The City of Burlington’s Insatiable Need for a Clean and Dependable Water Supply
by Jerseyman ©2011
Like many urban centers, the history of public water distribution in Burlington, New Jersey, is a fascinating historical subject. Prior to 1804, all Burlingtonians obtained their domestic water supply from individual wells behind each resident’s house or place of business. The wells were often shallow and presented a very real threat of contamination and disease from runoff and from nearby outhouses and domestic garbage middens. In an early effort to counteract the growing contaminant problem, the city constructed public wells along High Street, including one near the Burlington County Courthouse at the intersection of High and Broad streets. In October 1804, the state legislature approved an act to incorporate the Burlington Aqueduct Company:
The supply obtained was insufficient for anything beyond the merest domestic service, and such a measure as fire protection therefore would be entirely out of the question, but nevertheless a few fire-hydrants of a rude pattern were placed on these lines.
Baths were a luxury few could enjoy. Those even who had means to pay and leisure to wait for a flow into bath-tubs, must be sufficiently lowly-minded to content themselves with bathing in the lower stories of their houses, while some found it expedient to use their basements for that purpose.
The rules of the Aqueduct Company were necessarily rigid regarding the use and waste of water; and so exclusive were the privileges given, and so stringent their regulations, that great care was required to avoid a violation of them, and once a prominent citizen, an inn-keeper, was fined five dollars for giving drink to a horse from a pail. (Woodward 1883:138)
Competition arose in circa 1843 when the aqueduct company could not supply Thomas Dugdale, owner of a steam-powered grist and saw mill on the banks of the Delaware River, with water to his dwelling on Pearl Street. This failure provided Dugdale with the impetus to establish his own system of piping. He acquired a pumping engine for his mill complex and began drawing water from the river. He distributed the water through small-bore iron pipe, which, similar to the aqueduct company, could not deliver a high-pressure supply. Nonetheless, it was better than the trickle found in the wooden pipe. The aqueduct company protested Dugdale’s actions, but his improved water supply met with great public approval. City council passed an ordinance to permit Dugdale to lay piping along other streets with the caveat that he furnish 25 fire hydrants gratis to the city. No sooner did Dugdale begin to distribute water to his customers then his mill burned during December 1844. Reconstruction occurred early in 1845, including a tall brick tower containing seven iron reservoir tanks, which added pressure to the distribution system. In 1847, Burlington artist John Collins (grandson of Burlington printer Isaac Collins) published a portfolio of lithographs depicting city scenes, including one of the “Burlington Steam Mills and Water Works.” Here is a colorized version of that artwork, which clearly depicts the tower containing the iron reservoir tanks:
By 1848, the public's demand for a reliable water supply had exponentially increased. After turning a profit in his water business, Dugdale approached the Burlington Aqueduct Company with an offer to purchase all of it property and coveted franchises for pipe routes. Writing in his 1883 history, Woodward notes, “[Dugdale]…succeeded in making such terms as led to his sole proprietorship of the same” (Woodward 1883:138). In his history of Burlington published in 1927, William E. Schermerhorn states, “A few years later Mr. Dugdale acquired the Aqueduct Company’s franchise” (Schermerhorn 1927:339). Dugdale took control of the aqueduct company and worked with the city to improve operations. On 5 June 1855, the Burlington City Council approved an ordinance titled, “An Ordinance empowering the President of the Burlington Aqueduct Company to raise by Loan, Money to be applied to the payment of the liabilities of the Company and the purchase of such materials and real or personal estate in, or near, the City of Burlington, N.J., as shall be requisite for their use.” As a result of this loan authorization, Dugdale, acting in his capacity as company president, issued bonds like as the one below:
Courtesy of the Absecon Historical Society
In 1858, Liscomb R. Titus, one of the major bondholders in the Burlington Aqueduct Company, brought suit in the New Jersey Court of Chancery against the company for default on interest payment. Most likely the national financial panic of 1857 played a major role in the company’s lack of cash flow. In December of the same year, Barker Gummere, attorney for Titus, published a legal notice that the court had issued a subpoena for Thomas Ridgway, Samuel Grant, Charles Lennig, Christopher Fallon, and John Fallon, all holders of mortgage bonds in the water company that lived outside of New Jersey, to appear in court to answer questions concerning their investments:
Trenton State Gazette 28 December 1858:4
