Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography


Public water supplies remain a critical factor in improving the health and well-being of urban populations and are instrumental to reducing illness and mortality rates.  Every civilization has had public water supplies, which encompass a wide range of activities including individual consumers gathering water from a nearby lake, river, spring or well, deliveries of water to consumers by a public or private entity, and distribution of water through artificial channels such as aqueducts, canals, or pipelines.

The major reference for the history of American water-works is the four-volume Manual of American Water-works edited by Moses Nelson Baker and published by Engineering News between 1888 and 1897.  This invaluable work expanded on earlier work by John James Robertson Croes and contains an enormous amount of information about individual water-works systems that Baker, Croes, and others had collected.  The final 1897 volume was nearly 700 pages long and excluded a lot of historical material that had been included in earlier volumes.  Although the list of systems is extensive, it is not exhaustive as it depended on written responses from managers of individual systems.  In addition, these compilations include several errors carried over from earlier reports.  Later historians have accepted Baker's work uncritically, resulting in an incomplete history of American water works.

Baker provided summaries of water-works systems operating at the end of each decade starting in 1888, 1890, and 1891, with his latest numbers shown in the following table along with the number of systems that have been found in the current study.  The number of works proposed but not built are shown in parentheses:

Waterworks  built by: Baker 1891 Pierce 2020
1800 16 59 (12)
1810 26 116 (22)
1820 30 131 (33)
1830 44 208 (49)
1840 64 251 (70)
1850 83 293 (75)
1860 136 381 (133)
1870 243 495
1880 598 844
1890 1,878  --
1896 3,196  --

| Graph Showing Number of Initial Water Works Built Each Year from 1744 to 1880 |

In 1925, Baker recognized another early system in Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, which had been "discovered" by journalist Julius Frederich Sachse in 1896.  Baker chose not to update the table as the numbers had "been before the public for many years and the change is so slight ... it has not seemed worth while to remake the table," but other writers have added this 1744 system and the resulting numbers have remained unchanged and unchallenged.

This history will be of value to historians of business, technology, urban history, public health, law, finance, economics and others, and will be especially valuable for local historians to research and write their own water-works histories.

This documentary history includes information for individual water-works systems from Baker and Croes, along with other primary and secondary sources in the public domain and references to other sources.  Information on individual water-works systems will be added chronologically based on the date of first operation.  Additional information, suggestions, questions, and corrections are always welcome and can be submitted to the author of this site at:

Morris A. Pierce
Department of History
362 Rush Rhees Library
University of Rochester
Rochester NY 14627-0070

Many thanks to my daughter Sara for continued inspiration and support in addition to maintaining the web site.

And bountiful thanks are due to the staff of the Interlibrary Loan Office at Rush Rush Library at the University of Rochester, who can deliver the difficult immediately and the impossible later the same day:  Sally Weed, Rose Flickner, Judy Viken, Lynn Galens, Vera Wasnock, Elizabeth Andre, Emma Schell and Karen Mike.

Last updated January 28, 2024

2015-2024 Morris A. Pierce