signed by Philip Syng Physick, president, December 3, 1798. Reprinted in the New York Gazette, December 13, 1798.

[13] For a good discussion of this issue, see various writings of Michal McMahon, including “The Smelly Saga of Dock Creek,” Philadelphia Inquirer Today Magazine, October 31, 1982; and “Public Service” versus “Mans Properties”: Dock creek and the origins of urban technology in eighteenth century Philadelphia,” in McGaw, Judith A., ed., Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.


RETURN to TOP of this PAGE


All contents © 2015 Philadelphia Water Department