Baldwin Wood: The Inventor Who Keeps New Orleans Dry
Much of New Orleans lies under sea level, and flooding is always a major concern. The city shares much in common with the Netherlands in that respect. One of the unsung heroes of New Orleans is Albert Baldwin Wood (1879–1956), the inventor and visionary who designed the pumps that move the water from New Orleans through an elaborate system of canals to Lakes Ponchartrain and Borgne.
These pumps come into full use during periods of heavy rain and hurricanes, when the city can easily get over 10 inches of rainfall in a single day. The New Orleans system, operated by the Sewerage and Water Board, today comprises 24 drainage stations, 120 pumps, 280 miles of canals (roughly half exposed and half below ground), 1,400 miles of underground pipes, and 68,000 drain grates! During a heavy rain, the system is capable of removing one inch of rainfall in the first hour and about one-half inch per hour thereafter.
Baldwin, as he was known, was the 1st cousin 3x removed of our sister-in-law Judge Wendy (née Baldwin) Vitter. He came from a prominent New Orleans family: His mother Octavie (née Bouligny) Wood (1834–1912) was a granddaughter of U.S. Senator Charles Dominique Joseph Bouligny (1773–1833) and 1st cousin of renowned Louisiana educator Alcée Fortier (1856–1914), subject of the history Alcée Fortier and the Creole Culture of New Orleans. Baldwin was named after his uncle Albert Henry Baldwin (1834–1912), Wendy's great great grandfather.
Baldwin Wood graduated from Tulane University with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering in 1899, and that same year he began work with the New Orleans Drainage Commission, which merged three years later with the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, where Baldwin remained, eventually taking over as superintendent until his retirement in 1956. He held 38 patents, and many of his inventions became industry standards — especially the centrifugal pump and screw pump that are still in active use in New Orleans. Tulane University awarded him a doctorate in 1939. For his genius and accomplishments, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently designated the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board as a Civil Engineering Historic Landmark.
Baldwin's designs revolutionalized drainage, pumping, and sewage systems worldwide, and not surprisingly he was a frequent consultant on multiple continents, including in Chicago, Milwaukee, Baltimore, San Francisco, Canada, Egypt, China, and India. His work was especially helpful in the massive Zuiderzee Works project in the Netherlands, described as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. It reclaimed large areas of land from the Zuider Zee that are now part of the provinces of North Holland and Flevoland and populated by roughly a half million people.
One possible amusing interaction that we can only speculate about involves Jeff's grandaunt Rose "Tawo" Ferran (1898–1991), who was renowned for her visits to the Sewerage and Water Board — always bringing with her some huge account books of the rental properties (known as the Ferran Estate) that Tawo and her siblings inherited from their father Jean Ferran dit Larneilh (1862–1930). It seemed that there was always some mistake or two to settle with the S&WB. To put it mildly, Tawo and the S&WB were not best of friends! We wonder if she and S&WB Superintendent Baldwin Wood ever had the occasion to meet! We're sure the repartée would have been memorable!
Baldwin Wood maried Nola Bradford Smith on 26 April 1908, but tragically their only child Albert Baldwin Wood Jr. died shortly after birth in late 1913. Baldwin was an avid sailor, and he died on 10 May 1956 in pursuit of his passion on his beloved sailboat Nydia in the Biloxi Channel, just south of where he lived on East Beach. He bequested the Nydia to Tulane University for 99 years under the condition that the university preserve and prominently display it, but the family repossessed it in 2003 when it got displaced because of an expansion of the student center, and it is now on display at the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, near its original home.
Journalist Sarah Laskow wrote an insightful piece on Baldwin Wood and his legacy, and we include it below in its entirety. The article is entitled "New Orleans Has Been Using the Same Technology to Drain the City Since the 1910s" and has the subtitle "The Wood Screw Pumps Are Mechanical Marvels, but the Turbines That Power Them Are Another Story." Laskow's article appeared in the 17 October 2017 issue of Alta Obscura. As the title suggests, Baldwin Wood's inventions are still going strong — now 108 years after their original installation!
However, as the subtitle of Laskow's article suggests, the Achilles heal of the city's drainage system is the antiquated power system that serves the pumps. Almost half of the city's pumps rely upon 25 Hz electricity (rather than the modern standard of 60 Hz), and the power generation is highly unreliable and often breaks down in emergency situations, thus preventing the pumps from doing their work. Unfortunately, the New Orleans mayor's office, city council, and energy company Entergy have totally dropped the ball, and as of 2023 they have not yet implemented the necessary mechanisms to ensure that the pumps will be fully powered even under storm conditions. When Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans in the wee hours of 30 August 2021, there was street flooding in numerous sections of the city as a result of the pumps having no electricity for several hours. Jeff & Sharon Vitter, the hosts of this website, wrote a strongly worded letter to the editor that appeared on 9 September, 2021 in The Advocate and The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate. We can only hope that competent officials will rise to the occasion and secure a safe environment going forward.
For details, here's Sarah Laskow's informative article from 6 years ago in its entirety, along with photos:
More than 100 years ago, New Orleans was on the forefront of urban infrastructure.
Since its founding in 1718, between the natural levee of Mississippi River banks and higher land along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, the bowl-like city has never had adequate drainage. In its early days, New Orleans’s system of drainage ditches and canals “was totally inadequate, even for a town with as little runoff as early New Orleans,” according to a 1999 Army Corps of Engineers report on the city’s drainage history. During storms, each of the city’s blocks became an island surrounded by flood waters. One year, Mardi Gras parades waded through flooded streets. The soggy city was a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.
