“The Montebello Water Filtration Plant I: Clean Water for City & Suburb Alike”

(Brief preview and excerpt from History Trails 43, no. 3 & 4. To read more become a member of the society today!))
“The Montebello Water Filtration Plan I: Clean Water for City & Suburb Alike”
History Trails 43, no. 3 & 4
By: Martha Hendrickson

The Montebello Water Filtration Plant gave the Baltimore region national acclaim when it was completed in 1915.  It was a significant achievement in both engineering and architectural design. In 1912, engineers began the architectural and engineering plans for the landmark which was a boon to the health and well-being of both county and city residents. Many experts combined their knowledge to design Baltimore’s first water filtration facility, and the facility is still in use today.

The Montebello Water Filtration Plant I in Baltimore is notable in several ways. Locally, as Baltimore’s first water filtration plant, it was a significant accomplishment towards improving living conditions, and it was a cornerstone of Baltimore’s modern water supply. In a larger context, it was part of a nationwide movement to build the first generation of municipal water filtration plants at the turn of the 20th century as a result of the Urban Progressive Era. At the time of its completion, The Montebello Filtration Plant was the second largest of its type in the nation and the most modern. In addition, its attractive architectural design and landscaping was an ideal of the national “City Beautiful” movement, giving it national distinction.

The Montebello Filtration Plant I is one of three major municipal water filtration plants in Baltimore, providing clean drinking water to residents of Baltimore City, and parts of Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties. It is located in Baltimore City at the intersection of Hillen and Harford Roads, just north of Lake Montebello. It was the first filtration plant in Baltimore and marked the beginning of the region’s modern municipal water supply as we know it today. With the completion of the filtration plant and water system, water was piped from Loch Raven Dam on the Gunpowder River (completed in 1914 at the elevation of 188 feet above mean tide), to the Montebello Plant, where it was purified and sent to a distribution system for residents and businesses.

The significance of the filtration plant to both Baltimore City and County cannot be overstated. While there is a demarcation on the map between Baltimore City and County, that line essentially disappears in terms of municipal services. The growth and well-being of the citizens of Baltimore County are inextricably linked to the water system that is run by the City, and the two voices were the same in demanding reforms in the early twentieth century. Not only is the water from these reservoirs and filtration plants what the majority of county citizens drink, but their watersheds provide recreation for city and county residents and visitors alike.

Several factors contributed to the nationwide movement of municipal water filtration plant construction and the innovative designs of the Montebello Filtration Plant: the Urban Progressive Movement, the acceptance of Germ Theory, and The City Beautiful Movement. Each of these independently notable topics occurred toward the end of the 19th century. This article will briefly touch on these topics, and hopefully shed light on how they influenced the construction of Baltimore City and County’s first water filtration plant. 

Urban Progressives and City Conditions 

With the Industrial Revolution came massive immigration to American cities resulting in a population increase that was neither planned nor anticipated. Baltimore was no exception. Between 1870 and 1900 the population of Baltimore increased from a quarter-million to a half-million people.[i] Even without considering the city’s population increase due to annexing parts of Baltimore County in 1888, other factors amounted to about one third of the total. There were immigrants from overseas, an influx of emigrating African Americans from farmlands, ex- confederates from Virginia, and farmers from the countryside all looking for employment in industrializing cities.[ii]

Meanwhile, cities were not well prepared for their surge in population and industry. Protective labor laws were virtually non-existent, there were few housing codes, and little-to-no government aid we are accustomed to today. Education was primarily for those who could afford it, while the poor often lived in cramped, overcrowded conditions, and commonly worked long hours in dangerous environments. Slums and tenement houses covered a great portion of Baltimore City.[iii] Compounding those problems was the prevalence of major communicable diseases. The deadly diseases of pneumonia, tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera and yellow fever were common conditions that affected anyone within their reach. With the rapid increase in population, city services were strained to capacity. Proper sewage disposal was unheard of, and clean drinking water was not readily available.

Two of the most dreaded and preventable diseases, cholera and typhoid, commonly spread by food and water contamination, were not well addressed because germ theory was relatively new and not widely accepted by scientists or the public. Although tuberculosis, an airborne disease, claimed a higher death rate (its vaccine was not developed until 1906, and did not come into wide use until the 1920s), typhoid was one of the most dreaded of epidemics.

Germ Theory & Water Supply

The now widely accepted fact that bacterial microorganisms in water and food were the cause of disease was not so evident to doctors or the public, even as late as the 1890s. Prior to the 1870s, a widespread belief was that disease was spread by vapors and atmosphere arising from filth – it was known as the miasma theory of contamination. Even after 1880, when two German scientists working independently of each other identified the typhoid bacilli, there were still those that held-fast to the miasma theory.[iv]

In Baltimore, the prevalence of belief in miasma theory is reflected in both the water system and city growth patterns. To avoid the conditions of “miasmic” disease many wealthy and privileged citizens had second homes to escape the bustle of the city; the Estates of Belvedere, Clifton and Montebello are examples. They were built on elevated land far from the more populated areas where the miasmic vapors of the inner city allegedly lingered. Because these estates had their own water supplies which were, for a while, uncontaminated, it appeared to prove the miasmic theory.

