Sam Baxter: The complex legacy of the man behind the water treatment plant

Philadelphia's first water commissioner transformed the city's drinking water system but "was no saint.”

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A black-and-white photo of people overlooking a sewage plant.

Sewage flows into the Southeast Sewage Disposal Plant for the first time in 1955 (Courtesy of the Philadelphia Water Department, Joseph J. Conley/Inquirer photographer)

At the center of the water contamination scare that sparked panic buying of bottled water late last month was a mundane-looking brick and concrete building in Northeast Philadelphia called the Samuel S. Baxter Water Treatment Plant.

The plant filters water from the Delaware River, to send to the taps of more than half the residents of Philadelphia.

The facility is named after Sam Baxter, the city’s first and longest-serving water commissioner, from 1952 to 1972. He’s known for undertaking massive infrastructure investments, “professionalizing” the department, and finding himself out of a job when Frank Rizzo became mayor.

Here are six things to know about the man behind the treatment plant.

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He grew up in Fishtown

Sam Baxter was born in 1905. He grew up in Fishtown, where he was a Boy Scout and played football and basketball, according to a 1981 oral history interview conducted by the American Public Works Association and Public Works Historical Society, provided to PlanPhilly by the Water Department.

Baxter went to Northeast High School, where a math teacher sparked his interest in engineering, according to a 1975 oral history interview. He graduated before he turned 16.

His father was a railroad clerk, and the amount of money the family had was “not great,” Baxter said. He did not attend college after graduating high school, but worked for a sporting goods manufacturer, then started studying municipal engineering in the evenings at Drexel University.

Samuel Baxter poses for a photo inside of a car in a black-and-white photo.
Sam Baxter, circa 1928 (Philadelphia Water Department)

“Baxter was one of the last of a breed in the engineering field that rose to high position without having earned a college degree,” wrote Michael Robinson of the Public Works Historical Society in 1982.

Later in his career, Baxter would end up serving as president of the American Public Works Association, the American Water Works Association, and the American Society of Civil Engineers.

He helped build a ‘secret city’ connected to the atomic bomb

Baxter got his first job with the city of Philadelphia in 1923, in what was then the Bureau of Surveys in the Department of Public Works.

In the late 1930s, Baxter was put in charge of all Works Progress Administration projects in Philly.

“In order to take care of the people in the clothing factories, we even made doll dresses,” he told the Public Works Historical Society interviewer in 1981. “We built miscellaneous things like highway ramps.”

By 1940, he was Philly’s Assistant Director of Public Works.

A black-and-white headshot of Samuel Baxter.
Sam Baxter, pictured here in 1966, was Philly’s first and longest-serving Water Commissioner (Philadelphia Water Department)

Baxter served in the Army Reserve, and in the early 1940s during World War II helped build what would later become the Northeast Philadelphia Airport. He then worked for the Army Corps of Engineers on the Manhattan Project.

He helped erect Oak Ridge, Tennessee — a secret town of 75,000 people where workers helped develop the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

“We built it on a virgin hillside in Tennessee in a very short time under terrific pressure,” Baxter told the interviewer. “Not only did I have the direct responsibility for supervising the design and construction but also the management of the town — bringing in the department store, the beauty shops, the churches, every other thing. Nobody has ever had an experience like that, except those who worked along with me.”

Although Oak Ridge was built from scratch, segregation was part of its design, placing Black residents in rudimentary plywood structures that lacked internal plumbing.

He kept a lot of raw sewage out of Philly’s rivers

Baxter became water commissioner in 1952, when a new city charter created the job.

At the time, Philly dumped most of its sewage into the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers completely untreated, said Philadelphia Water Department historical consultant Adam Levine. Drinking water, drawn from those same rivers, was treated, but the pollution created “dead zones” in the rivers.

“We were dumping so much waste that we just overwhelmed the capacity of the rivers and streams to deal with it,” Levine said. “It basically smelled like rotten eggs at certain times in the summer.”

Sewage can still enter Philly’s waterways untreated during flood events, due to the city’s system of combined sewer overflows. In the past, this issue was so severe that it caused there to be very little oxygen in the water.

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“Not enough for the fish to survive,” said former Water Commissioner Kumar Kishinchand in an interview with PlanPhilly.

