The Once and Future City

. . .of Citys and towns of concourse beware. . . a country life and estate I like best for my children.

---William Penn to his wife

The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation & I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts, but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere, and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue & freedom, would be my choice."

--Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush (1800)

Philadelphia appeared. . .one of the most attractive-looking towns I had ever beheld. . the cleanliness, the neatness, the air of comfort, propriety, and health...

One of the pleasantest visits a man can pay in Philadelphia on a hot day, is to the water-works at fair-mount, on the Schuylkill. . .No city can be better supplied with water than this; and I never looked upon the pure liquid, welling through the pipes and deluging the thirsty streets, without a feeling of gratitude to these water-works, and of respect for the pride with which the Philadelphians regard their spirited public labour. (75-6)

--Tyrone Power, from his Impressions of America (1836)

The Philadelphia of the late eighteenth-century was the nation's wealthiest and its largest city, and a center of science, industry, and art, and its national capitol. It was also crowded, dirty, and disease-ridden. And as the population tripled in the next four decades, these problems intensified, threatening to overshadow the city's merits. However, Philadelphia's problems and meteoric growth were typical of the early-nineteenth-century American metropolis. The United States was beginning a century long transformation from a largely rural to an urban nation, though this process was not without its detractors. The city was viewed by many, especially by the dominantly agrarian minded populace, as a morally corrupt place. In 1785, Thomas Jefferson had claimed that "those who labour the earth are the chosen people of God," those who lived in the metropolis, or who worked in manufacturing faced a "corruption of morals," and that the mobs of the city were "cankers" on pure government (Notes XIX).

The Water Works helped to counteract this strand of thought and in doing so brought a measure of redemption to both Philadelphia, and to the new American metropolis. The Works performed this task on two levels: it provided the city with an abundant supply of water used for drinking, bathing, sanitation, and fighting fires, thus making the city a safer and more pleasant place to live. The site also provided the nation's first urban public park, a landscaped 'middle ground' situated between the city and the country. The park offered an escape from the cramped city and a well-ordered local to experience pastoral and technological pleasures. In providing these benefits, Fairmount stands as an early example of how reconstructing a city's physical environment could positively effect its moral and political environment, not to mention its reputation. The water works is as an icon of, and monument to, the early nineteenth century city.

To make the city a paragon was difficult task for urban reformers. As noted, the Thomas Jefferson of 1785 strongly doubted the use of the city to his rural nation. However, he and most of the advocates of agrarianism came to realize that cities were necessary, though they needed much improvement. During the War of 1812, Jefferson concluded that dependence on foreign manufacturing could prove dangerous for the nation. Amending his earlier suspicions of the city, he wrote in an 1816 letter to Benjamin Austin: "we must now place the manufacturer on the side of the agriculturist" (White, 18). Jefferson spoke of a balance between two ways of life, and indeed this problem of reconciling the spheres of 'country' and 'city' worried many Americans well into the nineteenth century, not least Ralph Waldo Emerson. "I wish," he wrote in 1844, "to have rural strength and religion for my children. . .and I wish city facility and polish. I find with chagrin that I cannot have both" (Tuan, 196) Nonetheless, Emerson persistently sought to reconcile the idea of high civilization with the idea of untouched nature, empire with garden.

Penn's 'Greene Country Towne'

Indeed, dreams and fears of the metropolis inform the creation of the 'City of Brotherly Love'. In 1681, William Penn had planned his town as a 'green' response to European cities, and envisioned its new inhabitants living harmonious and prosperous lives. One of the earliest attempts at utopianistic city planning, Penn's conceptions of Philadelphia certainly represented the most extensively 'pre-planned' American city at that time. Paradoxically, Penn's early conceptions of the city grew from his love of the country estate, as opposed to the metropolis. As much of his wealth was derived from rents from his rural properties in England and Ireland, he viewed moneys gained from the land as less morally tainted than those gained in trade. Thus his original vision of a "Greene Country Towne" seeks to replicate this model of life in the New World.

