History ran through the old water tower

So I hit the books, because that’s what I do.

Albion’s history in the early 30’s was mostly a mystery to me. In fact, in the book I’ve been working on (for years) about the history of our fire department, the time is covered by one sentence: “Sometime between 1930 and 1937 John Gatwood retired as Chief of the AFD, turning that position over to Harry Campbell.”

Well, that hole needed filled.

I love history. I know, that makes me odd, but there you go. Besides, I was sick last week, and didn’t have much energy to do anything but pull old copies of Town Council minutes to see if they mentioned a new water tower. Within minutes of opening those old, yellowed pages, I hit pay dirt:

Harry Campbell replaced Gatwood as Chief in the spring of 1935.

Not exactly what I was searching for. But you know how it is, to look for one thing and discover something else that you’d already given up on.

On the very next page, right before the fire chief announcement, was a copy of a letter regarding the bids for a “light plant improvement.” Bingo. I was on my way, and this is what I found out:

The original water supply for Albion consisted of cisterns: underground tanks of water buried around town. They were generally for fire protection; for cooking and washing, you needed someone with a strong arm to man the household pump. But workers replaced some of the cisterns with water mains in 1895, and a 1901 fire insurance map of Albion shows two miles of 4 to 10 inch diameter mains feeding 24 hydrants, scattered across town.

I confess – and maybe some more knowledgeable resident can help me with this – I don’t know how the town developed pressure for this hydrant system without the head pressure from a water tower. It could be force-fed from an electric or steam powered pump, which would mean no reserves in case of a power outage. It could be there was no pressure, and that firefighters had to hook hard suction hoses to the hydrants to draw the water out with their own apparatus, which was hand pumped until 1929.

Things were certainly different back when we entered the 30’s. There was a huge economic downturn, and the Democratic President pushed an economic stimulus package designed to provide jobs and infrastructure improvements throughout the country. Okay, maybe things weren’t so very different.

That was my first surprise: the water tower project was part of the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in June, 1933. The NIRA was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, pushed by advisors who believed unrestrained competition helped cause the Great Depression. It was rushed through Congress, and became notorious for causing labor unrest, promoting monopolies, being poorly administered, and generating a huge amount of regulations. Part of it was later found unconstitutional, but not until after it got us our water tower.

Albion’s water tower was part of the same wave of New Deal construction projects that brought us the aircraft carriers Yorktown and Enterprise, the Grand Coulee and Boulder Dams, the highway to Key West, Florida, and the Triborough Bridge (now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) in New York City.

Not wasting any time, the Albion Town Board advertised for bids on November 20th of that year. The total estimated cost of the project, including not just the tower but a 300 kilowatt turbine generator, (for Albion to generate its own electricity), condenser, spray pond equipment, and connecting pipes: $40,403.86.

The total estimated cost of the 2009 water tower project, including water mains, recoating the remaining tower, and demolishing the old one: $1.4 million.

Of course, you could get a gallon of gas in 1934 for ten cents.

In both cases we got help in the form of grants: Albion’s share of the Municipal Light and Water Plant System project was $4,099.31. That extra cent went a lot further, back then.

It wasn’t until February, 1934, that the bids were actually opened and awarded by the three Town Board members, Walter Carver, Dale Schwab, and … John Gatwood. I guess now we know why he was too busy to be fire chief anymore. A local contractor, Hiatt Bros., got to put up the generator building, but the water tank itself was erected by Chicago Bridge & Iron Works of, I’m assuming, Chicago.

A lot of the rest was red tape: Board members approved Ordinance #1 seven days into 1935, making them a grant partner with the federal government. On March 4th the town sent a letter to an engineer of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works in Indianapolis, asking that the low bidders be approved.

So, what does that mean for the contention that the tower went up in 1934? Well, paperwork flowed even more slowly back then, and it was a time of crisis; it’s possible the work was approved before the bids were officially accepted. That would explain why, only two months after that letter was sent, a consulting engineer in Indianapolis recommended acceptance of the completed project.

You have to understand what a big deal this was back then, and how it would grab the attention of little boys like the Leatherman brothers. The materials came in by rail, and then one of the tallest structures in town was raised up at the crest of a hill. All this time later, Everett and Ernie could remember the fuss, and what it was like before and after.

And now it’s gone (if all went as planned). I’m going to miss the big lug. Oh, don’t get me wrong: This is a huge advance in both domestic water supply and fire protection, almost on the same line as before there was a tower at all.

Still, for the last twenty years, every time I walk out my front door that big gleaming tower was one of the first things I’d see. It’ll be like a big blank space on the landscape, as if someone painted a portrait of the town that’s still not finished. It’ll be, in a word, hard to get used to. Well, in four words.

A lot of history passed under the face of that tower; it had a good run.

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