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Philadelphia Water Department
Water and Drainage History Course

Module 4

Philadelphia’s First Water Distribution System: Centre Square, 1801-1815

Centre Square Engine House, location of one of two steam engines used in the city’s original water system.
(Engaving by Birch. Free Library, Castner Collection)

Bounded by two rivers and with water from smaller streams to the north within reach of the city via aqueduct, Philadelphia had numerous choices for the source of its water supply. The Delaware River was deemed unsatisfactory as it was a major port, with all the pollution associated with such activity, as well as the action of the tide and the proximity of marshland. Other options that were ultimately rejected included Benjamin Franklin’s earlier proposal to bring water by aqueduct from Wissahickon Creek; and bringing in water from Spring Mill, near present-day Conshohocken. For many years it seemed that the City would accept a proposal from proprietors of the Delaware and Schuylkill Canal (designed to connect the rivers north of Vine Street) to supply water. The canal was never completed, and after much wrangling this proposal also was turned down. The city leaders decided to make providing water a municipal responsibility, with a city-owned water works rather than a system built by a private company which would then lease it back to the city. The water source finally chosen, the Schuylkill River, was fast-flowing, removed from the City’s population center, and had an extensive upstream watershed that ensured a steady supply.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe
Painting by Filippo Costaggini [Wikipedia]

The architect/engineer chosen to create the city’s first water works, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, had earlier designed the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and later went on to design the U.S. Capitol. The job which Latrobe had hoped to complete in seven months at a cost of $127,000 required twenty months and expenditures of over $220,000, including a bill of $898.44 for liquor for the workmen. (Blake, p. 34). He designed a water works with two pumping stations, each housing a separate steam engine. One station, on the Schuylkill River at the present intersection of 24th and Chestnut streets, drew water from the river.


(PWD, Jay Snider Collection)

The Schuylkill or Lower Engine House (above) located at the foot of Chestnut Street, drew water from the Schuylkill River. This building was plainer than the Centre Square Engine House shown above; that building, in the center of the city, was the centerpiece of the water supply system.

This engine pumped water into a brick conduit that ran under Chestnut Street to a second pumping station in Centre Square, at the intersection of Broad and Market streets, where City Hall stands today. There a second engine pumped the water into wooden reservoirs at the top of the building, from which it flowed into a distribution system of wooden pipes into the city, to the homes and businesses of individual subscribers to the system, or to public hydrants throughout the city, from which anyone could draw water for free.

A section of wooden water pipe, long out of service,
removed from a Philadelphia street in 1901.
It had been installed about 1801. (PWD)

The wooden pipes used to distribute the water were fashioned from sections of tree trunks cut to about 12 feet long. White oak, yellow pine and spruce were commonly used for this so-called “pipe timber.” Each log was bored through its center with an auger either 3, 4.5, or 6 inches in diameter. The bored logs were joined into pipelines with iron couplings and straps. (Sources: 2004.057.0009 (1802 PWD report), p. 49, 76-81; 2004.059.0618 (Eng. Club 1884), p. 114-115; see further note at bottom of this page.)

Latrobe’s Bank of Pennsylvania helped introduce the Neoclassical architectural style to the United States.
(Engraving by Birch, Wikipedia)

Latrobe designed the Centre Square building to be an architectural wonder in the neoclassical style, which he had introduced with his Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The building was crowded with machinery—pump, air chamber, steam engine, flywheel and wooden boiler—all so close together that operation and maintenance were difficult. But from the outside of the building, faced with white marble in classical dimensions, the only evidence of all this interior activity was smoke rising from the “oculus,” or chimney. Philadelphians nicknamed this domed building “the Pepper Pot,” and the park around it (one of the five original parks on William Penn’s plan of the city) became a public gathering place on the Fourth of July and other occasions.