Portraiture of Philadelphia, Thomas Holme, 1683

Penn designed the city as a rectangular gridiron, thus imposing his control over both natural geography, and human community. This plot formed a rectangle joining the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, and would form the commercial heart of his towne, while 80 acre gentleman's estates would surround this core. Penn sought to assign each investor with a selected lot of either one acre or half an acre in size, plenty large enough for all to plant their own gardens. Even the city dweller could live in a country-esque manner. Additionally, each quadrant contained additional green-space in the form of a small park. However, his attempts to control the natural and social environments were of mixed success; people failed to accept their lots as assigned, and for some time used only the eastern half of the city; and the marshy, humid environment of the site proved an ideal breeding ground for the carriers of the yellow fever.

Penn was so interested in parks and gardens in part because he realized some of the dangers inherent in the seventeenth-century city. He had lived through London's bubonic plague of 1665 and great fire of 1666. And so it is not surprising that he envisioned his "greene towne" as one "which will never be burnt, and always be wholesome" (Weigley, 2). However, we know that a little over one hundred years after Penn established his city, Philadelphia would be devastated by a series of yellow fever epidemics. The dream of a 'wholesome' city was seriously compromised by the 'stinking miasmas' of disease. Though like Penn, city leaders once again found salvation in both 'greening' and 'cleaning' the town; they established the Fairmount Water Works and its surrounding park.

Designing the City

Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Like Penn, American urban reformers also sought to design, and control, their salvation; an ordered world would both tidy up loose ends of history and control the results of an increasingly changing country. As the nineteenth century progressed, more and more 'professionals' sought to remake both the physical and social environments of America's cities. As Stanley Schultz writes:

[Their] projects--city parks and playgrounds, water and sewer systems, paved streets among others--promised to halt the physical decay, the spread of disease, and the onrush of moral degradation that many nineteenth century Americans associated with the growth of cities. (153-4)
The construction of the Fairmount Water Works anticipated much of Schultz's "mid-century" trends. Philadelphia's works was this country's first major municipal engineering project of its kind; The Centre Square site (see time-line below) was completed decades before similar projects in other major cities, and the Fairmount site was the envy of the world Frederick Graff advised New York City on their new water system in 1842, and Boston in 1848. The success of Fairmount not only "checked the spread of disease" and provided an invaluable fire-fighting resource (in 1803 the city began using fire hoses/hydrants), but also changed the average citizens water use habits.

Indeed, this fact is one most commented upon by visitors to the city. As Alexander Mackay observed in 1846; "The supply of water, distributed from this reservoir, is inexhaustible; at least, the Philadelphian use it as if it were so. You meet it everywhere, lavished on every purpose, municipal, domestic, and personal" (151.) And Dickens wrote "[the water] is showered and jerked about, and turned on, and poured off everywhere," though Schultz claims that in most of the country, running water was not thought a necessity until after mid century (164). Philadelphians had been used to the idea for decades.

The Green City, part II

John T. Bowan, View of Fairmount Waterworks with the Schuylkill River in the Distance, 1838

In addition to being a landmark water supply system, the Fairmount site was also the "earliest planned municipal park in the country" (Webster, 224; see also Warner, 106). The fact that it is rarely mentioned as such is curious, though not excusable. For as we have noted, the Water Works participated in what Schultz views as the "empha[sis] on human improvement through the incorporation of rural scenery into an urban environment" (155). In a typical example of this attitude, the famed landscape gardener and writer A.J. Downing called public parks "those salubrious and wholesome breathing places, provided in the midst of, or upon the suburbs. . .full of really grand and beautiful trees, fresh grass, [and] fountains. . ." (140). He also explained their social benefit: "out of this common enjoyment of public grounds by all classes, grows a social freedom, and an easy and agreeable intercourse of all classes" (141). These new physical improvements would redeem the city by creating a middle landscape that in itself could improve the morals of the citizenry. By mid-century this type of pronouncement was becoming more common; green space was a necessary component in all city plans, and in the increasingly popular genre of 'urbtopian' fiction. And while the benefits of such improvements often failed to reach the lowest classes, the power of the ideal did not diminish.

