Fairmount Water Works
FWW Home Page

Discover. Connect. Act.

Philadelphia Water Department
Water and Drainage History Course

Module 6

The Consolidated City and Water Pollution:
Filtration is the Solution, 1854-1914


This course module is derived from an exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of water filtration, created in 2009 by C. Drew Brown, PWD Manager of Public Education; Adam Levine, PWD Historical Consultant; and Ellen Freedman Schultz, PWD Education Consultant. Unless otherwise noted, all images are from the Phildaelphia Water Department.

William Penn balks at drinking the "mixed drink" offered him: Schuylkill water, mixed with pollution from the upstream sources named. Editorial cartoon by Fred Morgan, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 6, 1899. This is one of a series of cartoons drawn by Morgan, protesting the state of the city's drinking water and trying to encourage the passage of legislation authorizing the construction of a water filtration system.


In 1854, under the Act of Consolidation passed by the Pennsylvania legislature, the City of Philadelphia absorbed the other twenty-nine municipalities in the County of Philadelphia, creating a much-enlarged 129-square mile city. By so doing, Philadelphia took on the task of providing a wide range of services for a much-expanded population, including police and fire protection, the construction of new streets, bridges and other infrastructure, sewerage and stormwater drainage, sanitation and public health, and providing a safe water supply.

By this point in the city's history, Fairmount Water Works had been joined by three other water works, supplying Northern Liberties and Spring Garden (opened 1845), Germantown and Mt. Airy (1851) and Kensington (1851). Several others were added in the years that followed, as shown on the map below. During the second half of the 19th century, assuring the safety of the water supplied by the various water works in the city became an increasingly difficult problem, the solution of which involved the largest expenditure by the city on any single project up to that point.

Superimposed on this map of Philadelphia County are all the city-owned water works and their dates of operation. The map shows the thirty municipalities in the county before they were all absorbed into a greater City of Philadelphia under the 1854 Act of Consolidation. Not shown are several private water works serving the northeastern section of the city which were purchased by the city in the 1920s. Click here for a larger version of this map.

Stopping Pollution of the Schuylkill River: A Losing Battle

In 1828 one of the first comprehensive laws against pollution of the Schuylkill River was passed by the Pennsylvania legislature. The law mandated, in its quaint legalese, a fine of $50 for any violators who "willfully take, lead, conduct, or carry off, or shall knowingly suffer or permit to be taken, led, conducted, or carried off, any offal or any putrid, noxious, or offensive matter, from any dye house, still house, brew house, or tan yard, or from any manufactory whatever, into that part of the river Schuylkill which is between the dam at Flat Rock and the dam at Fair Mount." The act further forbade pollution of the river close to the Fairmount Water Works with "any dead animal, or any putrid or corrupt thing whatsoever, or any noxious or offensive matter of any kind." It also outlawed swimming, by people or dogs, within 100 yards of the head race, which conducted water into the Fairmount Water Works. Similar laws, which often expanded the list of prohibited activities and increased the amount of fines for violations, were passed in subsequent years.

The creation of a park around Fairmount beginning in the mid-19th century, besides providing a pleasure-ground for the citizenry, was also intended to protect the quality of the river water, and was a direct response to the current and potential industrial development along the Schuylkill riverfront. In fact, when the Park was expanded after the Civil War, many mills and factories upstream from Fairmount, along the Schuylkill River and Wissahickon Creek, were bought by the city and demolished.


In 1868, Fairmount Park was enlarged to more than 2000 acres with the purchase of land on both banks of the Schuylkill River. One goal of this purchase, and a later purchase of land along Wissahickon Creek, was to protect water quality in the river, which by then was used as source water for four drinking water pumping stations in Philadelphia.

