For much of its history, Pennsylvania has been a practical place. Its land and cities places of productive industrial activity. Yet in either urban or rural contexts, the dogged drive to release stores of energy, to accumulate capital, and secure raw materials has gravely threatened public health. Whether to prioritize the rights of capital over public health is one of the quandaries municipal governments faced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most cities, lacking progressive rationale for improvements in public health, accepted seasonal epidemics only until they threatened the peace and stability of a capitalist order.
Philadelphia’s attitudes toward its public health infrastructure alternated from earnest interest to indifference. After the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, the city engaged Benjamin Latrobe, one of the era’s brightest minds to devise a water distribution system that was the envy of urban America perhaps until the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842. Yet the city fell into inactivity and the system, aside from modifications to pumps and turbines at the Fairmount waterworks and the replacement of pipes, remained bodily the same. In 1832 and 1849, cholera epidemics again ravaged the city, leading notable public health crusaders like John Bell and Isaac Parrish to urge a wholesale overhaul of Philadelphia’s noxious physical environments.
Before the advent of bacteriology, hygiene experts and doctors like Bell and Parrish advanced a variety of empirical theories of disease diffusion. Not knowing the microscopic origins of diseases, they nevertheless knew that corrupted environments were the probable causes. Looking and smelling around, these reformers noted sewers which gave off “contagious” vapors; they saw dye works, paint factories, tanneries, and fulling mills dumping animal waste and corrosive chemicals into the Schuylkill; they observed dank garret and basement apartments whose residents, it seemed, were chronically ill.
By the late 1850s, more Philadelphians had rallied around the hygienic reformers’ movement to improve the city’s water supply, yet experts disagreed how exactly to do this. Thinking big, water department’s chief engineer H.M.P Birkenbine proposed a plan to draw water from an impounded Perkiomen Creek in 1864. In 1867, a special committee of the Fairmount Park Commission determined that the Schuylkill, if rehabilitated, could be used as the city’s water source. Although state laws restricting the discharge of dangerous effluents were on the books from 1824, 1828, and 1832, what the Park Commission proposed was an innovative use of legal power for public good. Throughout the 1870s, the Park Commission, bolstered by wider legal authority, assumed control of the river valleys and demolished various mills, factories, and other nuisance uses. Other magnanimous Philadelphians like Jesse George, of George’s Hill, deeded their property to the city. Yet the aggressive use of police power in condemning and demolishing industrial operations along the Schuylkill angered industrialists as late as 1885.
Not knowing the value of protected watersheds or the details of waterborne disease, the Park Commission’s efforts to secure healthy water based on empirical observation could be considered one of the nation’s first protoenvironmentalist movements. Gradually assembled to become the city’s great water filter, Fairmount Park throughout its life has been host to several pump stations, filter sites, and reservoirs. Built on Jesse George’s land during the 1860s, the George’s Hill Reservoir (located east of the Mann Center, see “The Region” map below) seems to have worked in conjunction with the Belmont Pumping Station (1869) and stored some 40 million gallons for West Philadelphia even before the more modern slow sand filters were activated at Belmont in 1903. Although the exact date of construction is unknown, George’s Hill Reservoir predates the Centennial and several views of the exhibition houses on States Drive exist which were taken from the south embankment of the reservoir.
Based on a 1914 Water Bureau report, it appears that an Allis-Chalmers double plunger pump was installed at the facility in 1908, providing an average of 3 million gallons daily. Water mains varying from thirty-six to and sixteen inches radiated out from the reservoir and down 52nd and 57th Sts. southeasterly to 55th St. and then southwest to Kingsessing and Island Ave. By 1914, however, the reservoir was suffering. The annual report notes that “repairs on a small scale were made at Belmont Reservoir and George’s Hill Reservoir, where leakage had produced incipient slides.” It is believed that the George’s Hill Reservoir was deactivated by the late 1940s. Subsequently, both of its basins have been filled in with soil, building material, and architectural stone.
For most of its municipal life, Philadelphia attempted to deal with problems of hygeine and water supply on an ad hoc basis. The assertive removal of noxious industrial activities near the city’s water source was the exception to a long laissez faire municipal tradition. Despite the protestations of Schuylkill valley businessmen, a coterie of progressive city fathers had the foresight to protect the river, its water, and its beauty for generations of Philadelphians.
Philly Skyline’s Brad Maule and I visited the defunct George’s Hill Reservoir two weeks ago. Aside from the large embankment walls and the sluice(?) main stairway, you wouldn’t know there’s was once 40 million gallons sloshing around in there. Photos courtesy of RBM.