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Click here to see another section of the exhibit, "Water for the City."
The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers
Compiled by Adam Levine
Philadelphia Water Department
Mill Creek Sewer under construction at 47th and Haverford, 1883
Philadelphia Water Department
Proper drainage is as important to the City's public health as the provision of pure drinking water. Sewers carry away excess rainwater, preventing flooding in streets and basements in all but the most extreme storms. They also carry disease-causing human and industrial wastes away from built up areas. In the City's present system, three treatment plants treat the sewage before discharging the effluent into the Delaware River. The treated effluent is cleaner than the river itself. The system has 3,000 miles of sewer pipes, ranging in size from 8 inches in diameter to 24 feet square.
Control of stormwater was an important part of the City's early public works. As streets were laid out, low spots were filled in and high spots cut down. This allowed water to drain efficiently into the nearest natural stream without ponding along the way. The City's first sewers, built around 1740, supplemented this system of surface drainage with underground pipes, usually constructed of brick. Storm sewers were considered a benefit to property owners, who were charged for part of the construction cost. In Spring Garden in 1843, homeowners paid $.63 per linear foot of property frontage. An 1830 plan of the Pine Street sewer shows clearly how the terrain was leveled as streets were built.
Privies at 2976 Emerald Street , 1919
City Archives of Philadelphia
only carried stormwater. Human wastes were collected in privy wells, and most
commercial wastes were simply dumped into the nearest stream. Once the City began
supplying water to citizens, fixtures such as bathtubs and water closets came
into wider use. The wastewater produced by each household increased greatly. Privies,
designed for mostly dry wastes, were unable to handle this increase, and regularly
overflowed. In the early 1860s both human and commercial wastes were allowed into
the City's sewers along with stormwater, creating the combined sewers still used
in the old parts of the City. Considered a health hazard, privies were strictly
regulated by the City's Board of Health. Homeowners were often cited for having
foul and overflowing privies, and required to have them cleaned. Privies
were gradually phased out as sewer lines were extended. One section of the1915
regulations shown above reads, This privy MUST be abandoned when Sewer is
accessible. (For more information on privies and privy cleaning,
see Appendix 1.)
along the line of present-day Ashdale Street, 1922
City Archives of Philadelphia
Before the construction of sewage treatment plants in the 20th century, sewers simply emptied into the nearest stream, many of which became open sewers. Over time, most of the City's streams were encapsulated in huge pipes that became part of the sewer system. Putting the polluted streams underground eliminated serious health and aesthetic problems. Also, filling in the stream valleys over these sewers allowed the City's grid of streets to be extended without the expense of building bridges at every stream crossing. (To read a Robert Frost poem about buried streams, see Appendix 2.)
Mill Creek once drained most of West Philadelphia. It was encapsulated
in a sewer between 1869 and 1895. Parts of the Mill Creek Sewer (see construction
photo at top of page) are 20 feet in diameter.
An aqueduct, built in 1892, carried
the City's first intercepting sewer over Cresheim Creek. Running along
the Wissahickon Creek and Schuylkill River, this pipe intercepted
the flow of sewers that had formerly entered those streams and polluted the City's
water supply. (For more on this interceptor and the pollution it later contributed
to in the lower Schuylkill, see
Appendix 4.) Raw sewage in drinking water caused a variety of
diseases, including typhoid fever, which killed thousands of City residents in
the 1890s and early 1900s. In the 20th century, a citywide system of interceptors
was built to protect streams from pollution and carry sewage to treatment plants.
Aqueduct over Creishem Creek, in the Wissahickon Valley, 1906
City Archives of Philadelphia
Extending the Sewers
Beginning in the late 19th century, the City tried to spur real estate development by extending its infrastructure-including streets, sewer lines, gas mains and water mains-into rural areas. Tax revenues generated by new construction often paid for the cost of the City's improvements within a few years. Larger sewers like those built in Bingham Street, near Tacony Creek, in 1921 and Devereaux Street in 1911 (see photos below), were custom-designed and built in place. For smaller, branch sewers the City manufactured standardized pipes. Workers performed load tests to ensure the pipes, once buried, would not collapse under the weight of the soil and traffic. In the photo below, a 36-inch pipe was loaded with 33,000 pounds for 14 days.