In spite of these precautions, the state of the Schuylkill, and of drinking water drawn from it at four separate pumping stations—at Shawmont, Belmont, Spring Garden, and Fairmount—continued to deteriorate. One of the problems was that even if Philadelphia had been able to completely eliminate pollution of the river within the city limits, it had no direct control over the sewage and industrial pollution from communities upstream. Communities within Philadelphia, such as Manayunk, also continued to pollute the river. In 1883 the city began building an intercepting sewer along the east bank of the river. This pipe captured sewage and industrial waste that would have otherwise flowed into the river and carried it to a point of discharge below the Fairmount Dam, out of the reach of any water supply intake pipes. While this sewer did help reduce waste flows into the river, pollution continued to get into the river, both household sewage as well as wastes from industries who refused to connect to the interceptor.

Workshop of the World: Industrial Wastes and Human Wastes

John and James Dobson's Carpet Mills, located along Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia's East Falls section. The factory was located along a small tributary to the Schuylkill River called either Falls Run or Dobson's Run. It was one of the largest carpet factories in the world in the second half of the 19th century. The detail of an 1877 Hexamer General Survey (BELOW) of the factory shows the stream of waste water which ran into Falls Run, and, ultimately, into the Schuylkill River, polluting the city's drinking water supply. (Advertisement: Collection of Adam Levine. Hexamer General Survey: Free Library of Philadelphia Map Collection)


Around the time of the Civil War, the needs of an exploding population, attracted to the city by its burgeoning manufacturing capacity, began to strain the capacity of the city's water system. Between 1860 and 1890, Philadelphia's population almost doubled, growing from 565,529 to 1,046,964. In this same period, the city produced an incredible array of goods in hundreds of factories, employing thousands of men, women, boys and girls. By this time most factories employed steam engines as a power source, but many still located alongside the city's two rivers and their many tributary streams, using the streams as a water source for industrial processes, and as a convenient place to dump their wastes.

To serve the drainage needs of homes and businesses not directly next to the rivers and streams, the city built hundreds of miles of underground sewers which carried wastes to the nearest stream. All of this waste, both industrial waste and human sewage, was dumped with no disinfection or other treatment. The only intercepting sewer at that time was along the Schuylkill River, and sewage treatment plants were still many decades in the future. By polluting the two rivers that were the source of its water supply, Philadelphia, similar to many other cities, was like a bird fouling its own nest.

Henry Disston's Keystone Saw Works was located along the Delaware riverfront in Tacony. As with many factories located along rivers or smaller streams, this plant likely dumped any liquid waste from its industrial processes directly into the river. Note the smoke emanating from the plant's many smokestacks: in 19th entury engravings, smoke meant activity which equalled prosperity. It also meant air pollution, which was another problem in many cities during the Industrial Revolution.

As harmful as industrial pollution can be, the point can be argued that the huge amount of human waste entering the drinking water supply was the most dangerous and deadly. These wastes, which contained microbes carrying a variety of water-borne diseases, caused repeated epidemics of various illnesses, particularly typhoid fever. Before a solution was adopted, thousands of Philadelphians would die and many more thousands were sickened from drinking polluted water that came out of their taps. By the late 19th century, the city would face a public health crisis as serious as that posed by yellow fever a century earlier, but this time the problem truly was in the water.

The Mill Creek Sewer in West Philadelphia, under construction at 47th and Haverford Avenue, 1883. This sewer was one of many built in the 19th century that encapsulated a natural stream in a pipe and then used the resulting sewer as a drainage conduit for the surrounding neighborhood. This sewer emptied into the Schuylkill at 42nd Street; it was one of more than 100 sewers in the city that, by 1900, emptied their raw wastes into the city's rivers and creeks, grossly polluting them.

Polluted Water Spreads Disease

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, patients with typhoid fever and other contagious diseases were often treated at home, not in hospitals. For those who could not afford doctors, the Visiting Nurse Association of Philadelphia offered care. In this photograph, the visiting nurse is in the black coat and hat. (Center for the Study of the History of Nursing, Univ. of PA)

In the years between 1860 and 1909, more than 27,000 Philadelphians died of typhoid fever, a highly contagious disease caused by the microscopic bacterium Salmonella typhi. Today we understand that typhoid spreads readily through contaminated food and water supplies and through direct contact with an infected person. The bacteria are transmitted most commonly through the fecal-oral route, so excrement from an infected person discharged directly into water supplies can infect a person who drinks that water.

