About The Fairmount Water Works
Although America's great industrial centers rose from the banks of rivers that provided cheap power and transportation, Philadelphia was the first large American city to regard the delivery of safe water as a municipal responsibility.
In the late 1700s, yellow fever epidemics — then thought by some to be a water-borne disease — compelled civic leaders to name a Watering Committee (forebear of the Philadelphia Water Department) to assure a constant supply of uncontaminated drinking water.
Committee members eventually chose Frederick Graff to build a waterworks on the eastern bank of the Schuylkill. Graff's initial use of steam engines to lift water from the river eventually gave way to waterwheels in July 1822. Powered by the river, pumps raised water into reservoirs high atop a nearby hill, Faire Mount. By 1872, even more efficient water-driven Jonval turbines replaced the waterwheels.
Already an aesthetic triumph, the Water Works became one of the most profitable and prestigious businesses in the City when it adopted water power. The Engine House that had housed the steam engines was remodeled in 1835 as a restaurant for the thousands of international visitors to the site.
Almost from the day the waterwheels began turning, the Fairmount Water Works and its beautiful grounds made the place an international tourist attraction renowned for melding nature and technology.
Indeed, no trip to Philadelphia was considered complete until the visitor had seen the Water Works. As the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center shows, water provided the stability that made Philadelphia a leader of the American Industrial Revolution. Ironically, the Water Works' success also carried the seeds of its demise.
A reliable water supply brought growth to Philadelphia and the entire region. Growth in turn bred pollution as individuals and industry relied on the river as a means of disposing waste.
Philadelphia met the problem with an imaginative response, purchasing land that drained into the Schuylkill. The first property bought by the City in 1844 was Lemon Hill, the estate of financier Robert Morris. Over time, the land acquired to protect the river became Fairmount Park. Thus the world's largest urban park grew from one of the country's earliest efforts to protect watersheds, thanks to the Water Works.
But by 1880 the Schuylkill could barely meet the demands of being both a source of drinking water and a public sewer. Pollution of the river led to the facility's closing in 1909. Although honored today as a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark, the Fairmount Water Works became an aquarium and, finally, a swimming facility that closed in 1973.
A key tourist destination in the 1800s, the Water Works stands ready to reclaim its world-class status. The Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, along with an Engine House restaurant, will bring new life to this venerable Philadelphia landmark site in the 21st century.
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