Fairmount Dam

Field Notes

Date: June 26th, 2019
Location Schuylkill River, Philadelphia, PA, United States
Lat: 39* 58’ 0.870” N || Long: 75* 11’ 4.758” W
Altitude: 1.15
Link to approximate location on map: https://goo.gl/maps/VQSv4EiXrXFw8M3F7


The oft-photographed Fairmount Dam in Philadelphia was constructed from 1819-1821 in order to provide and store drinking water and water power, as well as create a recreational area for rowing, which continues today (see also: Boathouse Row). Yet at many points in time, it also served as a kind of dumping ground for pollutants and waste. In the late 1800’s, Dr. Charles Cresson, a chemist with the Philadelphia Board of Health, performed analyses of the river and concluded that the outbreaks of cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid at the time were partially due to the amount of discharge from nearby cesspools and slaughterhouses that made its way to the drinking water supply. Aforementioned pollutants from upstream such as coal silt, oil from refineries, and so on were also present, and the river was reported to have accidentally caught fire on more than one occasion, first in 1892 (174). The more one reads about the chemical history of this place, the stranger the juxtaposition becomes with its public image of health, recreation, and architectural mastery.

Input 1

Hydrophone was lowered into the waterfall just where the water begins rushing down the decline. 

Input 2

Contact microphone was fixed to the underside of the bridge above the dam, capturing the vibrations from the cars above. 

Input 3

Lav mics where placed inside a small sculpture dedicated to the Lenape people

Input 4

Lav mics where placed inside a small sculpture dedicated to the Lenape people


It was a characteristically hot and humid day in Philadelphia. We arrived to the dam, which might better be referenced to current residents as Boathouse Row. Today it is a kind of hub of recreation and outdoor activity, from frequent rowing events to both tourist and local traffic on the bicycle path. You will also find some folks fishing there, as well as casual pedestrians coming from the nearby museums. We climbed some fences and scaled a bridge to capture vibrations of cars driving atop the Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive bridge. We then walked to the Fairmount Water Works, now a historical site. As we lowered the hydrophone into the rushing, falling waters of the dam, of course intending to focus listening on the water, we began to hear the electromagnetic signals of the dam, and we explored these invisible seams instead. This became perhaps the most interesting listening experience of all of our site visits, and certainly the site best suited for an audio representation. We then walked to some areas with benches, where we found a small sculpture dedicated to the significance of the river to the Lenape people. We had not encountered many nods toward the indigenous peoples of the river, and this one was unfortunately small. We used our small lavalier microphones to listen through that sculpture, as a reflective moment of gratitude, recognition, and imagination of what the area may have been like prior to the trauma of colonization.