SCOWDEN, THEODORE RANSOM III (8 June 1815 – 31 December 1881) was a nationally recognized hydraulics engineer, architect and inventor who designed the original steam-powered engines, water reservoir and distribution system for Cleveland. From the onset of designing water systems, Scowden also championed that proper sewage systems and made concerted efforts to protect source water from pollution.   

Scowden was born in Allegheny County, Penn, to Theodore Scowden II (b. Jan. 14, 1786; d. Feb. 14, 1843) and Sarah Ransom Hazard (b. 1793; d. July 31, 1878). The family moved to Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati) before Scowden’s fifth birthday. He studied engineering at Augusta College in Kentucky. He returned to Cincinnati in 1832 to apprentice at Harkness-Pierce Steam Engine Foundry and then worked as a ships engineer on steamers traveling the Ohio and Mississippi rivers between Cincinnati and New Orleans.

Scowden married Rosetta Stewart (b. March 20, 1818; d. April 27, 1882) of Hamilton Co., Ohio on June 16, 1836. He spent his spare moments in studying mechanics, hydraulics and civil engineering. By the time he was 25, Scowden had designed and patented a breech-loading cannon, an iron rolling mill, and a low-pressure steamboat engine. He also invented the first steam dial indicator and wrote a critically important book containing explanations and rules for steamboat engineers.

In 1846, Scowden turned was hired by Cincinnati to design and build a new water system for what was Ohio’s largest city of 50,000 people. This project took seven years.

In 1851, Cincinnati sent Scowden on a tour of England and France to study public docks, drainage, paving and water works. Scowden’s trip included visits to many pump stations where he copied their designs by hand. Scowden brought these designs to Cleveland.

In 1852, the City of Cleveland hired Scowden to design a public water system for quickly growing city. In his February 1853 report, Scowden recommended that a combined system of water works and sewerage be constructed that included intercepting sewers along the CUYAHOGA RIVER and Lake Erie so that all sewer drainage be collected and then released at a distant location so not to impact the source of drinking water. He also recommended that, “stringent ordinances should be passed and enforced, prohibiting the deposit of nuisances anywhere along the lake shore, within the corporate limits of the city.”

In June of 1853, Scowden provided CLEVELAND CITY COUNCIL a second report that proposed the best location for building the intake, pump station and 5 million gallon water reservoir in OHIO CITY, which was the rival community on Cuyahoga River’s west bank. The Ohio City site’s advantages included:

                 1. A reservoir that would be 31 feet higher in elevation than anywhere in Cleveland

                    and provide better pressure.  

                 2. It would be cheaper to deliver coal to the plant to power the engines.

                 3. Water clarity west of the Cuyahoga River mouth was favorable due to

                     prevailing winds that push river water eastward, including highly turbid

                    water after rains – a phenomenon still evident today.

The site Scowden chose for the Division Street Pump Station would lead Ohio City to willingly be annexed by Cleveland in 1854. One month later, construction of the water works began.

The original pump station was said to have presented more engineering difficulties than any other in the country. On Sept. 24, 1856, pumping water to citizens began. Scowden designed the first Cornish engines introduced west of the Allegheny Mountains, They were the pride of the city. Buildings were left open so people could sit and watch them work. Walking paths atop the Kentucky Street Reservoir walls afforded the best views of the city and lake making it a fashionable place for social promenading.

Scowden’s success and beauty of his design built his reputation as one of the ablest hydraulics engineers in the country. He was recruited to communities nationwide to develop water systems including Louisville and Newport Kentucky; Dubuque Iowa; Columbus and Sidney, Ohio; and San Francisco. During the CIVIL WAR Scowden also engineered and began construction of new locks around the Falls of the Ohio River between Louisville and Oak Park, Indiana, which are now known as the Scowden Locks.

In 1864, Scowden permanently made Cleveland his home when he purchased a grand mansion on EUCLID AVENUE. Scowden’s personal residence and grounds were among the most celebrated of Millionaires' Row. Still, Scowden was never known to flaunt his wealth. Scowden would donate large amounts to charities – on at least one occasion 5 times more than the next highest donor.

Designing, consulting and building waterworks was the foundation of Scowden’s career. He simultaneously maintained other roles including as a lawyer, a banker, ownership in hydropower company and a cement manufacturing company, selling California tidelands, and inventions and investments in steel rolling mills. Just as noteworthy is that many of the places Scowden worked hired him back to design future improvements to their systems. This included Cleveland who rehired Scowden as a consultant in the design of the first 5-foot diameter water intake tunnel which was constructed from 1868-1874, to connect his pump station to clear water.

Scowden was a Cleveland resident when he died in 1881, at the Windsor Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida, were he had gone in an attempt to recuperate from ill health. An obituary described Scowden as excessively modest, preferring to let his works be his monuments, and “Mr. Scowden was one of the pleasantest gentlemen… those who had the privilege of close acquaintance and friendship can bear earnest testimony to his kindness of heart and graciousness of manner. He was a fascinating companion, a devoted husband and an affectionate parent.”  Scowden is buried in LAKE VIEW CEMETERY in Cleveland.

The original Division Street site is still home to a pump station and treatment plant, renamed the GARRETT A. MORGAN Water Treatment Plant in 1991. On Sept. 24, 2021, the 165th anniversary of the Cleveland Water System, a road at the Morgan plant was renamed Scowden Way in Theodore Ransom Scowden III’s honor.

Brenda Culler

Cleveland Water