Phillipsburg Pump House
Friends NJTHC leases and is the caretaker for the old People's Water Company pump house in Phillipsburg, NJ, built in 1913 and operational through 1969. The former Phillipsburg water pumping plant, with its four-story tall steam pumping engine, is located on the north edge of Phillipsburg, behind the present Aqua New Jersey, Inc. facility on North Main Street/River Road/Rt. 610 in Lopatcong Township. The pump house property is owned by the County of Warren, and the Friends of the New Jersey Transportation Heritage Center has a custodial lease of two buildings and approximately five acres from the County. The steam pumping engine was restored to operation in 2018. This is one a small handful of these vintage pumps that still exist, and part of an even smaller number that can operate. It is the largest operational steam pumping engine in North America.
Pump House & ENGINE History
The People's Water Company was founded in 1885. The reinforced concrete pump house and the Allis Chalmers, vertical triple expansion (VTE), coal-fired, steam-powered water pumping engine were both built in 1913 to feed water into a reservoir atop Marble Mountain. The Allis Chalmers engine was manufactured in Milwaukee, WI, and the builders plate carries shop (serial) number 1065. Below the pit floor level is an 8' x 8' x 225' chamber (or cistern) which is at the approximate level of the river and collects ground water. (The water level rises and falls with that of the river.) The engine cylinder diameters are 21" for high pressure, 38" for intermediate pressure, and 56" for low pressure with a 36" stroke. The Allis Chalmers VTE engine was undoubtedly moved to the site by rail, in pieces, and probably assembled before the building was completed. Blue prints of the engine were apparently taken by Garden State Water Company (the successor to People's Water Company), and have unfortunately disappeared. Carl Merwarth, one of the last Chief Engineers of the plant in the 1980s, stated that he was unaware that the piston rings had ever been replaced in the VTE engine.
The low pressure cylinder was operated on a vacuum created in a condensing chamber with the cold incoming water. The two 12' diameter flywheels are 10" wide at the rim. The engine is equipped with an over speed trip - fly ball governor. The capacity of the reciprocating steam pump was 4,200 GPM (or 6,000,000 gallons per day) at 36 RPM. Below each of the three cylinders is a vertical, single acting plunger-type pump.
The reservoir was located near the top of Marble Mountain, at an elevation of 445' above sea level, and the water had to be elevated approximately 265' from the level of the cistern. In order to accomplish this, the water pressure at the engine had to be about 150 PSI. From the elevated reservoir, the water flowed by gravity throughout the Phillipsburg distribution system. The former open reservoir was replaced by a steel tank many years ago. The large diameter water piping was cast locally at Phillipsburg's Warren Foundry, which remains in business as Atlantic States Cast Iron Pipe.
A tap into the high pressure main at the pump house drove a small enclosed water wheel, which belt-powered a DC generator to provide electric lighting within the pump house. Outside power was eventually brought into the building for lighting, and later for the gas burners (when two of the boilers were converted to burn gas). A backup Terry steam turbine pump was installed in 1914 with identical pumping capacity as the VTE. The 524 HP turbine was manufactured by the Terry Steam Turbine Company of Hartford, CT with serial number 5825. It ran at 4,040 RPM, with reduction gearing to the two stage Cameron (A. S. Cameron Steam Pump Works) centrifugal pumps and DC generator. The generator powered a General Electric 50 HP DC motor (230 volts @ 180 amps) which ran at 1,150 RPM to pump the water up from the cistern to the centrifugal pumps. The turbine required all four boilers to supply steam, whereas the Allis Chalmers VTE unit could be operated on only two boilers.
The four horizontal return tube boilers were built by D. M. Dillon Steam Boiler Works of Fitchburg, MA. Each is 5' in diameter by 18' long, and are of the fire tube type. They are of lap-seam riveted construction and do not meet current boiler codes. Boiler operating pressure was 118 PSI.