Of course the works not only 'greened' the city, but 'cleaned it as well. By the late 1820s travelers routinely noted Philadelphia's cleanliness, beauty, and prosperity. "Many travelers claim that Philadelphia is the most beautiful city in the world" states a skeptical Alexander Farkas, only to relent by naming it "one of the most beautiful cities," on par with "classical Rome or Athens" (210). Others write of the daily street cleanings making the bricks look "clean and fresh as if they had just been laid down" (Mackay, 145). This clean-obsessed city seems to bear little outward resemblance to the one of 'stinking miasmas' where, as one eighteenth-century writer put it, "every species of filth" clogged the streets as if "designedly to promote the purpose of death" (Blake, 8). For a time, Philadelphia seemed to balance its legacy of Penn's city planning ability, its role in forming a new democracy, it's tradition of self-sacrificing philanthropy, and it's inventive mind, against a more chaotic world, and against a darker side of its own nature.

Coda: Fairmount Water Works to Fairmount Park

Plan of Fairmount Park. Note the Water Works' reservoirs at he very bottom of the picture.

By 1872 the Water Works no longer provided the same fascination as they had decades earlier, though they were correctly viewed as the seed of a pre- eminent urban park system. Lafcadio Hearn, for one, named Fairmount the "most beautiful place in the whole civilized world" (Webster, 223). However, in addition to providing some of the first and finest public, pastoral gardens, and exciting views of powerful machinery, the Works existed to provide a city with clean water.

Unfortunately, as the industrial revolution spread throughout Philadelphia, its negative effects were felt; many of the new mills and factories polluted the Schuylkill. And as a response, the city acquired land upstream and sought to slow this contamination by evicting the mills. When the Watering Committee purchased Lemon Hill, a famous riverside estate immediately north of the Water Works, the 'public common' of Fairmount park was born. Additional land gifts and purchases expanded the size of the park, until in 1867 the Pennsylvania General Assembly authorized the purchase of enough land to clear the river banks of mills and factories. As one 1872 guidebook put it: "[it] arose from the necessity for a supply of pure water, the deterioration of which threatened to become not only an evil but a grievous calamity" (Woodward, 48).

It is interesting to note that the language used here echoes in some ways the original writing about the yellow fever epidemics. The new evils are the effects of the industrial revolution, though by befouling "water, earth, and air" they manifest themselves in similar ways. And the remedy is similar: create a refuge of sorts by finding the 'middle ground' between nature and humanity. It is a story worth remembering.

Time-Line: Life of the Water Works

Devastating Yellow fever epidemic hits Philadelphia, killing between 1 in 10 and 1 in 12 citizens. The disease will revisit the city four more time by the end of the decade.

Citizens petition the Philadelphia City Councils to spend the necessary funds in order to secure a reliable source of fresh water.

Mortality, a List of Buriels


In response to recurring epidemics and citizen pressure, city leaders form a Watering Committee, charged with securing water for drinking, and for cleaning the city. Benjamin Franklin's will also leaves 1000 pounds for this purpose, suggesting that the Schuylkill be dammed.

Charles Brockden Brown, "Father of the American Novel," publishes the first half of Arthur Mervyn, or Memoirs of the Year 1793. This book is the most comprehensive, fictional treatment of the plague. Brown hoped the "moral observations" in his "brief sketch" would encourage "benevolence" and "virtue" in his readers

Benjamin Henry Latrobe's beautiful neoclassical structure, located in Centre Square (now cite of City Hall), houses the city's first Water Works. The city experiments with new steam engine technology; the results are unsuccessful as the pumps are expensive to operate, break down too often, and do not offer a reliable water source.

Plans for Centre Square Water Works


Latrobe's former assistant, Frederick Graff, and John Davis reinvigorate plans to draw fresh water from the Schuylkill. They propose a new pumping station be built outside the city, at the base of Faire Mount. Rising fifty odd feet higher than the highest point in the city, Faire Mount will house a reservoir of fresh water pumped from the river below, that will in turn flow down into the city.

