top of page
Water: An Environmental Crisis in 19th Century Philadelphia

This activity is designed to introduce students to the environmental consequences of industrial and urban development in the late 19th century. Students will learn about the devastating effects of industrial waste on the drinking-water supply of Philadelphia in the late 19th century and about the solutions employed to improve public health. They will use primary sources published by the Philadelphia Water Department and the Philadelphia County Medical Society in 1885. One document, a “Sanitary Survey,” quantifies the pollutants being dumped into the Schuylkill River, and the other, an address made to the County Medical Society, describes pollution’s devastating effects.


19th century

Environment and Nature

Government and civics

Big Ideas

Cause and Effect

Pennsylvania History

Essential Questions

  • How does continuity and change within Pennsylvania history influence your community today?

  • What role do multiple causations play in describing a historic event?


  • Textual evidence, material artifacts, the built environment, and historic sites are central to understanding the history of Pennsylvania.

  • Long-term continuities and discontinuities in the structures of Pennsylvania society provide vital contributions to contemporary issues. Belief systems and religion, commerce and industry, innovations, settlement patterns, social organization, transportation and trade, and equality are examples continuity and change.

  • Historical skills (organizing information chronologically, explaining historical issues, locating sources and investigate materials, synthesizing and evaluating evidence, and developing arguments and interpretations based on evidence) are used by an analytical thinker to create a historical construction.


  • Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias and connect it to a time and place in Pennsylvania.

  • Apply the theme of continuity and change in Pennsylvania history and relate the benefits and drawbacks of your example.

  • Analyze the interaction of cultural, economic, geographic, political, and social relations for a specific time and place.

Background Material for Teacher

In 1683, William Penn’s city was surveyed at the narrowest strip of land between two rivers, the Delaware and the Schuylkill. The settlement began to develop along the Delaware River port, drawing upon wells or groundwater, not the rivers, to supply fresh, clean water. By 1800, the city began abandoning well water, thought to be contaminated by seepage from waste in privies, for a new source of clean drinking water: the pristine, unadulterated Schuylkill River.

The first successful municipal pumping station was constructed in Centre Square (where City Hall now sits) in 1801. This was replaced by a new pumping station along the banks of the Schuylkill River in 1815. This Water Works at Fairmount pumped clean water directly from the river to a reservoir where the Philadelphia Museum of Art stands today. It was then delivered by gravity through a series of underground pipes to homes, businesses, and street hydrants. The city purchased land upstream of Fairmount on either side of the Schuylkill River in order to protect the water supply. This land eventually became Fairmount Park.

The 1854 Act of Consolidation expanded the city boundaries from 2 square miles to 130 square miles. As the same time, the population of Philadelphia exploded, reaching nearly half a million. Immigration, industrialization, and ready access to natural resources spurred the building of roads, railroads, and over 100 miles of canals, dams, and locks along the Schuylkill River. The city became a center for the manufacturing of consumer goods and industrial machinery.

Philadelphia’s large-scale factories fueled a booming economy and rapid development. All along the river valley, smaller cities upstream poured waste into the river. By the late 19th century, 95 percent of Philadelphia’s drinking water came from the Schuylkill River, which was now becoming an open, polluted sewer. This polluted water spread disease. The death rate from typhoid fever, a waterborne illness, was increasing at alarming rates. Something needed to be done.

Medical professionals, sanitary engineers, city councilmen, progressive women’s organizations, and even private filter companies all entered the debate: they could either clean the water or find a new source. By 1900, Philadelphia’s city council finally voted to construct a municipal filtration system. This solution nearly eradicated typhoid, but it would take nearly a half century more to implement a federal environmental policy to help rebalance the river ecology and focus on watershed management.

Also, see Adam Levine's "Sewers, Pollution, and Public Health in Philadelphia" in Pennsylvania Legacies: Pennsylvania and the Environment, Vol.  10, No . 1, May 2010.

End of Unit Assessment

As an end of unit assessment, present the students with the question: How have we developed a more balanced sense of environmental stewardship today than in the past? Have them write their answers on an exit card to hand in before they leave class. Alternatively, students can research commercial products that are developed around public health concerns today like water filters or bottled water. Ask students what these products are advertising. Do they think their claims are realistic? Would a private entrepreneurial solution have been a better option in 19th century Philadelphia?


Plans in this Unit

Surveying the Problem of Water Supply in Philadelphia and Debating a Solution

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content







PA Common Core Standards:



About the Author

This lesson was created by Ellen Freedman Schulz.   Updated for SAS by Amy Seeberger, Education Intern, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Attention Teachers!

Let us know how you used this plan and be featured on our site! Submit your story here.

bottom of page