To facilitate the court-directed sale, the state legislature approved an act to reincorporate the aqueduct company as the Burlington Water Company in March 1859 (ibid.):
Trenton State Gazette 8 June 1860:3
As early as February 1873, the state legislature considered a bill to authorize the city to purchase the Burlington Water Company and its holdings:
City of Burlington Common Council 1879:40-52
Trenton State Gazette 13 December 1876:2
As the growth of the city demanded a greater supply of water, the inadequacy of that furnished by the old system became more and more apparent and embarrassing. Complaints became common against the company, until, after a succession of losses by fire, due mainly to the want of water with which to extinguish them, culminating in the disastrous conflagration of Dec. 10, 1876, the spirit of the citizens became sufficiently aroused to take such action…. (Woodward 1883:138)
The December 1876 conflagration convinced city council to move forward with expediency in acquiring the assets of the water corporation. Rather than use the terms of the 1873 act, the city fathers applied the provisions contained with the more general 1876-1877 acts. Schermerhorn indicates the sale took place under a new state law passed to enable “…cities to obtain ‘a supply of pure and wholesome water,’” a direct quote from the legislative act (Schermerhorn 1927:339-340). Within two months of the fire, council members established its new water commission and authorized it to construct a new water works and modernize the distribution system, based on an ordinance approved on 7 February 1877:
City of Burlington Common Council 1879:203-208
…after several public meetings, [the city adopted]…the provisions of the act which the Legislature had passed, enabling cities to obtain a supply of pure and wholesome water. Several plans for the accomplishment of this end were devised, but it was finally thought expedient to purchase from the Burlington Water Company all their property and rights, and to improve and extend their works in such a manner as to meet the wants of the town. This was accordingly done, and March 22, 1877, a deed was executed and delivered to the city treasurer, granting all the possessions held by said company under their charter, inclusive of the rights and leases in the lands furnishing the spring water from the hills, for the sum of $25,000, the issue of bonds to the amount of $65,000 having been previously authorized for these purposes by a popular vote. (Woodward 1883:138)
The new commission wasted no time in planning a more modern water pumping and distribution system. Major Woodward writes:
During the first year of the public administration it became apparent that steps must be taken at once for obtaining a greater flow of water through the public mains, and after delays and difficulties it was determined to lay new mains through most of the streets, and to purchase a new engine and pump, which was done, and the new engine began its regular duty on the 2d day of March, 1878. The completion of the new building and the new machinery made possible the demolition of the unsightly structure formerly containing the old boiler, and enabled the commissioners to erect a neat little building about the stack, and to improve that part of the grounds formerly covered by the old building. Notwithstanding this improvement in the appearance of the property, its narrowness on the front next to Pearl Street, and the obliquity of the west line, adjoining the African Methodist Episcopal Church, lessened its beauty and utility to such an extent that it was thought proper to recommend to Council the purchase of a strip of ground from the church. This was done at a cost of three hundred and twenty-five dollars, after which a neat iron fence was built along the entire front. Substantial and sightly fences of wood were built on either side, the lawn was laid in grass, the front was paved, and young shade-trees were planted in front and on the side next to the river. On the river front, the proximity of the cemetery belonging to the church mentioned, and the dilapidation of its inclosures, led the commissioners to erect a substantial stone wall around the north and east sides thereof; and a dock owned by Mr. Joseph Vandegrift in immediate contact with the wharf property belonging to the works was purchased, at a cost of four hundred dollars, and measures were taken to strengthen the reservoir building. (Woodward 1883:138)
To prepare for the upgraded piping and appurtenances, city council passed a supplement on 3 September 1878 to the original February 1877 ordinance, providing the Board of Water Commissioners with regulatory powers:
City of Burlington Common Council 1879:208-209
A post card view depicts the Holly-Gaskill engine and the attending engineer at the water works:
After the Holly-Gaskill Company completed the installation, the renowned hydraulic engineer Henry P.M. Birkinbine ran the engine trials at Burlington to ascertain contract compliancy. He then published a report detailing his findings. Here is the initial portion of the text, which firmly expresses Birkinbine’s opinion that the Board of Water Commissioners ordered an engine too small for its purpose:
BURLINGTON, N. J.
REPORT OF HENRY P. M. BIRKINBINE, C. E.
