Documentary History of American Water-works

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Middle Atlantic States Pennsylvania Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Bethlehem was founded in 1741 by Moravians fleeing religious persecution.  

The Bethlehem water works was built by Hans Christopher Christiansen in 1754 and demonstrated on June 21st of that year when it threw a jet of water "as high as the adjoining houses." Improvements were made over the following year and the system began regular service on June 27, 1755.  The system was rebuilt in 1762 and iron pipes were introduced in 1813, although one 1860 source says iron pipes were introduced in 1818.

The Bethlehem Water Company was incorporated in 1845 by the "present members of the Bethlehem water company," P. H. Goepp, William Eberman, Henry Shulz, J. C. Brickenstein, C. D. Bishop, Christian Luckenbach, Henry B. Luckenbach, Charles L. Knauss, John Oerter, C. F. Beckel, Jonathan Bishop, Felix Fenner, Francis Zoller, G. Greenewald, Charles Tombler, John M. Micksh, Jacob Siegmund, and James T. Borheck.  The company took over the system and operated it until the local  borough council bought it 1872.

The City bought the Bethlehem City Water Company on September 28, 1920. 

The Bethlehem Municipal Water Authority was incorporated on August 14, 1938.

The water system is currently owned by the Bethlehem Municipal Water Authority, which leases it to the City of Bethlehem.

The Bethlehem water works is a National Historic Landmark, Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and an American Water Landmark.  The works were visited by George Washington, John Adams, and many others.

1777 John Adams to Abigail Adams, February 7. 1777
They have carried the mechanical Arts to greater Perfection here than in any Place which I have seen. They have a sett of Pumps which go by Water, which force the Water up through leaden Pipes, from the River to the Top of the Hill, near an hundred feet, and to the Top of a little Building, in the shape of a Pyramid, or Obelisk, which stands upon the Top of the Hill and is twenty or thirty feet high. From this Fountain Water is conveyed in Pipes to every Part of the Town.

1788 New-Haven Gazette, April 17, 1788, Page 1.
Bethlehem, 16th August, 1787.
The inhabitants of this town are supplied with water, by having it run through a cistern, in their kitchen, or by drawing it, by turning a cock.  A spring supplies this water, which by a pump, worked by a water machine, is forced up more than ninety feet, into the fountain head, from whence it is conveyed by leaden pipes to the different houses.

1796 Travels through the States of North America and the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, during the Years, 1795, 1796, and 1797, by Isaac Weld, Jr. (Fourth Edition, 1800)
Page 543. November, 1796.  Bethlehem.  Every house in the town is supplied with an abundance of excellent water from a spring, which is forced through pipes by means of an hydraulic machine worked by water, and which is situated on the banks of the creek. Some of the houses are supplied with water in every room. The machine is very simple, and would easily raise the water, if necessary, several hundred feet.

1799 Philadelphia Gazette, March 25, 1799, page 3.
Extract of a letter from a gentleman of intelligence and information in Bethlehem, to his correspondent in this city, dated February 1.
"With pleasure I answer your's--I have several times read Mr. Latrobe's Report, concerning the supplying the city of Philadelphia with water.  My wish is, that is may be adopted without hesitation or delay.  In no part do I think it impracticable.  It appears the only advisable method of effecting it to the purpose required.  I also perceive the clashing it occasions with the proprietors of the Canal; but interest on such occasions, and in matters of such great moment, ought not to raise its head.  As to pipes, we have had the yellow and pitch pine.  Good pitch or yellow pine pipes have lasted 30 years, 2 1/2 inch bore.  No inconvenience with regard to the taste, and indeed our water was better and cooler than we have it at present through leaden pipes.  Here, it is to be observed, that a tree for a 4 inch bore should have 12 inches grain (heart) to leave 4 inches wood.  The sap will not last 2 years--the 12 inches must be at the thin end.  The next best is white oak; in Nazareth the pipes are all white oak, the water excellent, no taste of the wood, and have lasted 20 years.  When our water works were first erected we have pine pipes from the machinery to the reservoir.  The pine was very troublesome--we have to put many rings round the pipes, and yet we could not make them tight--the weight of the water, &c. would burst them.  We then used gum, a wood that will not split, but will last only about 12 years--yields no taste to the water.  If good yellow pine of the size mentioned in the gain of the smallest end (but straight it must be by all means, otherwise the hole will come too near the sap and will not last at all) it ought to be preferred to any other: but if it is not of this description, and every stick alike, white oak is preferable; for only one piece is bad in an extent of a compressed water course, the while is useless until that spot is repaired.  Mr. Henry, to whom I shewed your letter, gives the preference to white oak.  I wish good success to the undertaking, and anything required of me, will always be communicated with pleasure."

