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Water Supply in the Neighborhood

The original two-square-mile city of Philadelphia was placed in such a way that obtaining fresh water would not be a problem. Besides the large rivers on the east and west borders of the city, numerous creeks crisscrossed the area in between.


Portion of Scot and Allardice map of 1794. North is to the right.

Minnow Run empties into the Schuylkill River around Arch Street. It starts as two branches, each arising from a spring, on either side of Bush Hill. The spring just below the words Bush Hill in the image appears to be associated with a spring house. The branches join in Logan Square.


Portion of 1802 Varle map from here. North is at the top.

Minnow Run would be culverted sometime after 1831, the last time it appears on maps.

Also seen on this map are the leftover entrenchments from the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777 as discussed in our article here. On the right, just north of Callowhill Street and west of Ridge Road, is a pond and island. This seems to have been a natural spring. A fountain was erected on the spring in 1908 and subsequently moved to the north side of the Horticultural Center in West Fairmount Park, as discussed at outside link here. The non-working sculpture is still there.


1913 image from here. This photo is looking west on Spring Garden Street from around Ridge Avenue. The tower in the back right is the new Girls’ Normal School built in 1893 at 13th and Spring Garden Street.

In 1888 Mary Rebecca Darby Smith donated funds to the Philadelphia Fountain Society for the construction of the fountain, which was completed in 1908. It was removed in 1922, placed in storage, and relocated to West Fairmount Park in 1934. Doctor Wilson Cary Swann was the founder of the Philadelphia Fountain Society, and has a fountain dedicated to him on Logan Circle. Mary Rebecca Darby Smith was the great-great-granddaughter of James Logan.


The beautiful but secluded Rebecca at the Well sculpture in West Fairmount Park. The spout on the fountain above the basin has been replaced with a small plaque.

The Fairmount Water Works opened in 1812 to supply Philadelphians with water. Prior to 1854, the three districts north of Vine Street (Spring Garden, Northern Liberties, and Kensington) were in Philadelphia County but not part of the City of Philadelphia. In 1826 the City of Philadelphia contracted to supply water to these three districts at a price 50% higher than the price for residents of the City. In addition, those districts would have to install their own distribution pipes. Two of the districts, Spring Garden and Northern Liberties, decided to build their own pumping station, which was opened in 1844. This was a big operation, since in 1850 Spring Garden was the 9th and Northern Liberties the 11th largest United States city by population (Philadelphia came in 4th).


1852 sketch of the Spring Garden Water Works from here.

This engine house, completed in 1845, pumped water to the Spring Garden Reservoir just northwest of Girard College. 


The Spring Garden Water Works circa 1892 after expansion


Is this Disneyland? The Spring Garden Water Works circa 1900 after more modifications.

Breweries like Burg and Pfaenders were atop the hill in the distance right.


Portion of 1877 Hopkins map. North is at the top.

The Spring Garden reservoir on the left (northwest of Girard College) was built in 1844. It was 115 feet above the level of the Schuylkill River, held 12 million gallons, and was 17 feet deep. The Corinthian Avenue reservoir, between Girard College and Eastern State Penitentiary, was built in 1852, held 37 million gallons, at a maximum depth of 25 feet. Both were supplied with water from the Spring Garden Water Works and the Fairmount Water Works. Water comes from the Fairmount Water Works when the river is up and the reservoirs atop Faire Mount are full.

Note the German Hopsital (now Lankenau) between Girard College and the Corinthian Reservoir.


Great setting!

 The German Hospital was founded by Philadelphia businessman John Lankenau in 1866 at 12th and Norris Streets in North Philadelphia. In 1888 it moved to South College Avenue and Corinthian Street just south of Girard College and north of the Corinthian Reservoir. The new facility included the Mary J. Drexel Home as the deaconesses' home, children's hospital, home for the elderly and school for girls. In 1917, during World War I, the name of the hospital was changed to Lankenau Hospital. It moved to Wynnewood in 1953.

Photo credit here.


Portion of an aerial photo from 1926 showing rows of houses being built on the Corinthian Reservoir site in upper left, just north of the Eastern State Penitentiary. The Baldwin Park neighborhood including the Mint building is in the lower left of the photo.


