Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography

Technology Standpipes, tanks, towers and architecture

Standpipes, Tanks, Towers and Architecture

Standpipes refer to two separate technologies used in water systems.  The original use was to describe cylindrical towers used to maintain water pressure for distribution systems, while more recently the term describes dedicated piping systems within buildings used for fire fighting.  Standpipes were used to provide pressure for a water distribution system as well as protecting against water hammer from pumping. 

The earliest American reference to a "standing column" was by William J. McAlpine in his 1850 report on the Albany water works, in which he refers to similar columns in England.  The first known installation of a standpipe in America was one built in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1851, and operated until 1872.  A picture was taken of this standpipe being raised.  Three other standpipes were built in Philadelphia, including one at  Fairmount works in 1852, Schuylkill works in 1855 and West Pennsylvania (24th Ward Works in 1855).  Another was built was built by McAlpine in Chicago that began service in 1854.

Early Standpipes for American Water Works
Height (feet)
Diameter (inches)
1851 Germantown PA 120 60 On August 13, 1851 the completed pipe was hoisted and set up in place by means of derricks and capstans. Photograph. Sold and removed in 1873.
1852 Philadelphia PA 50
Fairmount water works
1854 Chicago IL 80
24 Replaced in 1869
1855 Philadelphia PA 137
Schuylkill water works, tapers to 42 inches at the top.
1855 Philadelphia PA 130
24th Ward (West Philadelphia) water works.  These works were abandoned in 1870 and the standpipe was moved to Spring Garden water works in 1882..
1868 Erie PA 217 60 Later extended to 233 feet, taken down in September, 1913.
1860 Louisville KY 132 48
Rebuilt after 1890 tornado, still exists.
1869 Chicago IL 138 36
Survived 1871 Chicago fire, still exists.
1870 Boston MA 80
Roxbury water works, taken out of service in 1909, still exists.
1873 Toledo OH 225 60 Constructed in one piece, weighed 64,000 pounds.  Demolished in 1917.
1873 South Bend IN 225 72 Taken down in 1930.
1876 Bloomington IL 200 96 Taken down in 1912
1876 Sandusky OH 229 36 This high service standpipe inside a larger standpipe 25 ft in diameter and 180 ft high.  Destroyed by a tornado in 1924.

As steam engines improved, the value of standpipes in absorbing water shock diminished and their value as water storage reservoirs was lessened by improved storage.  Standpipes were eventually replaced with elevated reservoirs, tanks, or direct pressure pumping.  Many standpipes from this period remaining standing.

Existing Standpipes
Year City State Height (Feet)
1859 Chestnut Hill PA 125 Not strictly a standpipe, but a 40,000 gallon wooden tank on top of a brick tower.
Purchased by Philadelphia in 1873, the wooden tank damaged in a 1917 windstorm and removed, while the tower remains in a park.
1860 Louisville KY 183 Louisville Water Tower, destroyed by tornado in 1890 and was rebuilt. Retired in 1909.
1869 Chicago IL 154
Chicago Water Tower  is 154 feet tall, covering a 138-foot standpipe
1870 Boston MA 70 Roxbury Standpipe, taken out of service in 1909.
1874 Milwaukee WI 175 North Point Water Tower Taken out of service in 1963.
1871 St. Louis MO 154
Grand Avenue Water Tower ("Old White"), retired in 1912
1886 St Louis MO 194
Bissell Street Water Tower ("Old Red"), retired in 1912
1887 Harper KS 125 Historic place nomination
1896 Lawrence MA 102 High Service Water Tower and Reservoir
1897 Dothan AL 100 National Register of Historical Places
1897 Bangor ME 50 Thomas Hill Standpipe. Still in service, enclosed in a wooden tower 110 feet tall.
1898 St. Louis MO 179
Compton Hill Water Tower, retired in 1929.

Other systems used elevated tanks and above-ground reservoirs to store water.  Elevated tanks became very popular as technology improved.

Early Elevated Water Storage Structures for American Water Works
Capacity (gallons)
1755 Bethlehem PA

Wooden tank located 70 feet above pump.
1775 New York City NY 26 feet square
12 feet deep
1,200,000 Christopher Colles Water Works.  Reservoir to be constructed of a good bank of earth surrounded with a good brick or stone hall
1799 New York City NY
10,600 Manhattan Company cistern
1800 New York City NY 41 feet diameter
15 feet deep
123,354 Built by Robert McQueen for Manhattan Company.  Later enclosed in a building.  Demolished sometime after 1914.
1801 Philadelphia PA
20,855 Two wooden tanks above the Centre Square steam engine,  Disused after Fairmount pumping station came on line in 1815.
1801 New York City NY
100,000? 31-33 Chambers street, abandoned after 1842?
1803 Bethlehem PA

Stone tower with a wooden[?] tank
1820 Cincinnati OH 40 by 30 feet
6 feet deep

Water pumped by horses into an elevated wooden reservoir.
1823 New Orleans LA

Benjamin Latrobe proposed wooden tanks to hold water pumped from the river, but no details are known.
1831 New York City NY 43 feet diameter 20½ feet deep 233,169 13th Street Reservoir, Built by the City of New York for fire protection
1836 New Orleans LA 320 feet square
9 feet high
10 million The reservoir was built on a mound.  The walls and bottoms forming the reservoir, are built with brick, and plastered with hydraulic cement
1842 Chicago IL
25 feet square
8 feet deep
37,500± Two elevated wooden tanks were proposed adjacent to pumping plant, unclear if second tank was ever built.
1842 New York City NY 420 feet square
36 feet deep
20 million On 5th Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets
1854 Chicago IL   60 feet diameter
28 feet deep
500,000 South side reservoir at Adams & LaSalle, damaged in 1871 fire and abandoned
1858 Chicago IL 60 feet diameter
28 feet deep
500,000 North side tower at Chicago Avenue at Sedgwick street.
1858 Chicago IL 60 feet diameter
28 feet deep
500,000 West side tower at Morgan and Monroe streets
1859 Chestnut Hill PA
40,000 Wooden tank on top of brick tower, purchased by Philadelphia in 1873, wooden tank damaged in a 1917 windstorm and removed, while the tower remains in a park.

