Along the trail at Lake Ellis during late January, 2012.
Someone asked the other day how old Chariton's water system was, and there's a two-part answer to that question. But if you're talking about what we now call Lake Ellis and the water treatment plant and pumping station out east of town, start getting ready now --- the big centennial year will be 2016. The water tower and earliest mains, however, are 10 years older.
The fact that Chariton had neither paved streets nor a city water system were huge problems as the 19th century turned to the 20th. The first brick streets arrived during 1903, but water took a while longer --- in part because of the cost.
The absence of a water system was a major reason why large chunks of the town square kept burning down. Homes and businesses were supplied by shallow wells and cisterns. Huge cisterns at corners of the square were intended to supply firefighters. In a pinch, it was figured, water could be pumped up to the square from the electricity-generating plant pond two blocks east.
The major flaw in that plan became evident during January of 1904 when much of the northwest corner of the square, including the Mallory Opera Block, was destroyed by fire in part because hose intended to bring water up from the pond simply froze --- it was that cold.
Voters finally approved bonding for a water system during June of 1906. The fact that women were allowed to vote, apparently for the first time in city history, may have had something to do with that. Construction of both mains and the tower began soon thereafter and the tower, still rising behind City Hall and still in use although supplemented by others, was filled during March of 1907.
The hope had been that the C.B.&Q. Railroad would be willing to share water from its new 1905 reservoir on the west edge of town. The railroad, however, declined. The alternate was to be a huge shallow well some 16 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep, located in southwest Chariton. That, however, proved to be entirely inadequate.
So during 1914, a committee was named to develop a new plan. Experts were called in and three possibilities explored --- shallow wells in the Chariton River bottoms, deep wells and a reservoir. The quality of the water that would be drawn discouraged well-related plans and a reservoir was decided upon.
Bonding was approved during an election in late March, 1915 --- 915 to 342. Total estimated cost was $100,000.
Four reservoir sites were considered, but the headwaters of Little White Breast, east of town, were selected in large part because of the size of the watershed and the containment possibilities of its valley.
Construction began during the fall of 1915, continued into the winter and was resumed during the spring of 1916. Construction of the line connecting reservoir and town started in Chariton at roughly the same time, as did work on pumping station and treatment plant.
By late August, 1916, treated water from the new reservoir was flowing through the water tower and out of faucets across Chariton.
This was the biggest public works project ever undertaken in Lucas County, and a Christmas 1915 visit to the site by Chariton Leader editor Henry Gittinger gives some idea of its scale:
"On Christmas the writer took occasion to visit the work out at the reservoir site east of this city, and found that the completion of the dam must necessarily be some distance in the future, not before spring even though good working weather should last.
"the 'muskrat wall,' that is the cement division center on both sides of which the dirt is piled, will be completed within a few days. This wall is something like forty feet high, a foot or more thick, running through the entire length of the dam; the dirt fill on either side of this is yet to be about six feet. Several traction engines and a force of excavators were at work and will keep on steadily until the weather closes in on them.
"Another force of men were at work tearing away ledge stone in order to get dirt to transfer to the fills.
"The excavations are partially made for the filtering plant and the pumping station, which will take some time to complete under the most favorable circumstances. There is more to a reservoir system like this than many people would surmise, such as intakes, water passages, etc.
"The trail of the mains was followed through the fields back to town. The main has been laid about half way from the city, but the excavating machine is at work and this will be completed by the time it is needed.
"When completed this will be one of the best reservoir systems in Iowa. It's capacity will be about double that of the Burlington, west of town. When it is filled with water it will be a wild and romantic appearing landscape and somewhat picturesque nestled between the rugged hills."