Research was initially done on development of a wastewater treatment system in the 1910s, Baxter said in the 1975 oral history interview, but the system was not fully built out for years, in part because of the Great Depression and World War II.

Baxter oversaw an upgrade of an existing wastewater treatment plant in Northeast Philly and the completion of two new sewage treatment plants, in Southeast and Southwest Philadelphia. By 1966, all sewage in Philadelphia was diverted to one of these three treatment plants, Levine said.

“They were at least giving it some treatment, and the rivers started to get cleaner,” Levine said.

A group of people overlook machinery and water in a water treatment plant in a black-and-white photo.
The dedication ceremony at the Queen Lane drinking water treatment plant in 1960 (Philadelphia Water Department)

The city’s wastewater treatment plants were upgraded further under the Clean Water Act of 1972, with new treatment steps like using microbes to eliminate bacteria.

“You look out on the river today, it looks appealing,” former regional EPA manager Richard Pepino told WHYY in 2019. “It did not look appealing in those days.”

He saw Philly’s water system as a ‘vision of progress’

In the early years of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s water treatment system was state-of-the-art, according to Baxter’s 1975 oral history interview. But by the time he became water commissioner, the system had suffered years of deferred maintenance.

“By the time World War II ended, the Philadelphia treatment plants, which were real wonders in 1910 and ‘15, had run down so badly that our water was the laughing stock around the country,” Baxter said.

Baxter embarked on a series of infrastructure improvements, which included finishing rebuilding or upgrading the city’s current three drinking water treatment plants, automating the treatment process, and fluoridating the drinking water. He built and upgraded pumping stations and 1,500 miles of new water mains and sewers, according to a tribute written by a fellow member of the National Academy of Engineering after his death. He also started 24/7 monitoring of water quality at the treatment plants, Kishinchand said.

“He was an innovator,” Kishinchand said. “He was a forward-thinking guy.”

Samuel Baxter and Mayor Joseph Clark, along with another person, are turning on a fluoridation machine.
Baxter (left) and Mayor Joseph Clark (right) kick off fluoridation at the Queen Lane Water Treatment Plant in 1954 (Philadelphia Water Department)

By 1961, Baxter was offering public tours to Philadelphians and out-of-town visitors of the city’s new “push-button” water treatment plants, according to an article in the Inquirer that year. 

“Philadelphia’s water system is fast becoming one of the most modern and efficient in the nation,” Baxter said at the time. “We feel residents should have the opportunity to see what they have received for the money they invested.”

Kishinchand was hired by Baxter in 1968 to work in the Water Department’s materials testing laboratory. He remembers Baxter investing in not just systems, but also people — encouraging professional development for existing employees and recruiting top talent — so that “the quality of the product that he was sending out to the public was as high-quality as could be obtained at that time.”

The technological improvements made to Philly’s water system in the mid-20th century probably would have happened around that time anyway, Levine said, “but Baxter’s leadership really, I think, provided the impetus to complete these projects.”

Samuel Baxter poses for a photo with another person and an award.
Water Commissioner Sam Baxter (left) receives the City Business Club’s “Man-of-the-Year” Award in 1965 (Philadelphia Water Department)

The projects cost money, and Baxter had a “rule of thumb” to pursue a rate increase of 20-25% roughly every four years, he said during a different 1975 oral history interview.

“Getting a rate increase isn’t just a matter of saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to increase your rates,’” Levine said. “You have to go through a whole process, and a lot of that is public relations.”

“In terms of the public health of the city, of the citizens, and the health of the rivers … he was very important to accomplishing those goals,” Levine added.

‘He was no saint’

Ask Floyd Platton, a 91-year-old resident of Fairmount about Sam Baxter, and you’ll get a less rosy picture.

“My report card on Baxter is mixed,” he said in an interview with PlanPhilly. “He was no saint.”

Platton joined the Water Department as personnel officer in 1962, and worked with Baxter to “professionalize” the department, bringing in more staff with graduate degrees in chemistry and sanitary, electrical, civil, and mechanical engineering, he said.

Outside of work, Platton was president of the Germantown Council for Community Control of Police, which formed in 1969 to oppose police brutality after a youth was “arrested and beaten” by police outside a dance in Germantown, according to an article that year in the Philadelphia Tribune.

