February 7, 1982: Death of Samuel S. Baxter; 1955: Death of Moses N. Baker

Samuel S. Baxter

February 7, 1982:  Samuel S. Baxter dies one day after his 77thbirthday.Sam Baxter was the long-time Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department. “With the exception of military service during World War II, Sam Baxter spent his entire life living and working in Philadelphia. He was born in the city on February 6, 1905, attended public school, and graduated from high school in January 1921, just before his sixteenth birthday. He obtained a job with a sporting goods firm, but spent his evenings at Drexel Institute (now Drexel University) studying municipal engineering. One of his instructors was Thomas Buckley (APWA President, 1937), who was a senior engineer for the city. Buckley encouraged Baxter to take a civil service examination for a surveying position, and the young man became a chainman in a district field office in February 1923. Thus began a 49-year career of service to the city of Philadelphia….

He was an individual of exemplary ability, character, and charm. The roll of his accomplishments is long and enviable, but perhaps his most lasting and memorable legacy was his rare personal qualities. Sam Baxter was truly a public works “man for all seasons,” who, in the conduct of his professional and personal life, served as a paradigm for other engineer-administrators. He was self-effacing, bold, creative, competent, and adhered unwaveringly to the canons of his church and profession. Furthermore, he displayed a high degree of sensitivity to people, political acumen, ethical courage, and level-headedness under pressure that few public works leaders possess.”

The City’s largest treatment plant in the far northeastern part of the City was named after him.

Commentary:  Sam Baxter is the man who convinced me that public service, especially serving customers safe drinking water, was one of the highest callings an engineer could have. In a town that was slimed with patronage and dirty politics he was special. He had the highest moral principles and he told any Mayor that tried to control him where he could go—in the most gentlemanly fashion. I met him at a seminar at Columbia University for senior engineering students. Here was the guy running the Philadelphia Water Department taking an entire day off to hang out with undergraduates. He intrigued me.

I decided to write a senior project paper on wastewater reuse. That’s right, sewage to drinking water. I took a chance and asked Mr. Baxter (that’s what everyone called him; never “Commissioner”) if I could interview him. He agreed and was very kind to a kid who knew nothing about nothing having to do with wastewater reuse. In the course of my two interviews with him, I was impressed with him as a man and as a leader of this field of water and wastewater services. When the time came to choose among my job offers, I accepted a position with the Research and Development Unit of the Philadelphia Water Department.

I owe him a lot. I will never forget what he did for me and for the drinking water community.

February 7, 1955:  Moses N. Baker dies in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.“Moses N. Baker(1864–1955) was a noted editor and author in the field of drinking water history and technology. His most important book is still used today: The Quest for Pure Water: The History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century.He was also active in the field of public health holding several positions on boards of health at the state and local levels….

Baker started his long career as author and editor in November 1887 when he was hired as the Associate Editor of Engineering News. This publication and the consolidated weekly Engineering News-Record which began on April 1, 1917 were the definitive sources of news about advances in the control and treatment of drinking water and sewage for decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He retired in 1932 after 45 years of service.

Baker collected a large library of books and source documents that he used to write his most important book, The Quest for Pure Water: The History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century, which was first published in 1948. It was reprinted and published in 1981. He donated his collection to the American Water Works Association which transferred it to the Engineering Societies Library in New York City in 1945 for safe keeping. Unfortunately, the Engineering Societies Library went out of business in 1998 and his entire collection was dispersed….”

Baker was a member of a number of professional organizations and societies including the New England Water Works Association, American Water Works Associationand the American Economic Association. He was Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Municipal League from 1911 to 1918. He was a member of the Montclair, New Jersey Board of Health for 20 years and served as its president from 1904 to 1915. Baker was a member and vice president of the New Jersey Department of Health in 1915-16. He served as President of the New Jersey Sanitary Association in 1904 following the term of John L. Leal.”

Commentary:  Baker is one of my heroes. It was quite a thrill to make a connection with his great grandson, Peter Varlien, who is Norwegian-American. Peter provided several photos from Moses’ and Ella’s 50th wedding anniversary for which I am very grateful. Ah, the Internet is an amazing thing.

Moses N. Baker and Ella Baker at their 50th Anniversary celebration

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