Inspection and maintenance have always been an important part of the City's management of its sewers. Modern technology has made it easier and safer to detect and fix problems without risking workers' health or lives. "Regulations for sewer inspectors and other persons engaged in sewerage work", an employee handout from 1908, recommends the following: "No manhole or sewer is safe to enter in which a lighted candle will not burn brightly, and in such cases fresh air must be admitted into the sewer until a steady light is obtained. All manholes or sewers must be tested in this way before any person can be permitted to enter, except that a light must not be used where there is any indication of illuminating gas in the sewer ." Today, gas detectors have replaced candles, and video cameras have partly replaced the need for human sewer crawlers to enter sewers. (For the complete text of the 1908 regulations, see Appendix 5.)
Planning & Research
On April 22, 1905, the Pennsylvania State Assembly
passed An act to preserve the purity of the waters of the state, for the
protection of public health. This law prohibited municipalities from building
new sewers that would discharge untreated sewage into streams. The goal was to
have all the State's sewage treated before discharge, to prevent disease-causing
micro-organisms found in sewage from entering drinking water supplies. Such bacteria
and viruses were known to cause many diseases, including typhoid fever. This virulent
disease killed thousands of Philadelphians in annual epidemics in the 1890s and
A sewage treatment experiment station was set up near the old Spring Garden pumping station (along the Schuylkill near the Girard Avenue Bridge), where drinking water filtration experiments had been conducted several years earlier. As a result of this work, the City's first treatment plant was built in 1912 to keep the raw sewage of several municipal institutions out of Pennypack Creek, which emptied into the Delaware River within reach of water intake points at the Torresdale pumping station. (For more information on the Pennypack Sewage Treatment Works, see Appendix 6.)
One obstacle to building the new system was the cost, which was more than the City had ever spent on any public works project. Also, with drinking water filtration and chlorination in place by 1912, the risk of using the sewage-laden rivers as sources of drinking water was greatly reduced. This made the construction of expensive sewage treatment plants less of a priority.
World events also conspired to delay the system's completion. During the Depression,
greatly reduced City tax revenues brought most public works to a standstill. During
the two World Wars, all non-essential construction was put on hold as manpower
and critical materials such as steel were diverted into the war efforts. In the
meantime, sewers continued to dump human and industrial wastes directly into the
City's streams. These July 15, 1918 photographs show the Allegheny Avenue Sewer
emptying into the Delaware River at Pier, while on the same day, on the other
side of the pier, swimmers enjoy a refreshing (?) dip.
Bulletin, April 25, 1948
Temple University Libraries Urban Archives
Federal loans, along with revenue from a new sewer rent implemented in 1944, allowed the City to complete the sewage collection and treatment system outlined in the 1914 plan. Two new treatment plants were constructed (Southeast and Southwest), and the Northeast plant was enlarged and modernized.
( Click here for more pictures.)
Link Harper, City Photographer
The first Earth Day in 1970 marked the start of a global environmental consciousness. The chartering of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later that year represented a new federal commitment to preserving the environment. Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (also known as the Clean Water Act) in 1972. This complex law required that every stream meet designated water quality standards based on type of use. To meet these new guidelines, the City began an upgrade of its sewage treatment processes that took 15 years and cost more than $1 billion.
removes the heaviest objects from the water.
1. Collecting and Pumping: Sewers collect household wastes and stormwater runoff from all sections of the city and deliver it to one of three wastewater treatment plants. 2. Screening: Wastewater is pumped into the plant where it passes through a bar screen that catches the biggest objects including trash. 3. Grit Removal: Plant technicians then slow the flow of the wastewater as it passes into the next tank. The slower flow allows grit (sand and gravel) to settle to the bottom of this tank.
removes all the particles that will settle out of the wastewater through gravity.
4. Primary Sedimentation: Technicians slow the flow of the wastewater even further as it moves into the next tank, where smaller suspended solids such as paper fibers sink to the bottom.
removes dissolved pollutants and suspended solids too small to settle out through gravity.