This transmission route was not always so clearly defined. In the nineteenth century, health professionals began noticing geographical clusters of disease incidence which gave new insight into how they spread. An early and influential example was an 1854 cholera outbreak in London, the source of which physician John Snow traced to a single public well polluted by the wastes of a cholera patient. In spite of such evidence, there was no consensus in professionals' understanding of the mechanics of disease transmission. Not until the 1880s were the bacteria that caused typhoid fever and a number of other diseases first isolated and identified with the aid of powerful microscopes. At that point, large numbers of physicians began to accept the idea that these bacteria were the cause of disease--the so-called "contagionist" point of view.

The typhoid bacteria discussed and illustrated in a 1905 medical textbook, The Principles of Bacteriology, by University of Pennsylvania professor A.C. Abbott, M.D.

With this mounting evidence, health professionals in Philadelphia (and in other similarly-afflicted cities) began to link the transmission of diseases such as typhoid fever and cholera to the city's water system. "Anti-contagionists" cited the clarity of water, witnessed by the naked eye after it had undergone gravity settling, as testimony of its purity. But their point of view became more and more marginalized as evidence mounted for spread of disease by microscopic germs.

By the end of the 19th century, the polluted nature of Philadelphia's water supply was obvious. By then, the only question was the method that the city would use to obtain a pure water supply: filtration of the existing supply, or bringing a cleaner supply to the city from other sources using aqueducts.

While Philadelphia delayed building filter plants and people were sickened each year by water-borne diseases, companies selling small water filters for home and business use moved into the void. This advertisement from the McConnell Germ-Proof Filter Company played on people's fears of disease, even if its illustrations of the various germs are wildly inaccurate and literally cartoonish. (Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

The Debate: Filtration vs. Aqueducts

In 1860, when the Philadelphia Board of Health began tracking causes of death, typhoid fever was among the city's leading killers. Cholera is often wrongly cited as the most deadly of various waterborne diseases, but its epidemics were episodic, while typhoid was consistently deadly. Between 1860 and 1890, cholera killed roughly 1,000 Philadelphians (most of these in a single epidemic in 1866). In the same period, typhoid fever killed more than 16,000. For each person who died from typhoid, roughly ten to fifteen more became ill but did not die, meaning that the disease ultimately afflicted hundreds of thousands of people.

Not surprisingly, the physicians who treated all these sick and dying patients were among the first to suggest that a purer water supply might reduce incidence of disease. Their call was echoed by city-sponsored water commissions in 1875 and 1886, both of which recommended abandoning the city's two polluted rivers for purer upstate water delivered by aqueducts to Philadelphia. Alternatively, by the 1890s, several European and American cities had built successful filtration plants, and this was increasingly seen as a cheaper but still viable solution to the city's water woes.

This 1885 plan was part of a comprehensive survey by the Philadelphia Water Department of upstate water sources for Philadelphia. As with all reports that recommended abandoning the polluted Schuylkill and Delaware rivers for cleaner sources brought to the city by aqueduct, this one was never implemented. To see a larger version of this plan and others associated with this report, click here (Links to an external site.).

In the 1890s a resident of Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood, Frank J. Firth, became active in the fight for clean water. A long-time proponent of filtration, Firth organized more than seventy organizations (including many physicians' groups) into the City Organizations Filtration Committee, which lobbied the City Councils to fund filtration. The Women's Health Protective Association, another advocacy group, invited knowledgeable scientists and engineers to the city to speak about the water issue and to propose solutions.

Convincing City Councils was no easy task, and their continued inaction through the 1890s promoted a number of private firms (some of them well-intended, others mere get-rich-quick schemes for their backers) to offer their solutions. Some Councilmen, stuck on the antiquated "anti-contagionist" view, remained unconvinced that bacteria were indeed deadly. One thing was clear: a solution to the city's water problem was going to cost millions, and then as now, getting elected officials to agree to such a large expenditure was a drawn-out and laborious process.

