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Throwback Thursday: The Amazing 'Torresdale Conduit'

Inside the making of the Torresdale Conduit: A worker pumps water from the huge tunnel in 1903. Credit: Philadelphia Water.

In this week's throwback post, we look at a photo from the Philadelphia Water archives taken on October 24, 1903.

While a bit eerie—14 people died during the multiyear construction of the project pictured—this photo does give you a real sense of appreciation for the scale of water infrastructure beneath our feet and the herculean effort and sacrifice made by the generations before us to make sure their kids (and all of us) could have a future with clean, safe drinking water.

In this image, streams of groundwater entered the Torresdale Conduit as it was blasted out of bedrock, hampering construction. This worker used a hand-operated pump to remove the excess water. The conduit took two and a half years to complete, and had a capacity of 300 million gallons per day.

Still in use today, the Torresdale Conduit was built along the Delaware River waterfront in the first decade of the 20th century. It carries filtered water from the Torresdale Filters (now the Baxter Water Treatment Plant) to the Lardner’s Point Pumping Station, which pumps the water into the city’s system of distribution pipes. When they were completed, both the filter plant (covering about 75 acres) and the pumping station (with a capacity of 200 million gallons a day) were each the largest of their kind in the world.

In his 1987 book Typhoid and the Politics of Public Health in Nineteenth-century Philadelphia, Michael P. McCarthy wrote that the project was popular because the engineers saved about $2 million by using brick instead of cast iron. But there was also, apparently, some civic pride:  "... the conduit was quite popular because, in addition to the savings involved, it was a sophisticated project that gave the city a good deal of favorable publicity."

The conduit is about 2.5 miles long and about 10.5 feet in diameter. Constructed of bricks and mortar, it lies about 100 feet underground and is still an integral part of our water distribution system.

For more information on the history of the city’s water filtration system, check out the work of historian Adam Levine by clicking here.

Throwback Thursday: Cost of Water in 1898 vs. 2015

From the Philadelphia Water Archives: A bulletin board outside the archive room at 12th and Market.
From the Philadelphia Water Archives: A bulletin board outside the archive room at 12th and Market.

When you think about the truly priceless value of clean drinking water—something we all need to survive—compared to what it actually costs, tap water may well be the most undervalued commodity out there.

At 7/10ths of a cent per gallon, Philadelphia Water’s tap is an incredibly good deal, especially when you consider how much work we do to make sure 1.7 million customers have constant access to this resource.

And, since we distribute about 275 million gallons of drinking water every day, we think about the cost quite a bit.

We came across a photo in the archives that proves we’ve been thinking about the cost of drinking water (and how to communicate that to our customers) for a long time:

A Feb. 25, 1898 photograph from the Philadelphia Water archives showing the cost of drinking water.
A Feb. 25, 1898 photograph from the Philadelphia Water archives showing the cost of drinking water. Credit: Philadelphia Water.

In this 1898 photo, taken at the Fairmount Water Works, officials created what’s essentially a 117-year-old infographic by posing with various containers of water and providing the cost of each by volume.

It got us thinking: what would that same amount of water cost today? Naturally, we did the math, and here’s what we found:

Cost of drinking water in Philadelphia in 1898 vs. 2015. Credit: Philadelphia Water.
Cost of drinking water in Philadelphia in 1898 vs. 2015. Credit: Philadelphia Water.

Adjusted to today's value using the Consumer Price Index (a dollar in 1898 would be worth a bit more than $28 in 2015), these numbers represent a more than 500 percent increase in the cost of drinking water.

What’s behind the spike? The answer to that question comes from another question: how on earth did they provide 1,000 gallons of water for just $00.04 ($1.15 in 2015 dollars)?

Well, let’s just say that what they called “drinking water” in 1898 was a far cry from what Philadelphians expect when they turn on a faucet today. There was no guarantee that the water wouldn’t make you sick, let alone look clean.

Our historian, Adam Levine, says water treatment at the time was pretty much non-existent: river water was pumped to reservoirs where, if demand happened to be low enough, it had time to clarify before going off to homes. High demand, however, often meant the water didn’t even have time to settle, and the results could be rather ugly.