5. Aeration and Biological Reduction: Microorganisms, or activated sludge, are introduced into the wastewater by supplying oxygen, where they consume the remaining pollutants. 6. Final Sedimentation: The microorganisms become heavy and sink to the bottom of the tank, where they are collected and reused.
7. Disinfection: Before it is discharged
into the Delaware, chlorine is added to the wastewater. This kills any disease-causing
pollutants that were not eaten by the microorganisms. 8. Effluent Discharge:
Treated wastewater, now cleaner than the river, is returned to the river.
Throughout the treatment process, treatment plant operators control the flow of wastewater by computers. Each plant has up to six channels to handle the flow of incoming wastewater. The sludge collected from the primary and secondary treatment processes, in the past dumped in the ocean, is now composted in Southwest Philadelphia (in an area between the Platt Bridge and I-95 bridge, as shown in the photo) and turned into a product called Earthmate. Earthmate is great for plants and helps build good soil. Contact the PWD about Earthmate. Your garden will thank you!
Biosolids Recycling Center, Southwest Philadelphia
Link Harper, City Photographer
Untreated, or raw sewage, is 99.99% water, but the impurities in the remaining .01% can cause illness or death and render a stream devoid of life. Sewage treatment has meant the rebirth of Philadelphia's rivers. Decomposing sewage once consumed most of the oxygen in the rivers, leading to the death of fish and other aquatic life. Now, with sewage removed from the rivers, oxygen and fish have returned. All three of the City's sewage treatment plants were given gold awards in 1998 by the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies.
Jar of raw sewage before treatment, 2000
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privies was dirty, stinking work done by "nightmen," so-called because
they were only allowed to do their work at night, when the deleterious effects
of the odors they stirred up were deemed to have less chance of causing harm to
human health. Privy cleaners were supposed to receive permits for the work from
the Board of Health, although, as the following shows, this law was not always
followed. In the first half of the 19th century the City of Philadelphia
maintained one or more "poudrette pits," where the nightmen dumped the
privy waste (also called night soil) and it was turned into an agricultural fertilizer.
Excerpt from City of Philadelphia Board of Health Report for 1859: "Persons engaged in the cleansing of such sinks, wells, and privies, as are not connected with the sewers, [have been neglecting or refusing] to obtain from this office, as required by an Act of Assembly of March 16, 1855, a license and permit to perform such work. The price of such permits vary, according to said Act, from fifty cents to five dollars, the saving of which, by parties interested, is an inducement to violate the law, and thereby defraud this Board and the city out of a considerable revenue. It had become notorious that numbers of persons were engaged in such unlawful practices, and that, too, at hours detrimental to the health and comfort of the community. To correct and prevent such illegalities and abuses, the present Board elected, in September last, an officer, styled Night Inspector, at a salary of forty-five dollars per month, whose duty it is to patrol the city at night, observe the operations of all persons engaged in such occupations, and ascertain whether they are so engaged by and with the permission of the Board of Health. This officer has been clothed by your Honor [the Mayor, to whom this report is addressed] with police powers whilst engaged on duty, and is respected accordingly. The labors of this Inspector have been crowned with great success, not only in preventing the violation of the Poudrette laws, and in the prevention of the creation of intolerable nuisances at an untimely hour of the night, but also in inducing such persons to perform their duties in a lawful manner, and also to pay into the treasury the price of such permits as are required by law. To his vigilance, in a great measure, is the Board indebted for a portion of the increase of revenue of the past year."
Excerpt from Board of Health Report
for 1875, contained in Fourth annual message of William S. Stokley, Mayor of
the City of Philadelphia, with the accompanying documents, September 18, 1876,
p. 863. "On the 21st of July  the Board adopted a resolution which
virtually abolishes the old bucket-and-cart system for emptying wells [privies]
after the end of the year for which licenses have been granted, namely, April
15, 1876, and substituting therefor the odorless method, by means of air-tight
apparatus, pumps, and hose. This is a most important reform, which will put an
end to a disgusting nuisance, and relieve the city of an opprobrium which has
tarnished its reputation."
