Building the Oberlin Water Works

by Braden Paynter


When the town of Oberlin voted in 1886 to build a municipal water system it undertook a task of large proportions for the small town. It was a controversial issue, with strong arguments for and against building such a system. It was only with a confluence of events that there was enough momentum to build the water system. The chain of events that brought water to Oberlin is a long one, with interesting side paths and enticing tangents. I will attempt to keep these to a minimum while discussing how and why the chain arrived where it did.

The story of water in Oberlin starts a long time ago with volcanoes and glaciers. People first arrived in north central Ohio around 9000 B.C.E. The region's most famous inhabitants, the Hopewell (known for their mounds) lived from about 100 C.E. to about 500 C.E. The region's population then went into a decline that eventually leveled out until the 1600's, when the region's population was decimated by European disease and warfare with the Iroquois. In the late 18th and early 19th century the battles of Fallen Timbers and Tippecanoe and the treaty of Fort Industry destroyed what was left of the population. The first European settlers arrived in the Oberlin area around 1807. When Mt. Tambora exploded in 1815 in the East Indies, it dealt a severe blow to New England farming (there was frost at least once in June, July, and August). A stream of people moved west from New England to the flat, fertile lands of Ohio, and in 1833 Oberlin itself was founded.

The town grew slowly, and the growth was largely focused on Oberlin College, which was founded shortly after the town. 50 years later the towns' population was sufficiently large to seriously consider a water works system for the town. The question had been brought up before and in the 1880's the question of whether or not to bring water to Oberlin remained a difficult one for the town. It was only after a very serious and wide ranging debate that the town voted to build the system. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor (437 to 100), a testament to the extremely extensive and thorough arguments made by those in favor of the system.

One of the responsibilities of the town then, as now, was fire control. For the mainly wooden buildings of Oberlin, fire was a major problem. An example of the possible destruction occurred on March 10, 1882. The Oberlin Weekly News reported on, "THE GREAT FIRE, Oberlin's Worst Conflagration". The News wrote that amidst the "frame buildings" the "…fire gained headway very rapidly…[the smoke] was followed by a fierce blaze". The fire destroyed an entire corner of a block (it was only stopped when it reached a brick building) causing an estimated $29,600 in damage (approximately $510,000 today). Three years later, in 1886, Oberlin was "…again visited by the devouring element." Here the total losses are less clear, but again the fire was devastating. 18 buildings were destroyed at a cost of between $15,000-28,000, there had been the potential for these fires to be even worse. One of the problems faced by the Oberlin Fire Department before the water works were built was detailed by George S. Pay, Chief of the Fire Department in a speech he gave in 1882 in reference to an even earlier and smaller fire:

And I wish to call your attention to the fact that the department reservoirs near the center of the village are not sufficient. At the time of the last fire the supply of water gave out entirely about the time that the fire was gotten under control; and if another fire had started [or presumably if this one had persisted] in the business part of town we would have had no water to fight it with… In view of these facts, and the prospect of our having new and valuable business buildings erected soon, it has seemed to me to be my duty to recommend that a much greater supply of water be immediately provided.

Fire was clearly a major problem for the town. Fire Chief Pay wanted to increase the department’s water reserves and expand the fire company by purchasing new engines. There were some people in Oberlin who harbored sentiments against this proposed enlargement. In a special section of the Oberlin Weekly News entitled "Water Works- The Question Discussed Pro and Con," an "Oberlin Citizen" spoke against the necessity of an expanded fire department and therefore a water works system. The citizen argued that a bucket brigade would be far more effective than fire engines. The letter referred to several instances in which the presence of a few leather buckets was able to quickly contain a fire, a matter of absolute importance in the days before structural fire prevention planning and modern fire equipment.

