Locals Know: Visiting Philly’s Famous Water Works
*Our blogs are written by our actual, real tour guides. This post is brought to you by our history and city guide Rick.
Note: The Fairmount Water Works is a featured destination in Philadelphia Urban Adventures’ new Sustainability Tours!
Philadelphia is a great city for visitors. Our 42 million visitors per year have dozens of choices of historical, cultural, and gastronomical delights. With all of these world-class attractions, one of our earliest and most interesting leisure-time destinations often gets overlooked. I’d like to put in a plug for the Fairmount Water Works as worth a few hours of your time when you’re in Philly.
Located today in the literal (morning) shadow of our internationally regarded Art Museum and its famous Rocky Steps, the Water Works was, along with Niagara Falls, one of North America’s top visitor attractions in the mid-19th century. Visitors from around the region and around the world marveled at its combination of one of the earliest large-scale public water supplies, the classic Roman architecture, and gardens. Its current incarnation as the Water Works Interpretive Center tells us a lot about the history of industrialization and of Philadelphia and is a center for the restoration of our Schuylkill River.
Water Works History
View of the Fairmount Waterworks, Philadelphia, from the Opposite Side of the Schuylkill River, Thomas Doughty, c. 1824 – 1826, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Initially constructed between 1811 and 1819, the Water Works was the solution to providing an increasingly crowded city, one that had been beset by multiple disease outbreaks over the previous decades, with a reliable supply of fresh water. Clean water from the then-pristine Schuylkill River was taken in at the Water Works and pumped uphill to a reservoir that was constructed on top of Fair Mount (current site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art). In addition to the unprecedented scale of the project, the superintendent Frederick Graff devised a way to replace the original steam engines used for pumping with water turbines, saving the burning of 3,650 cords of wood per year.
Later in the 19th century, the concern for maintaining the purity of this drinking water supply led to the public acquisition of 3,000 acres of land along the Schuylkill and Wissahickon Creeks that became the basis for Fairmount Park, the largest urban park in the world.
Philadelphia’s increasing need for clean water and the river’s increasing pollution levels demanded a new solution by the late 19th century. With industries popping up above Fairmount Park and the incorporation of adjacent townships into Philadelphia in 1854, the Water Works was increasingly challenged to provide adequate clean water. A city-wide cholera and typhoid epidemic in 1890 was the final straw, forcing the city to build chemical treatment plants elsewhere in the city. The Fairmount Water Works was decommissioned in 1909.
Water Works Today
The Water Works was largely neglected from 1909 to 1974, when it became a project of the Junior League to restore it to its past glory. Decades of incremental improvements have led to a situation where the Water Works, and the adjacent Schuylkill River, have become attractive to visitors again. Specific places to see and things to do include:
South Garden and Cliff Paths – By 2008, a group called Women for the Water Works had raised $5 million toward the restoration of the original garden and paths designed by Graff. Today it is a beautiful overlook over the Schuylkill, just steps away from the Art Museum.
Interpretive Center – The center has become a hub for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and environmental education within Philadelphia. Among other things, visitors can see the workings of the original Water Works and learn about the new mussel hatchery, which is raising freshwater mussels to seed in local rivers where they will help clean the water. A single mussel can filter about 20 gallons of water per day!
“River Reimagined” Tour – The Water Works conducts tours of the facility combined with a boat tour of the Schuylkill River. The boat tour takes visitors from the Water Works to Bartram’s Gardens (another stop on our Sustainability Tours) along the Schuylkill Banks park, which has been reclaimed from the railroads over the past 30 years. You might even see people fishing for the nearly 40 species of fish that now populate the river (up from about 10 species 25 years ago!).