Documentary History of American Water-works

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

Technology Steam Engines

Steam Engines in American Waterworks

List of steam engines used in American Waterworks

Steam engines had originally been developed to pump water out of coal mines, and were adopted by several European water works by the end of the Eighteenth Century.  A Newcomen engine was imported in 1753 to pump water out of Col. John Schuyler's copper mine in Belleville, New Jersey, which ran more than fifty years.  The first steam engine for an American water works was built by Christopher Colles in 1774 to pump water in Manhattan.  This engine was operating in early 1776, but was destroyed during the British occupation during the American Revolution.  The next two engines were installed in the Philadelphia waterworks and were operating in early 1801.

The adoption of steam engines in American waterworks proceeded very slowly, but increased greatly after the Civil War when manufacturers gained the ability to sell and deliver engines to a national market.

Separate pages for the larger manufacturers such as Worthington and Holly will be added.

1776 Journal of Lieutenant Isaac Bangs, April 1 to July 29, 1776, by Isaac Bangs. Edited by Edward Bangs. (1890) Excerpts from Bangs' Journal were read before the New England Historic Genealogical Society on May 2, 1855 by Dean Dudley and printed in the Boston Daily Bee in February 1856.  They were reprinted in the 1868 "New York in 1776," The Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America, 4:305.
Page 25-27:  [April 20, 1776] I visited, and took a full view of the Waterworks that are making to convey Water through the City (that from the Pumps being very bad & unwholesome to that degree that the Inhabitants buy Water for Coffee, &c. from Carts that are employed to carry it about the City). These Works were began about 12 Months since at the City Expence, to defray which they issued Bills that are current as other Money. A Dutchman undertook the Jobb for a certain sum, & hath already performed the most difficult part of the Work, tho not with that success that was expected by the Citizens, as they say. He saith he hath done as well as he promised. The Work that is already done (the most difficult part) is to convey Water from the side of an Hill nigh a Pond to the top of the Hill, which being higher than any part of the City, the Water is to be conveyed in Pipes through the City. As the Man that attended spoke very broken English & the Machiene was not at Work, it was with great Difficulty that I understood the Construction of the Machiene ; & to pretend to give a perticular discription of this Work would be folly in me, as I could by no means do it Justice. The first part of the Work was the Well, about 40 feet Diamiter, and to appearance about 30 feet to the surface of the Water. In this Well was the Engine, which forced the Water almost to the Top, & from thence through a Wooden Tube up to the Top of the Hill, which was about 5 Rods distance and about . . . Feet perpendicular above the Top of the Well. At the Top of the Hill was an artificial Pound, whose superficies was about 1/4 of an Acre, and when filled, the Water would be about 8 or 10 Feet deep ; from hence the Water was to be conveyed (as I before said) in Pipes through the City. All of this I could easily understand ; but the grand Question was how was the Machiene in the Well first actuated & continued its motion? This I was surprised to find was wholly done by the Power of Boiling Water.

It was a long time before I could discover even by seeing the Works how this could be effected, & the Man who shewed the Works could give me no satisfaction as to this till at length I found that by Means of a large Copper (which is kept boiling when it is requisite for the Works to be set in Motion) the Steem or Vapour of the Water is conveyed from thence into a strong Copper Tube of about 18 Inches Diamiter & about 10 Feet Long, which stands perpendicularly. The lower part or end of this Tube is tight; but the iiper End hath in it a moveable Stopper which may move upwards or Downwards with as much ease as possible, and at the same time to keep any of the Air from without from entering into the Tube & to keep it as tight as possible another part of the Works constantly supply the Top of the Tube above the Stopper with a small stream of Water. The Steem of the Hot Water (as I take it) entering into the Tube rarifyeth the Body of the Air contained therein to a great degree, when the Stopper is let loose and flyeth upwards
with great Rapidity to the upper End of the Tube, when the Pressure of the Air from without throweth [it] back to the Bottom of the Tube with as great Force as it came upwards.  When it gets to the Bottom it is again drove upwards by the same cause, & repelled when it arrives at the Top : thus the Stopper is kept in constant Motion by the Means of Steam or Vapour, & to this Stopper is fastened a stout Wooden lever by a bar of Iron. The Lever is Fastened in the Middle upon an Axis ; and as the Stopper of the Tube moves upwards and downwards, it moves the Lever, which worketh the Engine in the Well, which forceth (as I before described) the Water into the Pond at the Top of the Hill. The Engine hath been tried & generally throws . . . Gallons in a Minute into the Pond. Thus have I given as perticular discription of this curious Engine as I possibly could, having viewed it but about 15 Minutes. I hope soon to see it at Work, when I can give a more perticular discription of several small parts of it for which I could see no use.