The latter is an important distinction because though the fire department had engines they were a poor predecessor to modern fire engines. In 1886 to get the pumper engine to the fire and functioning was a long process. The fire department had no horses on standby with which to draw the engine, so a nearby pair had to be found and requisitioned. Then it would take from 5- 10 minutes to raise enough steam in the pumper’s boiler to shoot the water. Modern Talcott Hall at Oberlin College, which was built in the 18-- has a burn time of 6 minutes today. Time was prescious indeed. The dissenting citizen wrote, "Let us get the buckets and tin horns [to call the brigade to action], and use our reservoirs a little longer…"

There were many other uses for water other than fire control. It was intended to replace many of the wells from which people had drawn their drinking water. There was concern with the drinking wells because Oberlin was experiencing increased rates of typhoid due to garbage in the wells.

The first applications for connection to the new system show a wide variety of intentions for the water as the list contains: 2 boarding houses, a restaurant, a photograph gallery, a printing office, a green house, 9 residences, 11 lawns, a livery stable, a laboratory, and an elevator. The most striking aspect of the list is that more lawns were hooked up than were houses. This becomes more intriguing when looked at in comparison to the published water rates. For a one family house, with 6 rooms, and one wash-basin the cost was $5.00 to connect to the water system. Each additional room was $0.50 as was each wash-basin. And the first tub cost $3.00, and each successive one $2.00. For any house that was on a 66 foot lot with a _ inch connection, and already contained other fixtures, sprinkling the lawn was free. As the size of the pipe and lot increased so did the price reaching $2.75 for a 100-150 ft. lot with _ inch connection. If the house had no fixtures, the cost to sprinkle just the lawn was $5.00. So why did people attach their lawn, but not their house? If it was a question of money, it would be an interesting point about the society that the lawn was more important than running water. At least 2 people connected a lawn without connecting the house as indicated by the 9 residences vs. 11 lawns connected. Although it is not safe to assume that every one else attached both the house and lawn. I can not begin to speculate on the reasons for the attaching a lawn with out a house, but they must be very interesting.

The list also raises the point that as many businesses were attached as were homes, though it would be expected that residences would outnumber businesses in a community. However, business was a great concern for the water works as the list was published with the rates for stables, by stall, carriage, horse, and cow (3 cows are more expensive than 3 horses), stores, restaurants and "eating saloons" (all of the last three were on a variable scale that could be assessed on site), and barber shops. In fact it was predicted by the head engineer, J. D. Cook, that, "…the quantity actually required for drinking and culinary purposes will not amount to more about five percent of the entire consumption…" This slant towards business may be because many individuals did not have the money to pay for improving their own comfort or that industrial consumption of water was vastly greater than residential consumption. It could also be because many did not see the comfort as necessary (one comfort they did see as necessary was sprinkling the streets to keep the dust down). Perhaps those who had never lived with running water did not see a need to obtain it. Another possibility is that initially, areas with access to the pipes were small, comprising mostly the business district.

Objections to the system were raised concerning the expense of the endeavor, for the size of the proposed project was not inconsiderable. The reservoir near the town would be 16 feet deep and encompass ten acres. Glazed 10-inch pipe would bring its 15 million gallons of water to the town for use. Oberlin required just under 2,000,000 barrels (approximately 18 million gallons) per year for all its needs.

The cost of the project corresponded to its size. The town raised a $50,000 (roughly $925,000 today), bond to pay for the construction of the reservoir and machinery, laying the pipe, installing fire hydrants, and all of the other necessary tasks for installing a water works system. $50,000 was as much as the town had spent in 8 years (before adding the water works annual budget).

The project was large in every way. The town paid $11,937.80 for the conduit, $822 for the well and reservoir, $900 for the reservoir and pumping station land, another $2,684 for the station itself, and yet $5,860 more for the pumps, $16,575 ($32.50 per ton) for cast iron pipe, and $6,289 to lay it, $1,610 for the hydrants ($23 per hydrant), the gates were $470.34, the expenses (engineering etc.) cost $701.90, and the engineer himself made $500.

This all provided for 6 _ miles of street mains, 510 tons of cast iron piping, 70 fire hydrants, and a capacity of 1 _ million gallons per day. And it came in $1,469.16 under budget. This was an impressive feat as the majority of bids came from the east coast and the transportation costs were enormous. Eventually the pipes and pumps would both come from New York.