Hill, G. Everett, "The bacterial disposal of sewage." Journal of the Franklin Institute, Vol. 159, No. 1, January 1905, p. 1-16: "Our lives have grown very complex. Things which our ancestors never saw are necessities to-day; and what we see in Nature's storehouse and want, we do not hesitate to appropriate. We kill the cattle, we cut down the forests, we tear the iron and coal from the bowels of the unwilling earth; we even appropriate the air and sunshine and use them as slaves to drive out motors and paint our pictures. All this is progress, and a certain measure of progress in acquisition is called civilization. But acquisition and use must always be followed by consumption and rejection of the products of consumption. Our track of progress is really a trail of desolation strewn with ashes, excrement and rubbish....Can we rightly boast of national civilization when less than 4 per cent. of the communities in our country have adopted means for the hygienic disposal of filth; and when the sixth city of the land is riddled--under buildings as well as under yards and streets--with cesspools, whose overflow babbles noisily and noisomely in the street gutters?"
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Subsequent articles appeared on November 3, 4, and 15.
Periodical outbreaks of malarial fevers, to say nothing of the depreciation of real estate in the district through with Frankford's open sewer passes, causes the residents of that locality to wonder how much longer their pleas for the amelioration of affairs are to be ignored by the city's government.
The drainage of Frankford consists, as in many other parts of the city, of several small sewers falling into larger outlets, which, in turn, convey them to the river. In many sections these outlets have been enclosed as the district in which they existed became populated. But in Frankford, one of the largest of Philadelphia's subdivisions, an open and polluted stream is considered good enough to carry off two-thirds of the entire drainage.
Little Tacony Creek, the streamlet thus made use of, rises in the upper part of the county and flows in a southerly direction, crossing Frankford road near the northern extremity of the Twenty-third ward. Until it reaches this point it is a fairly clean stream, but after passing Frankford road its character materially changes. A few squares east of the main street the rivulet turns to the south, and from there on it commences to receive all the sewage of the east side of Frankford.
As the stream passes street by street towards its mouth is, of course, becomes more polluted; the sewers, starting east from the main road, begin to drain into it; it assumes a dark and muddy appearance, and a noisome stench commences to exhale from it. Later on the mills and factories nearby use if for dumping purposes. Hereabouts the dwelling houses along its course grow fewer and fewer, until it passes ample stretches of waste and vacant lands. These tracts, submerged at times by the creek's contents, have become a fertile breeding place for the germs of malaria and typhoid fever. The remainder of its channel is only diversified by an occasional additional inpouring of foul matters until its waters are received at the southern end of Frankford into the almost equally pestilential waters of Lower Frankford creek.
For years this stream has been a menace to the inhabitants of Frankford. Time after time they have agitated for some bettering of its condition, but without success. Frequently the matter has been introduced into Councils, but as Frankford is not immediately contiguous to any other densely settled spot the members from other wards have preferred to ignore the matter in favor of some scheme more lucrative to themselves or more fitted to increase their reputation with their home constituents.
Occasionally a crumb or two of the city's funds have been doled out for some petty improvement, but nothing really effective has been accomplished to minimize the danger to the health of the inhabitants. An archway over the stream in several places, as at Howard street, and a small amount of tunneling at the northern end is the extent of the work accomplished.
About a year ago a determined effort was made by the Frankford residents to achieve something, but in vain. Little Tacony creek remains in the same state.
On this subject Joseph R. Embery, Common Councilman from the Twenty-third ward, when seen by a reporter for The North American, expressed himself as follows:
The condition of things along Little Tacony creek is an outrage, and the city's refusal to better matters there is little short of criminal. A disgraceful state of things exists at the outlet of the Margaretta street sewer. The houses on Margaretta street near Edmund, which will in the future drain into Torresdale avenue, are filled with sewage water. Only recently a committee of citizens waited on me from this place, and requested me to have the evil remedied. I did my best, but in vain.
The whole stream is utterly putrid; drains from every foul source, mills washings, privies and dumping grounds flow into it. At times the stench is unbearable. In the spot mentioned a considerable amount of sickness has arisen from this very cause. For the sickness occasioned by this creek the city is undoubtedly responsible. Municipal governments are not obligated, indeed, to construct sewers under penalty, but on the other hand, they cannot lawfully dump sewerage before houses--as they do at the Margaretta outlet--with impunity. I am glad The North American has taken the matter up, and I will give it all the aid I can.
