National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV

A Brief History of Drinking Water Distribution

by Kathy Jesperson
On Tap Asociate Editor


Can you imagine trying to live your life without running water? Of all municipal services, a potable water supply is perhaps the most vital. All people depend on water for drinking, cooking, washing, carrying away wastes, and other domestic needs.

The earliest settled communities were virtually always located near a water source. Further, the evolution of public water supply systems is tied directly to the growth of cities. And if a surface water source was not available, settlers dug shallow wells to supply water to community residents.

Photo caption-Recent archaeological work has uncovered an elaborate water distribution system at Machu Pichu, Peru. By about A.D. 1450, Incan engineers had devised a spring collection system that fed 16 fountains—at an altitude of more than 8,000 feet. Photo by Mark Kemp-Rye.

Distribution Lines Begin
Constructing “qanats," slightly sloping tunnels driven into hillsides containing groundwater, probably originated in northwestern Persia (now Armenia) around 700 B.C. From the hillsides, gravity pushed the water in open channels to nearby towns or cities.

Qanats became widespread throughout the region, and some are still in existence. Until 1933, Tehran, the Iranian capital city, drew its entire water supply from a system of qanats.

Among the most notable of ancient water conveyance systems are the aqueducts built between 312 B.C. and A.D. 455 throughout the Roman Empire. Some of these impressive works are still in existence.

A typical Roman aqueduct included both underground and above-ground channels. The longest was the Aqua Marcia, built in 144 B.C. Its source was approximately 23 miles from Rome.

The aqueduct itself was 57 miles long because it meandered along land contours to maintain a steady flow of water. For about 50 miles, the aqueduct traveled underground in a covered trench. Only for the last seven miles was it above ground, on an arcade comprising one or more levels of massive granite piers and impressive arches. The aqueducts ended in Rome at distribution reservoirs, from which the water was transported to public baths or fountains. A few very wealthy or privileged citizens had water piped directly into their homes, but most Romans carried water in containers from a public fountain.

Workers constructed channels of cut stone, brick, rubble, or rough concrete. Pipes were typically made of drilled stone or of hollowed wooden logs, but workers laid pipes made of clay and lead as well.

Cast-iron pipes with joints capable of withstanding high pressures were not often used until the early 19th century. The steam engine was first used to pump water at about the same time, making it possible for all but the smallest communities to have drinking water supplied directly to individual homes. Asbestos cement, ductile iron, reinforced concrete, and steel came into use as water supply pipeline materials in the 20th century.

Americans Bore Logs
America’s first distribution lines were made of bored-out logs, usually from hemlock or elm trees. The trees’10-inch-thick trunks were cut into seven- to-nine-foot lengths.

But wooden pipe laid below ground created several problems, especially in larger settlements or towns. Uneven ground below the joists would cause sags in the log where water would stagnate. The wooden pipes were often infested with insects, and the water generally had a woody taste.

Using a five-foot steel auger between them, the borers would fix the log by eye, size it up with a point of the ax, and drill or bore out the center. Ramming one end to make a conical shape, they would jam the logs together in a series, using a bituminous-like pitch or tar to caulk the joists. Sometimes they would split the log and hollow it out, put it together, connect the logs with iron hoops, or get the blacksmith to caulk the logs with lead.

These early engineers would set up a gravity water system, starting from a spring or stream on high ground, which allowed water to flow downhill to the house or farm. They cut a path behind the house, through the barn, and the water flowed into a catch basin.

Key Dates in Drinking Water History

4,000 B.C.
First cities appear in Sumeria
700 B.C.
Qanats orginated in Persia
312 B.C.
Start of Roman aqueduct construction
144 B.C.
Aqua Marcia, the longest Roman aqueduct, built
1450 A.D.
Incan engineers construct distribution system at Machu Pichu
1652 A.D.
First incorporated waterworks formed in Boston
1804 A.D.
Philadelphia is first city to use cast iron water mains
1842 A.D.
Croton Aqueduct project completed, supplying water to New York City
1869 A.D.
Chicago unveils revolutionary tunnel system
1996 A.D.
Amendments to the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act passed by Congress
2001 A.D.
More than 90 percent of the U.S. population is served by community water systems

First Waterworks in Beantown
In 1652, Boston incorporated the country’s first waterworks, formed to provide water for fire-fighting and domestic use.

