Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Fountain Park--Ancestral Connection to an Eternal Spring

It is my sister-in-law Edna, not my siblings and I, who has taken particular satisfaction in researching our family's ancestry. She traced one lineage on my father's side back to Lord Hempleman of Hesse-Kassel. If my parents had known there was a Lord in our family's past, they might have called on me to show more regal bearing as a kid. Though it's flattering to learn of some royal ancestry, the most exciting find was another lineage, on my mother's side, extending seven generations back to an eternal spring located one hundred miles west of Princeton. 

In Schaefferstown, Pennsylvania, there is a fountain that flows nonstop, year-round, without aid of any pump. It's water rises from a spring perched on the hillside, then flows down the hill to a fountain where residents of the town still come to have a drink.

The fountain was part of an innovative underground system of wooden pipes that transported water from the spring down one side of a valley and up the other to provide drinking water in wooden troughs on the town square. 

According to some literature:
"The water company in Schaefferstown has the oldest gravitational conveyance system by underground pipes in the United States. The water system was constructed sometime between 1744 and 1750 by the founder of the town, Alexander Schaeffer."

It's also called "the oldest Chartered Waterworks still in operation in the United States."

This ancestral connection has all sorts of resonance in my life. Water holds an attraction for most people, but in my life it has been a recurring theme. I grew up near beautiful Lake Geneva, WI, got a masters degree in water quality, founded a watershed association, turned a soggy field in a public park into a wetland garden, dug a series of miniponds in my backyard, and favor wildflowers that thrive in wet soil. As a kid walking home from school when winter was finally giving way to spring, I loved to build dams out of wet snow to hold back the snowmelt along the curb. Clearly, all this time Alexander Schaeffer's genes have been whispering encouragement to his great-great-great-great-great grandson.

The eternal spring is in a park that also feels eternal, appropriately called Fountain Park, 

Halfway up the hillside is the spring house, which looks more like a mound of earth, with a wall on the bottom end, its own picket fence
and its own caretaker--one in a long line of caretakers dating back to the mid-1700s
Peer in through the door in the wall, 
and you'll find what looks like a small indoor swimming pool--a durably crafted stone chamber where the water collects before flowing down to the fountain. 

One enduring mystery, which I'm hoping a hydrogeologist who strays upon this post can explain, is why springs tend to emerge not at the bottom of a hill but halfway down. 
Climb up this hill and you quickly reach the top, where there hardly seems to be enough land to feed such a copious and consistent spring--not much more than a small farm field, with the land beyond lower and flowing off in different directions. 
German immigrant Alexander Schaeffer laid out the town in a way reminiscent of those he knew in Europe, and initially called it Heidelberg, after one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. 

Water from the spring still feeds troughs along Market Street, bringing back memories of ancient Roman water works seen in Italy.

The park is owned and maintained by residents of Market Street. Buy a house on Market Street, and you also become part owner and steward of the park. 

While in town, I met one of the owner/stewards, Ann Ginder, who gave me some copies of this pamphlet. At the time--my visit was in 2018--her husband, Andy, was president of the group of residents along the street who take care of Fountain Park. Carl "Cork" Meyer, who I didn't meet, is the one who does most of the physical work to maintain the park. 

On the town square, Alexander Schaeffer built what still stands as a tavern called Franklin House, and it was there that I met what proved to be a distant cousin of mine, Howard Kramer. Our ancestral connection to each other and the town's founder can be tracked back via gravestones variously populated with names like Meyer, Moyer, and Meier. Ann Ginder calls Howard the "unofficial mayor" of Schaefferstown.

Schaeffer's house and farm on the outskirts of town are being restored as a historic site, with summer festivals to celebrate the town's history. It's not just the unique drinking water system and a long line of advocates and stewards that has saved the town's historical features. As one website explains,

"Because the area was left isolated from rail lines, canals, and modern highways, the town did not grow appreciably in the 19th or 20th centuries. This greatly influenced the small-town look and feel that the area maintains today."

Thanks to my sister-in-law Edna for discovering our ancestral link to this special place, founded by my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. And thanks to those who care enough to cherish and sustain that history. Howard wrote to me that "years ago there was a steady line of people getting their drinking water here and at the fountain mid-way up Market St." Even now, with all the world's turbulence, radical change, and myriad threats to what we once thought of as forever, there is an improbable spring perched above a Pennsylvania valley where the water still flows.


  1. Lovely story, lucky discovery! Yes!!!--being near, watching/listening to water, being IN water, drinking cool spring water..... Glad to hear of a small town that has missed some of the hectic growth of past century or two. Compare to: recent rush on buying our Princeton store's spring water (shipped from PA), in six 1/2 gallon cases or 5-gal. bottles, because recent online sites had scary stories (NOT new!) about tiny bits of plastic in our tap water....how careful are those same buyers, about not buying plastics?! And, sad, that we as a store still have so many plastic-wrapped products. So much for us all to un-/re-learn.

  2. Stanton R de Riel2/04/2024 12:03 AM

    Hi Steve, not a hydrogeologist ! But -- springs result from groundwater movement. If by gravity, there must be an impervious layer beneath. Now if that is randomly elevated and randomly sloped and cupped, such that it sheds water out of a hill, then that's unlikely high up the hill (too little collection area), and may be unlikely far down the hill b/c the slope of the land is more gentle, resulting in a seep rather than a marked flow. But -- if the flow is artesian, with impervious layers on both sides of an aquifer, then the collection area may be far distant -- common in karst regions, such as my home area of Missouti Ozarks. Saratoga Springs NY also has many springs of various salinities, carbonations, sulfurations, and flow rates.