ASME-Landmark:Fairmont Water Works


At a time when steam power was finding its first uses in America, Philadelphia opened two steam pumping stations, January 1801, to lift water from the Schuylkill River and distribute it through the city's wooden pipes and mains. Maintenance of this system was time-consuming, expensive, and ineffective, and the steam engines needed vast amounts of coal to run and would frequently break down. They were also considered a fire hazard and a nuisance to the city.

It was clear that, by 1811, a new system was needed, and a new water power works was begun on the river near Morris Hill. The Fairmount Water Works opened September 7, 1815, as the first large-scale application of steam pumping to water service in the country.

The new works were powered by one steam engine salvaged from the old system and a new Boulton and Watt engine cast in the foundries of Philadelphia, but even this larger, partly cast iron engine was insufficient. Engineer Oliver Evans (1755-1819) was called in to design a new high-pressure engine, which proved to have a greater capacity for work than its two predecessors. But it was exorbitantly costly and exploded twice, in 1818 and 1821, killing three men.

By 1822 the city returned to waterwheels and pumps, including double-acting force pumps designed by Frederick Graff, Sr. In 1851, the first Geylin-Jonval water turbines were installed. All the waterwheels were replaced by turbines by 1866. The wooden mains had been replaced by iron ones in 1820, and by 1849 cast iron piping had replaced the wooden distribution system. See ASME website for more information