Meanwhile, in Europe, evidence resulting from the use of sand filtration to clean and clarify water helped to disprove the miasmic theory. In the late 18th century, before the discovery of bacteria, slow sand water filtration was used on small and large scales in Britain and Scotland with the main objective of removing suspended matter. In the areas where slow sand filtering was used there was a lower incidence of cholera, indicating the disease was directly the result of contaminated water and food.[v] Slowly, acceptance of germ theory grew, and author M. N. Baker stated in his book, Quest for Pure Water, that “by the 1890’s even the majority of the skeptics had recognized that, instead of being a mere straining process for the removal of suspended matter, filtration removed deadly germs of disease.”[vi] Although slow sand filtration was established in England, Scotland, and parts of Europe, no slow sand filtration type plant existed in North America before the Civil War.[vii] 

Turning Points for Germ Theory in America

With many cities looking to improve water supplies in the 1890s, city planners and engineers debated the best methods to accomplish their goals. The turning point in convincing Americans to use filtration plants for combating disease came in 1893, with the Lawrence experimental station on the Merrimac River in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The State Board of Massachusetts established the station in 1887 to study water and sewage treatment in order to give advice on water supply and sewerage.[viii] Lawrence was one of the cities that had high typhoid rates (4 times the amount of the rest of Massachusetts due in part to upstream pollution).[ix] The results of tests and experiments were put into practice by the building of the Lawrence Filter Plant in 1893. After the plant went into operation the rates of typhoid were markedly reduced.[x] Allen Hazen, Chief Chemist at the Lawrence Station of the Massachusetts Board of Health, wrote the first treatise on water filtration in connection with public health. It was based on the experiments and successes at Lawrence and also a study of plants in Europe. It was published in 1895 and had a convincing affect on skeptics of germ theory while promoting the positive effects of filtration.[xi] Improvements were developed, and several years later, in 1895, the Louisville Water Company, and its Chief Engineer, Charles A. Hermany, set up the station to test a new type of sand filtration on the turbid Ohio River called mechanical or rapid filtration. George W. Fuller, Chief Chemist and Bacteriologist, conducted the tests under the direction of Hermany from 1895 to 1897. In 1897, George W. Fuller published results of the experiments in a report which became a landmark document on the new mechanical method of filtration.[xii]

These two new alternate methods of water purification – slow sand filtration and mechanical sand filtration – emerged as the most recommended for large scale use. Both factored into the decisions made in Baltimore. As more experiments were made, experts eventually favored one over the other given the conditions of the water to be filtered and their own individual experiences with each.

The two filtration processes required building two different types of filtration plants. Slow sand filtration used a combination of settlement techniques and filtering. Water was held in a settlement basin then strained through layers of sand. The rapid or mechanical filtration method was similar except that the filters were cleaned in place by backwashing them with a special process. This occurred several times per hour. This meant that all the filter beds were in continuous use and could process more water in less time.

As cities looked to improve living conditions, confidence was simultaneously growing in the use of water filtration as a method of large scale purification. Experts such as James Kirkwood, Allen Hazen, Edmund Weston, and George Fuller and their associates published important developments in the field and shared them in American Water Works Association (AWWA) and American Society of Civil Engineers publications. Two of the major pioneers in water filtration, Hazen and Fuller, along with their associates, had a direct influence in Baltimore.[xiii]

City Planning and the City Beautiful Movement

New attitudes towards municipal roles in the urban environment developed. In the same year that the Lawrence, MA water filtration plant went into operation, creating a turning point for germ theory, the World’s Fair of 1893, in Chicago, provided inspiration to leaders for planning in cities by showing how beautiful and functional planned cities could be. The World’s Fair “White City” was landscaped by the famous Fredrick Law Olmstead, and it was served by coordinated public utilities. It was one of the first examples of a planned city, completed with the collaboration of both architects and landscape designers working towards a unified result. It made a lasting impression on visitors by showing what could be achieved by broadening the scope of architectural planning. For many visitors, the fair was a stark contrast to the urban environment they left behind.[xiv] As they returned home, many thought of how similar improvements could be adapted to their own cities. It became important that the buildings of municipal utilities be attractive, have a pleasing design, and work well with an overall city plan. Thus, the City Beautiful Movement was born.[xv]

(To read more become a member of the society!)  

[i]James B. Crooks, Politics and Progress, The Rise of Urban Progressivism in Baltimore, 1895-1911 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), p. 155.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Crooks, Politics and Progress, p. 4-6.

[iv] McCarthy, Typhoid and the Politics of Public Health, p. 10-1.

[v] M.N. Baker, The Quest for Pure Water (New York: The American Water Works Association, Inc., 1948), p. 115.

[vi] Baker, Quest for Pure Water, p. 119.

[vii] Ibid., p. 25.

[viii] Baker, Quest for Pure Water, p. 139.

[ix] McCarthy, Typhoid and the Politics of Public Health, p. 23.

[x] Baker, Quest for Pure Water, p. 140.
[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid, p. 228.

[xiii] Ibid, p. 140-1.

[xiv] Erick Larson, Devil in the White City (New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Radom House, 2004), p. 374.

[xv] Crooks, Politics and Progress, p. 127-128.