"I have come across a number of cartoons from the period that talk about the water running out of pipes as black as ink, due to the coal dust (washed down from upstate coal mines) suspended in the river water after heavy rains," Levine says.

For a Throwback Thursday double-dip, let’s take a look at one of those cartoons:

A cartoon from August, 1898 addresses typhoid in Schuylkill River drinking water.
A cartoon from August, 1898 addresses typhoid in Schuylkill River drinking water. Credit: Philadelphia Water. 


Today, we still let the water settle—but that’s just one step in complex process that involves filtration, treatment for pathogens, and lot and lots of testing. We were one of the first cities to use filtration, and the advent of chlorination in the early 1900s helped to make widespread water-borne illnesses a thing of the past—a past that, as we see here, meant very cheap but dangerous drinking water.

“Our largest [budget] items are for chemicals and energy (electricity and natural gas),” says Debra McCarty, Director of Operations for Philadelphia Water. “The process of treating river water to become potable water has become more complicated over the years. The standards to which we treat drinking water are far higher than ever. Regulations continue to change, and we continue to meet them.”

All that work (check out this graphic for a look at how we treat tap water) adds costs to the price of drinking water, but at $00.07 for every 10 gallons, we think it’s a pretty good deal for something truly priceless—safe, tasty tap water 24/7.

The value seems like an even better deal when you consider the cost of drinking bottled water.
The American Water Works Association estimates bottled water costs Americans anywhere from 300 to 2000 percent MORE per gallon than the average gallon of tap water.

So make the smart choice: drink tap water, save money, and be glad you aren’t living in the 1890s!

Want to stay up to date on the latest Green City, Clean Waters news and get important Philadelphia Water updates? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter now by clicking here!

Beer Geeks: How They're Improving Our Water

Philadelphia Water's BLS tasters prepare beakers of water for tasting. The warn water bath helps draw out delicate flavors that could otherwise go unnoticed. Credit: Bureau of Laboratory Services.
Philadelphia Water's BLS tasters prepare beakers of water for sampling. The warn water bath helps draw out delicate flavors that could otherwise go unnoticed. Credit: Bureau of Laboratory Services.

I came of drinking age during a time when now-extinct macrobrewers like Schmidt’s Brewery and Ortlieb Brewing in Northern Liberties ruled local taprooms. It was also a time when our tap water was derisively called “Chlorine Cocktail” or “Schuylkill Punch” (incidentally, now the name of a brew offered by Manayunk Brewing Co.).

Today, Philly Beer Week celebrates the rebirth of local breweries making a variety of good tasting beers, and a highly respected Philadelphia Water is turning out a better tasting tap water.

Believe it or not, those two trends—better tasting beer and better tasting water—are related. 

Philadelphia Water has an extensive environmental laboratory to ensure you’re getting water that’s safe and tasty. But, despite the expensive laboratory instruments, we still need human senses for tasting and smelling. While instruments detect individual chemicals and tell us their concentrations, they can’t tell us how they form flavor when they are all mixed together. It’s a little known fact, but pure water doesn’t taste very good. Good tasting water has a mixture of minerals and carbonates. Good tasting water has a recipe. But water isn’t supposed to smell; just a touch of chlorine, necessary for safety. Beer, on the other hand, has hundreds of chemicals that meld to create a nearly endless spectrum of desirable flavors. 

Many breweries employ expert tasters who are trained to sample their beer during different stages of fermentation and detect any off flavors. And here at Philadelphia Water, we took notice and followed their example.

Today we do what breweries do—we check for off flavors using both lab equipment and human tasters trained to look for off flavors. 

We learned from the experts who taste beer, wine and food. We trained chemists, biologists and technicians to taste and smell our water. We learned how to dissect a glass of water into its different tastes and smells. We identified the off flavors, and then worked to get rid of them. Philadelphia’s tap water is now more consistent and milder in flavor. 

That effort, combined with far superior protection of our source water from pollution, really has helped us come up with a better recipe for our water, and we are happy to say goodbye to that old Chlorine Cocktail. In fact, our water now tastes so good, we think it’s an essential part of enjoying good beer. Keep a chilled glass of tap water on the table during Philly Beer Week, and it’ll refresh your palate between brews as you sample Philly’s amazing fermented offerings.

