Looking for a major birthday to celebrate during 2017? Consider a bouquet of celebratory flowers sometime during March for the oldest of Chariton's water towers, completed by workers from Des Moines Bridge & Iron Works during that month 110 years ago --- in 1907.
The tower was filled for the first time during the later part of March 1907. Tests of the city's brand new water system began and were pronounced a success. Homes and commerical buildings were not yet connected, but a couple of weeks later --- when fire broke out in a rattletrap frame building on the east side of the square --- a ready flow of water from hoses hooked directly to plugs in the new system saved the day while Old Betsy was being fired up to pump the water even higher and farther.
There had been a lot of debate in Chariton prior to January of 1904 about whether or not the city really needed a new-fangled water system. Wells were supplying homes and businesses; large cisterns at the four corners of the square contained an emergency firefighting water supply.
During January of that year, however, a huge fire destroyed a majority of the north half of the west side of the square, including the Mallory Opera Block. Cistern water proved entirely inadequate, efforts to pump water up from Lake Como, the pond two blocks east, failed and finally firefighters could do little more than stand by as the fire burned itself out.
After that, there was more general agreement that a system was needed but difficulties deciding what the source of water should be ensued. City leaders hoped the the C.B.&Q. Railroad, which had just built the reservoir west of town now known as Crystal Lake, would share its water. The railroad said "no."
Finally, it was decided that a huge shallow well on the Chariton River bottoms just southwest of town would be the best answer. The C.B.&Q. had been drawing water from a similar nearby well before the new reservoir was built. That well had reverted to the ownership of Jake Kull once the railroad no longer was using it.
During June of 1906, Chariton voters authorized six to one the issue of $35,000 in bonds to fund construction of the entire system --- well, pumping station, mains and tower. By this time, Iowa women were allowed to vote on bond issues. Four hundred and sixty-six men and 194 women voted for the bond issue; 111 men --- but only 13 women --- voted against.
Contract for the new system was awarded during August to the American Light & Water Co. of Kansas City which had submitted the low bid of $36,666.66 and construction began almost immediately. Major subcontractors included Des Moines Bridge & Iron Works.
Steam-powered trenching equipment was brought in to tear up streets and alleys to allow the installation of water mains and, by November the well had been dug and the pumping station was nearly complete.
The well was about 16 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep. During November of 1906, The Leader reported, "The big supply well for the Chariton water plant is completed and the brick power house is up and well under way. The well is like a ponderous jug sunk in the ground. Now the discussion is up. "Will it furnish water enough for the purpose intended?" Time alone will be the witness.
Construction of the water tower also was underway, near the rear of the old brick fire station on South Main Street that also, at the time, served as City Hall.
The new tower was filled for the first time on March 19, 1907, and water was allowed to flow into the mains on a test basis as soon as the tower was full. Everything proved to be satisfactory and the city officially accepted the project during late April. The fixtures needed to connect the mains to individual homes and businesses were on order and that process began a few weeks later.
The new system proved its worth after midnight on April 11, 1907, when fire broke out in one of the rickety old frame store buildings that occupied the east side of the square from the alley south to 1893 Eikenberry/Crozier Building on the corner.
Here's how The Patriot of April 18 began its report of the fire: "A fire that might have devastated the whole east side of the square was discovered last Thursday night about midnight in the rear of Custer & Jewell's feed store. It quickly spread to the frame buildings adjoining, and by the time the water was turned on it was a terrific blaze. The firemen connected their first hose with the new water works plugs, and were throwing water for twenty minutes or more before the fire engine was ready to work. The water works saved the Ed Storie brick building across the alley and the Episcopal rectory to the east, and when the fire engine got to work the double supply of water quickly extinguished the flames, after the four old frame store buildings were ruined."
Although the new water system function efficiently, it soon became evident that the city had vastly underestimated the potential demand for water.
Various steps were taken in an attempt to alleviate the problem. During 1910, the city purchased the old C.B.&Q. well located near its own well from Jake Kull to augment the supply. Water tests taken at the time by Drake University personnel showed, however, the the water from both wells was unfit to drink. No problem, at least in early 20th century terms. Substantial doses of copper sulfate were applied to kill the critters.
During 1911, the original city well was deepened by 12 feet. Another supplemental well, 18 feet across and 45 feet deep, was dug during 1913 and yet another well added during 1914. None of these measures solved the problem.
A committee was formed during 1914 to develop a strategy and after considerable debate proposed construction of a reservoir east of the city on the headwaters of Little White Breast Creek --- now known as Lake Ellis. Voters approved that project, which carried an estimated cost of $100,000, during March of 1915. By late August 1916, water from the new reservoir was flowing through the 1907 water tower and into city water mains. Finally, Chariton had an adequate water supply.
In large part because the tower has been so well maintained, it continues to serve Chariton although supplemented by two newer and much large towers elsewhere in the city. During 2006, its centennial year, the Chariton Water Department received a special commendation for its efforts from the Chariton Historic Preservation Commission.
Although the tower could have been nominated for a place on the National Register of Historic Places should the city have wished to do so, that step never was taken. However, when the successful National Register nomination for the Chariton Courthouse Square National Historic District was prepared, the tower was included as a "contributing object." That means it now is listed on the National Register along with all other contributing structures and elements in the district.