Page 47:  [June 22, 1776] In the afternoon Lieut Wheeler, Makepeace, & myself visited Mr. Schuyler, about 4 Miles distance, found him a very agreable Gentleman of about 28 years ; with him we tarried all
Night, & could not excuse ourselves from so doing. An old Man accompanied us as a Pilot, & in our Way he shewed us the Copper Mines belonging to Mr. Schuyler ; the Work which we could perceive had been done in them was sufficient to astonish any Man who had seen so little of the World as I had. Nothing had been done in these Mines for 4 Years, the Engine for throwing of the Water having been burnt about that Time. This cost about 3 Thousand, sterling, & would cast out of the Earth 80 Hogsheads in a Minute. This was actuated by Fire, & from fire it had its only Motion ; & it was constructed upon the same Principles & much in the same Form as that of N. York for watering the City ; but (from necessity) the Works of Mr. Schuyler were greatly superiour in Magnitude to those of the City, of which I could judge by the incombustible Matter which was still remaining.

1803 First Report of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, to the American Philosophical Society, Held at Philadelphia; In Answer to the Enquiry of the Society of Rotterdam, "Whether Any, and What Improvements Have Been Made in the Construction of Steam-Engines in America?" by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Philadelphia, May 20, 1803. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 6:89-98 (1809) ||

1805 The Young Steam Engineer's Guide, Etc. (Appendix: Containing a Concise Account of the Invention and Improvement of Steam Engines ... To which is Added ... J. Stevens' Letters on the Author's Improvements, with the Answers Thereto.). by Oliver Evans (Engineer.), John Stevens, (Colonel, of Hoboken, New Jersey.)

1838 Steam Engines: Letter from the Secretary of the Treasury, Transmitting, in Obedience to a Resolution of the House, of the 29th of June Last, Information in Relation to Steam Engines, &c.  This inventory includes seven steam engines used in five water works:  Pittsburgh (2) [page 191], Cincinnati (2) [page 330], Wheeling [page 224], Columbia [page 265], and New Orleans [page 308].  Engines in New York City, and Natchez (if it was still operating) were not included.

1853 "Notice of the earliest steam engines used in the United States," by  Frederick Graff, Journal of the Franklin Institute, 55(4):269-271 (April 1853)   

1868 "New York in 1776," The Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America, Volume 4

1876 "The history of the steam engine in America," Journal of the Franklin Institute, 102(4):253-268 (October 1876)

1876 The Worthington Steam Pumping Engine: History of Its Invention and Development, by Henry R. Worthington

1883 Josiah Hornblower, and the First Steam-engine in America: With Some Notices of the Schuyler Copper Mines at Second River, N. J., and a Genealogy of the Hornblower Family, by William Nelson

1888 Report on steam-pumps and pumping engines by F. R. Hutton, M.E. Special Agent, Tenth Census of the United States | Also here |

1895 Illustrated and descriptive catalogue of the Holly Manufacturing Company's high duty pumping engines: horizontal and vertical, compound and triple expansion, and water power pumps

1895 Worthington Manufacturing Company

1900 Henry R. Worthington List of Water Works Pumping Engines, Sixth Edition, January 1, 1900

1914 "Great Invention Nearly Forgotten," The Danville Morning News, June 19, 1914, Page 1.
Thomas Thatcher inventor of the direct-acting steam pump.

1947 "Early steam engines in America," by Thomas Coulson, Journal of the Franklin Institute, 243(3):219-233 (March 1947)

1969 Early stationary steam engines in America: a study in the migration of a technology, by Carroll W. Pursell

1979 A history of industrial power in the United States, 1780-1930, Volume Two:  Steam Power, by Louis C. Hunter
Page 561:  In 1871, Holly introduced at Dunkirk, New York, the first of what became known in this country as a direct-pressure pumping system but in Great Britain was called a constant supply system. [The Holly system at Dunkirk was actually the 45th Holly system installed.  The British "constant supply" is in contrast with an "intermittent supply" where water was only supplied, well, intermittently.  Holly's direct pressure system used a pressure regulator to control the pressure of water in the pipe, eliminating the need for elevated reservoirs and standpipes. Intermittent supply was rarely used in the United States. See this 1911 article "Water Supply."]

Worthington's 170 Year History of "Forward Thinking Machinery"

Also see the general bibliography page, which includes links to several lists of waterworks with information about steam engines.

2016 Morris A. Pierce