J. Howard Morrison, Common Councilman from the Twenty-third ward, said: Little Tacony creek is unquestionably a serious menace to the health of Frankford. It carries off an immense amount of the drainage, and is afterwards polluted further by the refuse from the mills along its course. Again and again ordinances have been introduced into Councils to enclose the creek. I hardly need to say that the Twenty-third ward Councilmen have always supported these measures by all means in their power, but, notwithstanding this, we have accomplished practically nothing. If The North American will enter earnestly into this matter, I feel convinced something will be accomplished to secure a better condition of affairs, and I need hardly add that no one is more anxious than myself for such a result.
on the City's First Interceptor Sewer
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of Public Works, Bureau of Surveys, 1908
To Sewer Inspectors:
You attention is called to the fact that several accidents have lately occurred in this and other Cities in this vicinity, during examinations or work in old sewers, or in tightly closed new sewers, caused by gas explosions, asphyxiation by marsh gas or other foul air. Inspectors will be required to see that the following regulations are observed in making examinations, and in working in and about old sewers upon work in their charge:-
REGULATIONS FOR SEWER INSPECTORS AND OTHER PERSONS ENGAGED IN SEWERAGE WORK
1. Great care must be taken before entering any manhole or sewer to ascertain that the air therein is sufficiently diluted with fresh air to enable work or examination to be prosecuted with safety.
2. Entrance into manholes or sewers must not be made until the cover of the manhole where the work is to be done, and the covers of at least two adjacent manholes have been opened and left open for not less than a half hour before making an entrance. In all cases at least two manholes in advance and one manhole in the rear of the examination party shall be kept open.
3. A man must be kept on watch at every open manhole to prevent accidents and to render assistance, if found necessary, to the workmen or examination party.
4. No manhole or sewer is safe to enter in which a lighted candle will not burn brightly, and in such cases fresh air must be admitted into the sewer until a steady light is obtained. All manholes or sewers must be tested in this way before any person can be permitted to enter, except that a light must not be used where there is any indication of illuminating gas in the sewer.
5. In sewers with a heavy flow, a life line must be passed by floats from manhole to manhole and secured at each.
6. Any person engaged in the work of in the examination, feeling the least symptom of drowsiness or dizziness must return immediately to the surface.
7. After the completion of the work or examination, the persons making the examination and the workmen shall be accounted for and all manhole covers must be replaced and made secure.
C.H. Ott, Assistant Engineer.
George S. Webster
March 5, 1908.
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The Pennypack Creek sewage treatment works were put in operation in December, 1912, with the primary intention of protecting from immediate sewage pollution the waters of the Delaware River used as a source of supply for the Torresdale water filters, and secondarily to restore to a clean condition the lower part of Pennypack Creek which, at that time, was grossly polluted by the sewage of Holmesburg, the County Prison and the House of Correction [and the Home for the Indigent].
At the end of two years' operation it can be said that the excellent design and careful operation of these works have accomplished the purposes for which the plant was installed. The sewage has been treated to such a degree that the final effluent discharged into the creek has been non-putrescent, nearly sterile and free from appreciable amounts of suspended matter. The sludge withdrawn from the tanks is inodorous and has been taken away by neighboring farmers.
These results have been accomplished in an inoffensive manner, no nuisance being created even during the drying of the sludge, credit for which in a high degree must be given to the interest of efficient employees. [SOURCE: Annual Report of the Bureau of Surveys of the City of Philadelphia for the year ending December 31, 1914.]
[ This report continues in more technical terms, discussing the operation of the pumping station, and how the Emscher tanks accomplished the treatment process. As the Pennypack Works was a prototype for a much larger Citywide sewage treatment system, its operation and performance was closely scrutinized.]
[The plant ceased operations on December 13, 1930, when the construction of an intercepting sewer along the Delaware River allowed the routing of the sewage farther south, to Northeast Sewage Treatment Works, completed in 1923. Source: Bureau of Surveys Annual Report for 1930, manuscript, p. 41-1930 (p.10). PWD Historical Collection]
Philadelphia's Sewer Problem
Editorial from The Nor'easter (publication of the Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce), March 1941
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A good overview of the problems encountered by Philadelphia in implementing its 1914 plan for sewage treatment.
