Two hundred years ago today, the Fairmount Water Works began pumping clean water for a city desperate to rid itself of a series of deadly yellow fever epidemics. Though essentially a public works project, it became a major tourist attraction second only to Niagara Falls.
The world's most innovative water-pumping complex was a significant influence on other clean-water projects. It was beautiful, too, with elaborate gardens, sublime river vistas, and grand neoclassical architecture, all reflecting its brilliant engineering.
The Water Works used steam engines to push river water up a hill, known as Faire Mount, to a reservoir. Wooden pipes then carried the water throughout Philadelphia.
After two explosions in the mechanical room, the steam engines were replaced with turbines and waterwheels, which were eventually designed to keep running during tidal shifts. The renewable energy cut costs and, for a while, helped make the Water Works the city's most profitable enterprise.
Wise city leaders bought up as much land along the banks of the Schuylkill as they could to prevent Industrial Revolution-era factories from poisoning the water. Those purchases became a foundation of the modern conservation movement and what is now Fairmount Park, one of the country's most inspiring urban open spaces.
But ingenuity and foresight couldn't stop upstream mills and factories from creating another public health crisis in the late 19th century. Thousands died of typhoid and cholera spread by polluted water. Because the Schuylkill was no longer a source of clean water, the Water Works closed in 1909. Its reservoir was replaced in the 1920s by the city's stately Art Museum.
The city searched for new uses for the main building, building an aquarium and, later, a pool. But the grand structure eventually fell into disrepair.
In the 1970s, the Junior League began raising money to refurbish it, and Philadelphia horticulturalist Ernesta Ballard and conservation groups lent a hand. During the long struggle to finish the job, it sometimes seemed as if the place were doomed to become a fading remnant of a more innovative city. In 2002, after a frequently stalled $28 million restoration of the engine house, a serious electrical fire broke out. But it finally opened a few years later.
Those who kept up the fight to restore the Water Works have reason to be proud of what they achieved, including an exhibit on the engineering of the site, performances, and other programs.