Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Kiamensi Spring Water Company

Kiamensi Spring Water Bottling Plant, 1908
 One of the most heavily mocked (at least, by me) business models of the past few decades was bottled water. Only in late 20th Century America, so I thought, could a company expect people to pay good money for something they can get almost free at home. As it turns out though, bottled water is now a nearly $10 billion industry in the US alone (although sales have sagged a bit the last few years). It also turns out that it was far from a new idea -- our area was ahead of the curve by almost a century. In 1907, a new company was formed -- The Kiamensi Spring Water Company -- and began shipping its product from its source on the east bank of Red Clay Creek.

As one might expect, there are, in the vicinity of Brandywine Springs Park, quite a few natural springs. One, a chalybeate spring, was the impetus for a resort hotel, and later, an amusement park. Most of the springs in the area, though, are clear, clean, and fresh (or at least, they were a century ago). In 1907, while the amusement park was at the height of its popularity, several of its officers (including owner Richard Crook and VP L. Heisler Ball (in between stints as US Senator from Delaware)) decided to capitalize on one of these clear springs and market its waters directly to consumers. Considering the rather questionable state of municipal water supplies at the time, in conjunction with a public newly-aware of the dangers of germs and contamination, bottled spring water and beverages made from it were hot sellers.

The particular spring from which the Kiamensi Spring Water Company drew its product was located on the east side of Red Clay creek (ok, technically not in Mill Creek Hundred, but close enough for inclusion here), just south of where Hyde Run empties into it. The spring itself is down near the creek, at the base of an approximately 80 foot hillside. Down at the source of the spring, the company constructed a 15,000 gallon concrete reservoir with a 10x14 foot arched roof (as seen below in the postcard printed by George A. Wolf). This was meant to protect the purity of the water by keeping out surface drainage water and other airborne contaminants. Nearby, a pumphouse (seen just above the reservoir) equipped with a two-horsepower gasoline engine pumped the water up the hillside to the bottling plant above.

The bottling plant (seen in the picture at the top of the page) at the top of the hill had a sealed wooden vat with a capacity of 10,000 gallons, and the plant could bottle that much in a day. The water was originally sold in containers of one-half, one, two, and five gallons. Later it would also be sold in individual 8 ounce and one quart bottles. The company prided itself on the thoroughness of the cleaning and sterilization process for the bottles and jugs, and often featured it in its newspaper ads. The reason for the bottling plant to be built up above the spring was twofold: 1) The way Red Clay Creek floods, building right along it was no better an idea then than it is now, and 2) More importantly, that's where the trolley tracks were.

Less than ten years before, the Peoples Railway, after a decade-long court battle, finally began service from Wilmington to Brandywine Springs Amusement Park. Before entering the park, the trolley tracks ran along the top of the hillside on the east side of the creek (behind Faulkland Heights and Spice Mill Lane), and right above the spring. With the aid of a special freight car, Kiamensi Spring Water was transported via the trolley line into Wilmington where it was sold. Here is an ad from July 1907, soon after they started shipping, touting the cleanliness of the water and inviting the public to tour the bottling plant themselves. This article from the same 1907 newspaper details a special trolley trip earlier that week, organized by the Kiamensi Company, in which press, businessmen, and physicians were given a tour of the plant.

It didn't take long though, before the trolley line was no longer sufficient to carry the spring water to market. Within a few years, a larger loading platform was built along the Wilmington & Western (by then, the Landenberg Branch of the B&O) railroad tracks on the west side of the creek. In order to transport the cases of water from the bottling plant across the Red Clay to the train platform, an overhead cable system was installed.

On a recent visit to this part of the site (which sits between the railroad tracks and the creek), I believe I (and a friend) found the large footers for the west end of the cable system. Additionally, there were many (maybe 15-20) smaller concrete footers that must have been for the loading platform. What this structure looked like I don't know, but the footers suggested some sort of an "L"-shaped layout. The ground in the footprint of the structure was almost literally covered in broken bottles. The shards (there was not one whole bottle that we could find) were obviously from the 8-ounce bottles -- some green, some brown. Neither kind appeared to have anything on the front, but the brown bottles were embossed with "Kiamensi Water" on the bottom, as seen below [I'll try to get a better picture when I can].

By 1914, the Kiamensi brand name had become well established -- so well established, in fact, that the company was purchased by a larger corporation, the National Table Waters Company. This new parent company continued to sell the water under the same name, even broadening its market (as seen in this 1915 ad from The Pittsburgh Press). Clear spring water continued to be gathered and bottled here until around 1925, about which time operations ceased at the Kiamensi spring. Why exactly it was shut down is unclear, but it's possible that the bottled water market may have been in decline at the time. Now, all that remains are a few ruins on either side of Red Clay Creek. And a lot of broken glass.

Additional Facts and Related Thoughts:
  • The corporate synergy between the amusement park, trolley line, and spring water company is not all that surprising when you realize they were all owned and operated by the same group of men.
  • If you doubt the effectiveness at the time of advertising the health benefits of a product, check out the Hartmann & Fehrenbach beer ad next to the 1907 Kiamensi ad. It must have been effective, because even though Brandywine Springs was a "dry park", in our archaeological digs there we've uncovered many Hartmann & Fehrenbach bottles. You can't argue with science.
  • The Dr. Albert Robin who made a speech during the 1907 press tour seems to be the same man who was in charge of the Brandywine Sanatarium, soon to move to MCH and later become Emily Bissell Hospital.
  • Here are a couple more Kiamensi newspaper ads: a large one from 1909 complete with testimonial from a doctor who was on the 1907 trip,  one from 1911 noting that their offices had moved, and one from 1912 touting its purity (and incidentally, from the day the Titanic began to sink).
  • A larger (maybe one gallon?) Kiamensi Water jug is on display at the HRCV Visitor's Center at the WWRR's Greenbank Station.


  1. Interesting that the name "Kiamensi" was chosen for the brand name. I always just associated Kiamensi with the area between Marshallton and Stanton.

  2. Nice article. It is a subject you never hear much about. I also like the idea you went exploring and found remains.

  3. Where was this place located? Is there a place built over it now or a wooded lot?

    1. It's still a wooded area, along Red Clay Creek by Brandywine Springs. The spring and bottling plant were on the east side of the creek, just below the mouth of Hyde Run.

  4. My Dad and me harvested at least a case of bottles from a big glass pile back in the early 70's. He remembered the glass pile when he was a kid in the 30's. We even found some that were still capped with water in them. As I recall there were three different sizes of bottles.