1802 "Journey to Bethlehem," by Joshua Gilpin (continued), The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 46(2):122-153 (1922)
Page 145: [October 19, 1802] After passing thro' the sisters house we led into the store room where we were to buy some of their work, which I did but & think there was no assortment as the whole was contained in four drawers. they said they had sold more than usual this season— I had told Daddy Thomas I wished to see other parts of the institution particularly the Church and water works but by the time we were done here he said the men were going to dinner & nothing would be done till afternoon, so accordingly I went to the Inn to my own, about 3 oClock Daddy Thomas again called at the Inn but not to take me further about the town, it was he said under an engagement to go with another party thro' the same business we were at this fore noon & to leave them in the same manner, and as I saw that was their regular form with which visitors were treated, I was determined to do as well as I could for myself— Of course I first tried the Water Works on the Monocasy, which is a wheel working three pistons in brass cylinders to force the water thro' leaden pipes into a small stone reservoir on a high part of Bethlehem whence there are four conduits to the gardens cultivated at seperate houses & to the houses for washing & other purposes. 

1845 An act to authorize the governor to incorporate the Bethlehem water company. February 24, 1845.

1847 Proceedings of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania 1(10):114 (March 1847)
Donations. From Dr. Maurice C. Jones. A manuscript plan and description of the water works erected in Bethlehem, Nottingham Co., in 1762, which were the first water works in North America.

1860 History of the Lehigh Valley, by Mathew Schropp Henry.
Page 233:  The waterworks at Bethlehem were the first in Pennsylvania, and it is said that a committee of the council of the city of Philadelphia came to see these works when it was in contemplation to erect the waterworks in that city. The works are located on the Monocacy Creek, and are propelled by a water-wheel. The water is drawn from a spring of delightful cool water. The following facts in regard to the works has been kindly furnished at our request.
The waterworks were commenced in 1761 and completed in February, 1764. Hans Christian Christenson, a native of Copenhagen, was the projector and mastermillwright, and received 4 shillings a day for his services. Demuth and David Bithoff were his assistants. The water was forced to an elevation of about 100 feet by 3 single-stroke iron pumps (which cost £9) to the top of a wooden tower, 55 feet high, erected on the ground now occupied by the Moravian church, and from there distributed through wooden mains to all parts of the village. The small distributing pipes were lead. The entire cost of the works, as originally constructed, was £522 4s. 73d. The heavy wrought-iron crank which propelled the pumps was made by hand by Stephen Blum, assisted by the well-known Adolphus Jorde, at that time apprentice to the blacksmith at Bethlehem, and was considered a masterpiece of ironwork. When the wooden mains were decayed, leaden pipes were substituted, and the first iron pipes were introduced in 1818. In the same year, the reservoir in Market Street was built, and the one north of Broad Street in 1833. The original building is still in existence and occupied as a dwelling house. The cost of the new works was $20,000.

1861 Supplement to an act incorporating the Bethlehem Water Company, approved February twenty-fourth, on thousand eight hundred and forty-five.  May 1, 1861.

1866 An act authorizing the borough council of the borough of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to purchase the water works, real estate and improvements of the Bethlehem Water Company; also, to make all such necessary improvements and extensions required, to borrow money, and appoint water commissioners to carry out said object. March 30, 1866.

1868 A further supplement to an act to incorporate the Bethlehem Water Company, approved the twenty-fourth day of April, one thousand eight hundred and forty-five.  April 1, 1868.

1872 A supplement to an act authorizing the borough council of the borough of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to purchase the water works, real estate and improvements of the Bethlehem Water Company, approved thirtieth of March, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-six.  February 20, 1872.

1873 A supplement to an act authorizing the borough council of the borough of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to purchase the water works, real estate and improvements of the Bethlehem Water Company, approved thirtieth of March, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-six.  March 27, 1873.

