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Philadelphia Water Department
Water and Drainage History Course

Module 3

Historical precedents for urban water supplies
(This section is freely edited from Nelson Blake, Water for the Cities, pages 14-16)

The idea of a water works to supply water to a city was by no means original to Philadelphia. Educated people of the time, well-read in the Latin classics, were keenly aware that human settlements had not always and everywhere been dependent on the local supplies of water that springs, wells, and cisterns could provide. They knew that one of the essential foundations for the urban civilization of the Roman Empire, two thousand years earlier, had been a bold system of aqueducts conveying pure water from distant sources into the great metropolis.

Some of these aqueducts were more than 50 miles long, and nine of them were built to supply the city with about 38 million gallons of fresh water a day. Built of stone and lined with cement, these aqueducts demonstrated extraordinary engineering skill. Sometimes they ran beneath the surface of the earth; sometimes they were supported on masonry structures; sometimes they were carried across valleys on magnificent arched bridges. Within Rome water was distributed, in part through lead pipes, to public baths and fountains, to the shops of artisans, and to the private houses of the wealthier citizens.

Roman Aqueduct in Segovia Spain, still standing in 2006.
Photo by Mike Chamberlain from http://www.atpm.com/12.12/desktop-pictures.shtml

Before Roman times, people like the Phoenicians and the Greeks had often shown boldness and imagination in providing for their water needs. In the 4th century AD the city of Constantinople was supplied with water by aqueduct [see this link for more details], while during the Renaissance various Popes recognized the needs of the city of Rome and took steps to restore some of the ancient water works. In France in the 17th century, to provide water for the beautiful and extensive fountains of the palace of Versailles, King Louis XIV spent vast sums of money on machinery to raise the water of the Seine by water wheels and convey it to the palace grounds by canals and conduits.

Vue du Bosquet des trois Fontaines (View of the Grove of the Three Fountains), at Versaille.
Painting by Jean Cotelle (the Younger, (c) Réunion des musées nationaux. Used with permission.
From a website devoted to the Machine of Marly, the ingenuous collection of waterwheels, in operation by 1684, that lifted water from the Seine to supply the palace and gardens at Versailles.

Eighteenth-century Americans had little contact with much of this previous experience, but the example of London, where water was supplied by a number of private companies, was more familiar. Even in colonial America a few attempts had been made to improve the water supply. One of the earliest incorporations in the colonies was that of the Water-Works Company by the Massachusetts General Court in 1652. The proprietors of this Boston enterprise constructed the so-called Conduit, a reservoir some twelve feet square into which water was conveyed through bored logs from nearby wells and springs. This supply served the convenience of neighboring families and was valuable in time of fire, but it never fulfilled the expectations of its promoters and eventually fell into disuse.

In 1754, Hans Christopher Christiansen began the construction of a system of water works for the Moravian colonists at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. An English traveler in 1796 reported: “Every house in the town is supplied with an abundance of excellent water from a spring, which is forced through pipes by means of an hydraulic machine worked by water, and which is situated on the banks of the creek. Some of the houses are supplied with water in every room. The machine is very simple, and would easily raise the water, if necessary, several hundred feet.” When a group of Moravians moved to Salem, North Carolina, they apparently carried their interest in water works with them, because a visitor to that town in 1786 noted that every house was supplied with water, brought a mile and a half in conduits.

The restored Bethlehem Water Works, as it appears today.
Photograph by Adam Levine, 2011.

In 1772, two private water companies, the Providence Water Company and Rawson’s Fountain Society, were organized to supply the inhabitants of Providence, Rhode Island. Each of them drew water from springs about a mile from town and conveyed it through bored wooden logs.

The technical knowledge for the building of water works was thus available. American city dwellers could draw upon the earlier experience of other peoples and even to some extent on their own experiments. What was now required was for citizens long accustomed to rural institutions to accept the necessity of making the more complicated provisions required by urban life.

And when the city dwellers had finally accepted the fact that great water works were necessary, another question then needed to be answered: should these large investments be made by the municipalities themselves or by private corporations? Should the example of Rome or that of London be followed?

Philadelphia, after some debate, chose to follow the example of Rome.


“Earliest water-supplies in the United States. –The earliest system of public water supply in this country was completed for the city of Boston in 1652. This was a gravity system. It is believed that the first pumping-machinery for such a supply was set up for the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and put in operation in 1754. Subsequent water-supplies were completed for Providence, Rhode Island, 1772, and for Morristown, New Jersey, in 1791; the latter has maintained a continuous existence since that date. The first use of steam pumping-machinery in this country was in Philadelphia in 1800 [sic: 1801]… Other cities and towns soon began to follow the lead of these earlier municipalities in the construction of public water-supplies, but the principal development in this class of public works has taken place since about 1850.” [William H. Burr, Ancient and Modern Engineering and the Isthmian Canal. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1903, p. 182].

Moses Nelson Baker, editor of the Manual of American Water-Works (1891) says that there were sixteen water works in operation in the U.S. before 1801 (page ix), in an 1899 antholgy he adds that all but one of these, in Winchester, Virginia, were private companies. [Moses Nelson Baker, ed., Manual of American Water-Works (New York: Engineering News Publishing Co., 1892), ix; and Baker, ‘‘Water-Works,’’ in E. W. Bemis, ed., Municipal Monopolies (New York: Thomas Y.Crowell & Company, 1899), 14.]

The point to be remembered by anyone talking about the Philadelphia water system is that this city did not have the first water works in the United States. What can be truthfully said is that it had the first steam-powered water works, but since that mode of pumping was troublesome at best, and water-power ultimately was resorted to, this is perhaps not something that should be boasted about.


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