The engine on which the following test was made was of the Gaskill Compound type, but of the smallest size built, and with unjacketed steam cylinders; and the duty obtained is considered by the builders as all that could be expected from so small a machine operating at so slow a piston speed. The shortness of the trials was due to the fact that at the time they were made the supply of water was not sufficient to allow of a longer continuous run. This the engineer states to be the case in his report.
The pumping engine furnished by The Holly Manufacturing Company, of Lockport, N. Y., for the Burlington Water Works, was submitted to a test for duty and capacity October 28th and 29th, 1884.
The manner of proceeding was not as precise and accurate in every detail as could have been pursued, yet the results may be taken as sufficiently correct to enable a practical decision as to the ability of the pumping apparatus to fulfill the contract.
At the commencement of the test the engine was in operation, steam up to working pressure and the fire in a fair condition. This, the engineer of the works, Mr. John Crook, was directed to observe carefully, and also to so conduct the firing as to leave it in as near the same condition as practicable when the tests were concluded.
While there may have been a possibility of error in the judgment of your engineer as to the condition of the fire, at the beginning and close of the test, yet from his long experience as an engineer it may be accepted as practically correct.
All the coal supplied to the fire during the test was carefully weighed, the height of the water in the boiler marked on the gauge, and the water pumped into it was passed through a meter and the quantity measured.
The test could not be continued as long as it was desired, on account of the new connection with the river not being completed. The supply of water for the pumps had to be taken from the old pump-well, and this was several times interrupted by reason of the screen becoming choked by floating matter.
The results, however, are so far above the contract guarantee that these matters of possible error may be dismissed. By the terms of the contract the Commissioners could demand a continuous test of six days. This was not thought advisable, as it would have made it necessary to allow at least 1,250,000 gallons to be wasted each day, and would have required a corresponding waste of coal. If there were any doubt of the ability of the machinery to fulfill the demands of the contract, this long test might be insisted upon, but with the large margin in favor of the engine it was not deemed necessary. (Birkinbine 1884:65)
As the contractor built the new water works, gangs of workmen opened city streets and begin the long task of running new mains and laterals, a project finally completed in 1885, but not before a battle in city council and the pointing of a revolver at a councilman. Here is that story, as Henry Bisbee told it in 1978:
The new commission decided to lay new water mains. A contract was awarded (too quickly, some said) to Andrew McNeal to furnish and lay our larger mains. Some on City Council didn’t like the appointment.
Andrew McNeal [owner of the pipe foundry in East Burlington] had made his bid under the name of the McNeal Pipe Laying Company. Offices were on West Union street. There was no evidence that such a concern existed. William E. Schermerhorn, in his History of Burlington, implies that the Water Commissioners “had not come with clean hands.” Many decided that there was something “fishy” about the whole deal. Half of City Council agreed as they were divided six to six on the question of accepting McNeal’s bid. Hot debates flew in Council chambers.
The controversy continued for months. McNeal’s people contended that he had properly filed his bid and that the contract had been awarded fairly to the lowest bidder. His opponents claimed he intended to “farm out” the contract, that he was an irresponsible middleman and that the award had been illegal. They claimed that not enough public notice had been given. Angry debates continued in Council as charges and countercharges were hurled by Council.
As members of Council were leaving City Hall after a particularly hectic session, Andrew McNeal blocked the way of Councilman William H. Kimball. The infuriated contractor pointed a revolver at Kimball. A quick-witted bystander grabbed the revolver while others closed in on McNeal. No shot was fired. The situation would have been amusing if it had not been so serious. In the crowded corridor of City Hall the revolver was tossed from hand to hand like a hot potato. Someone finally pocketed the revolver. McNeal was arrested. When the defendant was brought before the Justice of the Peace the judge was forced to free the contractor. No weapon could be found. The evidence had disappeared.
For several weeks after the revolver incident, Council remained dead-locked six to six. Neither side would budge. Then the opposition discovered that one of the Councilmen had moved his residence to Philadelphia, but still kept his seat. Joseph R. Flanigan had supported McNeal. The opposition group had a writ served demanding that Flanigan show cause for keeping his seat. This broke the dead-lock. The case was taken to court, which ordered the contract to McNeal be voided. New bids were then advertised. R.D. Wood Company of Florence was the successful bidder. (Bisbee 1978:3-4)
The Sanborn Map Company depicted the water works in its January 1886 atlas of fire insurance maps for Burlington:
Sanborn Map Publishing Company 1886:2
Sanborn-Perris Map Company 1891:5
The water works continued to derive its water from the Delaware, but the river became increasingly polluted with industrial waste and raw sewage from upriver communities like Trenton. The Board of Water Commissioners tried repeatedly to stop the state capital from dumping its raw sewage into the Delaware, but the commissioners finally gave up as no convening authority could stop Trenton from its routine river dumping (The Philadelphia Inquirer 26 April 1891:1).
