Documentary History of American Water-works

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

Biography Theodore R. Scowden

Theodore Ransom Scowden

Theodore R. Scowden was born June 8, 1815 in Pittsburgh, and was educated at Augusta College, Kentucky.  He worked in the steam engine business in Cincinnati for several years before becoming an engineer on a steamboat operating between Cincinnati and New Orleans.  In 1844 he was appointed engineer of the Cincinnati water works, where he designed and built a new system.  The city sent him and engine builder Anthony Harkness to England and France in 1851 to study public docks, drainage, paving and water works. After preparing a report for the city, he resigned his post and was engaged by the city of Cleveland to build water works, after which he moved to Louisville to build their water system.

During the Civil War he built new locks around the falls of the Ohio River, known as the Scowden Locks, and afterwards built new water works in Dubuque, Iowa, Newport, Kentucky, and Sidney, Ohio before preparing a report for the city of San Francisco.

Scowden died on December 31, 1881 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Theodore R. Scowden's Water Works Experience
City State Years Projects
Cincinnati OH 1844-1852 Designed and built new water works
Madison IN 1849 Assisted Thomas J. Goodman in the construction of a reservoir for his water company.
Milwaukee WI 1852 Engaged by Lake Hydraulic Company to design and build works, but nothing was built.
Cleveland OH 1852-1856 Designed and built new water works
Louisville KY 1857-1861 Designed and built water works
Dubuque IA 1871 Designed and built water works
Newport KY 1872 Designed and built water works
Sidney OH 1873 Designed and built water works
San Francisco CA 1874-1875 Prepared a report on water supply for the city.

1850 Order of reference of the Supreme Court of the United States: in the case of the State of Pennsylvania, complainant, against the Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company and others, defendants ; with the proofs taken before R. Hyde Walworth, commissioner ; together with his report and the report of the engineerPennsylvania v. Wheeling & Belmont Bridge Company, 59 U.S. 421 (1855), United States Supreme Court.
Pages 422-425:  Testimony of Theodore R. Scowden, November 6, 1850
I was engaged on the Hortner, in 1832, which from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh.  The next boat that I was engaged on was the Champlain, which made two or three trips from Cincinnati to Guyandott, in 1834.  About 1835 I was on the Eclipse which ran from Nashville to Pittsburgh one trip.

1851 Liverpool Mercury (Liverpool, England), April 15, 1851, Page 8.
List of passengers, per U.S. Mail Steam-Ship Arctic, from New York.  Mr. T.R.Scowden; Mr. Anthony Harkness

1851 Certificate of Arrival, Port of Folkstone
Mr. Anthony Harkness of America, from France, May 16, 1851.
Mr. Theodore R. Scowden of America, from France, May 16, 1851.

1851 Passenger and Crew List, R.M.S. America, Liverpool to Boston, Arrival June 11, 1851.
Anthony Harkness, Engineer
Thomas R. Scowden, Engineer

1852 "Milwaukee Water Works," The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), June 10, 1852, Page 1.
The Lake Michigan Hydraulic Company of Wisconsin are about constructing water works to supply the city of Milwaukee with water.  The company has engaged the services of Theodore R. Scowden, present engineer of the Cincinnati Water Works, to plan and construct the work.

