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Rockford Water Works

In the early days there was no city-wide water supply. Businesses and residents got their water from private wells, the river, or from cisterns that collected rain water.  In 1875 and 1876, under the administration of Robert H. Tinker and Levi Rhoades, it became apparent that the best interests of the city demanded efficient fire protection. At the time the volunteer fire department drew water from the river to put out fires. After one such major fire the city council passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a municipally owned water works and an adequate supply of water for the use of its inhabitants. Four lots at the foot of Park Avenue were purchased. Ground was broken on the new water works building on September 30th.  The building was completed on December 15th and the machinery was installed in March, 1876. The supply of water from this well proved to be inadequate, and in 1881 and 1882, under Mayor Crawford’s administration, an effort was made to increase the supply. It was proposed to sink a huge well in the vicinity of the works and near the river, from which it was thought an adequate supply of clean water could be obtained. A well, fifty feet in diameter and thirty feet in depth, was drilled at a cost of thirty thousand dollars. This was a large well, but its huge proportions were nothing when compared to the results brought with it. Epidemics of diseases followed in its wake, the cause of which was traced to the use of the water from this well which proved to be a veritable cesspool. After analyzing the well water and the river water, the well was closed and the water supply provided solely by the river

Alfred Taggert was elected mayor in 1883 and he is credited with the development of a superior quality water system in Rockford. He planned for future needs as well as for the present necessity at the time, and results demonstrated his good judgment for the welfare of the city. The possibility of obtaining an unfailing supply of pure artesian water, was to him a reality, He consulted a geologist and reliable authority on geological matters, in regard to the feasibility of his project and was assured that there was no doubt as to the success of such an undertaking. The matter was presented to the city council who voted favorably for the project. A contract was made to sink a six inch well, which when completed, gave a flow of six hundred gallons per minute. The bore of this well was enlarged to eight inches, and it then gave a flow of eight hundred gallons per minute. The water from this well was turned into the reservoir and it was demonstrated to have a capacity of producing one million, three hundred thousand gallons of water every twenty-four hours. This 1,520 feet in depth well was named Well Number One and cost the city $5,401. 73. The photo above shows the first deep artesian well drilled in the city near the Park Avenue pumping station in 1885.

The success of Well Number 1 led to the drilling of four more deep artesian wells over the next three years. Two more wells were commenced in 1885, the water from one of which was turned into the reservoir that year. At the end of 1886, four wells had been sunk and the water turned into the reservoir. At the end of 1888 five wells had been completed. Well Number One is 1,530 feet deep. Well Number Two is 1,320 feet deep, Well Number Three is 2,000 feet deep, Well Number Four is 1,300 feet deep and well Number Five is 1,379 feet deep. In 1897 a plan for increasing the water supply was devised by Daniel Webster Mead, which was accepted by the council. The plan was to sink a shaft eighty feet in depth and twelve feet in diameter and this was followed by four shallow wells that averaged 385 feet deep. All of these wells were in the general vicinity of the Park Street pumping station and were connected by tunnels. After various delays and surmounting difficulties, the work was completed in 1898. Three tests were made as to the capacity of the new system, which was deemed satisfactory, the supply of water reached a daily capacity of 7,000,000 gallons of water. The pumps, shown above, were powered by steam which was generated by the coal fired boilers shown below.

View of the coal fired boilers that generated steam to power the well pumps

The water was filtered and put in the reservoir for pumping  through 55 miles of water main to service customers.

By 1911 the city had 11 artesian wells to supply water to the residents and supply the fire hydrants across the city if needed. The city was growing rapidly and within a few years a number of problems began to surface.  The demand began to outstrip the supply, and on days of high demand, there was a very real danger that there might not be enough water to fight a fire and many of the water mains were only 2” to 4” in diameter. These were not large enough to carry the increasing demand for water in the city. A well was drilled in 1912 at the corner of Eighteenth Avenue and Eleventh Street and was the first well outside of the downtown area. This was the start for a system of unit wells placed in strategic places throughout the city.

The water is as pure and sparkling as that which flows from a mountain spring. There are many miles of water mains laid in the city, and many more to follow. There are three hundred public hydrants for fire service. There are no cities in the Union better or more cheaply supplied with water than Rockford. The water supply of the city is a source of special pride to the citizens, according to a 1905 newspaper article.

In 1915 a plan was submitted to further improve the water system over the next few years various proposals were submitted to improve the water system and address the lack of capacity as well as a need for larger water mains to provide better service and fire protection of the still expanding city. None of them passed approval of the city council. In February, 1919, D. W. Mead, who had previously designed and built much of the water system over the past twenty years, addressed the city council. His plan involved building a new pumping station and a five million gallon reservoir as the original water works pumping station was almost fifty years old and could no longer adequately supply the city with its existing small 2” and 4” water mains. He recommended replacing them with larger ones and eliminating dead ends in the distribution system.

Within a few months of Mr. Mead's visit with the city council they approved his plan and a search was begun to find a suitable site for the new pumping station. The search was finally narrowed down to two locations. One was located east of the river along Madison Street near the Peacock brewery building, the other located on the west side of the river between Avon and Tay Streets just south of Cedar Street on a vacant plot of land. This site was chosen as the Madison street property had already been developed and acquiring the needed property would have delayed the project. In an interesting side note, the bricks that were taken up from Kishwaukee Street before turning it into a cement road to Camp Grant were used to build the water department building on Tay Street shown below.

Construction of the pumping station and the 5 million gallon reservoir was begun in June, 1920 and the first of four wells was drilled in July. In the following years two more wells were added. These wells were drilled to a depth of 1600 feet. The pumping station was built on the west side of Stanley Street and was 70 feet tall as to accommodate the two 300 horse power boilers, the 450 ton capacity coal bins and two large pumps with a 10 to 15 million gallon capacity per day. The state of the art pumping station opened in 1922 and the station on Park Avenue was closed.

