History of Sewerage and Drainage
in Philadelphia

Including Links to Further Resources

Compiled by
Adam Levine
Historical Consultant
Philadelphia Water Department

It has been my pleasurable challenge, as a consultant to the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) since 1998, to try to piece together the fascinating history of the city's many lost watersheds. PWD has preserved its own archive of historical material, which is a rich source of information, and I have supplemented that base with research in local libraries, historical societies, archives and relevant departments of the city government. Besides many useful written records, I have uncovered a wide range of graphic material including paintings and drawings, maps and plans, photographs and surveys. This material stretches across the breadth of the city's long history, since changes were made in the landscape almost as soon as William Penn began building his new city along the Delaware River in 1682. The bottom line is that, over the course of several centuries, most of the city's surface streams have been channeled underground and incorporated into the city's 3,000 mile sewer system.

Click here to read the the illustrated handout, From Creek to Sewer: A Philadelphia Story, which I've prepared to accompany my lecture on this subject.

Click here to read my first article on the subject of sewers, Down Under: Or Why I Sould Have Worn a Raincoat. A 1997 cover story for a weekly Philadelphia newspaper, The City Paper, it provides an accurate if somewhat tongue-in-cheek overview of the city's system..

Click here to view a catalogue of sewer-related resources in Philadelphia City Archives, which I compiled in 1998; or a section of that report, my catalogue of Regulation of Ascents and Descents Books 1-3: Public Works Surveys 1815-1845, a page that includes links to images of several interesting surveys.

1924 illustrated book on the Schuylkill River

Click here to view the text and most of the illustrations from Redemption of the Lower Schuylkill: The River As It Was, The River As It Is, The River As It Should Be, a 1924 book by John Frederick Lewis, about the deplorable state of the river below the Fairmount Dam and what might be done to restore it. Look for more postings on the history of the Schuylkill, and other aspects of Philadelphia's water history, in the next few weeks.


During 2003-04 I presented my "From Creek to Sewer" slide lecture at Connecticut College, Villanova University, University of Pennsylvania, Chestnut Hill College, Bryn Mawr College, Penn-Alexander School in West Philadelphia, the Main Line Book Club, and the Cain Conference of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. I have also done research and presentations on the history of Frankford Creek in Philadelphia, and the Cobbs Creek Watershed in Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery counties. Contact me to schedule a presentation to your group or class.


I can provide information on tours of Philadelphia Water Department facilities, such as the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, sewage treatment and water treatment plants, and the PWD sewage sludge composting facility. I also have contacts with the PWD Office of Watersheds, which is involved in projects all over the city which may be of interest to students and teachers of environmental studies and other disciplines.


In 2001 I helped mount an exhibit--"Clean Water for Life"--which celebrates the 200-year history of the Philadelphia Water Department. The exhibit can be viewed at the Philadelphia Municipal Services Building, Mezzanine Level, 401 JFK Boulevard, during business hours, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. A digital version of this exhibit, with additional images and text links, has been completed, and I hope to be able to post the drainage section on this site.


Besides lecturing on the subject of sewers, city drainage systems, and historical changes in urban watersheds, I am available for consulting and research. I am well-versed in historical research (especially with Philadelphia area institutions and their resources) as well as an award-winning writer, with an extensive background in newspaper, book and magazine work. Please contact me to discuss specific projects.


Click here to read my Historical Survey of the Tacony Creek and Frankford Creek Watersheds in Philadelphia. Completed in 2002 under a contract with the Philadelphia Water Department/Office of Watersheds, the report is annotated with images and primary source information.

Current projects with the PWD/OW include historical surveys of the Philadelphia sections of the Darby-Cobbs and Pennypack Creek watersheds. I hope to parts of the Cobbs Creek project here later this year.


Tracking Down the Roots of Our Sanitary Sewers
A large site, still expanding, spearheaded by Jon Schladweiler, a deputy director of wastewater management in Tuscon, Arizona and historian of the Arizona Water & Pollution Control Association.

Down the Drain: Chicago's Sewers, The Historic Development of an Urban Infrastructure
One of the Chicago Public Library's digital collections.

Hidden Beneath Our Feet: The Story of Sewerage in Leeds
A comprehensive on-line history of this English city's sewerage, by David Sellers.

Phildelphia Water Department
My main employer's home page. Use this link to directly access the PWD Watershed Partnerships page.

Army Corps of Engineers Sinking Homes Studies
Fascinating surveys of two Philadelphia neighborhoods.

(Links on titles lead to Amazon.Com page for each book)
(Links on authors lead to review and other information)

The Sanitary City
Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present
by Martin Melosi. 2000: Johns Hopkins University Press
An encyclopedic study of urban sanitation practices.

The Search for the Ultimate Sink
Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective
by Joel A. Tarr. 1996: The University of Akron Press
A collection of essays by a pioneer in the field of urban environmental history.

Building New York's Sewers
Developing Mechanisms of Urban Management
By Joanne Abel Goldman. 1997: Purdue University Press.


I've found that the key to conveying my story of topographical change is having wonderful "before" illustrations, showing the massive changes made in the name of progress. I still have to do much of this research in libraries and archives, but Web-based resources are becoming more and more available and extensive. Among the most useful, for the Philadelphia area, are the following:

Places in Time: Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia
A team led by architectural historian Jeffrey A. Cohen at Bryn Mawr College has compiled this simple, easy-to-navigate and quick-to-load site. Don't be fooled by the site's plain-looking face: "Places in Time" is deep, rich in catalogue indexes and actual scans of Philadelphia-area graphic material. From the site's introduction: "This project is an effort to bring together some resources--images, documents, tools, and links--for pursuing historical information about place in the five-county Philadelphia area: Bucks, Chester, Delaware. Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties. The overarching idea is to use new media to more effectively disseminate information about place, to enhance cross-institutional access to documentary materials of this sort, to better connect people with the history of their environment, and to thus enrich their lives here."

Temple University Libraries Urban Archives
Besides a providing a description of its own holdings of photographs from Philadelphia newspapers (1929-1982), the Philadelphia Housing Association (1897-1972), and some 50 other organizations (more than 5 million images total), the site also includes the PACSL Photograph Directory, which describes the photographic holdings of more than 280 Philadelphia-area institutions. The Urban Archives collection also includes the entire clippings library of the Philadelphia Bulletin (ca. 1910-1982), but a subject index of this massive collection has yet to be put on line.

Library Company of Philadelphia
Using WOLFPAC, the LCOP online catalogue, you can search their extensive collection of visual resources. Through this link, it is also possible (by changing the "Use Database" menu at the top of the search page), to search the catalogues of nine other area institutions, including the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

With easy-to-understand site navigation, users can zero in on extremely detailed aerial view photographs and topographic maps, produced by the USGS. For an example, click here to view the vicinty of I-95 and Frankford Creek in Philadelphia.(116 Kb)

Information about other resources, as well as corrections, reactions, ideas, feedback, communication with like-minded or unlike-minded folk---all is welcome. Reach me at the address below.

Images in banner at top of page are of Mill Creek (l.) and Mill Creek Sewer (r.) under construction, both ca. 1880
Text and Images Copyright � 2004
by Adam Levine
All Rights Reserved

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Site Last Updated: 4 June 2004