Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Chestnut Hill Water Tower, 1859
209 East Hartwell Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19118
(formerly the 8300 block of Ardleigh Street)

Jane Mork Gibson, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The Chestnut Hill Water Company was a private enterprise incorporated in 1856 to supply water to the Chestnut Hill community, and the stone tower which contained a standpipe and had a wooden tank on top was built in 1859. An engine house providing steam power and a reservoir were also constructed. Charles Heebner was president of the company and the managers were Charles Heebner, John Smallman, Enoch Rex, W.L. Hirst, and Owen Sheridan. The contractors were Gordon McNeil and John F. Rumer; the engineer was Joshua Comly. The present owner is the City of Philadelphia.
 
The Chestnut Hill Water Company's land extended on the east side of Germantown Avenue from above Hartwell Lane to Southampton Avenue, reaching back to the Reading Railroad. Natural springs between the tower and the railroad were impounded to provide a reservoir, and there was a well next to the engine house. The location of the waterworks was near the highest elevation in Chestnut Hill, but more height was needed to service the community and so the standpipe was built. The engine house and boiler house were constructed so that the steam engine could provide the necessary power to raise the water from the well and from the reservoir to the wooden tank/reservoir on top of the standpipe for distribution. The circular tower was 125 feet high, with a door and six window openings to light the spiral staircase inside, built around a steel pipe that held the water.
 
An auxiliary reservoir nearby on Stenton Avenue was later added to increase the available supply. Both reservoirs were enclosed by neat, white picket fences. Details of the Chestnut Hill Waterworks are given by John J. Macfarlane, who also describes the additional reservoir:
 
The water was supplied from a well and springs. The well had a capacity of 100,000 gallons and supplied 80,000 gallons; the springs had a capacity of 5,000,000 gallons and supplied 350,000 gallons. The company purchased a tract on Stenton Avenue, on the Montgomery County side, below Graver's Lane, where they built a reservoir which increased the capacity to 6,316,000 gallons, with an inflow of 587,000 gallons. The tower was 125 feet high and the capacity of the tank on the top was 40,000 gallons. In dry weather when the natural supply was not sufficient it obtained water by means of a pipe from Mt. Airy. Prior to the erection of the waterworks there was a brickyard on the same ground.
1
 
With the onset of the Civil War, Mower Military Hospital was constructed in Chestnut Hill near the waterworks, just across the tracks of the Reading Railroad on land that was also owned by Charles Heebner. The hospital opened on January 3, 1863 and during that year served 6,034 patients. The importance of the water works was evident when on December 24, 1863, the boiler at Chestnut Hill Water Works exploded. The Germantown Telegraph reported that the water in the boiler was too low and the engineer ran in water without lowering the fire. The explosion wrecked the engine and boiler house and a nearby dwelling, badly scalding John Johnson, the engineer. The resulting lack of water caused much inconvenience to the military hospital because water then had to be hauled to the facility.
2
 
According to a typescript in the Philadelphia Water Department Library, "History, Growth & Development of Philadelphia Water Dept," the Philadelphia Water Department took possession of the Chestnut Hill Works on January 20, 1873.
3 The purchase price was $65,000. When the springs supplying the works failed in 1875, a main was laid from the Mount Airy Reservoir to supply the system by connecting with the Roxborough water works which pumped water from the Schuylkill River at Shawmont. Water was carried across Wissahickon Creek in a pipe bridge and then to the Mount Airy Reservoir on Allen's Lane, and water from there was pumped to Chestnut Hill. The Chestnut Hill Reservoir was abandoned in 1904, and after that date the water supply came from the Mount Airy and Roxborough Reservoirs. By that time the houses that had been built on land near the Chestnut Hill Reservoir polluted the spring and well water, making it unfit to drink. In 1910 the Chestnut Hill Water Works was dismantled and the buildings and grounds turned into a playground for children.
 