When the Stanley Street pumping stationed opened in 1922 it consumed 20 tons of coal a day to fire the boilers which were used to produce high pressure steam to run the pumps that pumped the water from the reservoir into the distribution system. The station used what was known as the air lift system, two large air compressors pumped air down 6 and 8 inch pipes into the wells.  The air was released about 300 feet down the pipes and it immediately expanded and rose to the surface, taking the water with it. The water flowed into the reservoir where the air escaped through vents in the roof. This system used at the Stanley Street pumping plant provided eight million gallons of water a day. Take note of the automatic coal feeder chutes feeding the boilers pictured above.

In 1935 the water department began using electricity to pump water; this was made possible by a contract with the Central Illinois Electric & Gas Company whereby the water department could purchase electricity at an average cost of slightly less than one cent per KWH.  This made it cheaper to run the pumps with electricity then with coal.  The central pumping station on Stanley Street continued to use the steam powered pumps, but water wells outside of the downtown area were equipped with electric pumps. These wells, which were previously used primarily for backup, now became the primary source of water. The central pumping station continued to be used for many years, but it was no longer the primary source of water.

In 1938 the city revived the original Water Works pumping station on Park Avenue and drilled a new well. This new artesian well had a capacity of 2000 gallons per minute.  The pumping station had not been used for 16 years but the building and the one million gallon reservoir were still there and intact.  After cleaning and renovation the pumping station and reservoir they were placed back into service. The switch from pumping water by using the air lift system, to pumping water using electric pumps created new issues. The rock layers that the water was drawn through contained large amounts of iron and manganese.  When the water is pumped from the ground, it contains a certain amount of these dissolved elements. In the earlier process of using air to lift water out of the wells, the oxygen from the air combined with the iron and caused it to oxidize. These oxidized particles then precipitated out and settled to the bottom of the reservoir before being pumped into the distribution system.  When electric pumps were put in service instead of air process, the iron was not oxidized and stayed in suspension much longer, until it reaches the water mains and the service lines to homes. To combat the iron problem, a combined aerator and fountain was built into the reservoir. A glass enclosure was built on top of the reservoir to enclose the fountain and floodlights were lit at night to illuminate it. The colored lights and the aerator were shut off during World War II to save power.  They were never turned back on.  However the reservoir was still used until 1957 and it was torn down in 1958.

The city now had ten wells; six were located next to the pumping station on Stanley Street. Four of these were drilled in 1919 and the other two were drilled in 1926. These are run on steam power. By 1938 the well field feeding the Stanley Street reservoir was supplemented by four unit wells in various parts of the city. The first unit well was drilled on Eleventh Street at Eighteenth Avenue in 1912. A second unit well was drilled on Camp Avenue near Auburn Street in 1914. A third was drilled on James and Crosby Streets in 1928 and the new Park Avenue well brought the total of ten wells operating in the city. During the 1940s, more unit wells were drilled.  Wells were drilled in the Rolling Green and Burr Heights subdivisions in the early 1940s. In 1948 a well and a five million gallon reservoir were built on a site near Alpine and Newburg Roads, behind the former site of Colonial Village shopping mall.  Other wells were drilled in Garden Acres subdivision in 1947, and in Northtown Heights in 1948. In the1950's Rockford continued to grow. Many new families were looking for new homes and subdivisions were being built on all sides of town. As the city grew, so did the Water Department.  In 1951 the city pumped 5,320,000,000 gallons.  Every year new water mains were added to the distribution system to serve the new homes being built. Every few years a new well was added to the production facilities of the system to maintain adequate supply and pressure.

In June 1953 a plan was made to build a new office and garage building on the Stanley Street pumping station site. This building was to replace the old water works building at 100 Park Avenue which was nearly 80 years old. As construction was beginning, the plant burned down.  On the night of September 7, 1953 an arsonist set fire to the Park Avenue plant along with nine other buildings around town. The water works building and office furnishings as well as many office records were lost in the fire and deemed a complete loss. The very next day the police picked up a suspect named Ralph A. Johnson. Johnson had a long history of arson and fit the description of a number of eye witnesses. After questioning by the police, Johnson confessed to setting the water works fire. He later confessed to setting several other fires. His trial was held in October. He was found guilty by the jury and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Over the next few months, the remains of the old pumping station, along with the 201- foot smoke stack were demolished. They left behind, buried 90 feet down a series of old tunnels and pumps. After the land was cleared, the city used much of the site for a parking lot which many people today know as “water works parking lot.”  The old plant was replaced with a ranch-style pump house to hold the well and pumping equipment. A two story office building also sits on the site of the old pumping station site at 100 Park Avenue.

The city’s water system would continue to grow along with the city with more pumping stations built, more reservoirs were constructed and many miles of water mains laid. An elevated water tower increases the pressure in the underground mains and helps regulate pressure over changes in elevation.  Rockford’s first elevated tank was installed in 1961 after the Water department took title to the old 1917 era Camp Grant water tower located at the airport. The airport no longer needed or wanted the 250,000 gallon tank as it was interfering with radio signals from the tower and agreed to sell it to the Water Department if they paid to remove it and reconstruct it. The city moved the water tower to a site off of Harrison Avenue where it remained until the current elevated tank on Wentworth Avenue replaced it in 1992. More water towers have been added over the years in various locations around the city. Coming as it does from deep underground aquifers, Rockford’s water supply is naturally pure and does not require a lot of chemical treatment as a surface water supply would require.

We would like to thank the City of Rockford and Thomas Powers for his contribution to this article, which would have not been possible without his knowledge of the water works.

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