Fire and Water

By Linda Artlip Weinstein

Water tower 1902 Villisca_adjLooming over the homes and businesses of Villisca and standing above even the tree tops, the Villisca water tower has provided the city with water for decades. But providing its citizens with clean drinking water was not the reason the city fathers invested in what they called the city water tank. No. It was constructed to protect Villisca from fire. Anything else was secondary.

Villiscans had worried about fire from the very start of the community. As well they should as most of the earliest buildings, both businesses and residences, were constructed of wood. So Villisca needed more fire protection than water pumped from individual wells into wooden buckets and carried by willing hands could provide.

In 1876 the town organized a volunteer fire company and the city council not only purchased a fire engine, but it also built what was referred to as a “fine” water tank. Where that first water tank was located isn’t known for sure. It was later referred to as the city tank in the south part of town, so it was probably near the first engine house where it would be handy for those early firemen. A good guess might be that it was at the northwest corner of Third Aveue and 8th Street, just across the street from the first engine house. Today a round cement pad can be found on a small rise on that lot. But wherever it was, the tank no doubt was built like a barrel—wooden staves with metal rings holding it together. The town needed the water tank so they would have enough water to fill the tank on their hand-pumped fire engine which provided a pressurized stream with which to fight fires.

Finally in September 1884, the town approved a bond issue for the construction of an entire water works system. Because of the legalities involved in bonding, the newspaper carried the details of this one. The new 16 foot x 30 foot city tank to be made of Michigan pine slats, the Review reported, would be on the top of the hill at the head of Third Avenue and it would be elevated 16 feet above the ground. It would be roofed and finished something like a railroad tank, but “neater.” The city bought a lot north of North (High Street) Street for the new tank.

watertower sketchThe original water works project was a pretty simple proposition. They laid a 6-inch main down Third avenue, and connected it to the water tank. Charts showed how far the fire company’s hoses could run from the hydrants on the Third avenue main and how much pressure the water would be under. But still, they had to be alert to the ever-present danger of fire. For instance, in August 1890, Villisca was suffering from a drought, and the paper carried notices like this one: “It might be wise to be more saving of city water these dry times. We should not lose sight of the fact that the water works were put in for fire protection, specially and for private use incidentally.”

It was all good though. The Review a year later noted that “since putting in this system our insurance rates have been reduced and all fear of a disastrous fire vanished.” As we know now, that sentiment was a bit premature. But still. Having a reliable water supply was a major step forward.

The mayor’s 1901 annual report claimed the city water works system had 5,200 feet of 6-inch water mains and 2,000 of 4-inch mains and 100 water takers. The capacity of the water tank was 3,500 barrels (about 125,000 gallons). The water works was nearing being financially self-supporting.

But by 1902 officials were admitting that the town’s fancy water tank wasn’t cutting it any longer and everyone knew that a new tank was needed. The water works kept expanding and the system needed more capacity. By 1904 the official water works committee was instructed to ascertain how much a new water tank and tower would cost and in November construction got under way.

An article in a Review in October 1906 reported that the city water tank in the south part of town had “bursted.” The water from that tank had been being used for street sprinkling as it wasn’t any good for drinking. In 1906 the streets were still unpaved—when they weren’t muddy, they were dusty! The tank, the Review said, had been built for some time and the rust on the hoops was the cause of the break. The city repaired the tank and kept using it. The city employee in charge of street sprinkling was M. P. Bible who was quoted in the July 25, 1907 paper as saying that the city water tank was full and as long as there was plenty of water he expected to keep the streets sprinkled as they should be.

Improvements were continually made to the system. In 1910, the town council decided that it needed to know how much water was in the tank on the hill at any given moment so installed a pressure gauge in the city clerk’s office. “It registers on a weekly dial in red ink the number of feet of water in the tank at any and every moment of the day.”

But by 1921 the wooden tank on the hill was shot and the Commercial Club began agitating for a new one.

“The old tank leaks through the bottom and also through the side and can be filled only to within four feet of the top.”

The tank which was constructed to hold 100,000 gallons was then limited to 65,000 gallons AND to make matters worse, in case of emergency the city no longer could connect its system directly to the river because after the Middle Nodaway had been straightened it was no longer close to the pumps south of town.

No one wanted to spend the money, but they didn’t have any choice. A bond issue vote was scheduled for March 24, 1922. The Review urged everyone to get out and vote, calling the $12,000 for bonds a reasonable amount for something so important as a sanitary tank. The Review’s support of the new tank was unequivocal:

“Of course, if you are satisfied to continue using in your cooking and on your table, water that is filtered through the feathers and carcasses of pigeons that have fallen into the present tank, it’s your right . . . but don’t blame anyone but yourself if you choke to death on the ribs of a dead squab.”

Although the bond issue passed, some technicality required the town to vote on it again and in the second election, the question passed by an even larger margin. That could have been due to the notice received from the state board of health prior to the second election that the current tank either had to be improved or condemned. And, it was pointed out, if the tank was allowed to be condemned, the city would be left without water for either fire fighting or personal use.

Construction of the new steel water tank began in September 1922, just east of where the old wooden tank had been and the new tank went into service in January 1923. There was a cement foundation for the steel tower and tank. The tower was 60 feet in height and the bowl was about 20 feet from top to bottom. Capacity was 100,000 gallons. When it was completed and the water started flowing, residents immediately noted a considerable increase in the water pressure, about 15 to 20 pounds stronger than what the old tank had provided.

And that water tower (the use of “water tower” took over from the phrase water tank around the 1940s) is the one that currently serves the people of Villisca. It’s undergone renovation after renovation—usually about every five years or so it gets scraped and painted; it had the name “Villisca” painted on two sides beginning in 1929 in order to aid in navigation for pilots; it’s too bad the Commercial Club turned down as too expensive the addition of “Welcome to” along with Villisca’s name. That would have added a nice friendly touch.

In the mid-‘20s the grounds around the water tower served as free camp grounds for tourists, with running water and sanitary facilities provided, as well as picnic tables. In 1930 the tank started carrying water from a new filtration plant. The tank got a flood light on top and a 24-hour guard during World War II to thwart potential evil-doers; later a new walkway and ladder system were added to protect workers as they scurry up and around the tank.

New wells west of town were dug over the years to ensure a continuous flow of pure water to the tower.  In 1963 fluoridated water began to flow from the tank to the water company customers of Villisca. Since 1983 the water tower has been supplied with water pumped from a 500,000-gallon underground water reservoir tank that was built just west of Old Highway 71. The water tower on north Third Avenue, north of High Street, however, remains the distribution point for the town’s water.

For a water tank that is 91 years old, Villisca’s vintage water tower is looking, and apparently performing, pretty darn well. Let’s drink to its continued well-being—with city water, of course.


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