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Watershed History

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We've Been Shad

Our post from earlier this month about American shad ascending the Schuylkill above Norristown for the first time in nearly 200 years contained a fish story of a different sort, as we mentioned that George Washington (pictured above, on the banks of some other river besides the Schuylkill) may have fed his troops Schuylkill shad during trying Revolutionary times. According to the University of Virginia's Papers of George Washington project, an article by Joseph Lee Boyle suggests whatever fish the troops were eating had been shipped in from other rivers:

"That shad were not in the Schuylkill by late March 1778 is evidenced by a letter Washington wrote to Francis Hopkinson at Bordentown, New Jersey. The Continental Navy Board had been ordered by Congress to move from there to Baltimore and Hopkinson offered some of the Navy’s stores to the General. Washington was "obliged to you for the trouble you have taken in removing the Stores and more so for the offer of the Rice, Oil and Fish…." The Marine Committee of Congress wrote to the Navy Board on 8 April, that they "approve of the offer you have made the General of Rice, Codfish and Oil for the use of the Army."

Anyone interested in the history of shad should check out John McPhee's book The Founding Fish.

A Century Of Water Filtration

PWD historical consultant Adam Levine marks 100 years of water filtration in Philadelphia.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Philadelphia’s water filtration system, completed with the construction of the Queen Lane Filters in 1911. Combined with the chlorination of the city’s water supply in 1914, filtration led to a great reduction in the incidence of water-borne diseases, contracted from the polluted drinking water drawn from the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. One of these diseases, typhoid fever, alone had killed more than 27,000 Philadelphians in the previous 50 years, and hundreds of thousands more in other cities around the world. Construction on the filtration system began in 1901 but dragged on for a decade for various reasons—a delay that led to many unnecessary deaths hinted at in the cartoon above.

While filtration rendered the polluted river water safe to drink, it did nothing to reduce the industrial and human wastes that continued to pour into the rivers. Not until the 1950s, when the city’s sewage and treatment collection was completed more than 40 years after initial planning had begun, did the moribund health of the city’s rivers begin to recover. For more information on the history of water filtration in Philadelphia, visit the filtration page on PhillyH2O.

Pop Quiz: Name That Hidden Stream

PWD historical consultant Adam Levine checks in as quizmaster. Answer the question below to win the Watersheds blog's first-ever prize!

Most people want to flush their toilet and forget about it, but if you know anything about the historical research I do for PWD, you know that sewers are one of my obsessions. Few people would count their walks through city sewers as career highlights, but I do. Twice I’ve had the privilege of accompanying PWD sewer maintenance workers into the literal bowels of the city. Both times, the sewers we were walking in—along Tyson Street near Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia, and along the north side of Franklin Field on the University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philadelphia—had been built to capture the flow of what had once been surface streams.

Quiz: The first person who emails the names of the streams that once flowed at the abovementioned locations will win an autographed photo of me in my sewer waders (or another photo of your choice from the PWD Historical Collection). Using the maps and other information found at is not only not cheating, but recommended.

That's Why They Call It Brewerytown

Bergdorff Brewery, N. 29th and Parrish St.

Sold-out event tonight at the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center: The Breweries of Brewerytown and Vicinity, a presentation by historian Rich Wagner. More details here. Philadelphia's brewing history is yet another example of the crucial role that our rivers and streams play in the economy, growth and well-being of the city.

"Brewers were attracted to the area ponded by the dam at the Fairmount Water Works for the ice they could harvest from the river. Then, in vaults carved along its banks, brewers would pack wooden hogsheads of lager beer with ice for six to eight months for the beer to 'ripen.' Brewerytown evolved into a neighborhood that accounted for about half the city’s beer production and included some of the largest brewers in the nation, who shipped their beer throughout the world.

Poised above the banks of the Schuylkill at the edge of Fairmount Park, the area between 30th and 33rd Streets from Girard Ave. to Oxford St. was home to 11 breweries, many with malt houses, a keg manufacturer and a bottling equipment manufacturer. It was a neighborhood whose atmosphere was once described as being like 'vaporized bread.'" has an excellent blog post on the topic; Wagner's brief history blames Prohibition for the eventual exodus of breweries from Brewerytown. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has an 1862 watercolor of Lipp's Brewery on the banks of the Schuylkill near Lemon Hill Mansion.

Watershed History: Roxborough Water Works

A brief history of the Roxborough Water Works by Philadelphia Water Department historical consultant Adam Levine

Looking north on Granville Street toward Upper Roxborough Reservoir, 1948

By the end of the 1850s, it was already apparent to Henry P.M. Birkinbine, chief engineer of the Philadelphia Water Department, that the northwestern section of the city—including Roxborough, Manayunk, and Chestnut Hill—would need to be served by its own water works. The high ground in this area was far above the reach of existing reservoirs in the city, which supplied water by gravity to homes and businesses. Wells in populated areas were becoming unpalatable and in many cases unhealthy. A small private water works, built to serve Germantown and its vicinity, used a spring and dam of water along Papermill Run (now called Monoshone Creek), but Birkinbine predicted that its capacity would soon be outstripped by the rapidly growing population.

“Manayunk and Roxborough [contain] a population numbering about twelve thousand,” Birkinbine wrote in a report to City Councils in September 8, 1859. “Of these, at least three thousand are operatives employed in the different factories. This part of the city is much in need of a supply of water for culinary, manufacturing and sanitary purposes, and for protection against fire, as the property in the manufactories is of great value, and now almost entirely without protection against fire…. From the dense population of parts of the district, the wells have become so contaminated, that the water in but few of them is now fit for culinary purposes. The necessity of a supply for manufacturing and mechanical purposes, is evident.”

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