In the 1890s, the city council decided to deal with the “extraordinary disastrous condition” of the city’s drainage. By the turn of the century, the city had built giant drainage canals (today mostly hidden underneath the streets, so big that a truck could drive through them).
But moving water out required pumps to get it up and over the higher land rimming the city. The canals carried water from pumping station to pumping station, until the end of the line, where it was pumped into Lake Borgne or, if necessary, Lake Pontchartrain. There were pumps built into the original drainage system, but in the 1910s, a local engineer, Albert Baldwin Wood, built New Orleans better pumps than any city had ever had.
“For their time, they were a real mechanical marvel. The real backbone of the current system is these historic pumps, and they work extremely well,” says Benjamin Maygarden, a historian and lead author of the Army Corps report. One early Wood pump is still working as a constant duty pump — for day-to-day drainage, rather than pulses of storm water — at Drainage Pumping Station No. 1, says Maygarden, who’s now a project manager at Gaea Consultants in the city. “It’s still in almost daily use. They’re really remarkable mechanical things.”
Wood’s innovative pumping system made it possible for New Orleans to thrive and expand, despite the city’s less-than-ideal location. A century after their creation, his pumps are still engineering wonders. But they come with a caveat. Many of the pumps use an outdated electrical standard, and the city generates power just for them, with turbines that are difficult and costly to maintain. They’re unreliable enough that this past summer a rainstorm caused the city to flood for days, and whenever hurricanes threaten — like Tropical Storm Nate, which is heading through the Gulf of Mexico this weekend — the system’s weak spots are put to the test.
Albert Baldwin Wood was a New Orleans native, so dedicated to the city that he rarely left, even after other cities starting clamoring for his help. He started working for the Drainage Commission in 1899, as Assistant Manager of Drainage, and spent 55 years with the city’s Sewerage and Water Board, which had merged with the commission in 1902.
Wood’s original job was to address the city’s overwhelming and increasing drainage needs. He started designing pumps, and by 1915 had created the giant, horizontal screw pumps — the largest and most advanced pumps of their time — that are his legacy.
He had started small, by designing an experimental pump just a foot long. Whereas New Orleans’s prior pumps had been vertical, this one lay on its side. A vacuum pipe sucked the water into the pump’s rotating center and through to the next canal or the lake at the end of the line. Wood scaled the original model up to 30 inches, then 12 feet. One of the genius aspects of Wood’s design is the ease by which the interior could be accessed for maintenance: Hatches on top let people pop inside, and the space was big enough to fit multiple people. The city ordered 13 of them.
In 1915, four of Wood’s 12-foot screw pumps went into action. “Getting the pump castings from the nearest railroad siding to the pumping stations, and then erected, was an engineering feat in itself,” Maygarden and his colleagues wrote in their report. Each pump, on its own, was 100 tons. Most importantly, though, they worked. An independent evaluator from Tulane University wrote, “Emergency service is probably the weak point of the old pumps. It is the forte of the new. Results show that the pumps easily answer all requirements and that they are the largest and most efficient low-lift pumps in the world.”
Wood’s system was so successful that it was replicated all over the world, from the Netherlands to China. The pumps only got larger, too: In 1929, 14-foot pumps started duty, with the aim of doubling New Orleans’s drainage capacity. By then, the original 12-foot pumps had been going for 10 years. In 1924, Wood wrote that the pumps didn’t show “any signs of wear or deterioration.”
That very first 12-inch screw pump is still in New Orleans, in Drainage Pumping Station No. 1. While that small pump is displayed as a relic, Wood’s pumps have been working to keep floods at bay for years. The city today has 120 pumps, and dozens of them are Wood screw pumps.
The electrical system that powers these older pumps, however, is a different matter. Older pumps, installed before the 1970s, run on 25-cycle power, which has long fallen out of use in favor of 60 Hz electricity. To make 25-cycle electricity, New Orleans is still running decades-old steam boiler turbines that require specially trained machinists to maintain them. When the turbines need repairs, the city often has to either order a bespoke part from an outside company or have it made specially, in-house. As the people who know how to keep these turbines running have retired, they’ve been hard to replace, and inadequate staffing has forced employees to work overtime.
The upshot of this is that, of the city’s four 25-cycle generators, one has been under repair since 2012. When they opened it up for refurbishment, “engineers kept finding more parts that need to be fixed and others that had to be built from scratch,” The Times-Picayune reported. This past summer, two more turbines were already offline when a fire shut down electricity in the fourth. In early August, a storm dumped nearly 10 inches of rain on the city and, without enough power, the drainage system couldn’t handle the storm. Neighborhoods flooded, and it took days for the working pumps to dry the city out.
There have been some rumblings about replacing these old turbines. A 2012 report on sustainable and cost-effective power generation, commissioned by a task force dedicated to reforming the system, recommended that the Sewerage and Water Board stop putting money into the old system, and instead convert to modern 60 Hz power. “The pumps are amazing, volumetrically, at what they can take on,” says Jeffrey Thomas, whose consulting company put together the 2012 report. “The Achilles heel is the power.” The type of flooding experienced in August, he says, was inevitable. Eventually the day would come when heavy rainfall coincided with problems with the pumps’ power supply.
Right now, though, there are no workable long-term plans to change the technology. The Wood pumps were designed in “the age of over-engineering,” says Maygarden, which is why they’re still chugging. Wood and the engineers of his day could not have anticipated the massive amount of runoff, from pavement and rooftops, that the pumps would have to deal with, but they were well-made enough to handle it. Some pieces of urban infrastructure do last hundreds of years. If the Wood pumps are hooked up to a more reliable power source, who knows how long they could last?