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205-year-old wooden water pipes unearthed in Washington Square West

Moral of the story: Philly is a really, really old city

These wooden water pipes date back to 1812.
Photo by PWD construction engineer Mike Schramm

Philly resident Julie Snell wasn’t too pleased when she saw that the Spruce Street bike lane was blocked by Philadelphia Water Department trucks earlier this week. But what originally started out as a nuisance turned into a fascinating discovery of some of the city’s oldest water infrastructure.

Snell had biked up to crews who were repairing a water line along the 900 block of Spruce Street in Washington Square West. But the workers had to stop when they unearthed “what looked like old logs.”

Snell, a landscape architect, in fact, realized that they may actually be water pipes. As she recounted to the Philadelphia Water Department, she had once heard Philadelphia Water Department historian Adam Levine give a talk about Philly’s old water infrastructure, which highlighted the use of wooden water mains.

Snell was right. Levine did some digging and discovered that the so-called logs were in fact super old water pipes, dating back to 1812. That’s around the time that the city was using both wooden and cast-iron piping, until 1832 when only the latter was used.

Photo by Julie Snell
Photo by Mike Schramm

Given the age of Philadelphia, it’s almost a guarantee that construction workers will stumble upon some strange stuff at their respective project sites. In Old City, they found thousands of artifacts dating back to the pre-Revolutionary War times at the site of the Museum of the American Revolution. Not far from there, another crew recently unearthed hundreds of coffins beneath a surface parking lot.

So what’s going to happen to the wooden pipes? A lot of it has rotted, but some of it can be saved and has been moved to storage.