by Tom Castaldi
Before the 1870s, water was drawn from the rivers, springs, and creeks that flowed into the confluence or from shallow wells, cisterns, and even the abandoned Wabash Erie Canal. The rapidly growing population brought increased fire hazards, a fear that was especially acute after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Worse yet, epidemics of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid were not uncommon.
Agitation for a city-wide water system began in 1875 and quickly became an urgent political issue. Controversy began when the owners of the old Feeder Canal proposed that the city buy water from them, maintaining that this stagnant stream was perfectly safe and an inexhaustible source. City Council hired a hydraulic engineer who envisioned construction of a tall cylinder five feet in diameter and 200 feet high “standpipe” that would serve as a water tower. The canal owners offered to build a system, including pumping equipment, 21 miles of pipe and the standpipe itself, if the city would buy their water. A majority of the City Council members were in favor of this idea, but a strong citizens’ opposition defeated their offer to use the canal water. In the meantime, an election occurred, and every candidate who favored the use of canal water was defeated.
The new City Council hired another hydraulic engineer who developed a plan that centered on construction of a great reservoir south of town. Ground was broken for this first water works project in the fall of 1880. Still, the source of the water for the system was a matter of intense debate. The canal owners continued to urge Council to buy their water, while others maintained that water ought to be pumped from the St. Joseph River. A third faction argued for Spy Run Creek to be the city’s water source. Opting for this last idea, but grossly underestimating the quantities available in Spy Run, the Council ordered a large steam-powered pump to be built near the creek. A severe drought in the first year of operation dried up Spy Run Creek and, finally, the Council bought the city’s water from the owners of the canal.
Within several years, however, the city abandoned the canal water and sank several “deep rock wells,” down to the safe and seemingly limitless source of the lower water table. For half a century the great reservoir on the south side of town was the heart of the water system. But the quality of the water and the dependability of the supply were difficult to maintain.
Mayor William Hosey in the early years of the 20th century was convinced that the deep wells were the best source for a water supply. Several years of severe drought in the late 1920s, however, greatly reduced the capacity of the deep wells and persuaded the mayor that new technologies in treating river water safely and dependably would provide for the city’s supply. Ground breaking for the Three Rivers Filtration Plant took place in 1931, and the dedication of the facility was held in 1933. This $2.5 million effort during the Great Depression was heralded as one of the finest public works projects in the nation. The architecture of the building is unique, especially the intricately carved stone panels that show scenes from the history of water supply. “Gothic” in style, great attention was given to the appearance of the building as seen from a distance. The interior continues the “Gothic” theme in Indiana limestone. Additions to the building in 1954 and 1979 were each completed to match the original design.
The Filtration Plant draws its supply of water for treatment from the St. Joseph River at the Hosey Dam near Coliseum Boulevard through two 42-inch diameter pipes. The present-day plant treats tens of millions of gallons of water per day, distributes more than 100 million gallons daily through more than 600 miles of pipes, and maintains a 20-million gallon underground reservoir, in addition to the large Hurshtown reservoir that was completed in 1969.
Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – July 2008 No. 44.
Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.
For more information and photos see: http://www.cityoffortwayne.org/utilities/images/stories/docs/Filtration_Plant_8-2012.pdf