Creation of the Lancaster Water Works 

(1837 through 1856)

As was the case with most public works in Lancaster and the entire nation, the mid-1800s brought many innovative and more efficient means of supplying water to urban centers. The greater concern for health, the higher demand for water due to population increase, and the growth of a more material based American society forced Lancaster to create the Lancaster City Water Works in 1837. The new Water House, pumping system, and reservoir were built at the east end of East King Street on the Conestoga River, which had long acted as the source of the city's water supply. A second reservoir was constructed in 1851, and in 1856, a higher pressure steam pump added to the work's efficiency. By the mid-1860s, the science of water-working boomed again, and Lancaster installed the latest in turbine and steam engine technology. The Water Works had many effects on Lancaster, some of which have been manifested into local stories and myths. One true story is of a man named Jacob Demuth, who installed a bathtub in his house in 1839. This bathtub became one of the main subjects of argument citizens and city council during this period, which resulted in an annual tax for all bathtubs. By 1849, the tax had been increased to thirty dollars, but was lowerd to sixteen after much protest by a physician named Dr. John Atlee, who claimed that bathing in tubs was a healthy practice. This idea came long before any scientific proof was found about physical cleanliness being a healthy attribute, especially against diseases like cholera.*

* Loose, John Ward Willson. The Heritage of Lancaster. (Windsor Publications, Inc.: Woodland Hills, 1978).

This summary is found in the 1943 Bryson City Directory for Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Lancaster Water Works

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Pump House, Water Works, erected 1836-37

This excellent improvement for the health and convenience of the citizens was completed on the 22nd of February, 1838**, when the water was first introduced to the Basin and through some of the main streets. The Basin, situated between East King and East Orange streets, above Ann, will contain about two millions and a half gallons of water, and measures about two hundred feet square on the surface. The water is conveyed to the Basin from the Conestoga river, a half mile southeast of the city on a gradual elevation, rising two hundred and eighty feet, by means of a forcing pump.

The number of dwellings in the city, now supplied with water, are 305.

Water Committee - Michael Withers, Chairman; Wm. W. Pennel, Jacob Albright, John Culbert, John R. Russel, Adam F. Hambright, George Messenkop, Treasurer, John A. Messenkop, Superintendent.

** Bryson made a mistake here, for the date the Lancaster City Water Works opened was actually one year earlier, February 22, 1837.

Note: The text is taken from Bryson, James H. Bryson's Lancaster City Directory (Lancaster, 1843).

The following section is found in the Minutes of the February 7, 1837, meeting of the Select Council of the City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Minutes of the Select Council

Of the City of Lancaster

I respectively enclose for the information of councils, the Report of Mr. Erdman engineer of the Lancaster water works.

Respectively your Obt.
John Mathiot, May
Lancaster Feb: 7th 1837


To the chairman and Gentlemen of the
watering committee of the city of Lancaster


Agreeably to request, I have the honour to lay before you a report of the present state of the work under my charge, together with an estimate for its completion, so far as is contemplated at the present time.

As regards the reservoir, which was first commenced, I have the pleasure of stating that it is finished for the reception of the water, in a manner that will insure durability and success in its operation and am happy to say that in whole of that part of the work, no difficulty occurred to impede its progress owing mainly to the ability and energy of the contractors and the prompt cooperation of the gentlemen of the Water committee.

In relation to the dam, which was next commenced by contract, and finished in the time contemplated except the copying of the piers, which yet remains to be done; I have the satisfaction of saying the contractor performed the work agreeable to directions, and it has the action of winters freshets on it, which proves its strength, as no part of it has yielded to the ice or water, the coping of the piers of the dam as well as the coping of the guard walls of the water house, I would recommend, to be put in progress as soon as the season will permit, as it will require considerable labor to prepare the stone, which should be done in time for the early operation of the coming spring.

The Water house which was next commenced. I regret to say has not progressed as was at first anticipated, owing principally to its falling into improper hands which occasioned at least two months delay; thereby threw that work late in the Season; that in connection with the loss of one month caused by having the water backed on us by the expense on that part of the work, in keeping up dams and extra pumping and bailing of water; notwithstanding the work is so far accomplished as to permit the machinery being put in and the guard gates &c finished, and unless some unforeseen circumstance occurs to delay it, the pump will be put into operation between the 20th and 25th of the present month.

The contractors for the pump and water wheel have the principal part of the work in its place, the quality of which is such as to give the fullest evidence of its durability and its capability to perform what is required of it; and I have the pleasure of saying that I have not the smallest doubt of its giving every satisfaction.

There are now laid in the main leading from the pump to the reservoir, which is completed, except about 50 feet connecting with the pump. 4864 feet of pipes including two curved pipes and one branch; the connection with the pump will be made within the present week, which will make the main between those two points complete and ready for the operation of the pump.

The main leading from the reservoir to the court house is laid within one pipe, which will also be completed the present week; it has including branches 4909 feet of pipes in it; thus forming a connected line through the reservoir from the court house to the main of 9773 feet of pipes, 4 of the fire plugs are set, the balance will be placed and every other part of the work connected with letting down the water to the court house finished by the time above stated; which will give East King street the full use of the Water as regards fire.

There are on hand, not laid 5430 feet of 8 pipes proved and inspected by me, 1161 feet proved by Mr. Slaymaker and delivered at Wrightsville previous to my going to their furnace, and 788 feet 4 inches of pipes, 16 branches, 1 reducing pipe, 12 plug pipes, 12 frames and covers due on Mr. Slaymakers contract. There are also on hand not laid 1279 feet 10 inches of 10 inch pipes, designed for North Queen street, from the court house to the Rail road; also 1907 feet 8 inches of 6 inch pipes part of the latter are laid. There are also on hand not laid 48 branches. 5 curved pipes 4 reducing pipes. 20 plug pipes and 18 frames and covers. There are delivered by the contractors, Messrs, Snyder and Price 29 stop cocks 11 of which are set. 20 fire plugs; 4 of which are set, and 12 stop cocks and 20 fire plugs due on their contract.

The following is an estimate for the completion of the reservoir; dam piers, water house, coping of walls of the Water house, laying all pipes on hand and contracted for, and all other work to finish, connected with supplying the city with water, as far as is at present contemplated (balances on contracts already made and commenced not included) making collectively the sum of $10, 476.00.

I am gentlemen with great respect
Yours &c
F. Erdman Engn


Which communication of the Mayor and Report of the Engineer being read. I was on Motion resolved that the same be approved; and clerk directed to take the same to common council for concurrence.

After sometime the clerk was directed to inform Common council, that Select Council had no more business and were ready to adjourn.

The Clerk of Common Council being introduced, informed that common council had concurred in the approval of the report of the committee appointed to abate any nuisance in the conestoga below the Water Works and also in the Communication from the Mayor and the report of the Engineer relative to the Water Works. And that they had no more business and were ready to adjourn.

On motion
William Whiteside clerk

Note: The text is taken from a journal of Minutes of the Select Council of the City of Lancaster, found in the Municipal Building, 120 N. Duke St., Lancaster, PA 17608.

Compiled by James Robertson '97, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, PA.