- Historic Sites
How the Philadelphia waterworks became a potent symbol of our lost belief that nature and technology could live together in harmony
April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
These early failures, however, only underscored the tremendous technical success of Fairmount after the 1820’s, when Graff, once Latrobe’s apprentice, converted the system to water power. From that time, the works delivered water to the city, as Dickens said, at “a very trifling expense.” In the first year of the water-powered system, the works operated at a profit for the first time in its nearly twenty-five years. A European traveler in 1836 wrote that it was “well worth a visit” because of “the simplicity … of … [its] construction.”
These qualities of power and simplicity made Fairmount a captivating symbol of harmony between man’s technology and nature’s gifts. And it remained technologically current. Despite the increasing use of steam engines for transportation and manufacture after 1830, it was water that powered the growth of the national economy over the next two decades. Additional water wheels and reservoirs were added to the works several times in the 1830’s and 1840’s until, at mid-century, new turbine wheels began to supplant them. Thus, in crucial ways, the waterworks recapitulated the growth of the country before the Civil War. Begun when America still borrowed most of its industrial processes and machinery, by the 1860's Fairmount existed in a dynamic industrial community that was a leading force in the world of technology.
Fairmount’s experience during the last decades of the century was quite different. Though the works’ social functions grew as visitors continued to promenade the grounds, the technological system failed to change in any fundamental way. The turbines kept on efficiently pumping water, but new challenges to municipal water systems, especially the need for modern filters, were beyond Fairmount’s capacities.
As industrial development north along the banks of the Schuylkill threatened to pollute the water before it was drawn off at Fairmount, the city stepped up its land purchases upriver, creating one of the nation’s great urban parks. But all was for nought. Acidic waters from anthracite coal fields at the head of the Schuylkill had slowly moved downstream. Industrial and residential waste increased. Farmers along the upper reaches of the river drew off more and more water to irrigate their fields, thereby lowering the water level necessary for operation of the wheels. As Philadelphia grew into one of the world’s great industrial cities, the demand for increasing amounts of water outstripped Fairmount’s ability to provide it.
The harmony between machine and nature that had made Fairmount an American symbol of benign technology slowly faded. The works spent its last years ignominiously pumping what a contemporary critic called the “vile fluid of the Schuylkill” without even, he added, “benefit of sedimentation in a reservoir.”
In 1909 the waterworks was shut down. With Fairmount’s closing, America lost not only the most impressive artifact of her early industrial technology, but also a symbol of the belief that machine civilization might dwell harmoniously in the new Eden.