On Friday, April 6, 1917, the old water tower was damaged in a storm. A newspaper clipping read, "OLD WATER TANK IN RUINS—The wooden tank surmounting the abandoned water tower, on Norwood Street, below Graver's Lane, was wrecked in the storm of last night. The tank has been in dilapidated condition for some years. Suggestions that the tower be converted into an observatory, as it occupies a commanding station, have been made, but the funds for the work have never been available." Another clipping reminisced, "The old water tower (1859) at Gravers Station, now so forlorn and dilapidated, thirty odd years ago was still in use.  There were those who had climbed to its top and spoke of the magnificent view. At the base a reservoir of clear water sparkled in the sun."
4
 
In 1919 the present-day Water Tower Recreation Center was built at 209 East Hartwell Lane, on the site of the old engine house and boiler house that comprised the pumping station. Robert R. McGoodwin was the architect and Pringle Borthwick the contractor. This is a two-story Classical Revival stone recreation building with two matching one-story wings stretching east and west of the main structure. There are ball playing fields on the site of the reservoir, and also tennis courts. The building was dedicated to the memory of Henry M. Houston Woodward who died during the First World War. He was the son of Dr. and Mrs. George Woodward who were instrumental in creating the Water Tower Recreation Center for the community's use. Today the gymnasium provides a large meeting hall where civic activities are held, and community holiday festivities take place on the playing fields.
 
The water tower has become a town symbol, but few residents know its history. The interior of the stone tower no longer functions except as a nest for birds. The entrance has been sealed with concrete, and there is greenery visible in the window openings and at the top. The inscription on the sealed entrance to the 1859 water tower reads, "Restored in 1949 in memory of Samuel Y. Heebner, son of Charles Heebner, President, Chestnut Hill Water Company, under whose direction this tower was erected." Nearby, overlooking the site of the reservoir and playing fields, are two stone pillars constructed as a war memorial with bronze placques dedicated to those who died during World War II and containing the names of 81 individuals from local families.

1   J. Macfarlane, History of Early Chestnut Hill, (1927), p. 106.
2   See "Abstracts, Germantown Telegraph 1830-1868, Germantown Chronicle 1869-1972," Scrapbook compiled in 1946 by Edward W. Hocker and deposited at Germantown Historical Society, p. 101.
3   J. Macfarlane cites the date as 1872 (p. 106). This was probably based on a loan having been approved at that time.
4   Scrapbook in Germantown Historical Society.

Update May 2007 (by Jane Mork Gibson):

The area occupied by the former Chestnut Hill Water Company’s power station and reservoir has become an integral part of the community as a recreation center, operated by the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. In 1919 the Water Tower Recreation Center was built on the site of the pumping station, and athletic fields replaced the reservoir. Due in part to the springs that once fed the reservoir, the athletic fields become muddy when it rains. The stone water tower remains in situ, overlooking athletic fields built on the site of the reservoir. The water tower appears to be in good repair but the wooden tank at the top of the tower was removed prior to 1947. The entrance is still blocked, and there is now no evidence of greenery growing at the top or in the window openings.

The Recreation Center offers a variety of classes and activities for children of all ages. Schools and many other groups use the basketball court in the building and the athletic fields outside, which include space for baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, and basketball. There is space available for meetings of community groups. There is an Indian Culture Room with exhibits of India where a monthly meeting is held to exchange experiences.

During the week activities are planned for specific age groups. On weekday mornings there is TOT Recreation for three- to five-year-olds, where children are introduced to a wide range of basic skills. In the afternoon there are after-school activities from 3 to 6 p.m., which include a snack, homework, sports, computers, and arts and crafts.

The spring of 2007 brochure lists the following classes, plus information on a summer camp: Dance Classes (18 Months-Adult); Mommy & Me Dance Class (Creative Movement ages 18 mo.-2 yrs.); Cooking Class (Boys & Girls, 7 years & Up); Flag Football (for Boys & Girls); Gymnastics (PreSchool Class, Beginner, Advanced Beginner, Competitive Team for Girls, Girls Gymnastics Team, Boys Gymnastics Team); Aerobics for Adults; Karate (for Children & Adults); CHYSC Baseball; Water Tower Top Models (Ages 8 - 16); Children’s Art Classes; “Collage" (children 8-12); Adult Art Classes—"Drawing," “Faux Finishing," “Paper & Stamps." The Recreation Center can be reached at (215) 685-9296.