The new building for the station resembles a federal-style country mansion, and houses two new steam engines One is modeled after that of Centre Square, the other is a high pressure steam engine, designed by the famous Philadelphia inventor Oliver Evans, as the largest of its type ever built.

Graff's design for the Fairmount Engine House


The new system also proves both costly and dangerous; after two explosions and many thousands of dollars spent, the Watering Committee abandons the course of technological avante-gardism and looks to river itself to supply power. In cooperation with a canal company, the city dams the Schuylkill and uses the river's excess energy to power a series of wheels that pump the water to the reservoir. In deference to commercial interests, a system of locks allows passage by boats and barges through the dam. However, navigation rights will be a point of contention for years to come.

The new system proves a success. This 'simple' technology will serve for the next thirty years, providing clean water to a booming city and ushering in the 'Golden Age' of the Water Works. Visitors are impressed with the picturesque charm of the site, as well as by the massive wheels housed in the Greek-Revival shells.

Plans for the Greek Revival Additions to Fairmount


The addition of Graff's South Garden, with its landscaping, statuary, fountains, and grassy esplanade, transforms the site into a pastoral 'middle ground' between the city and the country

The reputation of the Water Works spreads; tourists from across Europe and America view this exciting balance of nature, technology, art, and architecture. Hotels and eateries, including a restaurant in the remodeled engine house, as well as regular transportation from the city (eighteen shuttles a day by the early 1830s!) add to the Works' ability to attract tourists, and locals alike. Artists reproduce the scenery from a variety of angles, making the Water Works the most popular icon of the city

Fairmount's Gardens in 1830


Laurel Hill Cemetery opens up river from the Water Works. Along with Cambridge's Mt Auburn, and Brooklyn's Greenwood, this is one of the first 'rural' cemeteries in the country. They too proved popular tourist attractions, and in Philadelphia's case Laurel Hill provided one of the 'seeds', (along with the Water Works), for the creation of Fairmount Park (see below).

For several years, factory growth upstream has threatened the purity of the Schuylkill's water. Citizens once again petition the city government. Acting quickly and prudently, the Committee buys the large Lemon Hill property immediately upstream. This acquisition expands the open space surrounding the Works, and will form the body of what in 1867 will become Fairmount park, the largest city park in the world.

Water Works with the Addition of Lemon Hill


By the mid 1840s the city's population had expanded to such an extent, as to strain the capacity of the Water Works. The Committee searches for more efficient means to draw water from the river, even at high tide, when the system could not operate. After winning a bitter court battle with the Philadelphia Watering Committee, another water works system opens in the outlying town of Spring Garden.

Water Commissioner Frederick Graff Jr., experiments with the new Jonval Turbine, an efficient water powered turbine that works at high tide. This French invention works very well and eventually the old water wheels will lose out to this new technology. Unfortunately for city residents, he is less willing to employ water filtration systems now regularly in operation in Great Britain. This transition to the more efficient but less visually interesting turbines, and continued unwillingness to improve other aspects of the system, marks the end of the 'Golden Age' of the Water Works. The technology is neither 'sublime' nor up to date.

Jonval Pumps


New Mill House structure completed, housing three Jonval Turbines The new turbines fail to satisfy the public curiosity to see the water wheels in action.

Philadelphia hosts the Centennial Exposition one hundred years after America declared her independence. The most popular and awe-inspiring attraction is the thirty foot high Corliss steam engine which generated enough power to run the entire fair. The site of the exposition is on the bank of the Schuylkill opposite the works; eventually it too will be subsumed into Fairmount park.

Factories upstream continue to pollute the river, as does the city's sewage. The Fairmount site offers no room for a proposed filtration beds, thus making the system negligibly useful. As well, Philadelphia is now more susceptible to typhoid epidemics than are her rival cities.

Water Works taken out of service.

The Diseased City
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