ABOVE: “Fourth of July in Centre Square”, painted around 1812 by John Lewis Krimmel. (Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts) The wooden statue in the fountain, “Allegory of the Schuylkill River (Water Nymph and Bittern)”, was carved in 1809 by Philadelphia sculptor William Rush. In 1827 it was moved to the grounds of the Fairmount Water Works (BELOW), where it originally sat at the foot of the cliff on the east side of the Forebay. In 1872, the deteriorating wooden version was cast in bronze and this version was placed in the fountain in the South Garden
. (Anonymous photographer, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts)

With the completion of Centre Square, Philadelphia had taken a great step forward. The provision of an adequate water supply for the inhabitants had been recognized as one of the responsibilities of an adequate city government. Perhaps an outsider could see the significance of the Philadelphia venture more clearly than could the citizens of the city themselves. The English traveler, James Melish, wrote:

“It is of great importance to these works, that they are the property of the public, and not subject to individual speculation, in consequence of which the supply is liberal, and there are fountains in every street to which the whole public have access. The water can be used for watering the streets, or extinguishing fires, as often as may be necessary; while every householder, by paying a reasonable compensation can have a hydrant in any part of his premises that he pleases, even to the attic story. In short, this water is a great luxury, and is, in my opinion, of incalculable advantage to the health, as it certainly is to the convenience and comfort of the community.” (Blake, page 43)

“Portrait of Frederick Graff”
(Note the Centre Square Water Works in the background.)
(Portrait by James Peale, 1804. Philadelphia History Museum at The Atwater Kent)

The Centre Square project helped elevate the reputation of Latrobe, who left Philadelphia for work in other cities, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and New Orleans, where he died of yellow fever in 1820. After he left Philadelphia, his assistant, John Davis, became superintendent of the water system. Latrobe had hired Frederick Graff, then a “shy young mechanic” recently lamed by an injury, as a draftsman in the 1790s. Graff proved himself with his work on the water works project, and was given increasingly important responsibilities by Latrobe. Graff got his first independent commission in 1804 building a canal in Soth Carolina. When Davis left Philadelphia to develop a water works for Baltimore 1805, he chose Graff as his successor, a post he held until his death in 1847.

Steam power was new technology at the time, and the engines were plagued with problems as long as they remained in use. One major defect with Latrobe’s system was that if either engine broke down—the one at the Schuylkill that lifted water into the conduit to Centre Square, or the one at Centre Square, which lifted it into the reservoirs—the whole system went off-line. The reservoir tanks of the system were small, holding just 17,660 gallons. This supply would run out in about twenty-five minutes if no additional water was pumped in, which put the fire-fighting capacity of the city at risk when the system was not working. The cost of operation was far above the original estimates, and ironically, the disease that had prompted the search for pure water–yellow fever–recurred in the city in 1802, 1803 and 1805. By 1811, with the population and the number of buildings in the city rapidly expanding, it became evident that a new mode of supplying water would be needed. That new water works would end up about a mile upstream on the Schuylkill, at a hill named Faire Mount.

According to Philadelphia historian John Fanning Watson (Watson’s Annals, 1905 edition, V. 3, p. 389) , the Centre Square building (after it was no longer needed as a pumping station) served as headquarters for the town watchmen, and as a supply depot for oil burned in the city’s street-lamps. It was torn down in 1828, and later in the 19th century another Philadelphia landmark was built on Centre Square: City Hall.


Wrote the Chief Engineer of the Water Department in his report for 1858: “The last of the old wooden pipes in use for water mains have been taken up and iron pipe substituted. These were laid from Arch to Vine on the east side of Broad street, and from Filbert to Vine on the west side of Broad street, and on the south side of Vine from Broad to Fifteenth street. The logs taken up were in a remarkable state of preservation, and would have probably answered for many years had it not been for the steam engines which have lately been attached to them for their supply, since which time they have been a constant source of annoyance and expense. Up to 1832, the city had laid 241,604 feet of wooden pipe, since which time none have been laid, and that which was laid has been gradually substituted by iron pipe. At first, wooden pipe was thought superior to iron, and was used entirely until 1804, when 3,978 feet of the latter were laid; but from that time until 1818 none but wooden pipe was used. In that year 400 feet of iron pipe were laid, and in 1820 the committee on water became satisfied from their experience that they were not only as good as wood, but, in fact, better. Iron pipes were therefore substituted for the wooden ones; they were found not only stronger but more durable, easier laid, and less expensive.” (Department for supplying the city with water. Annual Report [for 1858] of the Chief Engineer of the Water Works of the City of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Collins, Printer, 1859, 18.)




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