1869 Cleveland, past and present; its representative men, published by Maurice Joblin.
Pages 459-462:  Theodore R. Scowden.  Theodore R. Scowden, son of Theodore Scowden, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was born June 8, 1815, and was educated at Augusta College, Kentucky.
On leaving college, in 1832, he was apprenticed to the steam engine business at Cincinnati, and continued at this about four years, when he engaged as engineer on a steamer plying between Cincinnati and New Orleans. From the time of commencing engine building, he employed all his spare moments in studying mechanics, hydraulics and civil engineering. He remained in the position of engineer on the river for about eight years, when, in 1844, he turned his attention to the work of designing and planning engines, and so put into practice the knowledge acquired by application for the previous twelve years, and, in fact, for which he more particularly fitted himself while at college. He was then appointed by the city council of Cincinnati, engineer of water works, the primitive works then existing being inadequate to the increased wants of the city. The water was conveyed in log pipes, and the work before Mr. Scowden was to replace these logs by iron pipes, and to design and erect new works. In about a year from his appointment his plans were perfected and he was ready to commence operation. A great difficulty under which he labored, was, the necessity of keeping up the supply of water all the time, and being at the same time compelled to place the new reservoir and engine house in the exact spot of the old. This made the construction extend through nearly eight years, during which time from forty to fifty miles of iron pipe were laid, and a reservoir of great capacity constructed. This was his first great public work completed, and was a perfect success.
The first low pressure engine ever successfully used in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, was designed by Mr. Scowden and introduced into these works. It was found that the sedimentary matter of the Ohio river cut the valves in the condensing apparatus, and so destroying the vacuum, rendered the working of the engine ineffective. This Mr. Scowden overcame by introducing vulcanized india rubber valves, seated on a grating. Since that time he has designed several low pressure engines for the Mississippi river, which are still working successfully.
In 1851, Mr. Scowden was commissioned by the city of Cincinnati, to make the tour of England and France for the purpose of examining the principles and workings of public docks, drainage, paving and water works. After returning and making his report he resigned his post and came to Cleveland, for the purpose of constructing the water works now in operation in this city. The plan and designs were completed during 1852, and active operations commenced in 1853. The site of these works is said to have presented more engineering difficulties than any other in the country. At the time the tests were made for the foundation of the engine house, the water was nearly knee deep, and four men forced a rod thirty feet long and three-quarters of an inch in diameter twenty-eight feet into the ground. By the aid of five steam engines and pumps he succeeded in excavating to the depth of fourteen feet, and not being able to proceed further, he commenced the foundation. It is well to note the fact here, that the soil was in such a semi-fluid state that it could not be handled with a shovel, and altogether the chances of success for securing a permanent foundation looked, to the public, at least, very dubious. The citizens grew uneasy; they thought it was a waste of public money, but Mr. Snowden never despaired, though he with his own hand thrust a pole down twelve feet from the bottom of the excavation.
He laid down over the whole area two courses of timber laid cross-wise, leaving a space of twelve inches between each timber. The first timber was drawn by a rope, and floated to its place. In order to get a bed he scooped a space of two feet in length at one end, which was filled with gravel. This process was continued through the whole length of the timber. The second timber was floated to its place, leaving a foot between them, and the same operation was performed throughout the whole foundation.
All the spaces between the timbers were filled with broken stone and hydraulic cement; then the cross timbers were laid, filling the spans with the concrete also. It is to be observed that not a single pile was driven in all the foundation.
The masonry was commenced upon the timbers, and carried up about nineteen feet, and, notwithstanding the misgivings of scientific and experienced contractors and builders, and others, the superstructure was completed in 1855, and from that day to this not a crack in an angle of the building has been seen, although it may with truth be said that the engine house floats on a bed of quicksand. There were three thousand feet of aqueduct from the engine house to the lake, which presented similar difficulties, as did also the laying of pipes under the Cuyahoga river.
The engines in use in the Cleveland works are the first Cornish engines introduced west of the Allegheny mountains. After completing the works and putting them in successful operation, Mr. Scowden resigned his position here, in 1856.
In 1857, Mr. Scowden commenced the construction of the water works of Louisville, Kentucky, and finished them in 1860, and for character, capacity and finish they are acknowledged to be second to none in the United States, if in the world. The second pair of Cornish engines used west of the mountains were introduced there.
The next public work of Mr. Scowden was the extension and enlargement of the canal around the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville, which comprises a new work, as very little of the old was used. The engineering of the work was done under the direction of a board of directors, the president of which was James Guthrie, former Secretary of the Treasury under Pierce, and late United States Senator.
The locks in these works are the largest in the known world for width, length, and lift, not excepting the Suez Canal. There are two locks of thirteen feet lift, and containing fifty-two thousand yards of masonry. The canal is crossed by iron swing bridges. The work has been inspected by the United States topographical engineers, and General Wietzel, now in charge of the work, has pronounced it unsurpassed by anything within the range of his knowledge, and, what is more remarkable, a like tribute to the skill of our fellow citizen has been accorded by French, English and German engineers, and also by the president of the board.
This was his last and greatest triumph of engineering skill; and being a national work, and he a civilian, he may well feel proud of his achievement.
After completing the last mentioned work, Mr. Scowden returned to Cleveland and engaged in the iron trade, constructing a rolling mill at Newburg, for the American sheet and boiler plate company, with which he is still connected.
As an engineer, Mr. Scowden stands high. He never was baffled, though established principles failed, for he had resources of his own from which to draw. Without an exception, every great public work undertaken by him has been not only completed, but has proved entirely successful.
As a man he enjoys the respect and confidence of his fellow citizens. His manner is affable and unassuming, and his disposition kindly. Constant application for twenty-five years has had its effect upon him, but with care, he may yet be spared many years to enjoy the fruits of his labors.

1872 Cincinnati past and present, or, its industrial history as exhibited in the life-labors of its leading men, published by Maurice Joblin
Pages 372-377:  T.R. Scowden

1875 "Water Supplies," San Francisco Municipal Reports for the Fiscal Year 1874-1875, ending June 30, 1875.
Includes report by engineer Theodore R. Scowden.

1880 "Water Works," The History of Dubuque County, Iowa
Page 546:  On Friday, October 21, 1871, the works were fully tested, under the supervision of R.T. Scowden, consulting engineer, and found to be in every respect according to contract.

1881 Theodore R. Scowden grave

1882 "Theodore R. Scowden," Atchison Daily Patriot (Atchison, Kansas), January 17, 1882, Page 2.

1981 "The Louisville Water Works Pumping Station Number One," by Margaret Wheeler Hilliard, M.A. Thesis in Architectural History, University of Virginia

2007 Triumph at the Falls:  The Louisville and Portland Canal, by Leland R. Johnson and Charles E. Parish. 
Chapter 8 includes some biographical information on Scowden and describes his work in building the Scowden Locks on the Louisville and Portland Canal during the Civil War.
Pages 49-50:  Condensed Biography of Theodore R. Scowden.

Theodore Scowden, Wikipedia

2018 Morris A. Pierce