In preparation for an addition to the existing water works building, the water commission ordered the unused tank house removed, which was the portion of the building closest to Pearl Street. The 1896 Sanborn depicts the boiler room and pump house shorn of the tank house:
Sanborn-Perris Map Company 1896:5
A reconstruction of the main water works occurred in 1897, including a major addition to the extant pumping station, complete with decorative terra cotta friezes featuring bas relief hydrants and the date “1897” above the windows on the gambrel dormer and the words “Water Works” across the front over the entrance door. The work included installation of a modern filtration bed in an attempt to deal with increasing contamination in the Delaware River. The 1897 edition of The Manual of American Water-Works published the following information about the Burlington water facilities:
BURLINGTON, Burlington Co. (7,264.) Now owned by city; built In ’04 by an aqueduct co.; In ’43 Thos. Dugdale laid pipe and in ’48 bought aqueduct co.’s works; In ’60 works passed Into hands of Burlington Water-Works Co., and In ’77 were bought by city. SUPPLY.—Delaware River, pumping to stand-pipe. PUMPS.—Cap., 2,000,000 galls.; 1,500,000 Holly-Gaskill hor. high duty and 500,000 Worthington comp. cond. Anthracite pea coal used; av. cost, $2.35 per short ton. STAND-PIPE.—Cap., 282,000 galls.; 20 x 120 ft., on stone. FISCAL YEAR CLOSED Mar. 1. DISTRIBUTION.—Mains, 11½ miles; cost extensions met by consumers. Taps, 1,780; made by city for $1.50. Services, lead and Iron; paid for by consumer. Hydrants, 115. CONSUMPTION.—(Galls.) av., 450.000; max., 550,000; mln., 350,000. PRESSURE.—Ordinary, 56 lbs. Steam fire engines are sometimes used. FINANCIAL.—Cost, $115,000. Bonded debt, $53,500, at 4%, due 1906. Expenses, $6,040: Operating, $4,000; Int., $2,040. Op. exp. and Int. consumes 40% of revenue, new construction 10%, balance goes for redemption of bonds. Revenue, $10,000. MANAGEMENT.—Chn., Jno. A. Vandegrift; Secy., Geo. Womsley; Treas. and Supt. Geo. A. Allison. Rept. by Treas., July 11. SEWERS.—None. REFERENCE.— Eng. News, Jan. 21, ’82. (Baker 1897:149)
The 1902 Sanborn illustrates the recently completed addition to the waterworks:
Sanborn Map Company 1902:4
This view shows the chimney projecting vertically from the boiler room:
A wider view of the building illustrates the grounds surrounding the water works:
The grove of trees to the left of the building featured benches and picnic tables as amenities on the grounds for local residents. The view from the riverbank and the stone fountains added to the pleasant experience for those visiting the water works property:
In the 1909 Burlington City Year Book, the Board of Water Commissioners published their 32nd Annual Report for the year ending 31 December 1908:
City of Burlington Common Council 1909:23-25
Trenton Evening Times, 5 March 1908:5
I presume that no one subject has engaged the thought and attention of our citizens during the year just closed more than that of the water supply. There is nothing more necessary than water and no effort should be spared in getting an adequate supply of the best that can be had, and with least delay. Cost alone should not be the controlling element in determining the nature of the supply. I have followed your proceedings with great interest and beg leave to express my satisfaction with what appears to be an approach to a solution of this important matter. I believe that the large majority of our people are convinced that the time has passed when the water of the Delaware River can be safely used without some form of purification. The increase of population above us and the continued contamination of the water renders it unfit for use. Even some of our own citizens persist in draining into the River, and in some cases not far from the present intake.