1873 Historical Sketch of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania: With Some Account of the Moravian Church, by John Hill Martin
Page 28: The Water Works of Bethlehem, are celebrated as the first of the kind erected in this country. They were planned and constructed in the year 1762, by a Danish Moravian, a resident of the village; Hana Christian Christianson, a shoemaker, and a native of the city of Copenhagen; and were first put in operation on the 21st of January, 1764. The machinery consisted of three single acting force pumps, four inch calibre, and eighteen inch stroke, worked by a triple crank, geared to the shaft of an undershot water wheel,eighteen feet in diameter, and two feet clear in the buckets. The total head of water was two feet. On the water wheel shaft was a wallower of thirty-three rounds, and gearing into a spin-wheel of fifty-two cogs, attached to the crank. The three pistons were attached each to a frame cross-head, working in grooves, to give them a parallel motion with the pump, the cross-head was wood, as well as the part containing the grooves, as guides. These works were in operation until 1832, when the present works were erected, and remodelled, upon the principle of the present Water Works at Fairmount, Philadelphia, where the horizontal double forcing pump, the design of Frederick Graeff, was first used in this country.
The first raising main of the Bethlehem works, was made of Gum wood as far as it was subject to great pressure, the rest of pitch pine. The first forcing pumps were made of Lignum Vitae, the water was forced up into the Receiver, in the High Tower, at the west end of the "Brothers' and Sisters' House;" from thence it was distributed into Water Boxes or Cisterns, partly above ground, from which it was drawn off for use. The waterboxes mentioned, were six in number, and were situated at the following places.
1. In the yard of the Brethren's House.
2. In the yard of the Sisters' House, on Church Street, and still in use.
3. At Simon Rau's, still used.
4. In Market Street, opposite the Old Graveyard, and still in use.
5. In the Old Farm House Yard.
6. At the "Sun Hotel."
The first pipes laid for the conveyance of water, were of leather, but not proving very serviceable, wooden ones were soon substituted; in 1786 leaden pipes were introduced in their stead, and in 1813 these were changed for pipes made of iron, which are now used all over the town.
In constructing the first Water Works, a very curiously made crank had to be invented, in order to work the three pistons, it was at first thought to be impossible to make it, but a celebrated blacksmith of the place, named Stephen Blum, accomplished it, and gained great credit thereby.
The Spring from which the supply of water is obtained, is quite a curiosity in its way, and that it is able to furnish the constant demand, is a matter of astonishment to all who examine it, for it is a very small affair, not more than three feet square, and two feet deep, situated near the "Old Mill," on Water Street, opposite the "Old Tannery," yet, small as it is, and despite the constant use of its waters, there is never, even in summer time; any perceptible diminution in the quantity of water in the Spring; there being a constant, and almost imperceptible flow into it from some unseen source. And although in 1868, steam power was introduced to supply the increasing demand of the growing town, the Spring still continues full, without any signs of inability to meet all the wants of the inhabitants, except in eases of fires.
The lower Mill, where the forcing power is located, is the Mill where the celebrated Bethlehem buckwheat flour is made, which is in such demand in the cities of Philadelphia and New York. The forcing power was, previous to the year 1868, furnished by the water of the Manockasy Creek, which runs through that part of the town.
The water of the Spring is very cool and clear, slightly impregnated with lime, but not enough so as to affect its taste; it is perfectly healthful, very pleasant to the palate, and has no perceptible effect upon the human system, that is at all injurious. A large frame building is erected over the Spring, which is used by the people of the neighborhood, for the purpose of keeping cool and preserving their meats and butter, during the summer season,the water passing through it, keeping the building as cold as an ice house. The reservoirs in the town, into which the water is conveyed for distribution, are covered from the sun and dirt, so that it is carried to the houses, free from all impurities, and comes out of the supply pipes as clear as crystal, and does not need ice to cool it, even in the hottest days of summer.
Before the Water Works were erected there were many attempts made to obtain water, by digging wells, but as the hill on which the town is built, is formed of rotten lime-stone, all was labor in vain. There exists at present, in the middle of Broad Street near Main, one of those wells arched over, instead of being filled up; its exact position will be discovered unexpectedly some day.
Page 68:  "The Old Water Works" building
Page 71:  The Water Works of Bethlehem, by which water is conveyed through the town, are a great curiosity. It is forced from a spring 100 feet high into a deep well, and a number of pipes leading off from the well under ground, conveys the water wherever it is wanted. They keep large cisterns full in ease of fire.

