Draining the swamp: A. Baldwin Wood and the pump that built New Orleans
In 1899, A. Baldwin Wood, a freshly minted Tulane University graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, was hired by the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board to improve the drainage of the flood-prone city. Among the devices he developed were flap gates, which let water exit a channel without flowing back, and his crowning achievement, the screw pump, which is capable of moving great quantities of water up an incline and over levees into Lake Pontchartrain. As a result of those inventions, new areas of the city could be drained and settled, dramatically expanding the city’s footprint.
Wood’s inventions remain an important part of the Sewerage & Water Board’s weaponry against rising water. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, pump operator Kevin Martin told The New York Times that Wood’s original pumps at Pump Station No. 1 kept doing their thing throughout the storm. “The two new pumps (built in the 1990s) went out right away,” Martin said. “They’re the most powerful. They sound like freight trains. Four of the old ones kept going all night. The original two pumps (from 1913), those are the most reliable. I’d use those two before I’d use any of the others.”
- Wood acquired 38 patents for his inventions. His first screw pump, which he invented in 1913, was a 12-foot pump. He later designed a 14-foot pump.
- There was lagniappe: Disease rates fell because fetid floodwater could be pumped out faster before mosquitoes had a chance to breed there and spread infections. The pumps also improved the quality of New Orleans’ water supply.
- There also has been a down side: Draining the city’s swamps made the ground subside, and the newly dry areas of the city were as much as 10 feet below sea level, making them vulnerable to rising water and, as a result, dependent on the system of levees, outfall canals and pumps to fight rising water.
- Wood’s pumps have been installed in India, China, Egypt and the Netherlands. He also designed drainage, sewerage and pumping systems for other cities, including Chicago, Milwaukee, Baltimore and San Francisco.
- In a 1974 ceremony at Pumping Station No. 1, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers hailed Wood’s screw pump system as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
- Wood was an avid sailor who died of a heart attack on his sloop, the Nydia, in 1956. In his will, he left money to Tulane but on the condition that the university care for the boat for at least 99 years.
- The Nydia stayed on display in a climate-controlled case on the Uptown campus until 2004, when it was moved to Belle Chasse, home of Tulane’s F. Edward Hébert Research Center, because the nearby University Center was being renovated. Wood’s heirs sued, claiming Tulane wasn’t living up to its obligation. The suit was settled out of court, and the Nydia was moved to the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi, Miss.
It is impossible to imagine New Orleans’ development during the 20th century without Wood’s screw pump, which made whole swaths of the city habitable, including nearly everything between the lake and the Metairie and Gentilly ridges. “With this invention, the city had entered an era of land reclamation that would revolution its geography, and nothing would ever be quite the same again,” wrote Joan B. Garvey and Mary Lou Widmer in their 1982 book “Beautiful Crescent.”