By James Natsis
Speculation has it that future wars will be fought over water rather than petroleum. Ask anyone from California and other thirsty parts of the Southwest, and they could hardly disagree.
Even in the land of bourbon, we owe much of our distinguished status to the precious limestone water sources that filtered out impurities, most importantly iron, which gives aging whiskey a bad taste. Besides, even as a finished product, bourbon still depends on “the rocks,” or a splash of water to please many aficionados.
The country’s (and possibly the world’s) oldest standing water tower on Louisville’s waterfront was already 15 years old when Churchill Downs and the Derby and Oaks were introduced to the world. More than 150 years later, the majestic structure has been tasked to tell Louisville’s story of water — a story of a product that was voted the People’s Choice Award for Best Tasting Tap Water at the 2013 American Water Works Association Conference.
In the early years of our city’s development, water was retrieved via cisterns, wells and pumps at street corners. This water, although free, was sometimes very muddy and carried unpleasant odors. In addition, many were positing that the unsanitary water was linked to some diseases.
As businesses boomed and the population grew, there was an increasing need for water to sprinkle the dusty streets and put out fires. A particularly destructive fire on Main Street in 1840 prompted action toward the development of some type of water works system.
The genius of head engineer, Theodore Snowden, who had already designed water works in Cleveland and Cincinnati, was to create a tranquil park-like area for a water works system up river where patrons could promenade and admire a Greek revival style of architecture that resembled a palace more than a water pumping station.
The original — and still standing — Water Tower and Pump Station No. 1 were opened for service in October 1860. Pump Station No. 2, the boiler house and the smoke stack were added in 1893, following the destructive tornado of 1890 that impelled some reconstruction of the tower and other rebuilding of the grounds later on. In 1913, the intake tower was built right on the edge of the river behind the property. And in 1919, Pump No. 3 was added, as well as a rebuilding of the boiler house.
In 1879, the higher elevated Crescent Hill plant was opened with a reservoir capacity of 110 million gallons, which was 15 times the size of the original 7 million-gallon reservoir located up on the hill where the Veterans Administration Hospital currently stands. Presently, water is pumped from the Ohio River at the Water Tower facilities. It is then pushed up to the Crescent Hill plant where the water will be ready for consumption in two days from start to finish.
The initial process of extracting water from the river at high capacity presented the challenge of filters clogging quickly from mud and debris. Water was eventually run through a filter comprised of gravel and sand with chemicals added to coagulate the mud and suspended debris. This process removed about 99 percent of sediment and bacteria. Chlorine was eventually added for further purification. Today, chlorine has been replaced by the more practical chloramine, and anthracite coal and sand are used for filtration.
Unbeknownst to many local residents, this historical treasure trove is still intact for our gawking pleasure. Moreover, although the Water Tower and Pump No. 1 are no longer in use, the other pumps and buildings are still on the job pumping water to the reservoirs in Crescent Hill. The building for Pump No. 1 currently houses the museum that was opened in March 2014. Its Grand Hall also provides a beautiful space for receptions and other catered events.
It is well worth the time to tour the grounds, see the pumping process and visit the museum that holds nice images and tells a compelling story of our water history.
“People see water as being free,” my guide Jay philosophically commented as we concluded our tour. “But there’s a cost of making the water safe and tasty. After a visit here, they have a better understanding of what it takes to deliver it to your faucet.”
The history and museum studies graduate also saw water as the great equalizer. “It takes a lot of effort — science, technology and history — to get water to your faucet. But the social history is everyone’s history,” said Jay. “No matter the diversity of a population, water is equally important to all of us.”
Take a moment this summer to visit the WaterWorks Museum at the Louisville Water Tower Park on River Road, or to take the walking tour of the main operations on Frankfort Avenue on the second Wednesday of the month from June through October.