So, if you’re celebrating Philly Beer Week, raise a glass of tap water along with your beer and say cheers to America’s best beer (and water) drinking city! 

More on Philadelphia, Water and Beer:

Our Beer History: It All Started with the Water 

Both water and beer were important in the settling of our city. William Penn chose to settle between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers because of the abundance of fresh water—perfect for drinking, fishing, traveling, and of course, brewing. He made sure he had his own brewhouse along the Delaware, and encouraged the establishment of brewhouses for the good citizens of Philadelphia. By the 1800s, brewhouses dotted the Schuylkill watershed, discharging their waste into the streams. Brewerytown, just east of the Schuylkill’s banks, got its name for a good reason, but neighborhoods like Kensington could have also easily stolen the moniker. At its peak, Philadelphia had over 100 breweries, and our beer was famous around the country. A big reason for that was the quality of our water and its mineral makeup, an essential ingredient for quality beer.   For more on that, read this article on our water's profile and how it impacts brewing and baking.

BEER TASTING FACT: It’s (Mostly) in the Nose

Did you know that you smell your water or beer when you drink it?

In order to do the job of providing great tasting water, Philadelphia Water’s tasters had to learn how their senses work. We all have what’s known as a “retronasal passage” connecting our noses to our palates, and it is smell that actually gives beer and water much of its flavor. When you consume beer or water you release aromas in your mouth, which then travel up the retronasal passageway to your nose. You smell the chlorine in the tap water. You smell the chocolate, caramel, malty aromas of your beer. So, if you want to avoid the flavor of your water or beer, keep it icy cold—aromas arise more from warmer liquids.

Our water tasters learned that some flavors that make water taste off actually make foods and other beverages tasty. A hot water heater can sometimes produce a rotten egg odor from hydrogen sulfide. Groundwater in some places, such as parts of Florida, smells like a burnt match because of the presence of sulfides. These are undesirable taints for tap water. But they belong in beer! The telltale smell of the seashore is in part due to sulfur chemicals. The same are important for beer’s flavor. But beer with too much of the sulfur smell creates that notorious “skunked beer” flavor.


Gary A. Burlingame, BCES, is a water quality expert and laboratory director for Philadelphia Water. He has a BS/MS in Environmental Science from Drexel University with more than 35 years of experience in the science of water. He was once offered a chance to become a brewmaster and beer executive. But he chose water instead. Nevertheless, he greatly enjoys a slightly chilled craft beer after a hard day’s work.

Happening Today: A Brand New Chapter for Philadelphia Water

Part one in a series of stories examining the foundations of our new brand

Way back in the summer of 1987, the Philadelphia Water Department selected its first logo through a design contest for art and design schools in Philadelphia. The winning submission came from Eric E. Doyle, and was designed to convey a department eager to serve the needs of its customers. That sentiment hasn’t changed.  

But Philadelphia Water has evolved tremendously in other ways over the past 29 years. We are working harder than ever to provide quality customer service and protect our infrastructure and water sources, all while transforming Philadelphia into the greenest city in the country. We’re also strengthening our outreach and education efforts to communicate who we are today and our vision for the future. Our new logo is a highly visible reflection of these initiatives.

Philadelphia Water is rolling out a new look for the first time since 1987.

The new logo puts ‘WATER’ front and center and emphasizes the full range of services we provide that impact the quality of life for Philadelphians: quality drinking water, safe and responsible wastewater management, and a commitment to the environment and protecting our city through stormwater management. The updated logo also includes a tagline with a nod to our legacy of serving the city for the last 214 years. 

In the following months, we’ll be using these blog posts to take a closer look at the work behind the new brand, starting with: 


  • New efforts in quality customer service
  • New efforts in infrastructure
  • New efforts to transform Philly into a green city
  • New efforts in education and outreach


Keep an eye out for more updates at and feel free to share our new look! 

