Travel Literature from the 'Golden Age' of the Water Works


The following excerpts provide additional evidence of the fame of the Water Works and of their effect in making a positive impression on visitors to Philadelphia.

The eighteen year-old Mark Twain, working as a substitute typesetter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote to his brother in this 1853 letter. Note the casual, almost blase tone, and the mention of a 'book' dexribing the works in greater detail. By the 1850's the site was already on the downward slope of its fame, though as most writers agreed, Fairmount elevated Philadelphia in comparison to other cities.

Unlike New York, I like this Phila amazingly, and the people in it....I went to the Exchange yesterday, and deposited myself in a Fairmount Stage, paid my sixpence, or "fip" as these heathen call it, and started. We rolled along till we began to get towards the out skirts of the city, where the prettiest part of a large city always is.....We arrived at Fairmount. I got out of the stage and prepared to look around. The hill (Fairmount) is very high, and on top of it is the great reservoir. After leaving the stage, I passed up the road till I came to the wire bridge which stretches across the Schuykill (or Delaware, darned if I know which!. . .) This is the first bridge of the kind that I ever saw. Here I saw, a little above, the fine dam, which holds back the water for the use of the Water works. It forms quite a nice waterfall. Seeing a park at the foot of the hill, I entered--and found it one of the nicest places about. . . .I passed along the pavement by the pump-house (I don't know what else to call it) and seeing the door left open by somebody I went in. I saw immense water wheels & c., but if you will get a back number of the Lady's Book [Trollope?] , you will find a better description of the works. . .(In Gibson 2)

Captain Frederick Maryatt writes on cleanliness, the availability of water, and public institutions. From his descriptions, it seems that the Works succeeded both in cleaning the town and in making it a paragon for the American city.
Philadelphia is certainly, in appearance, the most wealthy and imposing city in the Union. . . The exteriors of the houses, as well as the side pavement, are kept remarkably clean. . .

Philadelphia is so admirably supplied with water from the Schuykill water- works, that every house has it laid on from the attic to the basement. . . Of course fire has no chance in this city. . .

The Public institutions, such as libraries, museums, and the private cabinets of Philadelphia, are certainly very superior to those of any other city or town in America, Boston not excepted.

The water-works at Schuylkill are well worth a visit, not only for their beauty, but their simplicity. (172-3)


Tyrone Power, in his Impressions of America (1836), describes the city in the opposite manner of many of its detractors; it is clean, healthy, and beautiful, largely as a result of its 'public spirit'. He thus contradicts the Jeffersonian fears that the city promoted 'cankers' to good government, and moral laxness.
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)


In his Transatlantic Sketches (1833), the English Captain J.E. Alexander concentrates on the technological aspects of the Water Works, noting the simplicity in design. The 'myth' of Yankee ingenuity must have been well- established, for he mistakenly gives credit to 'Brother Jonathan' (a generic Yankee type) as inventor of the mechanics. Actually, Frederick Graff was responsible for the design.
The boast of Philadelphia are the Fair Mount Water Works, on the Schuylkill, for supplying the city. . . and I found them on the most simple plan, but so effective, that the whole city was abundantly supplied with excellent water at an expense of five dollars per day.

An singular take on the origin of the water wheels' design:

The pistons and cylinders of the forcing pumps were laid in a nearly horizontal position, though at first they were upright, but then the superintendents could not make them work to any effect. One day, a plain looking Yankee, from the eastward, with his hands in his pocket, was seen to look at these vertical cylinders for some time, when the engineers were calculating how they could alter and improve them. At last, Jonathan guessed that he knew how to improve them. . .but the men of science only laughed at him, save one, who took him aside, and asked him what was his notion for bettering the cylinders and their mode of working. "Oh! but I'm not going to tell you though," said the Yankee.- "Perhaps you'll tell us," answered the engineer, "if we promise you ten thousand dollars, should your plan succeed?"--"Why, in that case I might tell you how to do the trick,--just write me out a contract, will ye?"--It was written out, --"Lay the upright cylinders on their sides." It was done and the effect was miraculous, affording at the same time another proof of the great mechanical genius of the New Englanders." (262-3)


In his Journey in North America (1834), the Hungarian Alexander Farkas relates Philadelphia's history of city-planning and civic institutions to the construction of the Water Works.
William Penn's plan for the city in 1682 was most original one, and perhaps the first one ever designed for the founding of a city.

The City hall, the universities and colleges, the theatres, churches, hospitals etc., are so many examples of fine architecture. No other city in the Union can compare with it.

In other American cities business and politics predominate, but Philadelphia prides itself on its scientific and philanthropical institutions. Unless personally observed, it is difficult to imagine the degree of self-sacrifice and self-denial of the Philadelphians for their public institutions. (211)

One of the outstanding achievements of Philadelphia is its water works. As the city grew, the shortage of water became acute. Franklin had suggested and had tried various methods to supply the city's water requirement, but the many expensive experiments did not accomplish it. Finally, at great expense, the present waterworks was built. (213-4)


Alexander Mackay, in his The Western World; or Travels in the United States in 1846-47, echoes Dickens' (and others') observations on how the Water Works have changed the habits of Philadelphia's citizens. In the late 1840's such liberal water use was almost unknown, especially by such a broad swath of the population.
It is to the Schuylkill that Philadelphia is indebted for the super-abundant supply of fresh water which ministers so much to the comfort of its inhabitants. . .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. Philadelphia seems to begin each day with a general ablution. (151)



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