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MarkerQuest Blog: The Old Waterworks

October 9th, 2018 |

The last weekend in September, some of my friends and I like to visit Bethlehem and attend the Celtic Classic, the largest annual Celtic festival in North America. A couple of my friends are Scottish, Andrea and my husband are Irish, and I myself am Welsh, so we have a pretty decent representation of the nations as we basically eat our way through the festivities.
This year was nothing out of the ordinary. We listened to bagpipes, browsed the local vendors, and crossed the Monocacy Creek to the Colonial Industrial Quarter. This is where representatives of different Celtic and historical organizations in the United States set up their tents and share their stories. This is also where one of my quest markers is situated.
The Colonial Industrial Quarter is just off of Bethlehem’s Main Street, with a walkway right next to the Hotel Bethlehem leading down into the earliest industrial park in the entire country. It was a significant portion of Bethlehem’s Moravian community, which is an ongoing topic in several posts in this blog. The positioning of the quarter is deliberate, as the waters of the Monocacy Creek were absolutely vital to the operations. Some of the buildings are ruins – the pottery, the butchery, and the dye house have little to show for themselves nowadays. However, visitors can still enjoy two of the old mills, the tannery, the springhouse, the rebuilt smithy, and today’s subject – the Old Waterworks.

Old Waterworks. As early as 1754, water was pumped from a spring to a water tower, that stood east of here, through hollowed trunks of trees. It then flowed by gravity to five cisterns or reservoirs. Original engine house stands about 60 yards southwest.
The marker is situated next to
the building, along the banks of
the Monocacy Creek below
the Hotel Bethlehem
The Moravians were nothing if not inventive. Just as the Colonial Industrial Quarter is the oldest of its kind in the nation, the Old Waterworks is regarded as the first pumped municipal water system in the colonies. In fact, nothing like it would appear anywhere else in the colonies until more than thirty years after it was first put into place. It all starts with one of the springs on the Monocacy, which was the original source of water for colonial Bethlehem. This particular spring was, and is, the center of the Industrial Quarter; by all accounts, it never dried up, never froze, maintained a consistent cool temperature, and flowed at the rate of a million gallons per day.
Initially, the Moravians hauled the water from the spring with buckets, a practice which lasted for the first few decades of the settlement. Hans Christoph Christensen is credited with changing that fact. He was a millwright and carpenter of Danish descent, who worked in a royal grist mill for several years prior to his joining the Moravians in Herrnhut, Germany. From there he relocated to Pennsylvania and became part of the Bethlehem settlement in 1751. (Some sources give his first name as Johann rather than Hans; however, the Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites publications say that it was Hans, so that’s what I’m calling him.) Hans was in his mid-thirties at the time, and he soon came to be regarded as a master builder; he was responsible for constructing or helping to construct several of the buildings in the Industrial Quarter, including both of the mills. In 1754, he decided that he had a better idea for how to get the water from the spring to where it was needed.
Where the waterworks building stands today, there was originally a small log building, and it was inside this that Hans experimented with pumping water. A waterwheel allowed the flow of the Monocacy Creek to force spring water up to  a water tower, which stood where the Central Moravian Church is now located. Hollowed-out tree trunks served as water pipes. From the tower, gravity took over, and the water flowed down to a few strategically placed cisterns throughout the settlement; gravity would then carry the water from the cisterns to the various buildings.
View of the waterworks from
the north side
This original system and building served the purpose, but by 1761 Hans was already at work on improving both. The building shown here was finished in 1764; it stands two and a half stories high, measures 30 feet long and 24 feet wide, and is constructed from limestone. The waterwheel continued to do its job, but was now assisted by a trio of pumping mechanisms geared to its shaft. The result was that it was pumping roughly 400 gallons of water per minute. John Adams, visiting the settlement in 1777, wrote home to his wife Abigail of his admiration for the system. In 1786, new pipes were installed made of lead; these were replaced with cast-iron pipes in 1813.
As for the spring itself, it too needed protection. Assorted enclosures were erected around it for the first several years, trying to protect the water from animals and dirt. The permanent springhouse was finally built in 1764, and in addition to protecting the spring, it was used to store perishables like butter, cheese, and vegetables. Once a year, two men were assigned to clean the spring, a chore which tradition states had to be completed by moonlight. The original permanent building has been lost to time, but the timber springhouse on the site today is a reconstruction.
Use of the waterworks building continued until 1832, when the pumping system was moved to the oil mill. The spring remained a vital water source for Bethlehem until 1912, when it was regrettably discovered to be contaminated. In 1976, the waterworks was restored to its present condition; it houses a wooden waterwheel and gears much like the ones that would have been used in the 18th century. It’s a particular source of local pride owing to its unusual triple designation: it is an American Water Landmark (as of 1971), a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark (also as of 1971), and a National Historic Landmark (as of 1981).
The entire Colonial Industrial Quarter is recognized as a National Historic Landmark District. Its unique beauty and place in history make it an important part of Bethlehem; not only is it always included as part of the Celtic Classic, but it can even be rented for private events or professional photo shoots. It’s also home to the annual Community Heritage Day celebration.
I have to be honest – this project has turned out to be so much bigger than I realized it was going to be. And I love it.

View of the Monocacy Creek
from the waterworks

Sources and Further Reading:

“Visit, Explore, Experience Historic Moravian Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: A National Historic Landmark District,” published by the Historic Bethlehem Preservation Association.

Crawford, Mindy Gulden. Historic Pennsylvania: A Tour of the State’s Top 100 National Landmarks. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., 2019.

Soderland, Jean R., and Catherine S. Parzynski. Backcountry Crucibles: The Lehigh Valley From Settlement to Steel. Associated University Press, 2008.

The Old Waterworks at Wikipedia

The Old Waterworks at the Historical Marker Database

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