The earliest Water Works building was constructed in 1812 to feed the water needs of a growing Philadelphia. Built in the years that preceded the industrial revolution, it was seen as an engineering marvel, drawing visitors from all parts of the world. People had simply never seen anything like it. A trip to Philadelphia in the nineteenth century always included a visit to this spectacular public park.
The earliest building housed two steam engines which pumped water up to reservoirs on the "Fair Mount" behind it. The location was chosen because it was the highest point in the area, hence the name Fair Mount, and would provide a good launch-point for the gravity-fed water systems that the city depended on in those days. The Philadelphia Museum of Art now sits on Fair Mount where the Water Works reservoirs lived for more than a century.
The dam, which is actually a spillway since it allows water to flow over it, was constructed to direct water around the back of the pump house and through the building, turning giant water wheels and driving the pumps. Previously, the pumps were steam driven, requiring enormous, expensive loads of fuel, and creating a dangerous environment for those who worked in the immediate area. The conversion to waterpower was a lucrative move for the city.
The reservoir had a capacity of 3 million gallons. The first steam driven pumps could fill the reservoir in one day.
The water distribution system in Philadelphia in the early 1800s consisted of wooden logs (Spruce and Yellow Pine) with the center bored out.
Each of the original steam engines consumed more than 3,000 cords of wood per year in order to pump 2 million gallons of water in a 24 hour period.
Three men were killed in the Water Works by explosions of the steam boilers.
Because of the enormous expense of operating the steam engines, the city was forced to search for a cheaper means of pumping the water to the reservoir. Water power proved much less costly, and on October 24, 1822, the steam engines were shut down forever. They were sold for scrap a few years later. In order to generate sufficient water flow through the mill house, the Schuylkill River had to be dammed. Cribs were built from hickory logs, floated to the appropriate spot in the river, and filled with stone until they sunk. The cribs were then fastened to each other and to the bottom of the river. The dam was created at an angle to allow ice to break up in the winter.
After the last crib was sunk, the upstream water deepened and began spilling over the structure on July 23, 1821. The steam pumps would work for another year while the rest of the water powered system was constructed.
A canal and lock system was constructed on the west shore so river traffic would not be hampered by the dam.
The Water Works Mill House was constructed in a way that allowed the public to view the 15-foot water wheels in action. The flow of water and turning of the wheels in the mill house was nearly silent.
The three original wheels were made almost entirely of wood. The five wheels that came later were cast iron with wooden buckets.
The Fairmount Park Commission was established in 1867 in order to oversee operations, as well as work to extend the recreational areas upstream from the Water Works. The preservation of these areas was vital to the continuation of a swift, clean water supply for the city.
The area now known as Boathouse Row took shape because of the pooling effect created by the Fairmount dam. Sculling and boat races began here around 1835, and the earliest boathouses went up in 1860.
Newer water plants with filtration systems, as well as a polluted Schuylkill River forced the Fairmount Water Works out of service by the early 1900s. A city ordinance gave the buildings to the mayor for use as a public aquarium, and the land that housed the reservoirs atop "Fair Mount" was given to the Fairmount Park Commission for the construction of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Philadelphia Aquarium opened on Thanksgiving Day 1911. By 1929, updates and renovations saw the Philadelphia Aquarium grow to the fourth largest in the world. It closed in 1962.
Other resourcesUS History - Fairmount Park
American Society of Mechanical Engineers