The first municipal water works in the United States, Philadelphia?s Fairmount Water Works was a response to a series of Yellow Fever epidemics that plagued the city in the 1700s. Because some thought that the epidemic was a water-borne disease, the city?s civic leaders formed a Watering Committee to make sure that uncontaminated drinking water is continuous supplied. The committee eventually built a waterworks on the eastern bank of the Schuylkill River, which became a model for over 30 other American water delivery systems.
Initially, two steam engines were utilized to pump water from the river, supplying the entire city of Philadelphia, through wooden tanks that only held a total of 57,000 gallons. This system was unsuccessful because either of the steam engines failed causing water supply interruption in the city. Soon after, the committee hired the services of John Davis and Frederick Graff to design a more reliable water works system that would provide service to the increasing number of residents of the city and to remedy its inadequate storage problem.
Between 1812 and 1815, the initial construction of the Fairmount Water Works commenced. The water works was composed of a stone reservoir that can store 3 million gallons of water and a pump house with two steam engines. From 1819 to 1821, a 1,600-foot-long dam was constructed across the river. Eventually, three water wheels replaced the steam engines in 1822.
The Fairmount Water Works turned out to be Philadelphia?s most lucrative and impressive business when it implemented water power. In 1835, the engine house that kept the steam engines was modified as a restaurant to accommodate the visitors of the magnificent structure.
The design of the facility includes a Classical Revival exterior which disguised the industrial look of the structure. This technology together with the water works? appealing grounds attracted many tourists, locally and internationally, including Charles Dickens who was mesmerized and praised it for its pleasant design and public worth.
In 1909, the original Fairmount Water Works eventually was shut down, after years of service, when numerous newer and more technologically efficient facilities became available, later on, the water works? building was utilized for a variety of different purposes. It was operated as the Philadelphia Aquarium, which was open for several decades. Also situated within the water works? vicinity is an indoor swimming pool intended for use by the city?s residents, but closed in 1973.
Today, the Fairmount Water Works is a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark that was restored and turned into an interpretive center. It is now called the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center that educates visitors as to the importance of an urban watershed and how to take care of it.
The Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center hosts lectures and workshops, summer camps, movies, concerts, and more. Through its educational outreach initiatives, the water works has received numerous awards and is a famous excursion destination for local students.