By Mike Weilbacher
Turn on your tap, and cheap, clean water flows out, an act we mostly take for granted nowadays. But Roxborough played a key role in the development of the city’s water infrastructure, with Flat Rock Dam, the now-demolished Roxborough Pumping Station, the reservoirs repurposed into parks, and the old infiltration beds built throughout our community.
Roxborough is deeply connected to the Schuylkill River, and evidence of that connection is everywhere in our community.
On Thursday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m., the Schuylkill Center presents Philadelphia Water Department historian Adam Levine in a special presentation, “Roxborough’s River and Water: A History.” You’ll see rare and unusual images of Roxborough’s stretch of the Schuylkill River, without the forest of trees that grew up around these structures in the 20th century, and hear Levine talk, a gifted presenter. Plus, you’ll finally understand what all those reservoirs, dams, filtration beds, and water towers were designed to do.
The free lecture requires registration so the center can send you the Zoom link; go to its website to register at www.schuylkillcenter.org.
Levine will share a number of images while revealing why the system was built, how it worked, why it was abandoned, and its ultimate dereliction. I’d love to share a small slice of the lecture here to whet - or rather, “wet” - your appetite for more at the lecture.
Among the stories Levine shares is that of the Roxborough Pumping Station, a landmark on the Schuylkill River for almost 100 years. Built just after the Civil War - it was cutting-edge technology back in its day - massive coal-fired, steam-powered pumps pushed river water uphill into reservoirs on Upper Roxborough’s high ground, originally behind the Shawmont School at Eva and Dearnley. As the photo shows, it was a handsome, impressive structure in its day.
But even as a rotting hulk, it had remarkable charisma: I remember coming across it for the first time on a walk along the River Trail more than a decade ago, and stopping dead in my tracks. It was one of the coolest buildings I had ever stumbled on, nevermind one as amazing as this surrounded by forest. Graffiti-strewn on the inside though it was, I was blown away that this existed alongside the river - hiding in plain sight - and I never knew.
As our community continued growing at that time - something it is doing again today-- the pumping station was expanded in the 1890s, and a much larger reservoir was built along Port Royal Avenue, today's Upper Reservoir, more than 400 feet above sea level.
Then, in the early 20th century, the city constructed a number of sand filtration plants across the city, designed to combat water-borne disease like typhoid fever. But Roxborough’s “were two of the first filtration plants built,” Levine says, and were what he calls “slow sand filters, a mixture of sand, charcoal, and gravel.” Going into operation citywide in 1909, the filtration system was very effective as typhoid rates were dramatically reduced. Cleaning our water started, you might say, in Roxborough.
While the sand beds are no longer actively cleaning water, already-cleaned water is stored there - those sand beds are still actively storing your drinking water, Roxborough.
Why did the pumping station fall out of favor? Why was it demolished? What's the special history of Flat Rock dam? Why did the reservoirs and sand filtration beds fall out of favor as well? You’ll find the answers to all of this - and so much more.
“In a city like Philadelphia,” Levine told me recently, “built on two rivers and surrounded by streams, I think it’s important to realize first, how important water is, and second, how we have used - and abused - it.”
Agreed, and to top it off, Levine’s speciality is presenting rare, hard-to-find photographs of the city’s water history; the photographs alone are worth your participation, as some of them are simply breathtaking.
“Roxborough’s River and Water: A History” is cosponsored by the Philadelphia Water Department, the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, the Roxborough Manayunk Conservancy, the Friends of the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, and Residents of the Shawmont Valley. The Schuylkill Center thanks all of these sponsors.
In addition, the lecture is part of River Days, a month-long celebration of our rivers and waterways sponsored by the Alliance of Watershed Education, a network of 23 environmental education centers throughout the Delaware River watershed, of which the Schuylkill Center is one. To find more River Days events across the region, go to www.watershedalliance.org.
Hope to see you Thursday night.
Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.