Public Services

The Life of the Schuylkill: Part Two


Jaundice. Vomiting. Kidney failure. Bleeding from the mouth, eyes, nose and stomach. Death.

Many Philadelphians today would probably not have a hard time believing that the list above is a catalogue of consequences one might reasonably expect to suffer after drinking out of the river. Yet it was precisely these agonies – the agonies of yellow fever – from which Philadelphia depended on the Schuylkill for protection at the turn of the 19th century.

Convinced that the city’s filthy drinking water was behind a series of yellow fever epidemics that killed a quarter of the population of the city in the 1790’s, Philadelphia launched an ambitious program of water management that culminated in the building of the Fairmount Waterworks. The Waterworks were unquestionably a technological marvel of their time, becoming the second most visited American tourist attraction after Niagara Falls. Yet the whole project had been based on the mistaken notion – advanced by, among others, Declaration of Independence signer Dr. Benjamin Rush – that yellow fever was spread by contaminated drinking water. Piping in relatively clean water from the Schuylkill did improve the city’s health, but it did nothing to eliminate the mosquitoes that spread yellow fever. What’s more, the excellent water system intended to safeguard the health of the city would contribute to the death toll in the next great epidemic: typhoid.


In the 1890s, a century after the yellow fever epidemics – and Franklin’s bequest to the city for a public water system – Philadelphia endured some of the worst typhoid outbreaks in the country. Business had been good during the Civil War, and the factories, slaughterhouses and coal mining operations that drove eastern Pennsylvania’s economy were dumping their waste directly into the river out of which Philadelphians downstream drank. Coursing throughout Philadelphia in a distribution system that was the pride of the city, the contaminated water spread disease and death. Poor sanitation in the city itself compounded the problem, as the river was used simultaneously as a sewer and a source of drinking water.

As reported in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1883, Schuylkill water was so bad by the late 19th century that “…a physician offered $50 to anyone who would drink a quart of it ten nights in a row. Each evening, the doomed man comes on stage, the stipulated amount of water is brought out and he takes the draught to slow music before a sympathetic audience. It is the agreement that if he vomits or dies, he will lose the prize.”

A river of “uncommon purity” a century earlier, the Schuylkill became a dead river in which not even bacteria could live happily. So black with coal its surface would not reflect the sun, the river was also known to run red from the offal of the slaughterhouses, to say nothing of the rainbow of colors contributed by industrial dyes. As late as 1924, the river reminded local activists of Moses’ Ten Plagues, Philadelphia apparently having been cursed “as the land of Egypt was cursed by God at the mouth of Aaron.”

Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s reputation for especially disgusting water persisted for decades. Navy pilots stationed around the city during World War II claimed they could navigate around Philadelphia by smell, while a cartoon in Stars and Stripes demonstrated how far word had spread about the city’s water. The picture shows a group of GIs looking on as one of their fellow soldiers drinks directly from a murky jungle swamp. “That guy’s from Philadelphia,” the caption reads. “He can drink anything.”


  • The Philadelphia Water Department. The Philadelphia Water Department: An Historical Perspective,, 1987.
  • The Philadelphia Water Department, in collaboration with Hal Kirn and Associates and Rocky Collins.The River and the City: Script for a Film, 1994.
  • “View of the practicability and means of supplying the city of Philadelphia with wholesome water.” In a letter to John Miller, Esquire, from B. Henry Latrobe, engineer. December 29th. 1798. Printed by order of the Corporation of Philadelphia. (Accessed via American Antiquarian Society and NewsBank, inc. Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans Readex Digital Collections).
  • Lonkevich, Susan “Rebirth on the River” The Pennsylvania Gazette. Jan/Feb, 2000.
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