Coal was delivered by the Pennsylvania Railroad at the rear of the plant, where the earthen ramp, rails, and deteriorated reinforced concrete trestle survive. Coal was brought into the boiler room by wheelbarrow and piled six feet high in front of the boilers to keep it from freezing in winter. The plant engineer and fireman lived in separate houses on site, near the pump house. On the river side of the coal trestle/sidetrack is the north end of Hudson Yard, where the Lehigh & Hudson River Railway and the Pennsylvania Railroad interchanged freight.
The "Killer Flood," spawned by tropical storm Diane on August 18-19, 1955 inundated the pump house engine pit. The August 19th high water marker is on the interior north wall of the pump house. The flywheels of the pump were nearly submerged at the time, and operation was suspended.
Two of the boilers were modified to be fired by gas in the final years. Consumers New Jersey Water Company assumed ownership in 1969. The plant was used continuously until March 1, 1969, when a new well system with submersed electric pumps was put in service. The steam pump was put on standby status, but was test run annually until 1982, when it was last operated.
The final test runs of the pump were documented on video by Conrad H. Milster, Jr., a steam engineer employed by Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and Dr. Leedom Leferts of Drew University. (An excellent article, "An operating steam exhibit at the Phillipsburg Pumping Station," was published by Milster in the September 1979 issue of Live Steam Magazine.) These test pumps were also witnessed by many interested invitees. Dr. Leferts donated his several reels of 3/4" video tape to Friends NJTHC when he retired from Drew University.
The pump house and 96 acres of property, designated as the Marble Hill Natural Resource Area, was acquired from Consumers New Jersey Water Company by Warren County in 1999. As part of the deal, Consumers had the deteriorated pump house roof replaced. Shortly thereafter, Friends NJTHC leased the facility. The New Jersey Youth Corps of Phillipsburg assisted in installing screening over broken windows to keep birds out. In addition to the pump house itself, east of the pump house are a number of valve and line markers, valve caps and a “PWC” manhole cover. East of them, on the hillside is an abandoned stone valve house. Three safes near the pump house boilers containing historic records of the water company were opened by Aqua New Jersey in 2005, and the contents taken to their office building.
Unfortunately, during an aborted and ill-advised effort to get the Phillipsburg A-C VTE steam pumping engine operative in 2006 by uninformed volunteers, serious damage was done to the engine. Some repair and restoration work on the A-C VTE steam pumping engine was begun in 2010 by volunteer Carl Hosler, with significant machining help from the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, but that effort was suspended due to the death of a key volunteer in Baltimore. In 2017, volunteer steam engineers from Massachussetts (Alexander Karnes, BA; Phillip Beard, Undergraduate; and Phil Christopher, Second Class High Pressure Boiler Fireman) began traveling to Phillipsburg to work one weekend at a time (with motel costs paid for by Friends NJTHC director Ken Miller). Liberty Historic Railway paid for the costs of repairs, replacement parts, new parts, machining, welding, special tools, gaskets, solvents, lubricants, and any other needed supplies. The pump engine parts left in Baltimore were successfully recovered.
On July 28, 2018, these volunteers successfully started and operated the VTE for the first time since 1982 (see the video at the top of the page). This is now the largest operating steam pumping engine in North America.
The only other such surviving engine in New Jersey is the former Hackensack Water Company No. 7 Allis Chalmers VTE with a capacity of 20 MGD, installed in 1911 at their New Milford Pumping Station at Oradell. The Oradell engine is on National Register, but its preservation is in jeopardy.
Within the Phillipsburg pump house, Friends NJTHC has collected the hardware, tools, parts, and equipment which were found in the building at the beginning of the lease. Friends NJTHC also uses the building for protected storage of tools, supplies, equipment, artifacts, etc. for the future Heritage Center. The former Consumers garage building nearby is used by Friends NJTHC for storage of higher priority items, archives, artifacts and two of our oldest buses. It is an excellent facility for this purpose as it has no windows, is well-insulated, and is electrically heated.
Long range plans are to fully restore the Phillipsburg pump house facility and open it for display/tours/operating demonstrations. Since the plant remains in basically as-built condition, it eminently qualifies for inclusion on the National Register, and Friends NJTHC is actively seeking assistance to do this.