1877 Historical Sketch of the Bethlehem Water Works by Robert Rau

1878 An act to repeal certain sections of an act, entitled "A supplement to an act authorizing the borough council of the borough of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to purchase the water works, real estate and improvements of the Bethlehem Water Company ; also to make all such necessary improvements and extensions required, to borrow money and appoint commissioners to carry out said object, approved the thirtieth day of March, Anno Domini one thousand eight hundred and sixty six, to authorize the election of water commissioners, to borrow money and collect the water rents," approved nineteenth day of May, Anno Domini one thousand eight hundred and seventy-one. May 16, 1878. [Note this is a series of four sequential acts.]

1882 Engineering News, 9:135 (April 29, 1882)
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in lat. 40° 36' 24" N., long. 76° 56' 8" W., is on the northeast fork of the Lehigh River and Monoquacy Creek, on high and uneven land. It was settled in 1741and incorporated as a borough in 1845.
Water-works were built in 1754, by Hans Christopher Christiansen, a millwright and a native of Denmark. These are believed to have been the first works for public water supply built in the United States. The water was taken from a spring issuing from magnesian limestone,near the banks of the Menogassi Creek, as it was then called.
The water was conducted 350 ft. through an under[ground?] conduit into a cistern, whence it was pumped by a lignum vitae pump of 5-in. bore, through bored hemlock logs, to a height of 70 ft., into a wooden tank in the village square.  Trouble was experienced from the bursting of the pipes, and 1¼-in.pipes of sheet lead, soldered along the edges bedded in a cement of pitch and brick dust and laid in a gutter of brick were tried without much success.
In 1762, Christiansen, aided by John Arbo and Marshall, constructed larger works. An 18-ft.undershot wheel drove three single-acting force pumps of iron of 4-in. bore and 18-in. stroke. The force main was of gum wood and the distribution pipes of pitch pine. The latter had to be renewed in 1769.  In 1786 lead pipes were substituted for the gum wood force main and for most of the distributing pipes. The last pitch pine pipes were abandoned in 1791.
The reservoir was a wooden tower in the “little square.” This was removed in 1803 and a stone tower built on Market street, about 15 ft. high, in which was a tank at an elevation of 112 ft. above the spring.  A reservoir 70 ft. long, 10 ft. wide and 7 ft. deep was built in 1817.  In 1832 another reservoir was constructed on higher ground and the water tower abandoned. In 1832 the triple pumps were replaced by one double-acting pump.  In 1868 steam-power was used for pumping, and in 1874 a second steam pump was added.  It is double acting, with 12-in.bore and 36-in.stroke.  In 1874, the wooden conduit from the spring to the pump house was replaced by an 18-in.iron pipe. In 1872, the present reservoir, a circular iron tank 40ft. in diameter and 8 ft. high was placed at a point 149 ft. above the spring.
The water is pumped directly into the mains, the tank being use only as a regulator of pressure.
There are 4 miles of cast-iron pipe of from 8 to 3-in. diameter, with 75 fire hydrants, 80 gates and 350 taps.
The population in 1880 was 5,000.
The works were controlled by the Bethlehem Water Company from 1845 to 1871, when they were purchased by the town for $20,300.  The cost of the works has been $30,000 to the present time. The bonded debt is $38,000, bearing 4 3/4 per cent. interest. The expenses in 1881were $5,000 and the receipts $3,600. The works are managed by the borough council through the water supply committee, of which C. M. Anstatt is Chairman.  Charles Bodder is the Superintendent.

1882 Bethlehem, from "The Water-Supply of Certain Cities and Towns of the United States," by Walter G. Elliot, C. E., Ph. D.

1884 "Bethlehem Water Works," by John W. Jor. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 8(1):118-119  (March, 1884) | Also here |

1888 "Bethlehem," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 1.

1890 "Bethlehem," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 2.

1891 "Bethlehem," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 3.

1897 "Bethlehem," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 4.

1903 Water works history from A History of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1741-1892  by Joseph Mortimer Levering

1911 Sixth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Health of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Part I
Page 214:  Report of Investigation of Typhoid Fever in South Bethlehem and Vicinity, September and October, 1911.

1976 The Meaning of the Bethlehem Waterworks: An Address Presented at the Dedication of the Restored 1762 Waterworks, May 22, 1976, by Brooke Hindle

2016 Historical Evolution of Design and Supply of Drinking Water Treatment Plant for the City ofB ethlehem, 1741-Present, by Juliana Telles, William Sullivan, Pantelis Takos, Amber Schrum, Allie Stevens, and Evan Ward.  Undergraduate Honors Theses and Capstone Projects, Lehigh University

The Significance of the Bethlehem Water Works from Historic Bethlehem (PDF)

© 2015 Morris A. Pierce