In 1891 Joseph Wharton, founder of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, offered the city a solution to its water problems. Wharton proposed to dam a number of streams in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where he owned many thousands of acres, and pipe water from the resulting reservoirs into Philadelphia via an aqueduct under the Delaware River. This plan, and other private plans to supply Philadelphia, was not accepted. Wharton's land is now preserved as Wharton State Forest.

In 1896, John C. Trautwine, Jr., chief engineer of the Water Department, came close to receiving approval for an experimental filtration plant, but the idea was defeated when some councilmen complained that it would be unfair to provide filtered water for one neighborhood while others had to suffer with the polluted variety. Finally, in 1899, under the leadership of newly elected Mayor Samuel H. Ashbridge, consensus was reached. The Mayor appointed a new water commission, which recommended filtration as the best alternative. In 1900 Councils finally acted, appropriating funds to build five filtration plants and construct the water mains necessary to deliver filtered water from both rivers to all parts of the City.

The Solution: Slow Sand Filtration

Two views of the Upper Roxborough Filters.Top: Panoramic view of filter beds under construction on July 16, 1902. Bottom: Finished vaulted concrete work on May 6, 1903, with beds of filter sand in place.These filters, the first of five filter plants in the city to be completed, began operation on August 6, 1903.

Scientists had known for years that contaminated water, when filtered through soil, would be cleansed of some contaminants and rendered more drinkable. Using this knowledge, engineers in the 19th century developed sand filters to remove impurities from drinking water. They discovered that a properly designed and maintained "slow sand" filter, through which water flows continuously by gravity, will trap disease-causing bacteria and other contaminants.

European cities were the first to install sand filters for their water supplies, and generally suffered lower rates of typhoid fever and other water-borne diseases than cities with unfiltered supplies. By the time Philadelphia began building its water filtration plants in the first years of the 20th century, the benefits of such systems had long been proven elsewhere.

Between 1900 and 1911, Philadelphia built a system of five sand filtration plants on high ground along the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, near the city's upstream boundaries (to access the cleanest water within city limits). High ground was preferred because gravity flow was more cost-effective than pumping, but even so, to get water to the highest parts of the city, a new reservoir in Oak Lane and five high-service pumping stations also had to be constructed. A new pumping station was also constructed at Lardner's Point (at that time the largest such pumping station in the world) to take water from the new Torresdale filters (then the largest single filter plant in the world ) and distribute it to reservoirs throughout the city.

A work gang plugging leaks in the 10'7" diameter Torresdale Conduit, December 18, 1906. This massive pipeline, 2.5 miles long, was built to carry filtered water from the Torresdale Filters to the Lardner's Point Pumping Station; fourteen men died during its construction. Both the filters and the pumping station were the largest of their kind in the world when they were built. Delays and accusations of corruption plagued the works at Torresdale, which were not in full operation until 1909.

Costing $28 million, the filtration system was the largest public works project in the city up to that time and, taken as a whole, the largest filtration works in the world. The project required the construction of transmission mains up to 6 feet in diameter, and many miles of new distribution mains, all designed to interconnect the city's formerly separate water distribution districts and to ensure the reliable delivery of safe, filtered water to every building in the City.

Two photographs taken July 14, 1904, of the triple-barrel pipeline construction on State Road. Many miles of large pipelines were built to connect the new filter plants with the existing water distribution system, extending filtered water service to all areas of the city.

The filtration plants at Upper and Lower Roxborough were completed in 1903, at Belmont in 1904, and at Torresdale in 1909. Early that year, a key interconnection within the distribution system finally allowed filtered water from Torresdale to reach parts of the City previously without it. For the first time, on March 1, 1909, every Philadelphian living or working in a building with city water service received filtered water. The Queen Lane Filters, a late addition to the filtration scheme that was not completed until 1911, provided additional capacity to serve the city's still-growing population.