Portion of a 1901 Bromley map showing the Spring Garden Reservoir between 25th and 26th Streets and between Thompson and Masters Street. The empty lot to the north of the reservoir will become Athletic Recreation Field. Robert Morris School just south of the reservoir is still there. Notice the Public Bath House to the left of the reservoir. Hot baths were a luxury in an age of substandard indoor plumbing in many households: Patrons paid five cents for a shower, and ten cents for a tub bath with a towel and soap.

In the second half of the 19th century there were deadly outbreaks of typhoid and cholera from contaminated water. The Fairmount Water Works and the Spring Garden Water Works did not have enough physical space to allow water treatment via sand filtration, so they were decommissioned in 1909. Water treatment was consolidated into the three plants surviving today: Belmont, Queen Lane, and Torresdale (Baxter). The Fairmount reservoir site is now occupied by the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Corinthian Reservoir, demolished in 1924, was replaced by four square blocks of residences; and the Spring Garden reservoir by athletic fields. The Spring Garden Water Works site is now the Glendenning Rock Garden, available for picnics. A good overview of drinking water supply history can be found at The Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, which is available for free visits.


Glendenning Rock Garden from the Girard Avenue bridge today. The intakes from the river, the stairs to the river, and the four cranks for the intake gates are still there in lower right.


From the Philadelphia Water Department.

If you ride your bike the nine miles from City Hall up to the Shawmont rail station via Kelly Drive, you will pass the site of the Centre Square pumphouse; the old Fairmount Water Works; Glendenning Rock Garden; the current Queen Lane intake between the East Falls Bridge and Ridge Avenue; and the pipes along the Schuylkill River Trail near Shawmont, the remnants of the Shawmont pumps. If you come back along MLK drive you will pass the current Belmont intake site.


Filtration and chlorination of the drinking water dramatically lowered the death rate frpm typhoid fever.

Besides water for consumption, water was also needed for bathing. In the late 19th century, the City offered six free indoor pools for group bathing, open on alternate days for women and men, and only for eight months a year. In 1895 a group of progressives and wealthy industrialists came together to form the Philadelphia Baths Association. Six bath-houses were built over the next three decades, the last being built in 1928. The closest to our neighborhood was at 718 Wood Street. There were forty-two private showers with hot or cold water, with men and women in separate facilities. Showers were 5 cents; 10 cents would get you a tub bath with a towel and soap. Laundry could be done in the basement.


On March 24, 2023, the Trinseo Altuglas chemical plant in Bristol, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia, had an equipment failure that resulted in a leak of between 8,100 and 12,000 gallons of butyl acetateethyl acetate, and methyl methacrylate into a creek that was a tributary into the Delaware River. This occurred ten miles northeast (upriver) of the Baxter Water Treatment Plant. Suddenly, everyone became interested in the source of their drinking water.


Detail of above map showing the distinct cut-off along Callowhill Street between the pure Baxter supply in dark green and the Baxter-Queen Lane mix in lighter greens. Baxter supplies most of our neighborhood, while the southern part receives a mix of Baxter and Queen Lane water.


An 1895 photo on Market Street in Philadelphia. Before you could get water from Maine, France, or Fiji, you could get it from Delaware County for 1 cent a glass. Natural spring water was better tasting and thought to have health benefits. The Black Hawk spring at Tyler Arboretum, as one popular example, was flowing until 1992

Buying bottled water in Philadelphia is a waste of money as well as an environmental harm. The manufacture and disposal of those plastic bottles pollutes the Earth and the transportation of the bottles pollutes the atmosphere.


Here is the financial argument against bottled water (PWD fact sheet here):


There are 7.5 gallons in one cubic foot of water. The PWD charges by the cubic foot of water. The costs below will be converted to gallons.

The PWD charges the consumer 0.79 cents per gallon for the supply usage fee.

The PWD charges 0.51 cents per gallon for sewer usage fee.

That total for water intake and output comes to 1.30 cents per gallon.


The cheapest bottled water is $1 per gallon, or 75 times the cost of tap water.

The brand Fiji Water costs $9 per gallon.

It takes 1.4 gallons of water to make the plastic bottle for a 20-ounce bottle of water. Only about 25% of plastic bottles are recycled. The rest end up in landfills or floating in our oceans.

In addition, the cost of the removal of the output of those water bottles, i.e. sewage, is a cost to the general populace and not line-itemed in the cost of the bottle of water.


A future article will discuss the sewerage issues as they pertain to the Baldwin Park neighborhood.

Unpublished draft article

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