Because fire was a common hazard in those days of wood-framed houses and stores, and chimney fires were always a risk, it was imperative to have a ready water supply.

The line supplying water to Boston’s waterfront and other buildings ran from Jamaica Pond to the Faneuil Hall area. In 1795, the Jamaica Pond Aqueduct Corporation used hemlock trees to construct 15 more miles of three-inch and five-inch wooden water pipe. The new fresh water supply helped to lower the death rate.

Crude by today’s standards, these new pipelines were invaluable to firefighters. They punched a hole into the wooden pipe along the edge of the street, inserted a smaller pipe, pre-sized to fit the newly bored hole and harnessed hose from the pipe to their two-man pumper fire wagon. The fire out, they plugged up the hole again with a pre-cut conical stopper on the end of a long pole that they inserted into the hole and banged shut. This “fireplug," was then ready to be pulled out for the next chimney fire.

Making the Change to Iron
Wooden pipes were common until the early 1800s when the increased pressure required to pump water into rapidly expanding streets began to split the pipes. As iron became more available, cities began to use it in distribution systems.

In 1804, Philadelphia earned the distinction as the first city in the world to use cast iron pipe for its water mains. It was also the first city in America to build a large-scale waterworks as it drew upon the Schuykill River’s ample supply. Once the city installed its new iron pipes, it sold its cast-off wooden pipes to Burlington, New Jersey, where they remained in use until 1887.

In the mid-19th century, New York City finished an ambitious project that brought water from the Croton River, some 40 miles north of Manhattan. By the time it was completed in 1842, the project had 41 miles of channel (at a constant slope of 13.5 inches per mile), 16 tunnels, 114 culverts, and a bridge over the Harlem River.

Efficient waterworks depend on pumps. Prior to steam power in the 1800s, water wheels harnessed river flow to raise the water. On the frontier and on farms, windmills and simple hydraulic pumps provided the most efficient means of pumping water for the entire farmyard. A storage tank large enough to hold two or three days’ water supply was mounted on the upper floor of the barn, and water was then piped to individual locations.

By the late 1800s, windmill use was in full force. But metropolitan areas require more than windmills or simple hydraulic pumps to generate a water supply for an entire population, especially for those in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. For example, Chicago’s population soared from 350 people in 1835 to more than 60,000 by mid-century. In 1869, the city unveiled a new engineering feat that made newspaper headlines around the world.

Photo Caption-Built in 1869, the Chicago Water Tower was a central component of that city's visionary water system in the 19th Century. The Tower survived the great fire of 1871 and is still in use today. Photo by Harriet Emerson.

Water Tunnels Supply Chicago
The Chicago Waterpower supplied the city with water through a twin-tunnel system that extended two miles out into Lake Michigan. Offshore, the clear lake water entered an underwater shaft leading to the tunnel below the lake-bed where a wooden crib protected the intake shaft.

The first tunnel, completed in 1869, contained a massive three foot-wide, 138 foot-tall standpipe that equalized pressure in the mains throughout the city’s water system. The building was miraculously spared in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and still stands as a monument to the city’s past.

Coal-fired, steam-driven engines drew water from the tunnel beneath the lake. They provided 15 million gallons per day into the city’s water mains. When the pumping station was modernized in 1906 and new engines installed, the standpipe was removed. The station today contains six powerful engines, which pump 72.5 million gallons on an average day.

Today, more than 250 million people in the U.S.—or approximately 90 percent of the population—get their water from community water systems.

The History of Plumbing in America

"Environmental Works" Encyclopedia Britannica

About The Author
Kathy Jesperson
is co-editor of On Tap. She will edit the summer issue, slated for publication in August 2001.