A careful examination of the reports of Hazen and Whipple, and of Henry S. Haines City Engineer, published in the City Year Book for 1908, as well as the preliminary reports since presented by Mr. Cornelius C. Vermeule, C.E., appear to show a unanimous conclusion that “it is better for the City of Burlington to get ground water rather than to filter the water of the Delaware River or of the Assiscunk Creek.” These gentlemen are all among the most eminent in hydraulic engineering in this Country, and in view of their opinions, supplemented by the data submitted by them, it would seem idle for us as laymen to differ with them. I await with interest the expected final report of Mr. Vermeule, and I sincerely trust that he may propose a plan which will meet with approval, and that immediate steps be taken to accomplish the result desired. Certainly, the time has arrived when this subject can be determined, wholly on its merits, and public officials who have any duties or responsibilities in the matter should be allowed to exercise a sound discretion, based on the advice of competent engineers, and without the constant reproach and criticism which characterized the discussion in its earlier stages. (City of Burlington Common Council 1909:5-6)
As noted in the mayor’s address above, the City of Burlington engaged the services of Civil Engineer C.C. Vermeule during 1908. Here are scans of Vermeule’s reports:
(City of Burlington Common Council 1909:73-93)
Trenton Evening Times, 9 September 1909:5
Trenton Evening Times, 17 April 1927:8
During he same year, the Burlington Township community of Springside expressed the desire to receive water service from the City of Burlington, providing an expansion of the distribution system:
Sunday Times Advertiser, 11 December 1927:38
Trenton Evening Times, 8 April 1943:7
Trenton Evening Times, 5 August 1943:6
Sunday Times Advertiser, 30 March 1947:8
In 1952, consultants finally identified a new source of water for the city—artesian wells drilled on Burlington Island:
Trenton Evening Times, 18 July 1952:2
Trenton Evening Times, 19 November 1959:10
In an effort to streamline operations at the water works and make the system more accountable to city council, the elected officials voted to abolish the city’s Board of Water Commissioners:
Trenton Evening Times, 19 December 1962:20
As the sun sets over the standpipe and the pumping station in this vintage view, hopes are high that an appropriate adaptive reuse plan can be formulated for this lasting monument to the City of Burlington’s need for clean water.
Baker, M.N., editor
1897 The Manual of American Water-Works. Fourth edition. The Engineering News Publishing Company, New York City, New York.
1884 “Burlington, N.J. October, 1884. Report of Henry P.M. Birkinbine, C.E.” Published in Official Reports of Various Duty Trials of the Gaskill Pumping Engines. Holly Manufacturing Company, Lockport, New York.
Bisbee, Henry H.
1978 “Burlington’s Water System.” Published in The Burlington Story. Vol. 8, No. One. [The Colonial Burlington Foundation], Burlington, New Jersey.
City of Burlington Common Council
1879 Charter of the City of Burlington, with the Ordinances; Revised and Printed by Order of the Common Council. S.S. Murphey, Printer, Burlington, New Jersey.
1909 Burlington City Year Book for 1909. n.p., Burlington, New Jersey.
N.J.P.L. (New Jersey Pamphlet Laws)
1804 Acts of the Twenty-Ninth General Assembly of the State of New Jersey. James J. Wilson, Trenton, New Jersey.
1859 Acts of the Eighty-Third Legislature of the State of New Jersey, and Fifteenth under the New Constitution. Tunis & Stout, Freehold, New Jersey.
1873 Acts of the Ninety-Seventh Legislature of the State of New Jersey, and Twenty-Ninth under the New Constitution. Vance & Stiles, Steam Power Book and Job Printers, Morristown, New Jersey.
Sanborn Map Company
1902 Insurance Maps of Burlington, Burlington Co., New Jersey. Sanborn Map Company, New York City, New York.
Sanborn Map Publishing Company
1886 Burlington, New Jersey. Sanborn Map Publishing Company, New York City, New York.
Sanborn-Perris Map Company
1891 Burlington, Burlington County, New Jersey. Sanborn-Perris Map Company, New York City, New York.
1896 Insurance Maps of Burlington, Burlington County, New Jersey. Sanborn-Perris Map Company, New York City, New York.
Schermerhorn, William E.
1927 The History of Burlington, New Jersey. Enterprise Publishing Company, Burlington, New Jersey.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
1891 “Little Ones from Jersey.” Published in the 26 April edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Microform edition. The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Woodward, Major E.M.
1883 History of Burlington County, New Jersey, with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men. Everts & Peck, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.