Learn About the Hidden Streams Beneath Our Feet on Monday, March 16

Watershed History Fact

If you're intersted in learning about our watershed or rivers (or history for that matter!), we highly recommend attending a talk by our very own historian, Adam Levine, this coming Monday, March 16 at National Mechanics (22 S. 3rd Street) at 6PM. The talk, titled "From Creek to Sewer: History of Topographical Change in Philadelphia,” is part of the Tapping Our Watershed science cafe series and will discuss the history of Philadelphia's lost streams and creeks. Many aspects of this topic, from considering what lies beneath the city to looking at the way man has manipulated the natural environment in favor of the built environment, are truly compelling.

Over the course of three centuries of development, most of the city's surface streams were covered over and became part of our 3,000 mile sewer system. Levine will use paintings, drawings, maps, plans, photographs and surveys to illustrate his talk and transport you back to a time when streets were streams. In fact, just a few blocks from National Mechanics, where the talk will take place, is a great of example of this—the former Dock Creek runs under what is now Dock Street. You'll come away knowing that at any given place inPhiladelphia, you may be walking over the descendant of one of the city's many former streams and creeks. If you can't make the event on Monday to see Levine deliver this presentation live, his website—Philly H2O—is a great repository of watershed history and material.

Mill Creek Sewer Construction at 47th and Haverford from

According to the Academy of Natural Sciences' blog, the Tapping Our Watershed talks "are sophisticated enough for the experienced scientist but formatted for the casual guest who is interested in tapping into watershed issues on a deeper level." Since it is at a local "watering" hole, guests must be 21 or older but those under 21 can attend with a chaperone at least 25 years old.

Laying water pipe along Wissahickon Ave. at Venango St.October 18, 1904

PWD Catalogue No. 1986.002.1713

This is a remarkable photograph for the wealth of information it depicts, of the work scene and the surrounding area, and of the manner of dress of the workmen. Hats were de rigueur for men, both in this photo and during this time period, but the hatless man at the center has clearly spent too much time on his hairdo to cover it up. The horse drawn steam engine (on which the name plate is readable: “Eagle Engine and Boiler Works, Philadelphia. PA.”) is probably pumping either groundwater or accumulated rainwater from the trench in which the pipe is being laid. In the background is Hotel Abbey, serving “Pilsner & Puritan” beers from Schmidt’s, a local brewer.

From the Archives: Mill Creek Sewer under construction 1883

This has become an iconic photograph, used in books, articles and other publications to illustrate both 19th-century sewer building and, more specifically, the process of building a combined sewer in a stream bed. The stream, Mill Creek, rises near Narbeth, in Montgomery County, PA, and once flowed for five miles through West Philadelphia, from the aptly-named Overbrook railroad station near 63rd St. and City Avenue down to the Schuylkill River along the line of 43rd Street. Today, only the section of creek in Montgomery County remain above ground; within the city limits, the main creek and all its tributaries were incorporated into the Philadelphia sewer system, a 30-year project that began in 1869 and ended around 1900.

The bottom half of the sewer, called the invert, was already constructed by the time this photograph was taken, and Mill Creek had already been diverted into this artificial channel. The masons are now constructing the top half of the sewer, called the arch. You can see the circular wooden form on which the bricks are being laid, two bricks thick at the top. The form is about 20 feet long, and once the mortar sets the form will be dismantled and reconstructed to build the next 20 foot section.

Some of the workers have stood still for the camera’s long exposure, while those who moved while the shutter was open appear only as see-through ghosts. Two children look to be on their way to or from (or maybe skipping) school to observe the work. In the upper right is a textile factory building that had used the water of Mill Creek for industrial processes such as washing, bleaching and dyeing; now it will have to use city water for these purposes. On the left a remnant of the natural creek bed is visible, and in the background are houses that have already been built right up to the edge of the work in progress.

After the sewer was completed, the land was filled about 30 feet above the original stream bed, the grid of streets was laid across the valley, and this once-rural area was transformed into part of urbanized Philadelphia by the development that quickly followed. The sewage of these new houses and businesses, carried by a system of tributary pipes, flowed into the Mill Creek Sewer, along with stormwater and the remnant flow of the above-ground portion of the stream. With the creek buried out of sight, it quickly dropped out of mind, and people who lived in the neighborhood called Overbrook, or even one called Mill Creek, could not tell you the source of those names. Meanwhile, forgotten or not, the old mill stream, now conscripted to the dirty job of carrying away a neighborhood’s wastes, still rolls on, beneath the streets.

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