1850 Report made to the water commissioners of the city of Albany, August 1, 1850, on the proposed projects for supplying the city with water by William J. McAlpine
Page 32:  In many of the Water Works in England, situated similarly to the one under consideration, the water is elevated in a vertical standing column at the pumps and the distribution pipes are connected directly with this column.
There are several advantages connected with this plan, but it is believed that they cannot be rendered available to their full extent in this place without an expenditure that the circumstances would not warrant.
If this plan is adopted, it will be a subject for future consideration, whether a considerable portion of the lower part of the city cannot generally be supplied by means of a standing column, the effect of which would reduce the cost of elevating the water.

1851 Raising the stand pipe for the Germantown Water Works
View showing the engineering crew using a windlass to raise the standpipe in a large field at the corner of Tulpehocken Street and Wayne Avenue on August 13, 1851.

1853 Proposed Stand Pipe for West Philadelphia Water Works

1853 "Philadelphia Water Works," Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, 4:201 (March 26, 1853) 
Stand Pipe of the Philadelphia Water Works

1854 "Ornamental Stand-Pipe for the West Philadelphia Water Works," by H. Howson, C.E., Philadelphia, Designer, Birkinbine and Trotter, Contractors, from Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal 17:337-338 (September, 1854)

1854 "Water Pipe at West Philadelphia," from Scientific American 10(8):61 (November 4, 1854)

1854 "The Philadelphia Water Works Ornamental Pipe," from Scientific American 10(10):74 (November 18, 1854)

1855 "Stand Pipe of the West Philadelphia Water Works," by Birkinbine & Trotter, from Journal of the Franklin Institute 59(3):210-211 (March, 1855)

1879 "How to Fight Flames," by William J. McAlpine, New York Daily Herald, February 1, 1879, Page 2.
A ponderous scheme for the protection of property.  Fire Engines Displaced.  The Water to Come from a Tank 350 Feet above the ground.
Proposed a water storage tank 100 feet in diameter and 350 feet high, more than twice the height of the Western Union building.

1888 "Stand-Pipes for Water Works," by B. F. Stephens, Report of Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Meeting of the American Water Works Association 8:102-113

1888 "Stand Pipes for Water-Works," by B. F. Stephens, Engineering News, 20:271-273 (October 6, 1888)

1888 "A Partial List of Stand-pipes of the United States," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 1. [Note:  this list is not included in any known electronic version of this volume.]
Their heights, diameters, thickness and other details of construction.  Classified first in order of diameters and secondly in order of heights.

1893 Water Tower, Pumping and Power Station Designs 

1895 Stand-pipe Accidents and Failures in the United States: A Chronological Record of Accidents to and Failures of Water-works Stand-pipes in the United States, by William David Pence.

1895 "Stand-pipe accidents and failures," by Prof. Wm. D. Pence, Engineering News 33:267 (April 25, 1895)

1901 "Stand Pipes and Elevated Reservoirs," by George S. Pierson, Municipal Engineering 20(3):153-158 (March 1901)

1901 Towers and tanks for water-works: The theory and practice of their design and construction, by James Nisbit Hazlehurst

1902 Railroad water tanks, by Harry Ashton Roberts, Thesis for degree of bachelor science in civil engineering, University of Illinois, June, 1902.

1904 "A Monster Water Tower," The News-Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan), July 16, 1904, Page 10.
The largest metal structure for the purpose that has ever been created. 

1904 Metal structures : water towers, stand pipes, tanks, girders, bascule bridges, turntables, Chicago Bridge and Iron Works

1914 The Water Tower, volumes 1-4 bound together, published by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Works | volumes 4-6 |

1915 Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth Annual Convention of the American Railway, Bridge and Building Association, held at Detroit Mich. October 19-21, 1915.
Pages 129-175: Railway Water Tanks.  Includes information on several municipal tanks and standpipes.

1924 Municipal Waterworks, by Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company

1925 "Standardized Elevated Steel Water Tanks," by J. E. O'Leary, Journal of the American Water Works Association 14(3):190-198 (September, 1925)

1980 The Architecture and Engineering of Elevated Water Storage Structures: 1870-1940, by Carol Ann Dubie, M. A. Thesis, George Washington University.  Thanks to the author for allowing this valuable resource to be scanned and included in this history.

1982 The Architecture of Water Towers: A Bibliography, December, 1982, by Donald H. Dyal.  A-869 in Architecture Series: Bibliography

1988 Water Towers, by Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher

1989 "Tanks and Towers:  Waterworks in America," by John S. Garner, from American Public Architecture: European Roots and Native Expressions, edited by Craig Zabel and Susan Scott Munshower, Papers in Art History from The Pennsylvania State University, Volume V

2012 Steel Water Towers Associated with South Dakota Water Systems 1894-1967, an historic context, by Gregory R. Mathis

2015 Undercurrents of Urban Modernism: Water, Architecture, and Landscape in California and the American West, by Rina Cathleen Faletti, PhD Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin.  History of waterworks architecture.

2016 Philadelphia’s Spiral Standpipe: A Monument to Industry, Innovation and . . . History, by Ken Finkel, August 26, 2016, PhillyHistory Blog

© 2016 Morris A. Pierce