Repair crews discover 200-year-old wooden water mains in Center City

A Water Department crew working on the 900 block of Spruce Street unearthed a 200-year-old wooden water pipe on May 3, 2017 while replacing a water line.

The repair work was routine: replacing a water line on the 900 block of Spruce Street.

What workers found as they dug up the ground was a little more unusual: what looked like old tree trunks.

And what those logs actually were is a bit of history that can be found only in old cities like Philadelphia: 200-year-old wooden water mains.

The wooden pipes found Wednesday were likely installed around 1812, according to an account of their discovery from the Philadelphia Water Department.

The historic nature of the find was brought to the department's attention by a passerby. Julie Snell, a self-described tree geek who teaches a Temple University class on urban ecosystems, saw the scene while biking and contacted Water Department historian Adam Levine, whom Snell had previously heard speak about wooden water mains.

Snell's intervention led to the wooden mains' being saved for use in educational demonstrations, the department said.

Camera icon Jon Snyder / Staff
Water Department crews found 200-year-old wooden mains while replacing a line in Center City.

The wooden pipes were apparently laid on "Back of Spruce, from Ninth to Tenth" between October 1811 and October 1812, according to a report from the department's archives. The department said Levine's research showed that the wooden pipe there was replaced in 1831 by a 12-inch cast-iron main. 

Philadelphia began installing cast-iron pipes in 1819 and took its last wooden pipes out of service in 1858, though the pipes were not necessarily removed as they stopped being put to use.

Camera icon Jon snyder / Staff 
The wooden mains were taken out of use long ago, but not removed from the ground under the 900 block of Spruce Street until this week.

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