Once the structures were in place they still had to be maintained, and the cost to do so was hefty. As it turned out in 1887 only the Street Department’s budget was larger than that of the Water Works department. The total department expenditure of $2,189.30 was larger than the Police, the Fire, the Gas, or the Sewer departments’. In fact, the expenditures of the water department were nearly a third of the entire expenditures of the town.

Before the passage of the water works system some citizens did worry that the extra cost would be too much. Their concerns over the economics of the plan were voiced by a citizen (again in an unsigned letter to the Oberlin Weekly News):, "It is not certain, as assumed, that taxable property will increase here. The excessive taxation of recent years has kept capital out of our town." The question of increasing property values is interesting because it is a two-sided proposition for homeowners. If property values increase the owners are able to sell their homes for more, yet they have to pay more in taxes until they do sell. This seems to have been a paradox for the water works. To get the physical benefit of the system people had to stay, but to get the monetary benefit they had to leave what they had just built to make their lives better.

The reservoir itself is located about a mile southwest of the town center. It was built to collect the water of Plum Creek and its watershed. The area would produce 93,000,000 barrels, far more than the necessary 2,000,000 barrels. The process of building the reservoir was a scientific one, undertaken by scientific men. It was the era when towns were installing water systems. Boston first introduced running water in 1848. It took several more decades before the movement towards modern sanitation equipment reached rural Ohio. When it did, it was designed by Mr. J. D. Cook, who was a professional water works designer. In the words of the Oberlin Weekly News, Cook had "…planned the water system for a large number of towns and cities, and stands among the first in his profession." The industry of producing water systems was a large one if designers of them garnered reputations, and when the bids where placed on the pumping machinery 6 separate companies (mostly from New York) sent in bids.

Questions were raised concerning the quality of the water locally available. To satisfy these concerns the water in Plum creek was tested by professor F. F. Jewett of Oberlin College. He found the water to be excellent for use as public water because not only was it pure, but it was also soft water. Soft water, explained Cook, "when otherwise safely pure, is much more desirable for general consumption, and especially so for boilers, the laundry, the toilet, and, in fact for all larger uses." With the supply and quality of the water assured, the people of Oberlin overcame their doubts and voted to build the water works 437 to 100.

Soon after the vote was passed the water works were completed. It was not long before they proved their worth. In 1888 under the headline, "A Lively Blaze- the Water Works a Success", the Oberlin Weekly News commented, "This is the first opportunity which has been afforded for a fair test of the Water Works in a fire, and it was proven that they are a grand success." As to the effectiveness of the other services provided by the water works I can not speak other than to say that service has never been discontinued.

The residents of Oberlin did pay a large price for the security and pleasure that water could provide them. The initial cost was more than the town normally spent in 8 years, and maintenance increased the town’s budget dramatically. During construction, orders for material were sent all over the eastern United States, and ton upon ton of it flowed into Oberlin. The reservoir, built before internal combustion engines were in widespread use, rivals in size some of the Hopewell mounds of Southern Ohio. The project that the people of Oberlin undertook was a very large one and could not have been done if the timing had not been right. Two major fires wracked Oberlin in the years preceding (1883 and 1886) the construction. There was disease in the drinking water, and people hoped for a boost to their property values during uncertain economic times (the U.S. economy was in the middle of an unpredictable boom-bust cycle). The people of Oberlin argued over where the water works should be built, and if it would be too expensive or extravagant. They worried that the water would not be pure, and that it would destroy the economy of the town. In the end, once all of these fears were allayed or put aside, they went ahead and built their water works system, the same system they use today.


Jewett, Frances G., The Galick Hygiene Series Book 3: Town and City. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1906, 109- 112.

Oberlin City Directories. 1886- 1896. Oberlin Historical Improvement Organization.

Oberlin College Archives, Oberlin, Ohio City of Oberlin, Treasurer’s records, Oberlin College Archives. Sub Group IV. Series I.

Oberlin Weekly News. 1883- 1888. Oberlin College Library, microfilm, main library.

Sherman, Thomas F., A Place on the Glacial Till. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 57- 109.

Tarr, Joel A., The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective. Akron: University of Akron Press, 1996, 111-130.