Absent from the plans was the addition of filters to several older pumping stations, including the Spring Garden and Fairmount Water Works, which were taken out of service in 1909. As evidenced by the now-negligible death rates from typhoid and other water-borne diseases, this system has served Philadelphians well for the past 100 years. Water filtration accomplished what its advocates of a century ago predicted, saving many lives and improving the overall health of the city.

This chart tracks the death rates in the city due to typhoid fever from the Civil War to the years before World War II. The death rate (rather than number of actual deaths) is considered a more accurate reflection of the incidence of disease, as it takes into account the total population. Note that typhoid cases spiked during the Civil War (1861-65), due to the large number of military hospitals in Philadelphia, and also during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, due to the influx of millions of out-of-town visitors. After the completion of the city's water filtration plants, and the subsequent addition of chlorine to the filtered water before distribution, death rates plummeted, but the search for a solution had its cost. Between 1860 and the completion of the filtration system in 1909, 27,513 Philadelphians died of typhoid fever, and for each death from ten to fifteen people became sick but did not die. (Chart created by Adam Levine from various official sources.)

In this February 25, 1909 editorial cartoon from the Philadelphia Press, William Penn, anticipating the filtration of the entire city water supply a few days later, gladly raises a glass of filtered water to the departing devil, whose suitcase reeks with the germs of typhoid, diphtheria and scarlet fever.

Bottles Containing Water from Upper Roxborough, October 21, 1903. As this photograph of raw river water (left) and filtered drinking water (right) clearly shows, the filtration system removed visible impurities, such as coal dust and mud, along with the more dangerous bacteria, which were invisible to the naked eye.

Environmental Challenges in the 21st Century

With the completion of Philadelphia's water filtration system in 1911, and the chlorination of the supply beginning in 1914, water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever gradually disappeared from the city. However, because the bacteria could always be re-introduced to the city by travelers from other countries where typhoid fever still flourishes, the Philadelphia Water Department continues to operate the City's three modern water treatment plants with vigilance to keep the City's drinking water safe. A chemist monitors water quality at each of the treatment plants 24 hours per day, every day.

Today, the treatment plants provide three barriers against disease: disinfection with sodium hypochlorite; gravity settling enhanced with chemical coagulants; and filtration through sand and crushed coal. Treatment of sewage before it enters our streams, a process which also includes disinfection, reduces the risk that disease-causing organisms will be present in the City's water supply.

This diagram shows the many steps the Philadelphia Water Department takes to safeguard the drinking water delivered to its customers.

By building water filtration plants that rendered polluted river water safe to drink (if not always palatable), Philadelphia put off the need to remove pollutants entering the rivers from household and industrial sewage. Enhancements to the water treatment process were added to the filtration plants in the 1950s. A comprehensive plan for collection and treatment of the city's sewage, developed in 1914, was also fully realized in the 1950s. While the city's first sewage treatment plants removed about half of the pollutants in the waste stream, upgrades made in the 1970s and 1980s remove up to 95% of the pollutants, producing effluents that are as clean as, or cleaner than, the river water itself.

With the city's third century of public water supply underway, the Philadelphia Water Department continues to use the best science and engineering available to ensure that the city's drinking water meets all national, state, and local standards for drinking water quality while protecting our environment and making Philadelphia a healthier city. The Department's scientists and engineers continue to monitor and improve the water supply. They are implementing innovative ways to prevent pollutants from entering our water sources, simultaneously conducting research to find new means of removing extremely small concentrations of contaminants from the drinking water.

The porous paving on this basketball court, in the city's Mill Creek neighborhood, allows stormwater to filter into the ground rather than run off into the sewer and, ultimately, the Schuylkill River. It is just one small example of an ongoing effort by the city to keep pollutants out of drinking water supplies.


RETURN to the TOP of this PAGE


All contents © 2015 Philadelphia Water Department