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A 200-history of Philadelphia water pollution

Downstream,” the Science History Institute’s new exhibition about river water analysis over the last 200 years, explains the political and scientific history of watershed protection. 

It opens Tuesday, Sept. 14, and answers the questions: What did we know, and when did we know it?

It starts at the birth of the United States, in the late 1700s when the capital of the new nation, Philadelphia, was a “wet and stinking mess,” according to the oversized text that immediately greets visitors upon entry.

The area around what is now Dock Street in Old City was dense with leather tanners and beer brewers, whose effluvia choked what was then Dock Creek with pollutants. 

The Downstream exhibit at the Science History Institute, opening September 14, 2021, examines the conditions of pollution, the culprits and implemented solutions in the history of the Delaware and Schuykyill rivers, and showcases instruments and tools that helps scientists measure pollution levels. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Curator Jesse Smith said people could see, smell, and taste the contaminants in the network of creeks that used to form a web of waterways throughout Philadelphia. Their human senses were their primary analytical tools.

“It was biological,” he said. “Waste from industries like tanning, like brewing, animals that were left to rot in waterways, and also vast amounts of human waste.”

Arranged chronologically, “Downstream” starts with the mess that was Center City water and follows the progressive development of water science over the next two centuries, and how it intersected with the ecology, politics, and economics of water.

Although people knew how bad the water was in the 1700s, nothing was done about it until people started dying en masse. A series of yellow fever epidemics — the most serious of which killed 10% of Philadelphia’s population, about 5,000 people, in the fall of 1793 — snapped the city into action.

Philadelphia needed a new source of clean water, and the Schuylkill River was the best candidate: a much cleaner waterway on the opposite side of the city from the heavily industrialized Delaware River. 

The Fairmount Water Works was built as the nation’s first large-scale municipal water system, pulling drinking water from the Schuylkill and sending it through underground wooden pipes throughout the city.

To this day, the Philadelphia Water Department occasionally discovers original wooden pipes still underground. “Downstream” features a small section, about two feet long, under glass.

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