Philadelphia's sewage problem is acute. Several years ago a contract was made with the State of Pennsylvania to spend some three million dollars each year until sewage disposal system was entirely completed, eliminating all sewage from the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Unfortunately the city, after partial completion of Northeast Philadelphia facilities, was unable to continue this program. Today the State threatens to step in and complete the work, and charge the bill to the municipality.
Northeast Philadelphia is vitally interested in the completion of the sewage system, as large numbers of substantial homes in this area have been without sewer facilities for a number of years, and the condition today, due to certain land conditions, is deplorable. Furthermore, the flooding by Frankford Creek has cost a number of industries in this district more than a quarter million dollars in the past dozen years, and while partially improved this hazard cannot be entirely eliminated except by a complete sewage system including the Creek area.
The financial condition of Philadelphia during the past few years not only prevented completion of the sewage system through lack of cash, but also prevented additional borrowing by the municipality for such projects. Recently the improvement of the water system was acted upon, a loan authorized and methods for the improvement are under consideration. Regarding the sewage problem, a sewer tax was proposed based on the water rent paid amounting to one and one-quarter times such rent. This would have been such a burden to large users of water that it was discarded, and a tax proposed based on real estate assessments, with the idea of lowering real estate assessments a certain percentage, so that the taxpayer would pay little more as a total, and a base for funds to finance the sewage improvement would be secured. Unfortunately the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania declared this unconstitutional. Apparently wherever sewer taxes are charged they are based on water rents paid or the amount of water used. There seems to be no other adequate method. Various plans have been proposed, one with a minimum charge of $10.00, plus three-quarters of the water rent, and possibly one with a minimum charge of $12.00 plus one-half the water rent or maybe one-quarter of the water rent above a certain amount. Even these place extra burden on large water users, and would in reality make them pay considerable additional funds without extra service, while others would pay little if any more under the same provisions.
While sewer improvements are desperately needed, the averaged size industrial concern must not be imposed upon. There are many difficulties to any equitable sewer tax. In the first place about one-half of the properties in Philadelphia are metered and pay for exactly the amount of water used; the other half pay certain fixed sums based on fixtures regardless of how little or how much water is used or wasted. If a maximum charge was placed on the tax and a proportionate reduction made in real estate taxes some companies would pay little more including the sewer tax. Other concerns like dye houses would pay a substantial sum for the sewer tax with a negligible amount of real estate tax reduction, for the simple reason that the average dye house may pay four or five thousand dollars water rent per year and four or five hundred dollars real estate taxes per year. In addition to dye houses, laundries, bottling establishments, leather concerns and certain other businesses are large users of water, even though they may be only average size concerns.
The sewage discharge from homes and many concerns that use comparatively little water must be thoroughly assimilated and digested by the sewage disposal plant; on the other hand the discharge from laundries and some other concerns using tremendous amounts of water is beneficial to the sewage system, and in no sense a cost other than piping. Due to these many angles an equitable sewer tax is a difficult matter.
Two years ago at the regular 1939 Session of the State Legislature, Joint Resolution No. 2 was passed which provides that cities may raise their debt limit 3% to pay for or complete sewage disposal systems. While raising debt limits of municipalities may be dangerous in many instances, in this case where it is for a specific purpose and must be done, it appears to be not only the best, but the only fair method that can be pursued. This Joint Resolution has been again placed before the 1941 Legislature as it must be acted upon by two consecutive Legislatures. If this is passed by the present Legislature it can be placed before the voters and the city will then have authority to definitely complete this work, meet State requirements, give ample facilities to home owners and industries, and place no particular group under any unreasonable expense. Inasmuch as the funds must be definitely used for the purpose designated, there is no chance of it being wasted or utilized for other purposes.
This phase of the matter should be given ample consideration and publicity, so that the voters of the city as well as the legislators may understand the need for this specific legislation at this time.
Water for Life
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA
F. Street, Mayor
This exhibition was prepared through the research and creativity of the following individuals:
The Project Team
Department of Records: Ward
Childs, City Archivist; Josephine Clements-Churchville, Forms Management Analyst
Contributing Area Institutions
CIGNA Museum and Art Collection