MONMOUTH, Ill. — In today’s world, trying to attract new residents or businesses to a city that did not have running water would be a nonstarter. But 135 years ago, Monmouth residents were sharply divided on the proposition of whether or not to build a municipal water system.
Monmouth’s first public water supply consisted of two 18-foot wells, dug in 1839 on the northeast and northwest corners of the Public Square. Each was fitted with a windlass and a bucket. For the first several decades of Monmouth’s history, most residents relied on rainwater collected in cisterns for their home water needs.
By 1883, Monmouth was a thriving factory town, and the captains of industry began clamoring for a public water supply to their plants and their homes. That November, a public meeting was called in the courthouse to discuss the issue. Among the proponents present were John Carr, president of a carriage factory and Howard Pattee, president of a plow factory. J. Ross Hanna, secretary of another plow factory, could not be present but supplied statistics from other cities about the advantages of municipal water.
Chairing the meeting was ex-mayor John McCutcheon, who opened proceedings by laying out what was then a common objection to having a municipal water supply. “As I understand it,” he said, “this meeting is for the purpose of ascertaining whether the city needs and can afford water works. I may want and need things badly, but if I cannot afford them I do not get them. While we may need water works we should not forget that we are heavily in debt. We need new school houses; we need paved streets and new sidewalks.”
Col. James Davidson, the irascible old city attorney from Kentucky, also warned against the folly of putting the city further in debt — perhaps as much as $40,000 for decades to come.
Dr. Andrew Waid, a dentist, noted that he had built a cistern at a cost of just $40 and suggested the rest of the town follow suit, to which health officer Dr. Warren Taylor enjoined, “If the gentleman will examine the water in his cistern he will find it full of animalculae and very impure. Cistern water cannot be pure where the roof is a pigeon roost and the soot and dust settles on it, and decayed leaves rot in the cistern.”
Col. Davidson’s response brought some levity to the discussion: “I am astonished to find the water so impure and will feel disposed to return to drinking whisky.”
In addition to providing water for home and commercial use, a waterworks would supply ample water under pressure for fighting fires — a significant advantage over the town’s horse-drawn chemical engine. Despite the fire risk to Monmouth’s growing industries, however, the waterworks question was put on hold for another three years.
In the summer of 1886 — a year when northern Illinois saw only about 25 inches of rainfall — worries over the water supply sparked a new discussion about a public water system. The biggest concern was not about building a plant but about finding a reliable source of water. The following spring, the city hired Chester B. Davis, a Chicago engineer, to complete a comprehensive study of potential water sources. He performed test drillings at various points around the city’s perimeter and the results were not encouraging. The only ample source of water was Cedar Creek, three miles north, but it was prone to pollution and debris, including sewage from Galesburg. An artesian well might provide a strong supply of good water, but Davis deemed such a project too risky and costly.
Davis’s recommendation was to dig a 40-foot-diameter well at the Struthers farm north of the city and pipe the water to the Public Square, on which a standpipe (water tower) would be constructed. The tower, which would be 18 feet in diameter and 125 feet high, would hold 235,000 gallons. Estimated cost of the entire project was a staggering $90,000.
Prior to the engineer’s study, a group of citizens had grown tired of the city council dragging its feet and in August 1886 had incorporated the Monmouth Artesian Well Company, with about 100 stockholders, including nearly every business owner in town. They purchased a lot near the highest elevation in Monmouth (at the northwest corner of Sixth and Clinton) and began drilling. The objective was to reach the St. Peter sandstone aquifer, which they found in March 1887 at a depth of 1,230 feet. Dignitaries toured the site in June and a representative of the CB&Q Railroad took samples to the railroad’s chemist in Aurora for analysis.
By January 1888, the city council was contemplating purchasing the artesian well from the company and building a water plant. At a special meeting in September, the council voted to purchase the well for $3,000, and a contract was let for 3.5 miles of water mains. By November, work on the engine house was rapidly progressing. On March 11, 1889, the project was completed at a cost of $33,000. On that date, the first tests were conducted and it was found that pressure was strong enough to throw a stream of water as high as the spire of the Catholic Church — 150 feet.
Not surprisingly, the rapidly growing city soon required more water. A second deep well was dug in 1893 and a third in 1900. That year, the three wells were connected by tunnels to a 175-foot deep shaft, at the bottom of which was installed a pump with a capacity of 1 million gallons per day. A stand tower was also erected on a lot owned by the city near the CB&Q tracks, to furnish additional water, particularly in the case of fires.
That arrangement proved satisfactory for nearly a quarter century (a 1910 scare about a dead infant being found in the reservoir proved unfounded), but in the early 1920s, the mayor appointed a special committee to investigate the condition of the water system and provide recommendations for its future. The committee’s report recommended the drilling of two new 2,400-foot Potsdam wells near the water tower, a new electric pump house to replace the steam-driven pump at the original waterworks, a 757,000-gallon reservoir and new 12-inch water mains through the factory district.
Bonds were issued and by 1926, both wells were completed, supplying a flow six times the daily requirement for water. By 1950, Monmouth boasted 28 miles of water mains. Today, that number has grown to 60 miles. Six wells, a half mile deep, currently serve the city. The newest well, on Jackson Avenue, provides redundancy for demands from the Farmland plant.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian at Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 35 years.