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Fairmount Waterworks

Philadelphia's Waterworks: Fairmount

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Because of limited capacity of the Centre Square Waterworks, as the city continued to grow it was determined that a new waterworks system should be built at Fair Mount, located along the banks of the Schuylkill River to the northwest of the city. In 1812, an engine house was built at the foot of the hill to house two steam engines which were to pump the water up to a reservoir on the top of Fair Mount. The engines went into regular service in 1815. Between 1819 and 1822, a dam and mill house designed by Frederick Graff were built, and the system was changed from steam to water power. Through these improvements, Philadelphia's water system became the most advanced municipal system in the world, drawing visitors from around the country and the world to marvel at this technological wonder.

The period between about 1830 and 1850 was a golden age for the Fairmount Waterworks. The waterworks had been designed to provide aesthetic appeal as well as to serve practical ends. The buildings had been artistically designed and the setting made into a park. A garden was completed to the south, and paths, fountains, and an esplanade were built around and up to the top of Fair Mount. This created a beautiful natural setting for the waterworks and corresponded with the period's romantic belief that man could harness nature in a benign manner.

In 1855, Fairmount Park was established, extending the park-like setting to the north and protecting the water supply. Beginning in 1859, a new mill house was built with a wide patio on top, and the next year saw the beginning of the establishment of permanent boat houses to take advantage of the navigable and calm waters above the waterworks dam. Improvements continued to be made, but as the nineteenth century progressed the usefulness of this system waned, until it was decommissioned as a water pump station in 1911. At this time the old mill house was turned into an Aquarium and in 1919, construction began on the present Museum of Art, located on top of the old reservoir. Though the Fairmount Waterworks has not been used for its original purpose for almost a century, the superb appearance of the buildings and their setting has maintained it as one of the most popular Philadelphia sites to this day.

T Birch Fairmount Water Works
Thomas Birch. "View of the Dam and Water Works at Fair Mount, Philadelphia." Philadelphia: Edward Parker, 1824. 7 x 14 3/4. Engraving by R. Campbell. With centerfold as originally issued. Repaired tear in sky near centerfold with minor wear along centerfold. Else, very good condition.

Thomas Birch gained prominence as an artist when he worked with his father on the prints for The City of Philadelphia. But this was only the beginning of his career and his accomplishments. Continuing to work in Philadelphia until his death in 1851, he created a rich and varied group of images of the city and its watery surroundings, including this view of the Fairmount Waterworks. Though the Fairmount Waterworks began operation in 1812 to 1815, very few printed images appeared of the site before the system was converted from steam to water power between 1819 and 1822. With its impressive size, neoclassical appearance, and riverside setting, the waterworks soon became the most popular Philadelphia subject for local and visiting artists. This view by Thomas Birch first appeared in the Report of the Watering Committee (1823), and thus Birch focuses on the mill house and dam, the latter depicted stretching across the center of the print. The original engine house, built in 1812 and also designed by Graff, is shown at the extreme right. To the left is the canal lock by-passing the dam, built as part of the agreement the City made with the Schuylkill Navigation Company in order to obtain the rights to water power at Fairmount. The view is oriented to look up the Schuylkill towards Lemon Hill, which can be seen in the background. Birch shows the Schuylkill teeming with activity. Several fishermen try their luck from the shore and nearby rocks, and more fishermen fill two of the three row boats below the dam. Steaming into the entrance of the lock is a paddle wheeler, ferrying passengers to the upper part of the river. $650

Thomas Doughty. "Fairmount Waterworks from the West." From Cephas G. Childs' Views of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: C.G. Childs, 1827-1830. Octavo. Copper engraving by William. E. Tucker. Very good condition.

Almost three decades after the publication of the first edition of William Birch's City of Philadelphia, Cephas Childs published the second comprehensive series of prints of the city, entitled Views of Philadelphia. The series contained twenty six views of major sites in the city, each rendered by a prominent American artist or architect, including Thomas Doughty, George and William Strickland, Thomas Sully, John Haviland, Thomas Birch and George Lehman. Many new buildings had been erected in the years since the turn of the century, and Childs' detailed prints provide a precious view of many of these. The detail and composition of the engravings is excellent, and they provide an fascinating overall view of the city with its new look. $175

GoGo to page with listing of other Childs' views of Philadelphia

Schuylkill Waterworks
Jacques Gerard Milbert. "Machine à vapeur sur la rivière Schuylkill. Walet [sic] works on the Schuylkill river." From Amérique Septentrionale. Paris, ca. 1835. 9 1/2 x 14 1/2. Lithograph by Arnout. Full hand color. Framed. Very good condition.

Besides his Itinéraire Pittoresque, Milbert also produced a number of other series of views of America, including a set of images titled Amérique Septentrionale. This image is from that set and it shows up upper regions of the Mohawk River in New York State. It is typical of Milbert's excellent artistic ability and provides a wonderful image of this important region shortly after the opening of the Erie Canal. Slightly larger and much rarer than the Itinéraire prints, this is a most desirable American print. $675

Prints by W.H. Bartlett. From American Scenery. London, 1839-40. 4 3/4 x 7 1/4. Engravings. Hand color. Very good condition.

[Fairmount Water Works] From Eli Bowen's The Pictorial Sketch-Book of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: William Bromwell, 1853. Wood-engraving.

A Philadelphia image from an excellent series of views of Pennsylvania from a guide book of Pennsylvania's "Scenery, Internal Improvements, Resources, and Agriculture, Popularly Described." The volume included descriptions of all parts of Pennsylvania, but its feature of most note was the inclusion of numerous engraved illustrations of scenes of all parts of the state. Another series of excellent images of Pennsylvania communities, both large and small. $50

Upper Ferry Bridge & Waterworks
Prints from John H. Hinton's The History and Topography of the United States of North America. Published in London and Boston, various publisher: 1830-1855. Octavo. Steel engraving. Very good condition. Uncolored unless noted otherwise.

Lovely examples of steel engravings from one of the more popular nineteenth century view books, Hinton's History and Topography. This work contained text and numerous illustrations documenting the history and topography of the United States. Hinton used many different artists, all the engravings being made from drawings made on the spot. For their wide coverage, accurate detail, and pleasing appearance, these are amongst the finest small images of early nineteenth century America to be found anywhere.


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