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PA-AWWA Young Professionals committee hosted a bike tour of historic water infrastructure sites along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia


On July 2018, the PA Section American Water Works Association Young Professionals committee hosted a bike tour of historic water infrastructure sites along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. About twenty water industry professionals participated in the tour. The group traveled about six miles by bike and visited five different water infrastructure sites. Participants leisurely rode their bikes along the Schuylkill River Trail system between stops. Philadelphia Water volunteers Jon Martin and Pat Perhosky provided a historical and technical perspective at each stop. At the end of the tour, everyone gathered at Parks on Tap, a traveling beer garden, at the former site of the now-demolished Spring Garden Water Works, once Philadelphia’s largest water pumping station in its time.

The tour began at the Fairmount Water Works. In the 1800s, the Water Works was a hugely popular tourist destination, showcasing the cutting edge of water technology of the day.  The Water Works went under several iterations from steam pumps, water wheels, and finally hydraulic turbines. The Water Works significantly changed the landscape of Philadelphia and the Schuylkill River. In the early 1821 the Fairmount Dam was constructed to provide hydraulic power for the water wheels, and resulted in a six-mile pond upstream. After it was decommissioned, the Water Works was home to one of the first aquariums in the country, then a public swimming pool, and ultimately the current Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, a must-see educational and historical attraction for any age.

After departing the Water Works, the group rode across the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive Bridge to the west side of the river. The next stop on the tour was the Fairmount Fish Ladder at the western edge of the Fairmount Dam. The fish ladder helps American Shad and other aquatic life access upper reaches of the Schuylkill River. Migratory fish used to be abundant in the river prior to the construction of the Fairmount Dam, but their population declined as the dam hampered their ability to spawn. The Fish Ladder was originally constructed in 1979 using some structural remnants of the Fairmount Canal Lock, and received major improvements in 2009. The improvements included hydraulic modifications that make it easier for Shad to locate and traverse the fish ladder.

Upon departing the fish ladder, the group continued upstream to a point beneath the Girard Avenue bridge. From this vantage, the site of the former Spring Garden Pumping Station was visible on the opposite side of the river. While this site would later become the final stop on the tour after crossing the river, the vantage from this side provided a great view of the still-intact intake structures and sluice gate operators along the river bank. Large-format historic photo boards were circulated among the participants at each stop. This provided a visual connection between what they were seeing, and what was being described about the past.

Next, the tour group continued upstream the Schuylkill River on the longest cycling segment to the Belmont Raw Water Pumping Station. The majestic brick building houses many pumps that lift water from the Schuylkill River up to the Belmont Treatment Plant in West Philadelphia. A neighboring steam boiler house existed on the site well into the 1900s until the conversion to electric motors took place. The current building is actually steel with a brick facade, which affords a column free footprint. Participants were shown historic construction photographs revealing the now-hidden steel skeleton.

From this point, participants choose from two options to reach the final destination. Some continued upstream the Schuylkill River to the Falls Bridge and then took Kelly Drive back downstream, in what was dubbed the “scenic route”. This route catered to avid cyclists who wanted to enjoy a longer ride along the upper reaches of the Schuylkill River Trail. Others opted to ride back down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to cross the Girard Avenue Bridge to the other side of the river. Those who crossed the Girard Avenue Bridge were taken to another water infrastructure destination, the East Park Booster Station. While the pump station is not very large, it plays an important role in ensuring adequate water pressure for other parts of the city.

The final leg of the journey was a short ride down Brewery Hill Drive off of Girard Avenue to the Glendinning Rock Garden, a public park adjacent to the Schuylkill River. The park is the former site of the Spring Garden Water Works. Very little surface infrastructure remains other than a cobble driveway and the intakes observed from across the river. The park is relatively flat and is nestled between two rock outcroppings, and was surely an ideal spot for a fresh water intake. Parks on Tap, Philadelphia’s own traveling beer garden which pops up at a different public park each week during the summer, was held at Glendinning Rock Garden for the first time.

The bike tour was an excellent opportunity to get a close look at water infrastructure and learn about its history. We hope the participants think of these areas next time they bike past them, and take some time to stop and read some of the historical placards and monuments that commemorate the city’s water history. Due to the high level of interest and positive feedback of the event, the organizers are looking into holding the event again so that more people can enjoy the recreational and educational experience.



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