“They were constantly harassing young Black kids,” Platton said.

Frank Rizzo was police commissioner at the time, and eventually got wind of Platton’s activism, Platton said.

“The next morning I got a call from Baxter, asking me to come to his office,” Platton remembered. “He received a call from Fred Corleto, who was managing director, and also from Rizzo himself, saying that I should be fired.”

Baxter could not fire Platton because he had “permanent civil service status” and “no blemishes on his performance record,” according to a 1969 Tribune article. Instead, Platton was “transferred to oblivion,” as one Inquirer reporter put it — relieved of his duties because Baxter reportedly believed Platton’s “outside activities” could interfere with his work. The transfer was “reportedly at the request” of Rizzo and then Mayor James Tate, according to a 1969 article in the Tribune.

“Baxter put it to me very clearly. He said, ‘I’m going to give you a desk with nothing to do, and I know that you’re not going to like that. So I expect that you’ll probably look for a job somewhere else,’” Platton said. “I was stunned.”

Old newspaper clipping with headline that reads Water Official Gets Old Job, Drops Suit
(Courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The Philadelphia Tribune)

In July 1969, Platton sued Baxter and two other top officials in federal court over the reassignment, characterizing it as intimidation and a denial of Platton’s right to free speech, according to news coverage at the time.

For months, Platton sat at his desk reading “anything that occurred” to him and continuing his organizing by phone, he said, helping launch the Council of Organizations on Philadelphia Police Accountability and Responsibility (COPPAR), which went on to sue Rizzo and other city officials, alleging the police force violated the rights of Black Philadelphians.

In early 1970, Platton and city officials settled the lawsuit over his reassignment.

“They sent me back the next day to my job, my real job,” Platton said.

During the saga, several civic organizations and church groups came to Platton’s defense, according to coverage at the time in the Philadelphia Tribune.

The Water Department Commissioner “is the all-too-familiar, terrifying example of the bureaucrat eager to sacrifice integrity, principle, and people to preserve his own tenuous security and mean authority in a corrupt system,” wrote the Alliance of Black Social Workers in a 1969 letter to then Mayor James Tate, according to the Tribune.

Platton said Baxter did not approve of his activism.

“He did a great, great deal [for the Water Department]. … He brought it into the 20th century,” Platton said. But “as a human being, I lost all respect for him.”

Mayor Rizzo ‘fired’ Baxter

Baxter was a Republican, but was appointed and reappointed water commissioner under three different Democratic mayors.

His time at the helm of the Water Department ended when Frank Rizzo took office as mayor in 1972. Rizzo replaced Baxter with then Deputy Commissioner Carmen Guarino.

“He fired Baxter,” Platton said.

During his campaign, Rizzo said he planned to keep Baxter in his administration, according to an article in the Inquirer at the time. But several weeks after the election, Rizzo’s people told reporters that Baxter’s replacement was under consideration.

“After 48 years, I do think they could have given me a chance to resign,” Baxter reportedly said.

Old newspaper clipping about Baxter and Rizzo
(Courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Thacher Longstreth, then president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce who ran unsuccessfully against Rizzo for mayor, said in an interview with the Public Works Historical Society in the early 1980s that he was surprised to see Baxter out of a job when Rizzo took office.

“All of us, including myself, simply assumed he would be continued by the mayor in the position he had occupied for 20 years. Much to our surprise, chagrin, and disappointment, he was not reappointed.”

“I think it was done primarily because of a personal antagonism that existed between Sam and Frank Rizzo,” Longstreth added.

It’s not clear whether the drama over Platton’s activism and reassignment was the reason Rizzo replaced Baxter, but Platton thinks it could have contributed.

“His attempt to satisfy Rizzo apparently didn’t satisfy Rizzo,” Platton said.

For his part, Baxter spoke highly of Rizzo until the end.

“I think he was a good police commissioner,” he told the Public Works Historical Society in November 1981, just months before his death. “I thought he was strong in what he did and liked him. … The mayor can put his own people in and in this case the Rizzo administration decided that they didn’t want me. … He made the decision and that was a perfectly proper one for the mayor to make — he had the authority. So I’ve kind of written it off.”

Sam Baxter died in February 1982.

Disclosure: WHYY President and CEO William J. Marrazzo is a past commissioner of the Water Department.

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